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James Barber Edwards

Effingham Place, Ramsgate
35 Lower Street, Deal
10 Park Road, Southborough

Occupation: Solicitor

Solicitor James Barber Edwards was born in Chapel Lane, Deal. He was the seventh of the eight children born to Robert Edwards and his third wife Mary Johanna Barber. Sadly four of his siblings died before his birth in 1818, as did three of his five half siblings.  

James’ father, on all his children’s baptism records, gives his occupation as a Mariner. He is also listed as a Mariner and employed by the Impress Service in the Deal Lieutenancy Papers of 1803. Robert though built up, in modern terms, a rather substantial property rental portfolio. He had from 1811 been purchasing leases of property from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who owned the greater part of Deal at the time, and then rented out these properties which, amongst others, included, houses and tenements in Jews Harp AlleyProspect Place, Beach & Middle Streets, The Providence (behind the old town hall), The Bell and Queens Head Public Houses as well as some arable land. So by the time of his death in 1833, he left a substantial estate to his family and called himself a Gentleman. 

Articled Clerk

James in 1834 was apprenticed or ‘articled’ to John Mercer as a solicitor’s clerk for five years after which on May 3, 1839, he qualified and was “…sworn, admitted and enrolled as an Attorney of Her Majesty Court of Queen’s Bench at Westminster…” 

On his return to Kent, he continued to be employed by John Mercer at his Ramsgate offices dealing with property deeds and trusts. He was then, in May 1840 along with John Mercer’s son, George, appointed Master Extraordinary in the High Court Chancery    

 There does seem to have been a business relationship if not friendship between the Edwards and Mercer families from at least the early 1800s. Robert had acted as their agent for supplying information about properties that the Mercers had dealings with. And John Mercer in 1833 was one of the executors to Robert’s will. This closeness was cemented when James married Mary Jane Mercer, John’s daughter in 1841.  

The newlyweds set up home in Ramsgate where their first two children were born. By 1844 they had returned to Deal first to Queens Street, possibly staying with Mary Jane’s brother and James colleague, George Mercer, at 21 Queen Street, which was also the Solicitor’s Office at which they both worked.They eventually set up home at 35 Lower Street where they completed their family. 

35 Lower Street later became 127 High Street and a Solicitors Office first of Brown & Brown then Emmerson, Brown & Brown and today Stilwell & Singleton

For the next forty years, James and Mary Jane lived the life you might expect from couples of their class of the Victorian period. They lived well in their nice house on Lower Street. They had two live-in servants one of whom was a family cook. They probably held business and social dinner parties, maybe hiring caterers such as Frederick W Lass on such occasions, and attended balls and dances at the Assembly Rooms.  James, like many notable people of his time, gave to charitable causes and in late 1851 he donated a piece of land on Brewer Street on which to erect the new Soup Kitchen.

But things turned sour in 1880. 

A Bye-Election 

Henry Arthur Brassey © National Portrait Gallery, London

In March 1880 there was a general election in which Edward Knatchbull-Huggeson and Henry Brassey, both of the Liberal Party, were both returned unopposed as Members of Parliament for the Parliamentary Borough of Sandwich which at that time was made up of Sandwich, Deal and Walmer. 
By May 1880 Edward Knatchbull-Huggeson was elevated to the peerage becoming Baron Brabourne of Kent. This brought about a bye-election. As a Baron, Edward Knatchbull-Huggeson now sat in the House of Lords and could no longer be an M.P. sitting in the House of Commons.

Edward Hugessen Knatchbull-Hugessen, 1st Baron Brabourne
© National Portrait Gallery, London

It was the events of the bye-election that ended with James Barber Edwards first imprisonment. The following information comes from the Report made from the ‘Inquiry into the Existence of Corrupt Practices in the Borough of Sandwich’ and the newspaper reports of the time. 

The Parliamentary Borough of Sandwich had for many years been dominated by the popular Edward Knatchbull-Huggeson and Henry Brassey both of whom as we have said were Liberals. So with Knatchbull-Huggeson’s peerage the Conservative Charles Henry Crompton Roberts decided to ‘take to the field.’ Wanting the best chance that he could get to win the seat he employed Mr Edwin Hughes of Woolwich “the most celebrated electioneering agent of his day.” In the first week in May Mr. Hughes had been very active, securing seventy-one public houses in Deal & Walmer all with large rooms for the use of committees, 42 paid canvassers, and the erection of thirty flag poles. 

James must have shown interest in supporting the new Liberal candidate as he was invited by Richard J Emmerson, the Liberal agent for Sandwich and Clerk to the Justices, to meet with Sir Julian Goldsmid to discuss his candidature on May 10th. From that point on James acted as Sir Julian’s election agent and gave him an estimate of £2,000 to £2,500 to cover the costs of running the election for Deal & Walmer also pointing out that it was usual for money to be provided beforehand. According to James’ testimony, given at the inquiry held at Deal Town Hall, Sir Julian prevaricated, saying “…he had never done anything of the kind before…” and that he left his cheque book behind in London.

Illustrated London News Saturday 11 January 1896 Julian Goldsmid

James, however, must have made his point as a cheque for £200 was given to him and on the next day one for £320. A few days later a final payment of £1,500 in cash, arrived at Mr Emmersons, brought by Mr. Foord, Sir Julian’s agent in Rochester. Mr. Emmerson took £200 of this for his electioneering requirements in Sandwich and James returned to Deal with several bags containing the remaining £1,300.   

 It later emerged in court that James did not check if there was indeed £1,300 in the bags or even give a receipt to Mr. Emmerson for the money. Reading the report we know that the cheques James received were paid directly into his own bank account. It also appears that, on the whole, he did not keep any proper records of expenditure and those records he did have were conveniently lost. Given that the total amount of money provided to him amounted to £1,820.00, which in today’s money is over £120,500.00, to our modern way of thinking, things certainly seemed rather dodgy from the outset! 

 James states, at the Inquiry, and at his trial a year later, that he remembers giving a total of £1,125 to Samuel Outwin, the wine merchant. When giving evidence Samuel stated that he received £75 from James for the hire of committee rooms but a day or two before the election he told James “ was no use fighting without money…as there was so much about on the other side.” The other side being the Conservatives who were busy expending cash for what was seen as the electioneering necessities of the day. 


These necessities amongst other things, and including the committee rooms were, canvassers, flags and flagpoles, rosettes, posters, window decorations even boats painted in the party colours. But it didn’t stop there. Both sides in their determination to win resorted to Bribery. 

 In court it was established that the additional £1,050 was used “to get what voters they could …” In other words, to buy votes. Samuel kept a rough account of those three to four hundred voters he had bribed.  

On average they each received £3 or in today’s money around £200. Not bad for a tick in a box! 

James, we are told “…was a great deal bothered at the time…” about all this but, nonetheless, when approached by Robert R Lownds for £14 with which to pay four voters with, he was told by James to go to Edwin Cornwell. 
Edwin, told the Inquiry, that he was “…almost private secretary to (James) Mr. Edwards” and as such he had received £297 to pay for the boatmen acting as messengers and also the board boys who were employed by the likes of Robert Lownds.
Edwin, when asked about a list of those he paid said that he only had a rough copy as “…Unfortunately, Mr. (James) Edwards has lost it …”  

Two other men had large payments from James, John Pettit Rammell received £208 in gold. This was used, in part, for the ordering, making and paying for the cost of flags, poles and ropes as well as erecting the poles, hanging the flags and for watchers to protect them from attack from the Conservative supporters. In total he organised for around 100 flag poles to be put up in Deal alone with, believe it or not, every single member of the Liberal Cabinet depicted at the top of the pole!  With roughly the same actions being taken by the Conservatives, what a sight it must have been, with hundreds of flags flying and bunting put up along the seafront and in the towns of Deal of Walmer!  

As with John Pettit Rammel, Edward Thomas Rose of Walmer received money to purchase poles and ropes and pay for their erection. Added to which he paid for voters who were away from the town to be brought back for the election. People like the crew of the ‘Petrel’ who were then Piloting near Salcombe, Devon, who were also paid for their loss of time. After receiving a telegram, they made their way to Portsmouth and then returned to Walmer by train. Other money was expended on Board-boys and canvassers and for a painted boat with ten or so men dressed up on it to be rowed up and down. He gave £129 to Mr. Minter, which was spent in a similar way in Upper Deal. As a tailor he was also paid for making flags, rosettes and other decorations. In total Edward Thomas Rose received £680 roughly half of which he received after the election. 

Smaller sums of money were paid out to at least forty-two men to act as bribers on behalf of the liberals. One Edward Thurrell Tapley received £3 13s for this work. In today’s money that’s about £242 so you can see why a poor boatman living in a house owned by James Barber Edwards  would find it difficult to turn down. 

 If you add all the money paid out by James before, during and after the election you will see that it exceeds the £1,820.00 he actually received from Sir Julian Goldsmid. At the Inquiry James stated that he was out of pocket by £491 and had applied to Sir Julian to be reimbursed but as of the 7th October 1880 he had not heard from him.  

All in all you can see just by this small example of events that James must have known what was happening. Maybe he accepted it as a novice to the electioneering practices of the day. Maybe, given later events, he thought he could make a profit. After all this kind of thing had gone on for years. But surely not to this scale. 

There were other irregularities put to James at the Inquiry and just as many put to those on the Conservative side too. In all there were nearly one thousand witness testimonies taken, at Deal Town Hall alone, by the Inquiry held between 5th and 21st October 1880.
In the end the Inquiry found that both candidates connived at these practices. 

The Return of Expenses for Deal, Walmer and Sandwich amounted to over £3,153 for the Conservatives (Crompton Roberts) but in fact, according to the Inquiry, it was almost double that.
The money spent on behalf of the Liberals (Sir Julian Goldsmid) was over £2,410. Again, it was probably a lot more. 

  • Out of the 2,115  registered voters, 1005 had been guilty of taking bribes from one party or the other.  
  • 128 were guilty of doing bribing 
  • 127 received bribes from both sides 
  • 43 were guilty of  treating 

Almost all of those deemed guilty did not end up on trial but James did and along with Samuel Olds received a sentence of six months, and six others, from Deal & Walmer, received three months each and were sent to serve their time in St. Augustines Gaol, Canterbury. 

St. Augustine’s Gaol, Canterbury

Petitions were soon set up on behalf of the men to try and get them released. William Burvill Mackie was released on grounds of ill health, by the Home Secretary, at the end of December. James’ sentence too was cut short also because of ill health which had declined since his arrival in St. Augustines Gaol, Canterbury.  

A newspaper report states that James had a withered arm which, during his incarceration, had become numb. Prison conditions then were such that cells were cold and damp which often led, as in James’ case, to even hardened inmates developing conditions such as rheumatism. The prison surgeon did grant him a mat for the cold slate floor and hot water bottles but James’ health still declined. By the beginning of January, according to details given to a newspaper reporter by a supposed ‘reliable source’ “…his illness had assumed a more serious character, and representation was made to the Home Secretary to that effect that a larger confinement would endanger his life …” 


Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald – Saturday 14 January 1882

Representation was then made to the Home Secretary, on James behalf, and after being examined by a Doctor, sent by the Home Office, his release was sanctioned.
A telegram was then sent to his son, Reverend Edward John Edwards of Oxford, who had returned to Deal to care for his family during his father’s absence, he with Mr J M Hills the brewer then travelled, in a carriage and pair, to Canterbury to bring his father home. James took his time to recover from his experience. He was after all sixty-three years old and totally unprepared for harsh prison life. Needless to say, he did not get involved in electioneering again. 

Mary Jane Dies

Two years later life was to take another downwards turn. On 23 February 1884 Mary Jane, his wife of over forty years died at their home of 35 High Street. She was buried on the 27 February in Hamilton Road Cemetery. Her Gravestone simply reads 

 In memory of Mary Jane, wife of James Barber Edwards of this town, Solicitor.  

Daughters Mary and Louisa continued to live in the family home and with the help of three live-in servants, they ran the house and cared for James. A testament to the Edwards family care of their servants is that their cook, Eliza Dunn, who had been with the family from at least 1871 was still with them in 1882, and she remained with them throughout the rest of her working life.  

And then…

As if going to prison for bribery and the loss of his wife wasn’t enough, life for James in 1891 took yet another downturn.  

Solicitor John James Williamson joined the firm in 1885 and became a partner in 1887. But he, recognising that the firm was not acting properly and would soon be bankrupt, decided to dissolve the partnership and to try and prevent himself from being held accountable for what was to come. That partnership was officially dissolved on June 19th, 1891. 

Sometime around the end of August James disappeared from Deal. Apart from arranging with his son, James Mercer Edwards, to “…watch for direction in the agony column of the Standard…”, he told no one of his whereabouts. He must have known of the serious state of affairs that the firm was in and needed time and space to decide what he was to do or, he simply panicked and ran.  

 On Thursday, 1 October 1891, and advertised in the London Gazette, a petition for Bankruptcy was filed against the firm of Mercer & Edwards. James at this time was still absent, so a notice was placed in the newspapers addressed to him stating the facts of the matter. 

Thanet Advertiser – Saturday 10 October 1891

Then on Monday, 5 October 1891 George Mercer, James’ business partner and brother-in-law of over fifty years, committed suicide. He was 73 years old. A few weeks earlier he had gone up to London on business but returned sooner than expected, after which he became very lethargic and spent most of his time in bed. His son, George Dower Mercer, was staying with his parents and on the morning of the 5th he looked in on his father who seemed to be sleeping peacefully. At nine his mother went up to again check on him and was heard to cry out “he’s dead: he has shot himself.” At the inquest Dr. F B Hulke deposed that he had been suffering from “…a great deal of nervous excitement, weeping and being extremely melancholy and unable to sleep… Dr. Hulke also described what sounds like a stroke had occurred a few days before.  

Being left by James to bear the burden and for them the shame of the bankruptcy must have led to George planning a way out. He had purchased the revolver on his trip to London and on that fateful morning shot himself in the heart. 

What with John J Williamson leaving the firm, the disappearance of James, the bankruptcy and George’s suicide, rumours must have gone wild. James and George had for many years been well respected solicitors and members of the community. Even after James’ dalliance with election fraud and a prison sentence the community rallied round and forgave him. But this was something else! 


A meeting of the creditors took place on Wednesday, 28 October in St. George’s Hall, Deal where the Official Receiver, Mr.Worsfold Mowll, stated that the firm’s estimated debt was £60,000 (approx. £3,971,000.00 in today’s money)James, by now had returned to Deal but did not appear at the meeting. The following six months were spent in trying to sort out the firm’s paperwork and accounts. It took so long because since the early 1860s the accounts had not been balanced! It later came out in court that this was at George’s instigation as he had told the clerk to discontinue the practice.  

In court James was asked by Walter Furley, the Registrar “…did it not occur to you to ascertain what your position was from year to year…?” to which he replied “We did not do so” when asked “…Did it not occur to you that it would have been a proper thing to do..”  he replied “…I never thought anything about it. We thought we were doing swimming business…” He was asked “ How did you know that, not having made up your books?”  “By always being employed” was James’ response. 

This astounded the Registrar who questioned him further in the end saying “…You don’t seriously believe …that you did not have your books made up simply because you thought the business was swimming along…?”   To which James simply replied “I do”. 

No wonder James thought it was OK to not keep proper accounts or records during the election if this was how he was running his business!! 

Not keeping proper records was not the worst of it. It was ascertained that clients’ money was not being handled correctly either. James admitted that he had received money from clients which he did not pass through the firm’s books. He denied fraud saying that he “…supposed matters went out of his mind…” Both James and George seemed to both have continued in this way for many years.  

Defrauding Clients

In the September court hearing it was brought to light that a Mr & Mrs William Betts had been beneficiaries of a trust fund amounting to £2,000. James and George acted on their behalf as trustees and were charged with investing this money to bring in an income for the Betts. Mr Betts died in 1880, and the quarterly payment of £150 to Mrs Betts was supposed to be increased to £180. However despite her appeals James refused to payout the increased amount stating it was against his strict duty. The trust also consisted of numerous bonds which were sold and the money like the original £2,000 went into the firm’s bank account and used for their own purposes and disappeared. And so it went on with numerous other clients accounts fraudulently mishandled. 

George, at least, must have had some qualms of conscience as while James was in gaol and when recovering from ill health in late 1881 early 1882, he took the opportunity to employ an accountant to look at the books. The state of affairs uncovered led him to write a letter to James dated December 1882 which was read out in court. George had written that he did not want to refer more than is necessary to the past but there had been “…great carelessness, great neglect and utter confusion in a great many of your transactions…” He remarked upon James’ absence whilst in gaol, possibly he was hoping that the whole experience, in part caused by James’ lack of correct record keeping, would make James come to his senses. James denied ever having received the letter and whether he did or not nothing changed. Both men carried on as they had before. 

No balanced books or proper record keeping meant clients’ money could easily and did  ‘disappear.’ So much so that the ‘swimming business’ that James believed he was correctly running, and it seems that is what he actually thought, simply ran out of money. This led to bankruptcy, his partner’s death and on 21 November 1893, on 28 counts of fraud, a second prison sentence for James. This time though it was eight years penal servitude. He was by then 76 years old. 

And Aftewards

Due to further inquiries concerning his marriage settlement and monies given to his daughters, we know that James was in Lewes prison. He was brought from there to appear in court in 1894. This led to £6,000 being found and made available to pay James’ creditors leaving his daughters with £1,500. 

We don’t know when James’ daughters left Deal. His son James Mercer Edwards continued to practice as a solicitor in Ramsgate until his death in 1896; Robert had already left by 1872 to become a Civil Engineer; Edward, a Reverend, had left in around 1869 and was living in Oxford at the time of James’ first trial and at some point after that he emigrated to New York where he died in 1912. Mary Elizabeth and Louisa never married and by 1901 were living together in Southborough near Tonbridge.  With them, calling himself a Public Notary, was their father. He must have been recently released from prison. They were all to remain in Southborough until their deaths. Mary Elizabeth died in 1925 and Louisa in 1940. As for James he died in 1911 and was buried on 17 August aged 93. All three are buried together in Southborough Cemetery. 



Sources and further reading: UK, Calendar of Prisoners, 1868-1929 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2020.[Text Wrapping Break]Original data: HO 140: Home Office: Calendar of Prisoners. Kew, Surrey, England.
Report of the Commissioners to Inquire into Existence of Corrupt Practices in the Borough of Sandwich 1880
Newspaper image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved.
With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive (
Lambeth Palace Archives Catalogue
London Illustrated News With thanks to ©Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans Picture Library