The name of Richard Coster will long be remembered in the city of London. A most accomplished and successful swindler, he for years succeeded in evading that punishment which was the just reward of his offences against society; but at length, like all other of his class, he overreached his own ingenuity, and met the fit return for his numerous frauds in a sentence of transportation.
We are not able to supply our readers either with the date or the name of the place of the birth of our hero, neither are we in possession of the means of informing them who were his parents, or what was the sphere of life in which they moved. From the extent of the education of their son, however, it is pretty evident that their rank was considerably below that which may be denominated as the "genteel;" and the same conclusion may also be drawn from the very early period of life at which this most daring public depredator was placed "upon his own bottom," and sent forth to gain a living for himself. At an early age we find him at Oxford, and his first employment of any note was that of driving an errand-cart, between that city and London. In this humble occupation he continued for some years, and such were his industrious and penurious habits, that he at length realised sufficient money to start on his own account, in the "costermongering line," with a horse and cart of his own. In this business he soon found the importance of a connexion with the metropolitan trade, and ere long he located himself in London, a scene admirably adapted for the display of those peculiar talents which he possessed. He was not long there in forming acquaintances, and connexions with persons, whose advice and instruction were highly important to him, in the scenes in which he was destined to move. Horse chaunters, or copers, swindlers of all sorts, utterers of base coin, thieves, "et hoc omne genus," were his constant companions, and Coster now became the competent associate of all. He felt, however, that he had a genius above the situation in which he was placed, and that his present calling was beneath the position which he ought to fill, and he soon quitted dealing in apples, and, by the various gradations of a small horse-dealer, an occasional purchaser of the proceeds of the produce of his associates' plunder, and the other occupations commonly followed by such "men upon town," he at length started in the year 1810, in Queen-street, Bristol, as a general agent and bill discounter.
Here, however, he was unfortunate; for in the course of the year he became an inmate of Newgate, in that city, on a charge of obtaining goods by false pretences; but on this occasion he seems to have slipped pretty quickly through the hands of justice, for in the following year we find him at the head of the firm of Coster and Co., in Bread-street, St. Philip's, Bristol.
His retirement to Bristol appears to have taken place in consequence of the notoriety which he had gained in London; but in 1814 we find him again shifting his quarters back to the seclusion of the crowded metropolis, for a reason, apparently, no other than that which had before induced his migration from it; conjoined, however, with a desire to avail himself of the wider sphere of action which was presented to him in that city. At this period he located himself at No.8, Eltham-place, Kent-road; but a short residence there satisfied him, and he removed to No.204, High Holborn, from whence, in 1815, he again changed his quarters to No.7, Bazing-lane. In the following year, as if to be as close to the good things of this life as possible, he carried on the business of an eating-house keeper, at No.19, Noble-street, Falcon-square; but in the year 1818, he again appeared in the world of money, as a job-broker, at No.5, Oat-lane, Wood-street, and at No.22, Lower Smith-street, Northampton-square, while at the same time he acted as clerk to a Mr. Thomas Gray, provision merchant. No.4, Berry-court, Love-lane, Wood-street.
In 1819, Coster removed to No.3, Bridge water-square, Barbican, at which time he is still represented as acting clerk to the above Thomas Gray, at No.1, King-street-terrace, Lower Islington, and No.4, Cross-street, Finsbury. The following year (1820), he established himself (still retaining his locality in Bridgewater-square) at No.4, Staining-lane, under the firm of Coates and Smith, and afterwards under that of Smith and Martin, of both of which he was the ostensible partner. In Staining-lane, he carried on business for a number of years; and only gave up this concern in 1829, to conduct, on a larger scale, his operations, under the firm of Young and Co., Little Winchester-street; and Casey and Coster, Great Elbow-lane, Dowgate-hill, Upper Thames-street.
In the course of these repeated changes of residence, and of avocation, however. Coster did not pass unnoticed, or unknown. In September 1825, he was indicted at the Old Bailey, together with a man named Frederick Wilson, described as of No.35, Union-street, Moorfields, for a conspiracy to defraud; and at the same sessions, Wilson was convicted upon a charge of obtaining bills of exchange under false pretences, and sentenced to seven years' transportation. At the following sessions, too, Coster was also indicted for an offence precisely similar to that upon which his companion, Wilson, had been convicted. The prosecutor, in this case, it appears was a person named Marquet; and Coster, having first tried every means, and spent a large sum of money in endeavouring to escape from justice, at length succeeded in compromising the indictment with him, and in destroying all the evidence of his guilt which was in existence, namely, the bills which he was charged to have illegally obtained.
In February 1826, Coster was announced, by the report of the Society for the Suppression of Swindling, to have a warehouse in Little Britain; and in the May following his name was gazetted in the list of bankrupts. He had at the same time a counting-house at No.5, New Union-street, Little Moorfields, under the firm of William Stoppe and Co., and was drawing bills on Messrs. John Heslop and Co., corn merchants and flour factors, South Town, Yarmouth, Norfolk; which were accepted, payable at Messrs. Esdaile and Co.'s, in connexion with Lacon and Co., Yarmouth Bank, indorsed "Major J. H. Montgomery."
In June 1827, Coster is proclaimed as circulating bills to a large amount in Bristol, and elsewhere; and in the report of the Society of the following September, we find it stated, that "Richard Coster, so often mentioned, has procured his admission, under the feigned name of De Coste, into the Honourable Society of Freemasons, at the Burlington Lodge, No.152."
The Swindling Report for the 23rd of January 1828, localises our worthy at No.111, Hatton Garden; and in the March following we trace him to the Queen's Arms-yard, Newgate-street, where he kept an office, while at the same time he had another place of business at No.9, Parliament-street, Westminster, under the name of Davis and Co., together with a feather-bed manufactory, at No.19, Macclesfield-street, City-road, under the name of Smith and Bruce; and a Wharf, at No.11, City-road Basin, in the name of Smith. In the course of the same year, this most determined swindler is announced as having a house at No.14, Dorset Crescent, New North-road; as having procured gloves and silk manufactured goods in the name of Wright and Co., Little Winchester-street; and as having premises at No.2, York Wharf, Jew's Harp Basin, in the name of J. Smith; "And I am also directed to inform you (says the secretary to the Society for the Protection of Trade), that Young, Richards, and Co., No.5, Upper Thames-street; Young and Co., No.6, Little Winchester-street, Broad-street; Brown and Co.,No.3, Cushion-court, Broad-street; and Yates, Smith, and Co., No.3, Cushion-court, Broad-street, are firms belonging to Richard Coster, so often noticed."
In the following July, Coster is again alluded to in this report, as having a residence at No.1, James-street, Kent-road, and another at Myrtle Cottage, Goswell-terrace, Goswell-street-road; and in the following October there appeared in the Gazette a formal notice of the dissolution of partnership between Richard Coster and William Cunningham, of No.4 Staining-lane, merchants, warehousemen, and general dealers.
It would be useless to go through the vast variety of places of residence and of business which Coster occupied, as well as of the denominations of trades which he carried on up to the year 1833, when he was taken into custody. A bullion dealer, in Little Winchester-street; he was driven thence to Great St. Helens, and to Primrose-street, Bishopsgate. A coral dealer at the latter place he was again discovered and proclaimed; and at length he pitched his stall in New-street, Bishopsgate, the most fortunate of all his speculations, so far as the extent of business which he transacted went, but the most unfortunate considering the result of his proceedings here, namely, his conviction and transportation.
While, however, we have thus described the wanderings of Mr. Coster from house to house, and from business to business, we have not as yet acquainted our readers with the measures by which he was so successful in his cheating schemes. The following copy of a circular issued by him, headed "Accommodation," in large black letters, supported by the emblems of masonry, gives a fair sample of his mode of raising the supplies.
He commenced his leading documents thus -- with all the pomp and parade of a recruiting-sergeant at a country fair to catch his flats:--
"Merchants, manufacturers, farmers, graziers, tradesmen, and persons of respectability in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, or in any foreign part, may have good London accepted bills of exchange procured for them, regularly drawn, accepted, and indorsed, and, if necessary, specially indorsed to them, at any dates and for any amount their circumstances may require; or they may be allowed to draw themselves on respectable and responsible houses in the city of London, and which will be regularly accepted when presented for that purpose, provided the drawers advise of such bills being drawn, and enclose the commission of eight-pence in the pound (otherwise they will be disowned). These bills they get easily discounted at their country bankers, or amongst their private moneyed friends; and in some cases pay them for merchandise, even on their own respectability, and, when they become due, they remit to us, or any friend in London, the money to pay the same; and in case they are incapable of taking them up, they again apply to us in sufficient time to procure them fresh bills, say upon B, which they instantly get discounted, and with the proceeds thereof pay the first they negotiated upon A; and so they go on until such time as their own produce or property turns into advantage, so as to enable them to do without this accommodation or temporary aid. By this mode money to any amount may be raised, according to the circumstances and situation of the borrower, at about seven per cent., the object of which is trifling, when compared to the advantage a man of business may receive from being furnished with plenty of money to speculate and trade with."
The eightpence in the pound spoken of as being required to be transmitted, and not unfrequently bills to which the poor dupes were induced to put their signatures, were invariably disposed of by the London negotiator, who failed not to reap the profit himself, which he professed generously to give to his country agents.
The conclusion of this document is equally well worth perusal with its commencement, and serves at once to stamp our hero as the very prince and leader of all swindlers.
"He must be a bad merchant, tradesman, or agriculturist," says Coster, "who cannot always make from fifteen to twenty per cent, of money. Some persons, for want of knowing this system of raising money, are obliged to sacrifice their property by locking it up in mortgages for one half its value, and spend the other half in paying solicitors' enormous bills, and expenses of mortgage deeds, &c. We have particularly to observe, that the parties pay all expenses of postage, to and from, also bill stamps, and our net commission of eightpence in the pound, which commission, with money for stamps, &c. must be remitted before we send the bills. We also have respectable references from the parties, before we accommodate them, to some of their friends in London (if any), otherwise in the country (the strictest secrecy and delicacy being observed in the inquiry), to know if they are really respectable, and an acknowledgement or undertaking when they receive such bills of accommodation, stating that they received them for the express purpose, and will pay them when due. When any bills become due, if the money is remitted to us, or goods equivalent thereto, a day or two beforehand, we will at all times pay them here, without any extra charge whatever; and for any money which may be entrusted to our care, if the parties have not friends here, for taking up the bills when due, or any goods that may be consigned to us for sale, on commission, we can give security and references on our part of the highest respectability."
An instance of his success under this circular may not be uninteresting.
A farmer in Essex, taken off his guard by the apparent plausibility of this high-sounding circular, complied with the requisitions, and got bills accepted by Coster, in the name of one of his firms, to the amount of two hundred pounds, in two bills, at three and four months. When the became due, the honest hood-winked bumpkin, relying on the apparent integrity of the party, remitted a hundred pounds, the amount of the bill, which fell with the nicest precision into the hands of the swindler, who, indeed, anticipated nothing less. This circumstance only got wind through the medium of a lawyer's letter to the drawer, who hastened with all possible expedition to town to learn the cause of such an unexpected application, when, as he had assured himself, the bill ought to have been in the hands of his accommodating friends, for the hundred pound equivalent which he had punctually forwarded to them for that purpose. His astonishment, however, was not diminished on his reaching Little Winchester-street, when he was plumply told by Coster himself that no such letter as the one to which he alluded, containing the money, had been received, and, in short, that it was all "a humbug." "That the firm of Young and Company, the acceptors of the bill, had recently been bankrupts, and had gone away, the Lord knew where." At such tidings, the poor farmer looked as sheepish as an Essex calf; and finding all his applications accompanied with the same uncompromising negative, he was glad, to prevent an exposure of circumstances, which might have been the means of ruining him, to beat a retreat to his native place; not, however, without the reflection of having purchased a hundred pounds' worth of common sense to direct his future conduct in the bill line.
This, however, is far from being a solitary instance of the success of our hero's schemes, or the uncompromising impudence and determination with which he proceeded in his machinations.
The variety of the names and residences of the firms of which he was the sole proprietor enabled him to carry on his trade with great plausibility and success. Thus, when a transaction was to be carried on by Messrs. Young and Co. of Little Winchester-street, Messrs. Brown and Co. of Cushion-court would be perfectly able to speak in the highest terms of the respectability of that firm, and the delivery of goods, or the handing over of bills of exchange to be discounted, as the case might be, was looked upon as being secure, and as being perfectly warranted, by the reference. It would be as useless as impossible to go through one tithe of the speculations of this vagabond, by which he gulled various persons engaged in trade. In one case he obtained the whole stock of a celebrated wine-grower in Germany, who was about to sell off, to be consigned to him; in another he procured the possession of a very large quantity of Dublin stout; while, in a third, he became the consignee of a valuable stock of timber; in neither of which transactions, however, did he ever pay one shilling of the purchase money. The number of his aliases, and the impossibility of identifying his person, secured him from the consequences of arrest; for in no transaction in which he engaged did he ever appear personally to complete the terms of his contract, or to give any security for re-payment. All was done through the medium of agents, whom he had bound to him by some tie of more than ordinary firmness, and who acted either as principal or agent, as purchaser or referee, as the necessities of the case might require their employment. To these persons, who were mostly decayed tradesmen, he behaved with little generosity. They were retained at salaries varying from ten to twenty shillings per week, according to the extent of their usefulness; and he scrupled not, whenever an opportunity presented itself, to cheat them of their stipulated share of the plunder which he might procure. At the time of his apprehension. Coster had four of these persons in his employment, one of whom, named Smith, had long been in his service, and was now destined to become his dupe, and to be liable to the same amount of punishment as his master.
It is to Alderman Sir Peter Laurie, and to his indefatigable exertions, that the public are indebted for the riddance of the city of this notorious swindler. Sir Peter had long been aware of his existence, and of the mischiefs which he produced, and the frauds which he committed, and he determined to suffer no exertion of his to be spared to secure his apprehension and conviction. He soon discovered his residence in New-street, and had him taken into custody, with his man Smith. Coster, it appears, had not latterly confined his business to the ordinary routine of swindling by procuring goods under pretence of the solvency of his firm, but he had added to it that of putting off forged notes. In the month of February 1833, he and Smith wrote letters to a person named Clarke, residing at Honiton, in Devonshire, desiring him to transmit a quantity of lace to Mr. W. Jackson, at No.84, Bishopsgate-street (the Four Swans), and inclosing three 10l. notes to pay for it. Mr. Clarke discovered that the notes were forged, and transmitted them to the Bank of England solicitor (Mr. Freshfield), with an account of the manner in which they had reached his hands. A scheme was determined to be put in operation to secure Mr. Jackson, whoever he might be, and fictitious parcels were made up and sent to the Four Swans, purporting to be transmitted from Honiton. Smith applied to receive them, and they were handed over to him, upon which he was immediately taken into custody. Coster was soon after discovered to be at the head of the transaction and was also secured, and the letter containing the notes was found to be in his handwriting.
After undergoing several examinations at the Mansion House, the prisoners were committed to Newgate for trial; and on Tuesday, the 16th of April 1833, were convicted at the Old Bailey. This result to the investigation was principally secured by the testimony of two men, who had formerly been instruments in the hands of Coster, and who gave an extraordinary account of the success of the schemes of their late master.
At the conclusion of the same sessions Coster was sentenced to be transported for life; but his servant, Smith, was unable to attend the court, in consequence of severe ill health, and his judgment was respited. At a subsequent period, however, he also received sentence of transportation.