The rise and fall of Mr Newcastle

It's 30 years since corrupt architect John Poulson was jailed for his part in a corruption scandal which rocked the region and brought down many local and national political figures.

It's 30 years since corrupt architect John Poulson was jailed for his part in a corruption scandal which rocked the region and brought down many local and national political figures.


At the peak of his career in the early 1960s, John Poulson appeared to be an honest, hard-working architect, whose dedication had paid off and given him the control of a multi-million pound building empire.

But when he declared himself bankrupt a decade later, it was revealed he was the man responsible for one of the biggest corruption scandals Britain had ever known.

Former leader of Newcastle City Council - and one of the most famous politicians in the country - T Dan Smith, was also dragged into the glare of public scrutiny when the scandal exploded.

He was just one of a number of councillors, officials and senior civil servants - including Alderman Andrew Cunningham, once chairman of Durham Police Authority and said at the time to be the most powerful man in the country - who accepted bribes in return for putting lucrative building contracts Poulson's way.

Both Smith and Cunningham were charged with corruption, and at their trial at Leeds Crown Court in 1974, the judge said the pair had "disgraced local government", leading many people to associate the North-East's local councils with dishonesty.

On April 26, 1974, Smith was jailed for six years for his connection with Poulson - of which he served just over three years.

The sentence of Cunningham, father of MP Jack Cunningham, was reduced on appeal from five to four years, but he was later paroled after serving two years.

Poulson paid a price for his success - achieved by bribery, backhanders and a network of contacts "bought up" for later use - when he was jailed for seven years on corruption charges on March 11, 1974.

He left prison three years later a broken man. Joe Bulch, who was a detective sergeant with Newcastle City Police when the scandal broke, worked on the case for four years.

"All of the research and the appropriate documents to the case were held at Scotland Yard, so I remember spending quite a bit of time there," says the 70-year-old, who has now retired to North-West Scotland.

"My job was to take a load of statements from council officials. There was a massive investigation into it.

"The whole of the region was shocked, but some would say T Dan Smith did an awful lot for the city. A lot of what we have now in Newcastle is down to him, like the Civic Centre.

"I don't really think it created a bad image of the region, but people my age definitely remember it because it affected the whole of the country as well as the North-East."

T Dan Smith was born in 1915, to a miner and local Socialist activist. He later left school to become an apprentice painter and decorator.

Then he joined the International Labour Party and threw himself into the task of opposing the "imperialist" nature of the Second World War.

In 1950, he became Councillor T Dan Smith.

His manifesto at the time read that he was "deeply conscious of the appalling housing conditions of the city".

Soon after work started to rebuild Newcastle city centre - which included the planning of new roads and a scheme to replace the old town hall with a Civic Centre.

Labelled "Mr Newcastle", Smith spoke of turning the city into "the Brasilia of the North." And he was aware he could make good use of his contacts, so he expanded into the public relations business.

It was this which led him to meet Yorkshire architect John Poulson, who had his own building firm and wanted to get his projects off the ground.

The pair agreed to work together, with Smith using his contacts in local government circles across the country to generate millions of pounds for Poulson's design and building firm.

Things began to go wrong for Smith when in 1972 the controversy over possible corruption surfaced during bankruptcy proceedings against Poulson.

He revealed he had paid £150,000 to Smith from 1960 to 1965.

Poulson claimed he couldn't remember why, but his network of corruption was revealed following an extensive nationwide investigation.

Theresa Russell, who was a Labour councillor in Scotswood, Newcastle, for 54 years and served under Smith's leadership, believes the scandal should never have happened.

"It didn't give our region a very good name," says the 94-year-old former Lord Mayor of Newcastle.

"Newcastle especially always had a very good reputation and people were a little bit upset about the whole thing.

"I felt sorry for Dan because he was a very clever man and he was extremely kind.

"He was foolish getting involved with Poulson - who was to blame for things. I think Dan brought a lot to the region.

"He got rid of all the houses at St Mary's Place years ago and built the Civic Centre. He pulled down all of the blocks of flats there."

Ironically, Poulson's empire collapsed when he could not find a mere £1,300 to hold off his creditors, and when he filed for bankruptcy, his debts were an estimated £250,000.

They later grew to £600,000.

Despite leaving school with no qualifications, he first set up his own architectural practice in Pontefract, West Yorkshire, in the 1930s.

His business flourished during the 1950s and 1960s as he extended his range of contacts, including councils, and at his height he was earning more than £1m a year.

His first North-East job was a factory on the Team Valley Estate, Gateshead, and over the years he was reported to have received fees of up to £800,000 for his work in the region.

That included designing a new divisional police headquarters for Sunderland, and Hilltop House and Denton Park - two 15-storey flat blocks in a housing scheme planned by a partnership of Newcastle City Council, Newburn Urban Council and Northumberland County Council. When his reputation crumbled in the early 1970s after he filed for bankruptcy, many political figures were investigated.

The inquiry not only led to Smith's downfall and his conviction, but also to the arrest of senior civil servant George Pottinger.

Conservative Home Secretary Reginald Maudling was also forced to resign in 1972 - but after a five-year battle, his name was cleared in 1977.

Both T Dan Smith and John Poulson died in 1993, but their names will always be linked to the corruption scandal, dubbed "The Poulson Affair."

Many would argue Smith was an inspirational campaigner for the development of the region, and a highly respected man whose only mistake was agreeing to work with Poulson.

Theresa Russell, who lives in Gosforth, Newcastle, is quick to describe T Dan Smith as "foolish" - but unfortunately it was this which cost him both his career and reputation.


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer