b i o g r a p h y & m e m o i r carnage of the trenches as ‘a resurrection of the national grit and character [for] we were rapidly becoming too soft, too flabby, too fond of the insidious gospel of comfort’. As relief from this bloodthirsty, comfortless gorgon, Bevan began keeping mistresses in London and Paris.
In his mid-forties, halfway through the war, Bevan’s pride and rash habits seem to have intensified. He had long been a heavy plunger at casino tables. In 1916 he allied himself with a young discharged bankrupt called Clarence Hatry, of whom it was said that meeting him ‘was like drinking champagne on an empty stomach’. Instigated by Hatry, Bevan arranged for Ellis & Co to buy control of City Equitable Fire Insurance (CEFI), a reinsurance company of which Bevan became chairman. A cool head might have anticipated an end to the booming wartime profits as postwar reinsurance markets stabilised. Bevan, however, paid preference dividend of 50 per cent for 1919–20 and 62.5 per cent for 1920–21 with ordinary dividends of 200 per cent and 250 per cent in those years.
Somerset Maugham defined a booming stock market as a place where ‘even the suckers are making money’. This well described the London stock market during 1919 and 1920. Bevan and Hatry cooperated in lucrative flotations that made the suckers feel they were on the high road to wealth. Their amalgamations of existing businesses created companies with grandiose names such as Amalgamated Industrials, Jute Industries and British Glass Industries, which were devised for flotation profits with little thought of rationalising production or improving manufacturing profits. Ellis was the broker to the issues, Bevan joined the new company boards, and CEFI was underwriter. Whereas most reinsurance companies held their capital and reserves in gilt-edged stock, CEFI reduced its gilt holdings and speculated in industrial securities. After stock market prices started falling in 1920, new issues became harder to place, and securities created by Hatry and placed by Bevan were unmarketable. To maintain the illusion of an active market, Bevan took the shares that Ellis clients wanted to sell and sold them to CEFI. CEFI advanced money for Ellis to uphold the share market in the hope that new buyers would eventually appear.
CEFI loaned nearly a million pounds to Ellis, often unsecured. In 1921, to raise cash, Bevan floated the City Equitable Associated Company with a fraudulent prospectus. His tricks were undetected by the ornamental dolts (known as guinea-pig directors) whom he recruited for his company boards. The guinea-pigs included Sir Douglas Dawson, starchiest of courtiers and heir-presumptive of the Earl of Dartrey (readers of Steve Nicholson’s excellent history, The Censorship of British Drama, will know Dawson as the most reactionary, dour and hateful of theatrical censors); Lord Ribblesdale, weary ex-Master of the Buckhounds, who had outlived his sons and was the last of his line; the crippled, depressed Earl of March; and ‘Pubbles’ Barclay, a Cambridge rowing blue whose health had been wrecked by typhoid. These were not men to gainsay Bevan or Hatry.
In February 1922 CEFI filed for bankruptcy, and the Ellis firm was hammered on the Stock Exchange. Bevan disappeared on his serpentine route from
Croydon, via Paris and Naples, towards a Russian Pacific port from which he could reach South America, but was caught in Vienna. At his trial at the Old Bailey, he was convicted on fifteen counts of publishing false balance sheets and fraudulent conversion, and sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. Released in 1928, he managed a bootleggers’ distillery in Cuba until his death eight years later.
Vander Weyer has written a shrewd, informative and enthusiastic piece of City history, though it would have been even better if the chapters had been 10 per cent shorter. He makes excellent use of Galsworthy’s Forsyte novel The White Monkey (1924), in which the villain is modelled on Bevan. What led this suave, callous hypocrite into the ruinous, criminal mismanagement from which no one benefited? ‘What was his kink?’ asked the veteran company promoter Osborne O’Hagan after Bevan’s release. ‘The only answer which comes to me is, “Vanity, pure vanity”.’ To order this book for £15.19, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 49
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