Comment: Fifty shades of The Aspley Guise Gasworks

William Swain
William Swain
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I JUST don’t believe it.

Apparently some salacious tome entitled ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ has become a publishing sensation, while that equally riveting read, ‘The Aspley Guise and Woburn Sands Gasworks, The Early Years,’ has shifted barely a copy.

So to introduce readers to some of the titillation they’ve been missing here follows a much condensed extract.

In 1878 William Swain travelled from Birmingham to Woburn Sands to be interviewed for the position of gas works manager. Successful in his application he was engaged to start in mid September, but despite being vouched for as ‘thoroughly honest, steady and trustworthy,’ the truth would soon prove different.

Indeed he shortly rendered his resignation and in fact ‘William Swain’ was just one of several aliases used by William Milner Barratt, who was born at Swinefleet around 1848. It seems it was in 1876 that he first strayed from the straight and narrow, for during that year he was charged with fraud at Wakefield.

From Woburn Sands, William found employment at Swindon but soon lapsed into his old ways by obtaining the original plate for printing his employer’s shares, taking it to London, having more shares printed, forging the names of several managers, and then disposing of the shares as his own property.

During the trial in his defence it was stated that he had excellent testimonials although that for fifteen years’ good service turned out to have been written by his father. Concluding the matter he was given a five years sentence and three years later sought a new life in Australia, arriving at Victoria on January 4, 1888 with his wife and children. A daughter was born in July in Port Fairy (earlier known as Belfast) and from 40 applicants it was here that he got a job as gasworks stoker.

Yet he soon tendered his resignation and in consequence appeared in court the following month for fraud. This misdemeanour had involved placing an advert for a ‘Clerk and Bookkeeper’ asking for a £50 cash security – ‘On the £50 deposit we pay five per cent interest and the agreement is terminable and deposit returned on month’s notice either side.’

Of course this was pure baloney and one of those conned swiftly issued a warrant for Barratt’s arrest. He received a sentence of three months’ hard labour but after his release successfully applied for the position of gas manager of the Borough of Sale gasworks.

However, this didn’t last long because he was soon arrested for obtaining money by false pretences, albeit having still collected the gas rates without authority after he resigned.

After more colourful pursuits he successfully applied for the role of foreman of the Dandenong Shire Gas and Coke Company but during this employ on July 1, 1894 the supply of gas was suddenly cut off in the middle of the church services. In typical ‘it weren’t me Guv’ fashion he blamed this on the poor state of the works, writing in the local press ‘permit me to state that had my advice been followed, the company could never have appeared in the ridiculous light (or darkness) they have appeared induring the last month.’

Not surprisingly his employment with the gas company soon ended. During his time at Dandenong, William became involved with the Wesleyan church. He even aspired to become a local preacher but his behaviour, aggravated not least by drinking, soon lead to his removal.

More colourful episodes then followed, including a spell in jail in 1899 for having conned a group of Geelong businessmen into financing a successful gold mine – which didn’t exist.

By the time they realised, he was long gone. However he was eventually arrested – at a jail where he had just finished a separate sentence for fraud. Barratt died of pneumonia in Geelong five months after his release in 1906, but perhaps this was another confidence trick, for his grave in the Eastern Cemetery is unmarked.

Altogether quite a story, so regarding the secrets of publishing success perhaps I should get in touch with E.L. James. But then judging by her recent output I expect she’s rather tied up at the moment.