In 1912-13 a scandal involving a well-known local character rocked the area of Crickhowell and Abergavenny. Irvine Rowland Blennerhassett, clerk to the Rural District Council and the ‘Spike’ workhouse in Llangattock, was discovered to have been embezzling public money.
He was born in London into a doctor’s family in 1863. He moved to Wales from Valentia island in Ireland and in 1881 he was a Classics teacher, living with his widowed mother and brother in Llanfairfechan, on the North Wales coast.
Shortly afterwards he moved to Crickhowell where he became a popular character. He married his next door neighbour and they had four children. He played for the town’s newly formed rugby club, where he also held senior posts. He qualified as a Welsh Rugby Union referee in 1902, and also played billiards and cricket. He enjoyed taking part in local theatre productions and was a member of many organisations. In 1901 he was manager of the Greyhound Hotel, Abergavenny (where Waterstones bookshop now stands). He became well known in Newport and Cardiff as an auctioneer and accountant and was also a judge at many South Wales horse shows.
He handled the accounts of both The Rural District Council and the Llangattock workhouse for many years. Unfortunately, some of his business ventures were not going as well as expected and he began an elaborate plan to siphon off public money into his own pocket. His activities were discovered after an unannounced audit in 1912 found that he had defrauded them of c.£550, which would amount to more than £50,000 in today’s money. Due to a delay in positive action by the governing bodies of those organisations, he disappeared before police could arrest him. A police warrant warned that he might attempt to flee the country. This proved to be the case. Knowing the extent of his wrongdoings and the fate that awaited him, he took to his heels, fled to Liverpool and boarded the first ship out.
There was a frenzy of local speculation – the Titanic had met its fate around this time and it was initially surmised that he had gone down with the ship.
In May 1913 a man called ‘Joe Benson’ was arrested in Field, British Columbia, where he worked as steward and accountant for the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Mount Stephen Hotel. Two policemen were despatched from the Crickhowell area to western Canada and identified the suspect as Irvine Blennerhassett.
He was suffering from the affects of tuberculosis and presented a sorry and wasted figure when he appeared in court in Brecon to admit all of the charges against him, which were: forging and altering cheques; forging minute books; embezzlement; larceny; and falsification of accounts. He was sentenced to three years penal servitude and was sent to Parkhurst prison, Isle of Wight which at that time was a well-known establishment for invalids and old men.
Whilst in prison, his wife passed away. Irvine survived his incarceration and on his release he married a widow from Abergavenny and lived on the island as “Irvine Benson”. He died at a nursing home in Sandown in 1919.
This story in full can be viewed online at Crickhowell History Society’s website page: www.crickhowellhistorysociety.btck.co.ukTheCrickhowellSensation1912-13
The Society meets at the Parish Hall, Church Lane, Crickhowell. Their next meeting is at 7.30pm on Wednesday, November 18th when popular local writer Chris Barber will talk about “Abergavenny, Historic Market Town”. Entrance fee is £3 for non-members, free tea/coffee is provided.
Crickhowell History Society