Thomas Homer 1761-1839

The Embezzler


Thomas Homer is often credited with having first proposed, in 1802, the construction of what would become known as the Regent’s Canal. He has been described variously as an entrepreneur or a speculator (He would not have described himself as either of those) and a merchant, which he was, for a while. In 1812 he became Secretary of the Regent’s Canal Company, and then, in 1815, half way through its construction and when the project was beset with engineering problems and the opposition of landowners, was convicted of embezzling funds from his employers and sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia.

The following article incorporates new findings based on recent research by London Canal Museum volunteers, and concentrates on the lesser known periods of Homer’s life, before 1802 and after 1815. The researchers have drawn heavily upon the resources of the National Archives at Kew, the London Metropolitan Archive and the Guildhall Library. Most of what was previously known about Homer’s career is thanks to the research carried out by the late Alan Faulkner, as embodied in his classic work, The Regent’s Canal, London’s Hidden Waterway, Waterways World Ltd, 2005.

Thomas Homer was born on 27 March 1761, in the Warwickshire village of Birdingbury. His father, the Rector Henry Sacheverel Homer, was regarded as the finest classical scholar of his day and a prolific writer on enclosures, roads and canals. He was a keen advocate for canal-building: apart from the benefits for commerce, he believed that canals would help to slow down the deterioration of roads. He was also noted for having seventeen children (Arthur Mee said of him that he provided his own congregation). His wife Susannah, formerly Miss Pitts, was herself the descendant of a clerical family, so it is not surprising that the majority of the Rector’s twelve sons became clergymen after receiving a classical education, some at Oxford and some at Cambridge. Thomas, the sixth son, after attending Rugby School like his brothers, took a different path.

A large white-painted house behind a carefully-tended garden surrounded by trees

Birdingbury Rectory, c1930. Warwickshire County Record Office, PH(N) 888/61, Victor Long/John Hughes Collection

On 19 April 1777, his father took the fifteen-year-old Thomas Homer to nearby Coventry to sign him up as an articled clerk with a solicitor, Michael Chambers. An articled clerkship was the equivalent of an apprenticeship for aspiring solicitors. It lasted for five years, and it was an unwritten rule that, once qualified, the young solicitor would teach others. Apparently Homer was a trusted employee, because he was one of three men appointed in the will of Michael Chambers as guardians of his children. His wife, Martha Chambers, must have trusted him too, even though she had previously fought a legal battle with the Reverend Homer over the debts of her former husband, William Dadley. That typically Warwickshire surname, Dadley, repeats much later at a critical juncture in Thomas’s story.

The Reverend Henry Homer died at the age of 72 on 24 July 1791, leaving his children comfortably provided for, thanks in part to his investments in canals. Sadly, his eldest child, Henry the Younger, had predeceased his father by just three months at the age of 38. Like his father, he had been an outstanding classical scholar, and both are listed in the Dictionary of National Biography. After his death, his works were completed by his similarly gifted brothers Arthur and Philip Bracebridge Homer.

Philip deserves a special mention as, for a clergyman and schoolteacher, he became very rich, having inherited some valuable Italian property from his first wife. He was also a poet who generously and without a trace of envy promoted other poets and seems to have been generous with his money as well. It is not inconceivable that he played a part in the eventual “rescue” of his brother.

There are many Homers in 18th Century Warwickshire, and several of them are called Thomas and Mary, but it seems reasonable that Thomas the young solicitor and his bride should be the pair who, along with their two witnesses, were able to sign their banns with their names in full (rather than with an X). If this is so, then Thomas Homer married Mary Arnold on 22 February 1784. The marriage took place in Mary’s own parish of Coleshill, Warwickshire, but Thomas’s parish is given as St Trinity, which suggests that he was still in practice with Michael Chambers in Coventry. We know little about Mary, except for Thomas’s reference to her his letter of confession after his embezzlement: she had possibly been slightly older than him and had been a careful housewife for many years. She may be identical with a Mary Homer who at the age of about 83 was buried on 15 January 1840 at Coleshill. Her supposed year of birth, 1757, would make her four years older than her husband.

The couple had at least one child, also called Thomas, baptised on 5 April 1788 at St Michael’s, Warwick. The younger Thomas eventually became Vicar of Freiston and Butterwick in Lincolnshire, a post which he held for over thirty years; he was also headmaster of Boston School in the same county for ten years. The older Thomas may have had other children, possibly a girl and another boy, but this is less clear.

The year 1795 finds Thomas Homer, as Auditor to the Grand Junction Canal Company, laying before Parliament the financial figure that will eventually result in the extension of the Canal. In 1800 he still holds his position as Auditor and is called to speak to the Parliamentary Committee on the Coal Trade. It is difficult to know exactly when he moved to London, or whether he kept one foot in Warwickshire, but in 1802 he was in practice with the solicitor Wentworth Brinley (That is, Brinley without a “d”- no relation to Brindley the canal engineer) at 10 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn.

It was with Wentworth Brinley that Homer, in 1802, first proposed the construction of a canal to link Paddington Basin with the Thames, and the two solicitors should perhaps be remembered together. Brinley was a Canadian whose family had come to England seeking refuge from the upheavals associated with the American War of Independence. His forebears had been influential in American life, and the University of Massachusetts keeps a collection of papers and artefacts associated with them. It is probably entirely coincidental that one of his female relatives had the surname Pitts, the maiden name of Homer’s mother. American readers might be familiar with the portraits of members of the Brinley family from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In January 1807, barely five years after he and Homer proposed the building of the canal, Brinley died, single and without issue, in his Lincoln’s Inn chambers. It must have been a sudden death as, unusually for a solicitor, he died intestate. Much could be written about the solicitors of Lincoln’s Inn of that era: one was William Agar, later to become the nemesis of the Regent’s Canal Company. Homer and Brinley may well have encountered him as they went about their daily business.

At some unspecified point between 1802 and Brinley’s death in 1807, Thomas Homer left Lincoln’s Inn and set up shop as an attorney in Paddington, the easternmost reach of the Grand Junction Canal. He was certainly there in 1806, when he was still advertising in connection with his late father’s estate. Homer had been appointed as one of the trustees of his sisters’ inheritances and was clearly trying to call in any outstanding debts- it is not known with what success.

As a solo lawyer in Paddington, Homer would have needed another source of income to support his family in Warwickshire. He ran the fleet of pleasure boats known as the Paddington Packet. He owned wharfs and traded in coal. This occupation was fraught with annoyances. During this period, Homer needed all his skills as a solicitor. A young man was caught stealing his coal, was flogged and then released. The captain of a vessel was delayed in Paddington Basin and tried twice, unsuccessfully, to make Homer pay the crew’s wages for the wasted time. On one occasion Homer was fined for “exaction” (extortion): the details of this have not come down to us, but as the misdemeanour was often committed by cabmen, it was probably to do with overcharging for transportation of some kind. Homer seems to have been involved in many enterprises in the Paddington years, and it must have seemed a world away from his late father’s rectory in Birdingbury.

The events of 1815 are well documented. Work on the Regent’s Canal came to a temporary halt. The building of the Islington Tunnel has run into difficulties- mineral seams hampered digging, and the New River overhead was proving troublesome. The landowner William Agar was becoming more insistent in his objections and, as a trained lawyer, he was a formidable opponent. Funds were drying up, as many of the Canal’s shareholders had either not paid their contributions- or they had paid, but not to the Treasurer (as they should have done) but to Thomas Homer, who, it now emerged, had been siphoning off an unknown amount of money for his own purposes.

Events succeeded each other rapidly. In March 1815, suspicions were first aroused when he repeatedly failed to produce certain records when requested to do so by Charles Monro, Chairman of the Company. Soon after that, he fled the country, and it was then he informed the Company by letter that he had been declared bankrupt before his appointment (But why does this not appear in the London Gazette, where all bankruptcies were recorded?) but that he had not declared this to his employers.

At this point the Committee offered a reward for Homer’s arrest. He fled first to Ostend but by early April he had returned to London- seemingly a bizarre course of action until we remember his family connections with England. He then sailed for Scotland where he was arrested early in May by an officer, Thomas Foy, who, according to the newspapers of the day, apprehended him at a comfortable breakfast at an Edinburgh hotel. What he had intended to do, or whether he had any connections in Scotland, remains a mystery.

Homer was quickly brought back to London, imprisoned in the debtors’ prison Tothill Fields Bridewell (where Westminster Cathedral now stands) and tried on 15 May at the Old Bailey for embezzlement. He pleaded guilty, and was advised by the Court to “weigh his plea”, which he refused to do, saying that he had made up his mind. Why the Court Recorder gave him this advice is a matter for conjecture. A plea for mercy on the grounds of insanity could have resulted in admission to Bedlam- hardly a pleasant prospect, especially with the opponents of the Regent’s Canal possibly taking advantage of the fact. Events had possibly taken a visible toll on Homer, as the newspaper reporters tended to overestimate his age by at least ten years (He was 54). Perhaps he simply wanted to get it over with quickly in order to minimise the scandal. Or perhaps his remorse was as genuine as his letter of confession suggested. At any rate, he was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia (the shortest possible period of transportation), but as we now know, he was never sent. The records of the convict ships and the prison hulks record other Thomas Homers, but not of the same age or for the same crime. His name does not appear in the Australian death notices, or deaths at sea, or in the Australian newspapers, where such a fall from respectability would surely have caught the public eye. Against his name in the prison register the word “Debtor” is stamped, the only instance among the prisoners tried that day.

When he confessed to the crime of embezzlement, Homer said that he was already deeply in debt before he was appointed Secretary to the Regent’s Canal Company. We do not know who his creditors were, but he said that after his appointment they became more pressing. One of the conditions of his appointment was that he had to devote himself entirely to the Company. However, there was one business interest that he did not tell his employers about, and it is thanks to this omission that we now know a very small part of Homer’s life after 1815.

From the records of the Sun Fire Insurance Office, we know that Thomas Homer owned or co-owned a considerable amount of property in Shoe Lane, London. He did not apparently live there himself, as he gave his address on one occasion as “Foley Place”. Foley Place (now Langham Street, Fitzrovia) was where the Regent’s Canal Company had its headquarters. The other occupants of the Shoe Lane property included Miss Elizabeth Caroline Flude, who, like her mother before her, was an undertaker; and a pewterer called Edward Dadley, who had his workshop there. Dadley was Homer’s first cousin, son of his aunt Catherine Homer.

Edward Dadley was also one of Homer’s securities in his position as Secretary: a disastrous choice, as it turned out, as he, like the William Dadley whose widow Martha married Homer’s first employer, became insolvent and therefore unable to pay a penny to the Regent’s Canal Company when called upon. He had probably seemed a safe pair of hands, as he had held the post of Master of the Worshipful Company of Pewterers and was undoubtedly a respected craftsman: indeed, his work is highly prized by collectors to this day.

Whether or not Homer’s employers were aware that Dadley was Homer’s first cousin is not known; or, for that matter, whether Dadley had any inkling of Homer’s misdeeds. The relationship may help to explain Homer‘s strange behaviour in returning to London after fleeing to the Continent. It may even help to explain where some of the missing funds had been deployed and why we do not know who Homer’s creditors were. Dadley eventually recovered from his financial downfall: the same could not be said of his cousin. For anyone who may be tracing the Dadley or the Homer family tree, William Dadley, the first husband of Thomas Homer’s employer's wife Martha, was Edward’s uncle on his father’s side (and hence not a blood relative of Thomas though a kinsman by marriage).

In 1816, barely a year after Thomas Homer was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia, he and the elderly Miss Flude turned up at the office of the Sun Fire Company in London to renew their policy. Edward Dadley is no longer listed as a tenant and, perhaps significantly, Miss Flude’s name is now given before that of Homer, who is no longer given the title of “gent”. Clearly he was not transported; unsurprisingly, since males selected to build the new colonies tended to be mainly young, able-bodied and of the working class. It is possible that he was still in the debtors’ prison when he renewed his policy: debtors were often granted “freedom of the rule” (What we would call “day release”) in order to try to clear their debts. The problem for the Regent’s Canal Company was that they did not know how much of the shortfall in their funds was due to Homer’s depredations, which would have made it impossible for them to recoup anything from him except what he was carrying on him at the time of his arrest: a draft for little over £50.

How did Homer spend his declining years? So far his name has not been found in the records of prisons, workhouses or even Bedlam. On 11 October 1838, however, at the age of “about 78” a Thomas Homer was buried in the churchyard of Birmingham St George. This man’s place of residence was given as Lozells- still a quiet village in those days, and starting to become a desirable place to live (The inventor James Watt had retired there). The land records for Homer’s dwelling describe it as a “house with pantry”: not a “house with garden “ like the other buildings on the property, but presumably a small property with a view of the main road which could be watched for visitors by the occupant every day. Although this Thomas Homer dies in the era of modern records, it has so far proved impossible to find a death certificate for him. Neither does he leave a will.

What of Homer’s son, the younger Thomas? He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in February 1815. Three months later, his father was in prison. Thomas the younger was about twenty two years old when he started his course. He was what was known as a “ten-year man”: a special kind of older student enjoying a concession only offered by Cambridge University. Such admissions were still quite rare at that time.

A typical ten-year man might have been a clergyman who felt that a degree would help his advancement in the field of education: in the case of the younger Thomas, he went on to become Second Master at Sheffield School and, later, Headmaster at Boston School. His father’s arrest must have been of tremendous concern to him and all the Homers. It would not be surprising if the family had decided that retirement on health grounds in rural Warwickshire, might be the best thing for the ageing Thomas, who may well have been, in the parlance of the day, a broken man. His brother Philip had previously spirited his own son (who had failed to complete his university course) away to quiet retirement in Wales, so he could have performed a similar act of discretion for his brother, both out of charity as a clergyman towards a repentant sinner and to protect the family name.

The London Canal Museum would very much like to hear from any descendants of Thomas Homer, preferably before 2020, when we shall be celebrating the bicentenary of the Regent’s Canal. In spite of his later disgrace, it is largely due to his early activism that the Canal we enjoy so much took the form it did. Should he be acknowledged as an individual, or as the son of another farsighted canal promoter, or together with Wentworth Brinley, with whom he originally made the proposal- or in all of these aspects? These are some of the questions we would love to discuss. The one thing that all can agree on is surely that Thomas Homer cannot be ignored!

Research by Vickie Irwin