The forum is a space for readers’ thoughts and comments. This is your opportunity to have your say on A Most Deliberate Swindle, the electrobus, associated frauds or to contribute fresh information. Inevitably our view of Edwardian history has become a little more fuzzy as the years have passed. Memories fade and documents vanish. So here to start the ball rolling is a photographic poser.

The image on the right was taken at a photoshoot prior to the press launch of the prototype electrobus on the morning of 18 April 1906. The original photograph does not have a caption. The electrobus is on the Embankment, close to the rear entrance of the Hotel Cecil, where the press would later have lunch and toast the success of the electrobus. The figure sitting inside the bus to the left of the driver is Edward Ernest Lehwess, the originator of the swindle. The party on the bus includes some small boys, so this may have been a little jaunt for the workers who had assembled the prototype and their children. The smart bowler-hatted man on the top deck, leaning slightly over the rail to make sure he was in the shot, looks as though it could be Ernest Rowbottom, who was closely associated with the development of the electrobus. The identify of the others is unknown. Logically if the passengers were going to the press lunch one of these figures is likely to be the “Baron” de Martigny. But which one is he? And can anyone identify the others?

Kit Houghton writes: I’ve been reading your fascinating book “A most deliberate swindle”. I have a personal interest as James Spencer Orr was my grand father. I had a slight inkling of the scandal but the chicanery that went on is appalling. He was never spoken of by my mother and I have spent some time on and off researching him…there is a good summary on this site about the Orr Family in Hove.

I discovered that he was in debt to a notorious money lender Louis Nathan Levene. James absconded to South Africa. Family gossip is he changed identities on board ship and continued to Australia. There is though a grave in his name in Robertson, South Africa which I have visited but I have no idea if it’s him in there.

My reason for writing is to ask if you have any more information on him and perhaps how he got involved in the Electrobus scandal.

Mick Hamer replies: Many thanks for your email and the link to your very interesting website. I didn’t know anything about Levene, but this kind of debt certainly made your grandfather very vulnerable to dodgy get-rich-quick schemes.

James Spencer Orr, pictured in Brighton around 1900. Photo courtesy of Kit Houghton

James Spencer Orr was the promoter of the Edinburgh and District Motor Omnibus Company. On 9 February 1906 he signed a number of contracts in connection with this promotion, William Longman, of Securities Exchange, lent him the money to finance the promotion. In April 1906 he became a director of the London Electrobus Company and resigned on 15 May 1906. Lehwess and Longman were closely involved with both companies. Orr doesn’t seems to have severed his connection with the Edinburgh company. According to both his contract and Motor Finance (27 March 1907) Orr was paid £6,663 6s 8d for promoting the Edinburgh company. However, it doesn’t follow that he received all this money, or indeed any of it. Most of it probably went to Longman.

Levene does feature in the Truth Cautionary List, which described him as a “ruthless extortioner”. For a number of years he operated out of 35 Old Bond Street under the name of R Leslie. “Not a little of his business is done with improvident heirs,” says Truth. I doubt if your grandfather stood much of a chance once Levene had him in his clutches. It is always possible that Levene had some sort of a connection with Longman, but I don’t know of one. My reading of the evidence is that Orr was a bit of a pawn in all this. Naive, I think, rather than culpable.

Mike Sutcliffe writes: It is an excellent and thoroughly researched book. I am interested in the vehicles themselves:
I believe that the bodies on all of the electrobuses were built by Brown & Hughes (later became Strachan & Brown). Can this be confirmed and do you know the seating capacities of each bus?

Mick Hamer replies:  The body of the prototype was built by T H Lewis of Chalk Farm. The frontispiece photo (reproduced above) is of the prototype. Brown and Hughes did build some of the bodies, but not all of them. The image (right) of a 1908 electrobus has  distinctive ironwork at the back of the rear platform, behind the stairs. The London Transport Museum has a picture of a Vanguard bus with very similar ironwork. The body builder of the Vanguard bus is Bayleys of Newington Causeway (by the Elephant and Castle). On the high-resolution image of the electrobus with a covered top (on page 133) it is just about possible to read the name of the body builder: it is J Liversidge, a company based in the Old Kent Road. So the evidence points to several different coachbuilders having built the bodies. The seating capacity was 34, with 16 inside and 18 on top. And just to complete the story Wolseley made the chassis.

Dave Bubier writes: An absolutely fascinating read and for those of who research the pre-WW1 development of road passenger transport an object lesson in the need to look into the wider aspects surrounding the numerous abortive proposals of the period. There were some incredible characters. One that I have chased for some years must surely be on the Truth Cautionary List. Edgar Antrobus MacKenzie was a small time chancer at the turn of the 20th century who floated several companies that failed before getting into promoting a bus company in 1905 that would owe promotional fees to another of his enterprises. At the time he was an undischarged bankrupt but before he could be brought to justice he abandoned his wife and children and fled to the USA. He returned a year or so later as ‘Edward Montagu’ with a new ‘wife’ and several children, setting up yet another company in conjunction with John Douglas-Scott Montagu from whom he then purloined some items and was prosecuted.

Mick Hamer replies: Edgar Antrobus MacKenzie certainly sounds like an interesting character. There were quite a few similar chancers around at the time. I have checked the Truth Cautionary List and unfortunately I can’t find any mention of him, but the listing isn’t comprehensive.

Michael Edwards writes: I very much enjoyed reading your book. In the last couple of years I have published a couple of books on De Dion Bouton motor cars for the period from 1899-1904 and from 1905 -1914. At present I am researching book on De Dion Bouton tricycles and quadricycles for 1895-1902. Harry Lawson secured the licence to manufacture De Dion Bouton vehicles in the UK, which he did in modest quantities before ultimately selling out to S F Edge for a pittance. I have struggled to acquire any detailed financial information on Lawson’s companies and I wondered whether you might have come across any details during your own research?

Mick Hamer replies: Probably the most relevant article I have is the hatchet job in Motor Finance: “Mr S F Edge’s benefit” (13 March 1907, pp 201-203). It comes with a health warning: Motor Finance was run by Edward Beall who was clearly trying (and probably succeeding) to blackmail Edge. If you haven’t done so already I’d try the files on De Dion Bouton in the National Archives (especially the J 13 files which have to be ordered two or three days in advance). There’s some useful background in David Kynaston’s book the City of London, vol 2. He has a bit about Lawson and Edge, who he calls “a semi-villain”. Apart from that it’d be worth searching the Financial Times archives and issues of the Automotor Journal (Grace’s Guide has the indexes online) and seeing where that leads.

Lehwess’s Motor Car Emporium had the rights to sell De Dion buses from about 1905 to 1907. I don’t know if these were exclusive rights. There’s more about this in the entry about the Motor Car Emporium on Grace’s Guide.

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