Friday 6 May 2011

The Kilburn Watchmaker whom time forgot

On eBay I found a Victorian pocket watch which was made by Dorey Lester and Co, of Kilburn. This was not a name I recognised, so I asked Dick Weindling, a local historian, to see if he could find anything.

He found that Dorey Lester was born in Snaresbrook (then in Essex), on 1 August 1853 with the wonderful name of Lancelot Dorey Lester. His father, a gardener, was also called Lancelot and was living in Camden Town. Initially, Dorey worked as a company clerk but then he decided to be a clock maker.

On 9 September 1874 at St Mary Willesden, Lancelot Dorey Lester, a clock merchant of Canterbury Road, married Emily Beazant, whose father was a publican. Between 1876 and 1882 they had five children.

In 1871 Dorey was living with his father at 6 Rudolph Road, Paddington. The censuses show that he moved several times; 20 Cambridge Terrace, Kilburn (1881), 31 Kenliworth Road (1891), 25 Winchester Avenue (1901 ) and 33 Oakington Road, Paddington (1911), when he was still married but living alone. So far this does not show anything out of the ordinary: just a local clock maker trying to make a living.

But then in 1886 it proved too much and he went into bankruptcy. The London Gazette lists Dorey Lester, a jeweller of Glenlyon House, Cambridge Road, Kilburn as a bankrupt. This was not unusual for many Victorian traders, but another Google hit was from a 1907 New Zealand newspaper. This contained a letter which said that friends of the writer had received a circular advertising 20 guinea gold watches for just a few shillings. They had sent their money to Dorey Lester and Co. but they never received the gold watches. When they heard their friend was going to London they asked him to call at the address on the circular. He found this was a private house in Kilburn with a brass name plate on the door. Lester was very polite and apologised. He said the offer made it clear that these were only imitation watches and that the demand had been so great that his stock had run out, but my friends were next on the list. When the New Zealand gentleman pointed out the money had been sent over two years earlier, Lester promised to send the watches to his London hotel. He did receive the watches which were only worth the money they had sent, and he returned these to his friends.

But things were not so straightforward. The Times for 28 June 1907 had a report from the Old Bailey when Dorey Lester, aged 53, pleaded guilty to charges of obtaining money and watches by false pretences.

The prosecutor said that practically all Lester’s business was done through the post by sending out circulars mainly to the Colonies and the police had large numbers of complaints from Australia, New Zealand and India. Lester had been in business for 30 years and the complaints went back for 27 years.

When the police visited Lester’s house they found very little stock and 2,000 letters of complaint. In addition to the circulars, Lester had obtained large numbers of watches for repair with a payment in advance. These were pawned by Lester and the police found 233 pawn tickets for the last year in the house. Inspector Pollard said Lester had been repeatedly warned, but he always gave a plausible explanation and as the complainants mainly lived aboard it was difficult to obtain a prosecution.

The case had only come to court because it was brought by Rev. Hedley Vicars, the rector of St Ann’s Huntingdon. The judge praised Rev. Vicars for perusing the case, and said Lester was a very dangerous man who had defrauded people for a great many years and he sentenced him to three years imprisonment with 12 months hard labour.

Lancelot Dorey Lester died in St Pancras in 1931.

With thanks to Dick Weindling for this blog post

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