Two hundred years ago, this Sunday, the dashing and daring Royal Navy flag captain, Lord Thomas Cochrane, the real-life model for both Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, went on trial. He was accused of conspiracy in the Great Stock Exchange Fraud which had been perpetrated earlier that year. Unfortunately, Cochrane was also an out-spoken member of Parliament who had alienated a number of powerful men in government. The trial was a blatant travesty of justice which cost Britain the services of one of her most ingenious and successful naval captains for nearly twenty years.
The marathon trial of Captain Cochrane …
Lord Thomas Cochrane was the son of the Scottish Earl of Dundonald, and a flag officer of the Royal Navy. From 1800 on, he wreaked so much havoc on the French Navy that they nicknamed him Le Loup des Mers, The Sea Wolf. He was a painstaking planner of battles, ensuring victory for his forces with the least number of casualties to his men. He was also a skilled seaman who earned the respect of all who sailed under his command. Cochrane was a man who abhorred injustice and he hated how British seamen were treated by the Admiralty. When he was ashore on half-pay he became a member of the House of Commons, where he was very vocal on the plight of British seamen, actively advocating for changes in their treatment. In particular, he was very outspoken against the egregiously corrupt practices of the Admiralty courts which distributed prize money for captured ships, taking the lion’s share with only a pittance left to the crews who had taken them. By so doing, he angered several powerful men, both in and out of the Navy, who were quite content with the status quo, which was extremely lucrative for them. Cochrane was not by nature a man who understood diplomacy, so when he saw a wrong, he hit it head on, full speed ahead, certain that he had right on his side. Such tactics served him well on the open sea, but were disaterous when dealing with professional politicians and Admiralty officials. By 1814, there were very few in government who supported Cochrane, and most would have been very happy to see him disgraced. Little did they know that a chain of events which began in February of 1814 would provide them with an opportunity to muzzle Cochrane and drive him out of England for nearly two decades.
In early February 1814, the war on the Continent against the French was proceeding on two fronts. Wellington was driving north out of Spain into southern France to engage the French divisions under the command of Marshal Soult. In eastern Europe, the Russians and their European allies were pushing west across France toward Paris, to take on the French forces under the command of Napoleon himself. By 19 February, rumors were flying that the Cossacks and the Prussians were within fifteen or twenty miles of the French capital and still pushing inexorably westward. In England, it was widely and eagerly believed that it was only a matter of time before Bonaparte and the French would finally be defeated.
In the pre-dawn hours of Monday morning, 21 February 1814, a man claiming to be Colonel du Bourg, an aid-de-camp to Lord Cathcart, the British ambassador to Russia, arrived in Dover. The faux Colonel du Bourg claimed that Napoleon Bonaparte had been captured on the outskirts of Paris by a troop of Cossacks, and hacked to death. He further reported that the Bourbon family had reclaimed the throne of France and the war was over. Thus began what came to be known as the Great Stock Exchange Fraud. About 1:00am, the man claiming to be du Bourg told his story to the inkeeper at the Ship Inn, demanded writing materials and a horse and rider, to carry the urgent message he was about to write to Admiral Foley, the port admiral at Deal. Once the rider was on his way to Deal, du Bourg immediately departed for London in a chaise-and-four, for which he paid with a handful of gold Napoleons. Admiral Foley was awakend upon the arrival of the messenger, and after reading the message, he spoke to the rider, seeking some kind of confirmation for the extraordinary story he had carried. The man knew nothing more than what du Bourg had told him, adding that he believed du Bourg was already on his way to London. Though Foley was not prepared to take the message at face value, he was aware that in late January, Napoleon had nearly been killed by a group of Cossacks who attacked the patrol with which he was riding. According to reports, one of the Cossacks had come within a yard of the French Emperor before he was cut down. As dawn approached, Foley decided he must relay the message to the Admiralty in London by the semaphore telegraph system. However, when the sun rose, that part of Kent was heavily shrouded with fog and the semaphore telegraph was useless.
As du Bourg traveled to London, still dressed in the red uniform of an officer of the general staff, he stopped along the way at every inn and post house to spread the news. When he reached the outskirst of London, he paid off the post-chaise and hired a hackney carriage to take him directly to Green Street. The news du Bourg brought and his claim he had been sent to England by the Tsar himself, added credibility to his tale, and it was not long before the value of government securities was soaring on the Stock Exchange. A few hours later, as the stocks began to falter without corroboration of du Bourg’s story, three conferates of the false Colonel, all dressed in the uniforms of French officers, made a show of celebrating the supposed victory over Napoleon. They arrived in London in a chaise-and-four drawn by horses decorated with laurels while they all wore the white cockade of the House of Bourbon in their hats. As they drove through the streets of the city, they periodically tossed handbills from the chaise which read "Vive le Roi! Vivent les Bourbons!" Once again, the prices of government securities rose, to even greater heights. However, by the end of the day, government officials announced that the news of Napoleon’s death and the Bourbon restoration to power were totally false and the prices of government securities quickly fell back to below their original levels. But by then, the conspirators had taken their profits.
Such an elaborate hoax aroused suspicions in many quarters and the Committee of the Stock Exchange initiated an investigation into the events of that day. It did not take them long to discover that more than £1.1 million worth of government bearer bonds called the Omnium, had been purchased the previous week, and sold at a huge profit on 21 February before the hoax was exposed. The purchasers of those Omnium bonds were determined to be Lord Cochrane, his uncle, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone; Richard Gathorne Butt, Lord Cochrane’s stockbroker; Ralph Sandom, John Peter Holloway and Alexander McRae. It was also discovered that a man calling himself Charles Random de Berenger had played the part of Colonel du Bourg, while Sandom, Holloway and McRae, all Stock Exchange speculators, had played the parts of the three French officers seen driving through London tossing handbills and celebrating Boney’s supposed demise.
Unfortunately for Lord Cochrane, he was doubly damned by circumstance. He had been introduced to a Prussian aristocrat who called himself Captain de Berenger, in December of 1813, by the youngest of his seven uncles, the Hon. Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone, an army officer. Cochrane-Johnstone had become friendly with de Berenger, a sharp-shooter, and believed he had valuable skills which Captain Cochrane could put to use as he prepared the ship he would soon be sailing to the American station. Cochrane had met with de Berenger on a few occasions to discuss his plans over the course of the next few months. And, on the morning of that fateful 21 February 1814, de Berenger, masquerading as du Bourg, had gone directly to Cochrane’s home in Green Street when he arrived in London. Cochrane was not home at the time, since he had gone to breakfast with his uncle and his stock-broker, Mr. Butt. Cochrane had gone on to the tin factory of a Mr. King, near Snow Hill, where his latest invention, a convoy lamp, was about to go into production. It was there that his footman, Thomas Dewman, caught up with him and advised Cochrane that an army officer had come to his home and wanted to see him most urgently. He carried a message from the officer, but the signature was illegible. Cochrane’s first thought was that it was news of his brother, Major William Cochrane, who was then serving with Wellington in Spain. Cochrane immediately returned home to discover that it was actually de Berenger who was waiting for him. He told Cochrane that he had been confined to King’s Bench Prison for debt and wanted Cochrane to allow him to sail to America on the ship he was fitting out. Cochrane told him he could not carry any passengers without the permission of the Admiralty. At that point, de Berenger asked for the loan of a civilian hat and coat, claiming he could not return to the King’s Bench Prison in his sharp-shooter’s uniform without arousing the suspicion of his jailers, who might then deny him the liberty he currently enjoyed there. Eager to send him on his way, Cochrane gave him an old hat and a black cloak and de Berenger left his home, his military uniform effectively hidden under the cloak.
Quite coincidentally, at breakfast that morning, Cochrane had instructed his broker, Mr. Butt, to sell his Omnium bonds. His decision to do so may have been influenced by his Uncle Andrew, who was almost certainly involved in the plot with de Berenger. Sadly, though Lord Thomas Cochrane was a man of great integrity and honor, his uncle was not. Lord Dundonald, Cochrane’s father, had said of his younger brother, Andrew, that he was "… an unprincipled villain, swindler and coward." Unfortunately, Cochrane was estranged from his father and was unaware of the depth of the corruption which had dogged his Uncle Andrew throughout his military career. And, loyal to a fault, he refused to believe it when he was later presented with the evidence, which included the fact that his broker, Richard Butt, was Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone’s partner in a number of stock speculations, though it is not clear if Butt was a partner in the Stock Exchange hoax.
An anonymous informant told the investigating committee that the false Colonel du Bourg was actually de Berenger and that he had been seen arriving at Cochrane’s house on the morning of 21 February. Certain of his innocence, Cochrane immediately provided the Stock Exchange investigating committee with a sworn affidavit detailing his activities on 21 February 1814. A warrant was issued for de Berenger’s arrest on 17 March 1814 and he was taken into custody on 8 April, at the port of Leith, near Edinburgh. The Prince Regent was aware that de Berenger was an associate of Lord Yarmouth, the son of his current mistress, Lady Hertford. When he learned of the arrest warrant, he wrote to Lord Yarmouth, warning him off any continued association with de Berenger. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Lord Yarmouth was involved with the Stock Exchange fraud.
When de Berenger was apprehended, he was found to be carrying some bank notes drawn in Cochrane’s name. Not long after that, a Thames waterman, George Odell, who was dredging for coals in the river near the Old Swan Stairs, pulled up a bundle which contained an ornate red uniform tunic which had been cut to pieces. A tailor, Mr. Solomon, confirmed it was the same officer’s tunic which he had sold to de Berenger on 18 February, three days before his masquerade as Colonel du Bourg. The Admiralty were watching the investigation closely and even before de Berenger was apprehended in Scotland, they appointed another captain to the ship Cochrane was to sail to America. The ship sailed on 7 April, under the command of the new captain and Admiralty officials did all they could to distance themselves from The Sea Wolf, their famous, but outspoken and reform-minded flag captain.
The press had a field-day when the results of the investigation came out and the public, outraged at such villainy, demanded the perpetrators be punished. On 27 April, Lord Cochrane, and the others implicated in the fraud, were indicted by the Grand Jury of London at the Old Bailey and were held for trial. The date for the trial was set for 8 June 1814, before Lord Ellenborough, Lord Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench. The choice of Ellenborough as judge was particularly unfortunate for Cochrane, since he was a High Tory with a record of fierce enmity toward radicals. And, in politics, Lord Cochrane had been, and remained, a reformer, staunchly in the radical camp. The defence did their best to have Cochrane tried separately, in order to protect him from the damning evidence which was continuing to pile up against de Berenger and the other conspirators, but it was not allowed. They were all to be tried together in a single trial. Lord Cochrane, confident that his innocence would be obvious to any jury, was content to leave his defence to his solicitors and counsel, and the evidence he had provided in his sworn affidavit of the day’s events. He was so confident, in fact, that he felt no need to testify in his own defence and did not even attend the trial itself. Cochrane spent most of the first day of the trial at Mr. King’s factory, working on the final designs of his convoy lamp.
The trial began at 9:00am on Wednesday, 8 June 1814, in the Court of King’s Bench, in the Guildhall, London. Public interest in the trial was running so high that the courtroom was jammed with spectators. The prosecution opened with an account of the events of 21 February, noting the involvement of each of the defendants in turn. Once that was completed, they called numerous witnesses to verify the facts in detail. One of those witnesses, William Crane, was the hackney driver who had taken de Berenger to Cochrane’s house that morning. Crane claimed that de Berenger had been wearing a scarlet tunic when he got out of the carriage at Cochrane’s house that morning. In his sworn affidavit, Cochrane had stated that when he met de Berenger at his home that morning, the Prussian was wearing a green sharp-shooter’s uniform. Since he was not present in the courtroom to testify, it was generally assumed that he had perjured himself and was thus just as guilty as the others of the fraud, implicated by the very document which he believed would prove his innocence. The prosecution did not conclude the presentation of their evidence until 10:10pm that evening. After thirteen hours of testimony, it was expected that the judge would recess the trial until the next day. Instead, Lord Ellenborough demanded that the defence immediately present their case, ignoring their multiple objections. The defence did not conclude their presentation until after 3:00am the next morning. It was only then that Lord Ellenborough finally adjourned for the day, but ordered that the second session would begin at 10:00am on the following morning.
The second session of the trial opened at 10:00am, on Thursday, 9 June 1814, at which time Lord Melville were called to give evidence as to whether Lord Cochrane, or his uncle, Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone, was the true patron of de Berenger. A score of witnesses were cross-examined in an effort to definitively determine whether de Berenger had entered Lord Cochrane’s house in a red or green uniform. This went on until well into the afternoon. Lord Ellenborough began his summing up of all of the facts of the case late in the afternoon. The jury retired to deliberate at 6:10pm and two and a half hours later, at 8:40pm, they returned with a verdict of guilty against all of the defendants. Lord Cochrane was stunned by the verdict and immediately he and his defence team launched a search for other witnesses who could state the color of the uniform which de Berenger was wearing when he arrived at Cochrane’s house in Green Street. [Author’s Note: It was later discovered that the hackney driver, William Crane, was a thoroughly unreliable witness. He was a very dishonest man who was happy to say anything the prosecution wanted, in return for significant financial compensation.] Cochrane and his defence team found several reliable witnesses who were all willing to state that de Berenger had been wearing a green sharp-shooter’s uniform when he arrived at Cochrane’s house. However, when they attempted to present the new evidence to Lord Ellenborough on 14 June, he declared it inadmissible, since not all of the defendants were in court. Both Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone and Alexander McRae had both fled the country soon after the verdict had been handed down.
On Monday, 20 June 1814, Lord Cochrane and the remaining defendants appeared before a panel of judges headed by Lord Ellenborough for a sentencing hearing. At that time, Cochrane was still not allowed to present his new evidence, but he was allowed to defend himself, stating his case calmly and clearly. But his eloquent plea fell on deaf ears and the next day, Lord Cochrane and the remaining defendants were each sentenced to twelve months in prison. Cochrane and Butt were each fined £1,000 and Cochrane and de Berenger were both sentenced to an hour in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange. Lord Cochrane was devastated by what he saw as a completely unjust verdict and sentence. A witness to the sentencing said that after it was passed, Cochrane lost all color in his face, his eyes were unfocused and staring. He left the court like a man in a trance. Cochrane was taken across London Bridge to Southwark where he was confined in King’s Bench Prison. Cochrane had two rooms on the top floor, where he was allowed visitors, but he had to pay for his food and lodging.
Lord Cochrane was expelled from his seat in Parliament within a few weeks after his conviction was handed down. A writ was issues for a by-election to replace him. But in July, though still confined to King’s Bench Prison, Cochrane found he still had many friends and supporters, particularly among his Westminster constituents. All the likely candidates refused to stand for his seat and on 16 July 1814, Cochrane was returned to his seat in the House of Commons in a landslide.
Once he recovered from his initial shock, Cochrane believed that he would eventually be able to prove his innocence. There was another heartening development after his re-election to Parliament. Ellenborough had sentenced Cochrane to the pillory, intending that it should cut the naval hero down to size. When Napoleon heard the sentence, in exile on Elba, he said, "Such a man should not be made to suffer such a degrading punishment." In England, Cochrane was so popular with the people that the authorities were concerned there might be public protests against such humiliating treatment of their hero. They became even more concerned when they learned that Sir Francis Burdett, a radical member of Parliament, intended to stand at the pillory with Cochrane. In Parliament, Lord Ebrington put forward a motion, seconded by Lord Nugent, to rescind the pillory sentence on the grounds of Lord Cochrane’s outstanding service to the nation. Unwilling to single out Cochrane, on 19 July, Lord Castlereagh announced that a royal pardon had been issued covering all persons currently under sentence of the pillory. It had become clear to the government that such humiliation of a national hero would have ignited a riot, certainly among a large number of sailors and Cochrane’s constituents in Westminster. So both Cochrane and de Berenger were spared the indignity of the pillory. Punishment by pillory was eventually outlawed in England in 1830.
After this series of positive events, Cochrane hoped he would soon be able to clear his name. What he did not know was that his enemies in government and the Admiralty were conspiring to ensure his complete disgrace. They were able to convince the Prince Regent that Lord Cochrane should be removed from the Navy List, and even to be stripped of his membership in the Order of the Bath. Before the end of June, the Admiralty struck Lord Cochrane from the Navy List, thereby terminating his career in the Royal Navy. On 11 August 1814, on the stroke of midnight, at King Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, Mr. Townshend, the Bath King of Arms, took down Cochrane’s banner and coat of arms. The banner was then kicked out of the chapel and down the steps, according to ancient custom. Thus was Cochrane stripped of the honor which had been conferred on him for his heroic role in the Battle of Basque Roads. The honor he valued most highly.
The aftermath of the trial effectively destroyed Lord Cochrane’s life. He lost his livelihood as a naval officer, his membership in the Order of the Bath and his personal reputation was seriously tarnished. On Monday evening, 6 March 1815, escaped from King’s Bench Prison, using a rope to scale the walls, an easy feat for an experienced seaman. However, when he went to the House of Commons to resume his seat, the authorities were notified by someone and arrived to take him into custody. After a brief struggle, he was taken back to prison, but not to the rooms he had previously occupied. He was confined to a small, damp, subterranean room, with no furniture, even a bed. But within a couple of weeks, Cochrane’s health had deteriorate so severely that he was moved to another room. Before he could be released at the end of his sentence on 20 June 1815, he was required to pay the fine of £1,000 which had been levied against him. He refused, but his friends and family soon paid the fine and he was released from King’s Bench Prison on 3 July 1815. By that time, Wellington had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo and there was peace in Europe.
Lord Cochrane served in Parliament for the next few years, but he became increasingly disenchanted by the behavior of his fellow members. In addition, his family was growing as his income shrank. In 1817, an envoy from the nascent Chilean government seeking to liberate their country from Spanish rule, offered Lord Cochrane command of the Chilean navy. He accepted the position and left England on 15 August 1817. With only a few brief visits to his homeland, Lord Cochrane would not live in England again for the next twenty years. By the time he returned to England, George IV was dead and William IV was King. William had served in the Royal Navy for many years and was sympathetic to Cochrane’s situation. Lord Cochrane, who had become the 10th Earl of Dundonald in July of 1831, was granted a pardon in 1832 and returned to the Navy list, promoted to rear-admiral. But it was not until 1847 that he was restored to his membership in the Order of the Bath, due to the personal intervention of Queen Victoria. However, his banner was not replaced in the Henry VII’s Chapel until 1860, on the day before his funeral. In 1848, he became Commander-in-Chief of the North America and West Indies Station, succeeding Admiral Sir Francis Austen, one of Jane Austen’s sailor brothers. In 1854, Lord Cochrane was appointed the honorary position of Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom. He held that position until his death in 1860.
The Great Stock Exchange Fraud of 1814 was, in the end, a minor tempest in the London financial community, but it became an utter disaster for Lord Thomas Cochrane. Though nearly every legal review of the case since 1814 has determined that Cochrane was not involved in the fraud and should never have been convicted, his enemies ensured that he was found guilty along with the others. The life he had enjoyed before the hoax was effectively destroyed. He became an exile from the country he had served so ably and so heroically for two decades. Fortunately, he was vindicated before his death, which gave him great personal satisfaction. But two hundred years ago, this Sunday, began the travesty of justice masquerading as a trial which so devastated Lord Thomas Cochrane. A very sad day in the history of English jurisprudence.