Thursday, January 25, 2018

A Scandal in the Strand

St. Clement Danes
In 1885, the Rev John Lindsay, rector of St. Clement Danes, stood in the “first rank among London preachers.” Born and schooled in Edinburgh, Lindsay was ordained after his studies at St. Bee's Theological College, not to be mistaken for Oxford or Cambridge. But he had quickly won a provincial reputation for his "powerful preaching and impressive personality." He was just 27 when he first arrived at the old Wren church in the Strand. "Immense congregations" were soon drawn to hear the handsome Scot preach. He also spoke from the pulpits in the Chapel Royal and St. Paul's. In the civil world, he presided over the Strand Improvement Association (S.I.A.) The new Law Courts were under construction and Lindsay led the effort to co-ordinate the renewal of Dr. Johnson's famous but now somewhat forlorn haunts.

Suddenly, however, in March 1885, Lindsay was a central figure in a questionable "bill changing case" in the Lord Mayor's Court. The rector was sued by Albert Bernstein, the proprietor of the Rutland Club, a haughty title for a rather dodgy establishment off the Tottenham Court Road. He had come to the law for restitution in the matter of a £50 bill of exchange in the Rev. Dr. Lindsay's name and bearing the cleric's signature but which the rev-gentleman's bank would not honour. Bernstein claimed to have acquired the note from a young man named James Harris. Bernstein bought up the note from the desperate lad, Harris walking away with £20 cash and £20 in cigars.

The rector of St. Clement's insisted the note was a forgery and that Bernstein had threatened him with going public regarding the relationship between a young man of no certain employment and the incumbent of one of the best known churches in the realm. 

The featured witness in "the extraordinary action" was James Harris, who looked not much older than twenty. He had been employed in various jobs, meeting the Rev. Lindsay in 1883 while then working as a runner for lawyers in chambers. The rector had been very kind to him, letting him do some secretarial work at the church and the S.I.A. Harris admitted he had pawned one of the rector's watches and done little acts of forgery. Caught once, he swore never to do it again. But this bill in question, Harris insisted, was legitimate. The witness also copped to writing a letter to the rector that unless he honored the bill, he would publicly reveal things "between you and I." The full letter was read in court but was unfit for newspaper accounts. The umbrella term of "improper familiarities" would have to serve. Harris told the court that he was thoroughly ashamed of his conduct.

The Rev. John Lindsay DD
In the witness box, Rev Lindsay stated that he was a married man with young children. He admitted having taken a "fancy" to Harris upon their acquaintance and - as he did with many of the youth he encountered in his parish - he tried to assist in getting the young man on to the right path. His wife knew of Harris and warned him to be very cautious. After a first incident of forgery, he made Harris swear on the altar at St Clement's that he would never do it again. Harris was Jewish (but considering confirmation.) 

The Lindsay family home was in Gordon Square but, frequently, his work kept him at the church and he often stayed in his room at the rectory in Norfolk Street. The rector admitted that, on one occasion, he and Harris shared a bed. It was very late, other rooms were locked, the servants were all gone or asleep and there was nothing for it. Absolutely no impropriety had taken that place on that occasion or at any time during his friendship with this young person, Lindsay asserted. He rejected any suggestion that Harris had been given that sizeable bill to go away and say no more.

Lindsay's QC denounced the "base ingratitude" of Harris who betrayed an offer of sincere friendship and assistance and now made unspeakable accusations in an effort to cover up his crass crime of forgery. The jury agreed, informing the judge that they would require no instructions on the case; they were unanimous in their verdict for the Rev. Lindsay. The news was received with "marked approbation" in the courtroom filled with parishioners and fellow clergymen.

After the trial, the Rev Lindsay's career never recaptured its earlier momentum. The curious details of the case and the "one night accommodation" did not pass without notice. Lindsay soon left London for a small rural parish in Shropshire. He did eventually return to the capitol, spending his later years ministering on the docks in Limehouse. All in all, a much different setting from those halcyon days in the Strand: Let's all go down the Strand. Oh, what a happy land. That's the place for fun and noise, all among the girls and boys. So let's all go down the Strand.

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