The first intimation of trouble occurred in May 1796. The Wardens discovered ‘an Execution for Debt in the Clerk’s House’ and in order ‘to preserve the honour and credit of the Company, and to save the House from being torn to pieces by public Auction’ they ‘had taken a bill of sale of the Furniture, Goods and Effects seized in Execution from the Sheriffs and … paid the appraised value … of £585 5s’. Then as now the Clerk had accommodation in the Hall, and this particular Clerk, Richard Whalley Bridgman had been appointed in 1787. Meanwhile the Company had received a letter from the scoundrel Clerk, sadly we don’t know its contents, but we assume that he had swiftly absented himself from the scene of his crime. Bridgman’s painstaking transcriptions in a flourishing hand of the Company’s early records, for which he was paid extra in thanks by his employers, take on a new diversionary light as the story of his misdeeds further unfolds.
Things were to get worse. On 7th June 1796 a special meeting of the Court of Assistants was held, at which the Master reported that he and his ‘Brother Wardens’ had discovered that ‘a Considerable Sum of Money had been received by the … Clerk of this Company for Rents … which had not been brought to Account, amounting to upwards of £1,500’. Further investigation revealed that the total amount embezzled was in fact much more, and calculated at £2,317 12s 3d. This was an immense sum, only five years later, the total cost of building a new Hall came to six times this amount. The Wardens decided to seek legal advice ‘upon the best, surest and most Expeditious mode of proving the Company’s Debt under the Commission of Bankruptcy issued against Bridgman’. They also decided to call upon William Lucas Esq. and Daniel Whalley Esq. for the £1,000 security that had been agreed by them at the time of Bridgman’s appointment, a usual practice that had never before required testing. It took over sixteen months for them to respond. They explained that they had ‘before advanced to … [Bridgman] a Sum to that amount in the year 1793 to keep him in his Situation, though not signified to the Company’. Although the Company decided to ‘enforce their obligation’ nothing more appears in the Court Minutes, and the case appears to have been laid to rest. All we know about Bridgman is that he turned to writing legal works, publishing eleven books between 1798 and 1817, and died at Bath aged 59 in 1820.
Thanks to Pauline Sidell for sourcing this information in the Company’s Court Minutes.