While researching a talk on sites around the Strand related to the women’s suffrage movement, I came across mention of a very odd incident involving George Bernard Shaw and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, whose wife, Emmeline, had in 1906 become one of the leaders of the Women’s Social and Political Union. With Emmeline, Frederick had founded and funded the WSPU newspaper, Votes for Women, and in 1912 had been sentenced to nine months’ imprisonment, found guilty of conspiracy to commit damage to property. This charge resulted from the mass demonstration on 1 March by WSPU members, who had made a concerted attack on the windows of West End shops and offices. During his imprisonment Pethick-Lawrence had gone on hunger strike and been forcibly fed. Later that year, after their release from prison, Emmeline and Frederick Pethick-Lawrence were ousted from the WSPU. The Pethick-Lawrences felt that the policy of violent militancy that the Pankhursts were advocating was no longer politically expedient – a message unwelcome to the Pankhursts.
This is the background to an intriguing incident reported in the press, but of which I can find no mention in any biography of Shaw. The Times, 12 May 1913, reported that the previous week Shaw was at home at 10 Aldephi Terrace, behind the Strand, when a messenger boy arrived with a letter apparently from Pethick-Lawrence. The letter requested that an enclosed crossed cheque made out to Pethick-Lawrence for £525 should be exchanged for an open cheque from Shaw for the same amount. Shaw was familiar with Pethick-Lawrence’s handwriting, believed the request was genuine, and, therefore, wrote an open cheque, which he handed over to the messenger. This cheque was cashed very shortly afterwards and it soon transpired that the crossed cheque had been forged. Needless to say Pethick-Lawrence knew nothing of the scam.
According to newspaper accounts Shaw did not report this strange incident to the police. The monetary equivalent of £525 is now £55,500. What does one make of this? It certainly suggests that Shaw must have been a close acquaintance – certainly a trusting acquaintance – of Frederick Pethick-Lawrence. The swindle appears to have taken place around 9 May and on 14 May Pethick-Lawrence was due in court to face bankruptcy proceedings related to his refusal to pay the prosecution costs awarded against him and his wife as a result of damage caused by WSPU activists. I feel these two events cannot be unrelated. Did Shaw think he was diverting some of Pethick-Lawrence’s money away from the government’s attempts to claw it back? Is that why he did not report the matter to the police? The swindler must have been sufficiently close to Shaw and Pethick-Lawrence to know that the scheme would work. Who could it have been? Does anyone know anything more about this curious incident?