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John Poulson
Born April 14, 1910(1910-04-14)
Pontefract, Yorkshire
Died January 31, 1993 (aged 82)
Leeds, West Yorkshire
Occupation Architect (Not Qualified)
Religious beliefs Methodist
Spouse(s) None

John Garlick Llewellyn Poulson (April 14, 1910 - January 31, 1993) was a British architect and Freemason who caused a major political scandal when his use of bribery and connections to senior politicians were disclosed in 1972. The highest-ranking figure to be forced out was Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling. Poulson served a jail sentence, but continued to protest his innocence, claiming that he was "a man more sinned against than sinning".[1]

Contents

Family and early life

Poulson came from a strict Methodist family and inherited a strong faith which stressed the importance of self-help. Intellectually he was "bright but not outstanding", but left school without qualifications and was failing in an architecture course at Leeds Polytechnic when he dropped out in 1927 to work for a Pontefract architects' practice. Poulson was sacked from this company when it was taken over in 1932, because of his tendency to get the elevations of designs he was working on the wrong way round.

Though never a formally qualified architect, because as he later claimed "I was too busy to complete my examinations", Poulson surprisingly decided at the age of 22 to establish his own practice above a bank in Pontefract with two 16-year-old assistants; his forceful father Charles, a Methodist lay preacher, provided funding to help them through the depression. Poulson soon began to cultivate contacts in the local borough council and officials at the larger West Riding county authority. Work soon began to arrive and Poulson told friends that he was "on his way". Poulson also became politically involved with the National Liberals, although never let political differences stop him from making friends who were in charge of commissioning public buildings.

Post-war business

Manasseh, Poulson's former residence

Poulson obtained a medical exemption during World War II and used it to increase his business. However he was an uncaring employer who frequently demanded heavy commitment from his staff, and sacked them for trivial offences (such as growing a beard) and often in the run-up to Christmas. He had his own firm build him a house called 'Manasseh' at a cost of £60,000, helped by building contractors donating services for free in the hope of getting contracts in the future. The house won the 'Ideal Homes' House of the Year competition in 1958. When Poulson's problems caught up with him in later life, he sold the house to a young couple for just over half the build cost.

The ambitious Poulson found the accepted architectural method of completing a design then handing it over for costing, planning and building too slow and cumbersome and so he developed a combined architecture and design empire - an all-in-one service with his own valuation estimate - which housed all the separate disciplines under one roof under his control. This practice saved time for developers and ensured that his business grew, at its peak employing 750 people - one of the largest in Europe at the time. He was later to admit that the practice expanded "beyond my wildest dreams" and offices were opened in London, Middlesbrough, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Edinburgh, Beirut and Lagos.

Local authorities

Poulson's Leeds International Swimming Pool, opened in 1966

In 1958 the National Liberal MP Sir Herbert Butcher advised his friend Poulson to set up a servicing company to win business for his architect's practice. Poulson established Ropergate Services Ltd., named after the street in Pontefract where he was based. This company also had the advantage of reducing Poulson's tax liability considerably. The late 1950s saw a building boom as Britain had finally shaken off post-war austerity and many local authorities embarked on major building schemes. Notable among them was Newcastle upon Tyne where dynamic leader T. Dan Smith wanted to set his mark on the city.

Smith's desire to redevelop Newcastle attracted the attention of the construction firm Bovis which had worked for Poulson. Bovis' managing director suggested formalising links and in February 1962 Smith was appointed as a consultant to the Poulson organisation. This connection was extremely valuable to Poulson as Smith had a network of contacts among other authorities in the north-east, many of which were also recruited as Poulson consultants. Smith's involvement with the Labour Party reassured many Labour councillors wary of dealing with someone involved in the Conservative-allied National Liberals.

Poulson also found a useful contact in Andrew Cunningham, a senior figure in both the General and Municipal Workers Union and the Labour Party in north east England. Some of Poulson's largest residential blocks were built in Cunningham's home town of Felling, County Durham. Cunningham would later go to jail for his dealings with the architect.

Nationalised industries

Cannon Street station, a Poulson building
City House (originally British Railways House) over Leeds City station was a Poulson building design built in 1962.

Poulson was also in a good position to win work for the nationalised industries, partly due to his having offered gifts to many civil servants when they were relatively junior and calling upon them for a return of gratitude years in the future. As an example Poulson had met Graham Tunbridge, a railway employee, during the war. After the nationalisation of British Rail Tunbridge became estates surveyor for its Eastern Region and sent Poulson several contracts for modernisation of station-master's homes. When Tunbridge became Estates and Rating Surveyor for BR Southern Region, Poulson moved on to contracts at Waterloo station, Cannon Street station and East Croydon station. In return, Poulson had at first supplied Tunbridge with £25 weekly, and later loaned him a Rover car.

Another productive contact was Scottish Office civil servant George Pottinger, who in the late 1950s was put in charge of a £3 million redevelopment of Aviemore as a winter sports complex. Poulson gave Pottinger gifts worth over £30,000 over six years, and was appointed by Pottinger as architect in charge of the Aviemore project. Pottinger also had a degree of political knowledge and skill which Poulson lacked and drafted political speeches for the architect.

Poulson's connections with the National Liberals began to give him political advancement in the early 1960s. He was Vice-Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Liberal Council from 1961 and frequently hosted National Liberal events in London at which he met senior government ministers, where Pottinger's speeches were impressive. He also made contact with the Labour MP Albert Roberts, for whom Poulson designed a house (free of charge). Roberts had useful contacts with the Portuguese government and was offered a consultancy by Poulson at £2,500 per annum.

Overseas work

Poulson was increasingly interested in obtaining commissions outside Britain in the mid-1960s. This required making more contacts. The Conservative MP John Cordle had extensive contacts in West Africa and after helping on several small contracts, in 1965 became a consultant to Poulson at £1,000 per annum. However, Cordle's approaches to governments in Nigeria, The Gambia and Libya proved unfruitful. Cordle unwisely wrote a letter outlining everything he had done for Poulson, which was ultimately to doom his Parliamentary career.

Maudling

Another contact was the then Shadow Commonwealth Secretary Reginald Maudling, whom Poulson knew from his National Liberal activities. Maudling was anxious to build up a business career to keep up his income and Poulson needed a big name as Chairman of one of his companies, Construction Promotion. In 1966 Maudling accepted an offer to be Chairman for £5,000 per annum. In addition, Maudling's son Martin, who had left Oxford University without taking a degree, went to work for another Poulson company. Poulson agreed to donate large sums of money to a charity patronised by Maudling's wife.

In return, Maudling helped to bring pressure on the government of Malta to award a £1.5 million contract for the new Victoria Hospital on Gozo to Poulson. In Parliament, Maudling vociferously opposed the plans of the Labour government to reduce the amount of defence spending and number of UK troops on Malta. He traded on the goodwill this created to bring extra pressure, and also changed Conservative Party policy so that overseas development assistance to Malta would be 75% grant and 25% loan instead of the even split which the Labour government had introduced.

Financial trouble

Poulson's business model was initially highly successful and, at its apogee, was making an annual turnover of £1 million; he himself admitted to being a millionaire. However, it was consuming more contract work than was becoming available, and Poulson resorted to tackling these difficulties by bribing and corrupting local councillors, local authority officials and civil servants at all levels. This was an expensive strategy and Poulson later estimated that he "gave away" about £500,000 in the last few years of his involvement in the business.

As part of his attempts to get noticed, Poulson had become a local Commissioner of Taxes. However his own tax payments were seriously in deficit by the mid-1960s, mainly due to his extravagance on consultancies and gifts. In January 1968 the Inland Revenue finally decided to sue Poulson; on November 18, 1968, they obtained judgment in their favour for £211,639. Poulson struggled on, but in June 1969 his staff confronted him with the fact that he was approaching bankruptcy. He attempted to recoup cash he had poured into subsidiary companies, which alerted his consultants that all was not well. Maudling and his son quietly resigned in November 1969.

On December 31, 1969, Poulson was formally removed from control of J.G.L. Poulson and Associates. On November 9, 1971, he filed his own bankruptcy petition revealing debts of £247,000. The bankruptcy hearings in Spring 1972 were assisted by Poulson's meticulous record-keeping which detailed his payments and gifts. Poulson's generosity drew the comment from Muir Hunter QC during the bankruptcy proceedings that "[i]n fact, Mr Poulson, you were distributing largesse like Henry VIII". The bankruptcy hearing also revealed Poulson's love for a lavish lifestyle and his penchant for rubbing shoulders with senior figures in the establishment. This desire to show his financial superiority over others only served to highlight his true character as a lonely, friendless and insecure person. Interestingly, one of Poulson's biggest creditors was the Inland Revenue to which he owed around £200,000. Whilst the Revenue were pressing Poulson for payment of this amount, he was himself presiding over debt hearings in Wakefield in his role as a Commissioner of Inland Revenue.

It swiftly became apparent that Poulson was at the centre of a massive corruption scandal, and in July 1972, the Metropolitan Police began an investigation for fraud. This precipitated the resignation of Reginald Maudling, then Home Secretary and notionally in charge of the police.

Dénouement

On June 22, 1973, Poulson was arrested and charged with corruption in connection with the award of building contracts. Following a 52-day trial at Leeds Crown Court which was widely reported in the press, he was convicted on February 11, 1974, of fraud and jailed for five years (later increased to seven years). Sentencing him, the judge called Poulson an "incalculably evil man". For his part, Poulson denied the charges, saying "I have been a fool, surrounded by a pack of leeches. I took on the world on its own terms, and no one can deny I once had it in my fist". Many of his contacts, notably T. Dan Smith and George Pottinger, were similarly convicted and jailed, though not the three MPs: it was found that there was a legal loophole through which Members of Parliament could not be considered as in charge of public funds. The Poulson scandals did much to force the House of Commons to initiate a Register of Members' Interests. A subsequent Select Committee inquiry which reported in 1977 found that all three had indulged in "conduct inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members". Cordle was forced to resign although the Commons then voted only to 'take note' of the Committee's report rather than endorsing it.

After serving periods in Armley Gaol, Wakefield and Oakham jails, Poulson was released on May 13, 1977, from Lincoln Prison. His bankruptcy was discharged, with creditors receiving 10p in the pound, in 1980. A condition of the discharge was that half the proceeds of his autobiography would go to his creditors; the resulting book, The Price, gives his side of the corruption scandal and maintains his innocence. Only a few copies of the book remain in circulation as it was withdrawn and pulped by the publishers through fear of libel actions. Throughout the rest of his life Poulson insisted that he was simply developing advanced public relations and consulting techniques.

The trial at Leeds Crown Court lasted 52 days, and cost an estimated £1.25 million. Defending Poulson, QC Donald Herrod, said "He has nothing to live for and his abiding fear is that he will never complete his sentence because of ill health".[2] However Donald Herrod later described his client as "hypocritical, self-righteous and perhaps something of a megalomaniac".

Contribution

Among buildings designed by Poulson are the City House (1962) and International Pool (1965-1968), both in Leeds, and Forster House, Bradford, which was demolished in 2005 as part of the Forster Square redevelopment.

In an indirect way, Poulson did make a contribution to the UK's broadcasting culture. A special edition of the investigative ITV series World in Action, The Friends and Influence of John L Poulson, became a cause célèbre in the debate about the power of Britain's television regulators to interfere with broadcast journalism. The Poulson programme was banned by the then regulator, the ITA, even though its members had not seen it. A furious debate followed in which newspapers as varied as The Sunday Times and Socialist Worker united in calling for an end to such "censorship". Granada Television, the makers of World In Action, broadcast a blank screen as a protest against the banning. There was some irony in this: the editor of World in Action was Raymond Fitzwalter who earlier, as deputy news editor of the Telegraph & Argus in Bradford, had led an investigation into Poulson's activities, which the newspaper published. Eventually, after the film was shown to the ITA, it was transmitted on April 30, 1973, three months late, and under a different title, The Rise And Fall of John Poulson. [1]

The 1996, BBC television drama serial Our Friends in the North, written by Peter Flannery, contains a character, John Edwards, who is closely based on Poulson, played by Geoffrey Hutchings. One of the reasons the production took so long to reach the screen – Flannery had originally written it for the stage in 1982 – was the fear of the BBC that Poulson and others fictionalised in the drama might take legal action. In the event, the deaths of Poulson and T. Dan Smith in 1993 finally allowed the production to commence.

References

  1. ^ John Poulson The Price, Michael Joseph, 1981
  2. ^ 1974: Architect jailed over corruption
  • Nothing to declare: The Political Corruptions of John Poulson by Michael Gillard (John Calder, London 1980)
  • The Price by John Poulson (Michael Joseph, London 1981)
  • Web of Corruption: The Full Story of John Poulson and T. Dan Smith by Raymond Fitzwalter and David Taylor (Granada, London 1981)
  • John Poulson by Owen Luder in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • John Poulson; Obituary, The Times, 4 February 1993, p. 19
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