William George Lewis and the great Dover Scandal

Mayor W George Lewis ringing Zeebrugge Bell 1923 - Courtesy of the Farley Family

Mayor W George Lewis ringing Zeebrugge Bell 1923 – Courtesy of the Farley Family

W.George Lewis’s company built 5 Cranbrook Villas, London Road, Buckland, where he lived. In fact, his company built many of the late 19th and early to mid-twentieth century houses in that area.

William George, or George or WG, as he seems to have been personally known at the time, was born on 16 May 1850. His father was a bricklayer living in Charlton and WG married Ann Maynard, in Dover, in 1871. Three of their children, two girls, Ellen and Alice and a boy, George Frederick (known by his middle name), survived to adulthood. WG was said to be a genial man and noted for his love of flowers – he always had one in his buttonhole except when wearing his chain of office as Mayor.

The former George Lewis's builders yard entrance, Wildred Road 2013

The former George Lewis’s builders yard entrance, Wildred Road 2013

Establishing his building business in 1879, when Dover was rapidly expanding, the firm’s headquarters was in Lewis’s Yard, Widred Road, Tower Hamlets. The site is now a small housing development. As WG’s business grew so did his reputation and in 1898 he won the contract to build Barton School. This was to accommodate 440 boys, cost of £3,500 and the Boys’ school eventually opened at the end of January 1903 for 240 boys in four classrooms. The funding was provided through charities connected with St Andrew’s Church, Buckland but was later Dover Corporation purchased the school.

In 1891 WG, who regularly attended St. Andrew’s Church, was appointed a churchwarden – a position he held for the next 34 years. In November that year he stood, unopposed, for the Town Council representing Castle Ward. At the time, the Ward had 4,362 electors and stretched from the seafront along the Dour almost to River. It was represented by two seats on the council.

Two years later WG fought the first of two elections that were contested. The first was a three cornered fight for the two seats with WG and another Conservative against Independent, Ernest Chitty. Both WG and Chitty were elected. In 1897 and 1900 only two candidates stood, WG and another Conservative. The 1904 election was the second one WG faced opposition and it was also the one that led to an official Hearing into the Great Dover Scandal!

To understand how this came about, we need to go back to the beginning of the nineteenth century. At that time, there were very little educational facilities for the poor folk of the town. However, as the century progressed, the Anglican Church provided most schools for the poor.

Barton Road School built by W G Lewis and opened in January 1898

Barton Road School built by W G Lewis and opened in January 1898

Following the Elementary Education Act of 1870, the government provided grants for elementary education but in Dover, the School Managers could not see the necessity of applying. The Church of England Schools Company was set up and raised funds for the building of Granville Street Boys’ School (1875), St Bartholomew’s School (1881), Charlton Girls’ School (1882 extended 1898) and the one that WG built, Barton Road Boys’ School (1898).

However, before the century was out an independent report stated that there was insufficient accommodation in Dover schools to meet government requirements. The schools in existence were poorly equipped, lacked playgrounds and were deficient in sanitary arrangements. The council was obliged to rectify matters. Of note, in 1871 the Roman Catholic Church in Maison Dieu Road had a school attached and in 1901, the Methodist Church in London Road opened with a school attached. Neither of these came in for criticism.

The 1902 Education Act established countywide Local Education Authorities (LEAs) in order to unify the elementary school system and Dover received a grant of £10,000 from the Kent LEA. With it came the recommendation that the council, through the rates system, provided a further £2,500 to bring Dover schools up to standard.

St Mary's Church, Cannon Street.

St Mary’s Church, Cannon Street.

There was an immediate and loud public outcry and when the Rector of St Mary’s Church recommended that a further £9,000 should be raised to build new schools at Elms Vale and at Buckland, he was advised to take a rest. He was then packed off to the south of France!

Nonetheless, the LEA agreed with the Rector and Dover Corporation was obliged to set up the Municipal Education Committee (MEC). They were to oversee the provision of elementary schools for 600 children up to the age of 13 in the Elms Vale area, 300 infants in the Buckland area and 50 places in the Pier District. At the time, the Conservatives were in power and headed by Sir William Crundall.

The Church of England Schools Company built Barton Road Infants (1902) and St Martin’s, Elms Vale (1903). These were classed as Church schools under the new Education Act even though administered by the MEC. The cost to the ratepayers of Dover was about 2d in the £. This, in itself, caused another public outcry that was only alleviated when the MEC announced that all head teachers in the borough had to be practising Anglicans and religious instruction was to conform to Anglican teachings.

The reaction to this was a furore of indignation by Dover’s Roman Catholic and Nonconformist communities … but this was ignored. Ernest Chitty, who had been elected as an Independent with WG in 1893, was also a local solicitor and an active Nonconformist. He set up a local paper called the Dover Times, in which he implied that the Conservatives, whom he referred to as the Crundall Party, entertained corrupt practices. He hoped that Crundall would sue so that he would be able to put over the frustrations of the Nonconformists in court. Crundall did not rise to the bait.

On 2 November 1904, municipal elections were held and WG stood for the Crundall Party in Castle Ward along with fellow Conservative, Arthur Walmisley. At the time, they were deputy Mayor and Mayor respectively and it was expected that the election would again be uncontested. However, at the last moment Ernest Chitty and Henry Edwin stood as Independents. Chitty was beaten by 24 votes and Edwin by 262.

Immediately, Chitty lodged a petition alleging that WG and Walmisley, by their agents, were guilty of questionable practices and claimed he had 200 witnesses. The practices he referred to included the, ‘illegal use of conveyances, bribery and treating’. Although accused of ‘malicious jealousy’ by the Crundall Party, (a phrase still favoured today by Dover’s local politicians against their adversaries),  Chitty pursued his claim.

The Government appointed George Sills, the Recorder of Lincoln, to Hear the case and because of the seriousness of the allegations, a Public Prosecutor was also appointed.

Former Dover Town Hall where the Hearing took place.

Former Dover Town Hall where the Hearing took place.

The Hearing took place at the then Town Hall, now the Maison Dieu, and lasted three days. It was well reported. Chitty stated that voters were given 2s (10p) to go to polling stations in carts covered with posters of the two Conservative candidates. These voters were picked up from Yeoman’s barber’s shop, 105, High Street; Primrose Hall, Union Road; Imperial Crown Inn, Tower Street and the Tower Inn, West Street.

None of the witnesses denied this; indeed their main contention was that they had been under-paid compared to previous occasions! It was evident that bribery was standard practice and Commissioner Sills found that bribes had been given in 43 cases. He declared the election void and both WG and Walmisley were barred from holding municipal office for three years.

The verdict appalled locals, not because of the scandal but because bribery was no longer allowed! They made there anger felt at the following bye-election for Castle Ward on 25 February. Chitty and Edwin were soundly thrashed by two new Crundall candidates. In the meantime, Sir William Crundall filled the post of Mayor.

WG remained a prominent member of the Dover Conservative Party and on the death of Alderman William Adcock, in 1907, he was elected Alderman. He remained an Alderman until November 1922 so never had to stand for election again. During those years WG was the Chairman of the Public Health Committee and, for a period, Chairman of the Overseers.

He was also appointed a Municipal Charter Trustee, a Manager of Buckland, Barton Road and Charlton Schools, and a member of the Dover Elementary and Higher Education Committees. As a member of the Committee of Dover’s Gordon Boys’ Orphanage, WG helped to reorganise the institution and in 1922 was appointed a Justice of the Peace.

W George Lewis 1850-1924 St Andrew's Church, Buckland

W George Lewis 1850-1924 St Andrew’s Church, Buckland

In November, that year WG was elected Mayor but his year in office was marked by the loss of his wife Ann, on 12 January 1923. Later, he became seriously ill requiring an operation that was carried out at the Dover Nursing Home, Coleman House. He never really seemed to recover but did return to his municipal duties. In February 1924, WG was made an Honorary Freeman but on Easter Monday, sitting as a Magistrate, he complained of a cold. The following day his condition deteriorated but managed to ring the Zeebrugger Bell on 23 April. However, WG he died on 2 May. WG is interred in the family vault at St Andrew’s Church, Buckland.

Following WG’s death, his old adversary, Ernest Chitty, gave a moving speech in which he described WG as a most kindly and courteous man and that he knew privately of his many benefactions and kindness to the poor people in the town.

  • Published:
  • Dover Mercury: 16 May 2013

About Lorraine

I am a local historian, whose love of Dover has lead to decades of research into some of the lesser known tales that this famous and beautiful town has to tell.
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