Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and Fraud Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

John Poulson, a third-rate modernist architect, bribed public officials to gain business contracts in the United Kingdom and around the globe. When his empire collapsed, his bankruptcy case revealed massive corruption that involved politicians from both political parties and at all levels of government.

Summary of Event

John Poulson was not a gifted architect, but he had drive and the ability to recognize talent, seek out the weaknesses of others, and exploit them fully to his benefit. Shortly after he left school as a youth in 1927, his father obtained a job for him with the architectural firm of Garside and Pennington in his hometown of Pontefract. The firm sent him to Leeds University to take classes part-time, but after three years he failed his exams. This did not impress the new owner of the business, and Poulson was fired. [kw]Poulson for Bribery and Fraud, Police Arrest Architect John (June 22, 1972) [kw]Bribery and Fraud, Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for (June 22, 1972) [kw]Fraud, Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and (June 22, 1972) Poulson, John Bribery;John Poulson[Poulson] Poulson, John Bribery;John Poulson[Poulson] [g]Europe;June 22, 1972: Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and Fraud[01410] [g]England;June 22, 1972: Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and Fraud[01410] [c]Business;June 22, 1972: Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and Fraud[01410] [c]Law and the courts;June 22, 1972: Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and Fraud[01410] [c]Corruption;June 22, 1972: Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and Fraud[01410] [c]Government;June 22, 1972: Police Arrest Architect John Poulson for Bribery and Fraud[01410] Smith, Thomas Daniel Butcher, Sir Herbert Pottinger, George Maudling, Reginald Thomas, Frank

In 1932, Poulson’s father gave him £50 and with it he established his own firm, eking out a living until World War II. Timing became the key to his success. If he had attempted to establish himself as an architect without credentials a few years later, the Royal Institute of British Architects Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) would have required him to pass his examinations to become a licensed architect. A medical deferment meant that he had less competition during the war, which in turn helped his business grow and allowed him to secure government contacts. His lack of skill led him to embrace the International Style of architecture, which used industrial and prefabricated materials. After 1945, traditional architecture was whole-heartedly rejected in favor of this new type of design.

Following World War II, the new Labour Party government sought to direct Great Britain’s limited resources to rebuilding, particularly in areas of high unemployment. Poulson began to make friends with members of the Labour Party and, through them, government officials. He had an uncanny ability to “invest” in individuals. George Pottinger was a good example of such an individual. A civil servant, he rose quickly through the ranks to become private secretary to the secretary of state of Scotland. Poulson lavished him with money, a home, suits, and multiple vacations. Graham Tunbridge was another contact. A surveyor for the eastern division of the new British Rail, he gave Poulson a few contracts for railwaymen’s cottages. Ten years later, Tunbridge oversaw 270,000 acres of land in the southern region and was more than willing to help the Yorkshire architect get railway contracts. While some of these schemes were never realized, Poulson still profited through commissions.

During the 1950’s, Poulson turned to the lucrative fields of town planning and urban revitalization. With the help of Thomas Daniel Smith, a Labour Party power broker, Poulson was able to bribe local politicians to secure contracts for schools, public housing, and town centers. Poulson earned a reputation for delivering on time and under budget. To do this, he worked his staff beyond reasonable limits, micromanaged each job site, and when he could, used the cheapest materials. In 1958, on the advice of his friend, Sir Herbert Butcher, Poulson established a servicing company to reduce his taxes and created an inclusive firm that covered every aspect of construction.

While Poulson’s power only seemed to grow, a series of events during the mid-1960’s led to his ruin. Every time the Yorkshire architect began a new venture, he seemed to start a new company. By the middle of the decade, he had more than six hundred employees, and it became increasingly impossible to keep track of quality control. He also was working with too many other firms at once, and on several occasions found two of his allies competing for the same project. While Poulson still won the bid, it did not endear him to others. Smith helped get him on a short list to redo the city center of Belfast, but the architect’s brusque manner cost him the contract. Afterward, Smith began to distance himself from Poulson. That same year, Labour won the general election and Butcher encouraged his friend to start building overseas. Unfortunately for Poulson, his mentor died in 1965, so he turned to former Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling as a replacement.

In 1966, Poulson became obsessed with building a hospital on Gozo, an island belonging to Malta. Many of his contacts were losing their usefulness, but he used this problem to attract new attention to himself. The RIBA, already concerned by Poulson’s business ethics, tried to prevent the deal, so the architect turned to Maudling. The Conservative member of Parliament (MP) succeeded in pressing his benefactor’s case, but it cost Poulson more than £30,000. He was now spending more than his profits just to win contracts. He had invested in a prefabricated design, the Open System Building, with Smith, which cost more than its competitors to construct.

In 1967, a civil war in Nigeria cost Poulson his most lucrative overseas contract. The next year, he lost roughly £150,000 in a failed hospital deal in Mexico. At this stage, Britain’s tax agency began to demand £234,000 in back taxes. Poulson was all but bankrupt, and by the end of 1969 the chief shareholders in his firms forced him out in a reorganization plan.

Poulson might have disappeared into obscurity if it had not been for £1,300. Frank Thomas had run Poulson’s London office and, like many others, sued his former employer. Poulson had kept meticulous files. He could have blackmailed all those he bribed. Instead, to avoid paying Thomas, Poulson decided in January, 1972, to seek bankruptcy for £1,300. It took six months to go through his papers. He survived the first hearing in June intact, but midway through the second hearing on July 3, he implicated Smith, Pottinger, and Maudling, who was now the British home secretary.

In the fall of 1972, Granada TV began an investigative piece about Poulson for its series World in Action. The episode, “Friends and Influence of John L. Poulson,” was scheduled to air January 29, 1973, but the Independent Broadcasting Authority pulled the program for fear of a libel Libel cases;and John L. Poulson[Poulson] suit. The episode was rescheduled for February 5 but was pulled again. Out of frustration, the staff at Granada showed a blank screen in its place. Under mounting pressure from all sides, the show finally aired as “The Rise and Fall of John Poulson” on April 30. Two months later, on June 22, the architect was arrested and charged with corruption.


Poulson was convicted on February 11, 1974. The case had taken fifty-two days, relied on the testimony of one hundred witnesses, and led to the conviction of twenty other individuals (nine councilors, four officials in national industries, three civil servants, two local government officers, a journalist, and a builder). Poulson received a sentence of seven years in prison; Smith got six years and Pottinger five.

For two years, Maudling succeeded in distancing himself from Poulson. Finally, the House of Commons launched an investigation in 1976. Maudling kept his seat but lost his position within the Conservative hierarchy. Until his death in 1979, he fought in the courts to prevent anything about the case or his involvement appearing in book form. Smith, Labour’s deputy prime minister, also lost his position. MP Albert Roberts successfully defended himself before the house, but another MP, John Cordle, chose to avoid more publicity and thus resigned. With Poulson, Smith, and Maudling dead by 1993, Peter Flannery wrote a fictionalized version of the architect’s career, which aired on British television as a nine-episode series in 1996. Poulson, John Bribery;John Poulson[Poulson]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fitzwalter, Raymond, and David Taylor. Web of Corruption: The Story of J. G. L. Poulson and T. Dan Smith. London: Granada, 1981. Fitzwalter, one of the journalists who uncovered the Poulson case, explores the complicated business dealings of Poulson and his co-conspirator Smith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gillard, Michael, and Martin Tomkinson. Nothing to Declare: The Political Corruptions of John Poulson. London: John Calder, 1980. Provides a detailed background on the major figures from the scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goddard, Peter. “Scandal at the Regulator.” Television (London), May, 2006. Discusses the attempts to prevent the Poulson special from airing on British television.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parris, Matthew, and Kevin Maguire. Great Parliamentary Scandals: Five Centuries of Calumny, Smear, and Innuendo. London: Robson Books, 2004. In a chapter on the corruption of politician Reginald Maulding, well-respected political journalists Parris and Maguire discuss the Poulson scandal.

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Categories: History