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I have always wanted a hamper for Christmas and this year, we ordered one and enjoyed a wonderful moment unwrapping the shiny packaging to uncover the delights hidden in the beribboned basket. In 1877, food lovers all over the country also looked forward to their festive goodies arriving in the post.

In the months preceding Christmas, advertisements had appeared in local newspapers throughout Britain offering hampers ‘of choice wines and spirits’ for the discounted price of £2 or £1, depending on preferred size. All the eager shoppers had to do was to send a cheque or a post office order to ‘Bentley, Kemp and Co’, whose premises were in the centre of Birmingham. More than 800 people responded to the offer and then waited for their luxury hamper in anticipation. As Christmas drew nearer and the hampers failed to appear, they began to realise that they had been conned.

In January 1878, James Bentley and his two ‘business partners’ were indicted in Birmingham Police Court on 20 counts of defrauding persons throughout the country. When the police had searched their premises, there had been no trace of wine, spirits or any festive items, yet they had received orders to the value of £650. According to the prosecution, the affair was ‘a gigantic swindle’. Bentley was convicted and sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude. But this wasn’t the end to his criminal career.

A former clerk to the police, James Bentley, known as ‘Big Jim’ had committed his first offence in Sheffield in 1871, where he had served two months for possession of a stolen watch. Following a shaky start to his illicit activities, he became such a successful conman that he even owned a country residence.

Several years and swindles later, when a false cheque was presented in a bank in Manchester, a description of two men given to the police. Detective Caminada immediately recognised the perpetrator and arrested Big Jim. Confidant after years of practice, Bentley claimed that he had merely taken a gentleman to the bank and it was he who exchanged the cheque. This time he was discharged due to insufficient evidence. Detective Caminada didn’t hold a grudge against Big Jim and recorded in his memoirs: ‘many a hearty laugh he and I have had over the affair. He used to tell me that if he could pick up a couple of thousands “he would not trouble me any more”‘.

I don’t know whether Big Jim picked up his thousands and all that remains is for me to wish you all a very merry Christmas – may you avoid being swindled out of your festive goodies!

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