Theft from Asylum

An aerial view of Horton Hospital
An aerial view of Horton Hospital
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

Whatever the quality of patient care might have been when Horton Hospital opened in 1902, the standard of administration appears to have been abysmal, as confirmed by a trial that took place at Guildford Assizes in July 1904.

Charles Edward Morant (28), Maurice Clarke (33), Alexander James Ross (27) and Thomas Wiles (23) were, between them, charged with 71 counts of larceny and conspiracy to steal from the Asylum. From 1902 until 1904 there had been systematic theft of stores and equipment, apparently led by Morant, a stores clerk. Ross was also a stores clerk, Clarke was a butcher and Wiles a carman.

The ordering and book-keeping systems seem to have been a complete farce and the idea was that the items in stock had to tally with the order requisitions and books come what may, despite the fact that in reality they did not. According to Morant it was considered just as bad to be overstocked as understocked. The usual method of balancing the books to remedy overstocking was to destroy the excess and it was proved that sugar and bacon had been disposed of down drains, cabbages and vegetables left to rot, cheese allowed to go off and barrels of lime juice had been poured away. He also said that the books were so badly 'cooked' that a second set was kept to be shown to the auditors, although an accountant called to give evidence did not seem to think much of these either, saying: 'If the books had been properly audited, any auditor could have discovered at once that something was wrong. The auditing was done by the Local Government Board'.

Morant and his cronies decided to assist the balancing of the books by stealing excess supplies, which were then carted away by Wiles. For example, the Asylum's contract with meat suppliers stipulated that fat was cut off and returned but it was actually turned into dripping and sold by Clarke, who made £290 from its sale (about £30,000 in today's money). Morant himself opened a coffee shop in Wandsworth, using supplies from the Asylum.

An inmate named Nelson, who gave evidence at the trial and alleged that he had been threatened by a laundryman, claimed that the conspiracy was not confined to the men actually on trial and that 26 people were involved. Mr Justice Darling said that there appeared to be no proper control over the large number of inmates or the staff. 'From the highest man in the stores department to the prisoners in the dock any of them could apparently make away with large quantities of stores without detection.' He added that, if there were as many as 26 people guilty of that kind of thing, then it might be that all the staff in the Asylum were criminals from top to bottom.

All four prisoners were found guilty. Morant and Clarke received sentences of 16 months' imprisonment (plus time they had already served awaiting trial), Ross got 18 months and Wiles, whom the jury considered to have been the dupe of Morant, was sentenced to three months. The jury considered that the Asylum was grossly mismanaged and that the matter required serious inquiry, a conclusion with which the judge agreed.

Morant later went into the silk trade, operating under his wife's name, and they later emigrated to Australia.

Linda Jackson October 2012




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