14th December 1918
Herm bribery case comes to court
Herm has long been an attractive destination – and one which less scrupulous potential owners have seen as a possible cash cow over the years.
At the start of the First World War, the sub-tenant of Herm was Prince Gebhard Furst Blucher von Wahlstatt. As his name might suggest, the prince was a Prussian and thus, technically, an enemy of the British state.
Indeed, questions were asked about his holding of Herm in Parliament. Sir William Bull, MP for Hammersmith, London, asked who the current tenant was at the outbreak of the war and what he was doing with it. Specifically, he wanted to be sure that the “German company to whom the Crown leased the Channel Island of Herm in 1889” wasn’t building any “works of a military character or concrete bases upon which siege guns can be mounted to dominate the surrounding islands the coast-line of France, or the adjacent channels”.
The answer came not from the Prime Minister himself, but Mr McKenna, the Secretary of State for the Home Department. He explained that 25 people were employed on Herm, which was mainly used for farming. Of these, twelve were British “and the rest alien enemies, four being males”. To put Bull’s mind at rest, he assured the MP that “the island was visited and thoroughly inspected immediately after the outbreak of War, and a further inspection is now being made by the military authorities. No military preparations have been discovered. The island is occupied by a detachment of British troops”.
Ordered to depart
In Foul Deeds and Suspicious Death in Guernsey, Glynis Cooper explains, “the prince was given two months to leave the home he loved. In vain he protested that he was a naturalised British citizen but to no avail. He left in 1915 after twenty-six years on his beloved island.”
The prince died in 1916. So, as the war drew to a close in 1918, the joint tenancy of Herm and Jethou looked like it might become available. Unsurprisingly there were a lot of interested parties. One of them was Walter Martin who chaired a London tobacco business. So desperate was he to secure the lease that he made it clear – very clear – that he would make it worth the while of any authorities who could help him.
He offered Wilkins, a clerk in the treasury a selection of cigars and cigarettes, plus remuneration “in any way that [he] may consider adequate”. Putting the offer in writing probably wasn’t a sensible thing to do as it was concrete proof of his intent to bribe officials. It was accompanied by a “sample” of Walter Martin’s products.
Fortunately, Wilkins was an honest man, and rather than keep quiet about Martin’s approach, he sent the letter and the samples to the Treasury Solicitor. One thing followed another and, on 14 December 1918, Martin was being tried at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court.
The prosecution presented what looked like damning evidence on the first day, from Wilkins, the police, and Victor Carey, the government’s representative on Guernsey. However, on the second day things seemed to swing the other way with the defence pointing out that Martin could hardly be said to be trying to bribe the politicians by sending them samples when he had accompanied the samples with his headed notepaper and put them on file. He called Harry Selfridge, the owner of Selfridges, who spoke of Walter Martin’s good character and testified that sending out samples was actually quite common.
Unfortunately for Martin, the judge still found against him, and fined him £60 plus 55 guineas in costs. Walter Martin’s staff immediately gathered together a collection to cover both the fines and the costs themselves.
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