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In December 1937, four respectable young men in their twenties, all products of elite English public schools, conspired to lure to the luxurious Hyde Park Hotel a representative of Cartier, the renowned jewelry firm. There, the "Mayfair men" brutally bludgeoned diamond salesman Etienne Bellenger and made off with eight rings that today would be worth approximately half a million pounds. Such well-connected young people were not supposed to appear in the prisoner’s dock at the Old Bailey. Not surprisingly, the popular newspapers had a field day responding to the public’s insatiable appetite for news about the upper-crust rowdies and their unsavory pasts.

In Playboys and Mayfair Men, Angus McLaren recounts the violent robbery and sensational trial that followed. He uses the case as a hook to draw the reader into a revelatory exploration of key interwar social issues, from masculinity and cultural decadence to broader anxieties about moral decay. In his gripping depiction of Mayfair’s celebrity high life, McLaren describes the crime in detail, as well as the police investigation, the suspects, their trial, and the aftermath of their convictions.
Year:
2017
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Language:
english
Pages:
273
ISBN 10:
1421423472
ISBN 13:
9781421423470
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PDF, 11.09 MB
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Playboys and Mayfair Men

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Playboys and Mayfair Men
C R I M E , C L A S S , M A S C U L I N IT Y, A N D FA S C I S M
I N 193 0 s LO N D O N

Angus McLaren

Johns Hopkins University Press ​/ ​Baltimore

© 2017 Johns Hopkins University Press
All rights reserved. Published 2017
Printed in the United States of Amer­i­ca on acid-­f ree paper
9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Johns Hopkins University Press
2715 North Charles Street
Baltimore, Mary­land 21218​-­4363
www​.­press​.­jhu​.­edu
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: McLaren, Angus, author.
Title: Playboys and Mayfair men : crime, class, masculinity, and
fascism in 1930s London / Angus McLaren.
Description: Baltimore, Maryland : Johns Hopkins University
Press, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2017004265 | ISBN 9781421423470
(hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 9781421423487 (electronic) |
ISBN 1421423472 (hardcover : alk. paper) | ISBN 1421423480
(electronic)
Subjects: LCSH: Robbery—England—London—Case studies. |
Violent crimes—England—London—Case studies. |
Criminals—England—London—Case studies. | Social classes—
England—London—History—20th century. | London
(England)—Social conditions—20th century.
Classification: LCC HV6665.G72 M35 2017 | DDC
364.15/5209421—dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2017004265
A cata­log rec­ord for this book is available from the British Library.
Special discounts are available for bulk purchases of this book. For more
information, please contact Special Sales at 410-­516-­6936 or
specialsales@press​.­jhu​.­edu​.­
Johns Hopkins University Press uses environmentally friendly book
materials, including recycled text paper that is composed of at least
30 ­percent post-­consumer waste, whenever pos­si­ble.

Contents

Acknowl­edgments ​vii
Introduction ​1
Part I: The Crime ​13

Part II: The Context ​83

1. The Robbery ​15
2. The Investigation ​25
3. The Suspects ​37
4. The Trial ​54
5. The Aftermath ​68

6. Pain ​85
7. Masculinity ​106
8. ; Crime ​134
9. Class ​157
10. Fascism ​175

Epilogue ​197
Notes ​209
Index ​255

This page intentionally left blank

Acknowl­edgments

When I first came across newspaper accounts of the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery, I
was puzzled to read that the villains had attacked their victim with a “life preserver.” For Americans a life preserver (or life jacket) is a flotation device. My
difficulty in understanding what the papers meant by the phrase proved once
more the truth of the line (often attributed to George Bernard Shaw) “The En­
glish and the Americans are two p
­ eoples divided by a common language.” I soon
discovered a “life preserver” in 1930s Britain was a truncheon, or what North
Americans would call a “blackjack.” Helpfully, the Oxford En­glish Dictionary
notes that Anthony Trollope and Arthur Conan Doyle often used the term. The
life preserver (cudgel, baton, truncheon, cosh, nightstick, or bludgeon) was a
short club, heavi­ly loaded with a lead weight at one end and a strap or lanyard at
the other. Easily concealed, it was purportedly designed for self-­defense, hence
the name “life preserver.” A single forceful blow could cause concussion and
even prove fatal. The type of weapon used in the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery was
of scant ­legal importance. Nevertheless my stumbling over the curious term
“life preserver” pricked my curiosity and drew me to the case. And as I tracked
the jewel thieves through police reports and press accounts, I realized, to my
surprise and excitement, that an investigation of the public response to their
misdeeds offered a fresh perspective on many aspects of 1930s British society.
But should I devote a book-­length study to the misdeeds of wastrels and
scoundrels? George Orwell, who warned that the author was besmirched by
the material he handled, might well have viewed even the desire to launch such
a proj­ect as betraying “a kind of spiritual inadequacy.”* Friends and colleagues
* So Orwell said of Cyril Connolly for writing The Rock Pool (1936). See George Orwell: An
Age Like This: 1920–1940, in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, ed.
Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968), 1:226.

viii  Acknowl­
edgments

­ ere more understanding. Taking time out of their busy schedules, Lucy
w
Bland, Stephen Brooke, Brian Dippie, Jack L
­ ittle, and Nikki Strong-­Boag read
early versions of the entire manuscript. Adrian Bingham shared his unrivaled
knowledge of the interwar press. I owe special thanks to Robert Nye. He not
only read several drafts, but his enthusiastic support of the study also lifted my
spirits when, like many authors, I reached that stage of wondering ­whether the
proj­ect made any sense at all. I am also grateful to Judith Allen, Peter Bailey,
Paul Delany, Catherine Ellis, Michael Finn, Matt Houlbrook, Jim Kempling,
Kathy Mezei, Tom Saunders, and Tim Travers for peppering me with ideas
and suggestions. Terence Greer offered to help with the cover illustration.
More contributions came from Susannah and Richard Taffler and Aimée and
Michael Birnbaum, who ­were, in addition, wonderful hosts during my repeated
stays in London.
I owe much to the helpful staffs of the National Archives, the Archives of
Kent State University, Wellington College Archives, Harrow School Archives,
Oundle School Archives, the libraries at the University of Victoria, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, and the British Library. Jaimee McRoberts at the British Library News Room was particularly
considerate. Willi Lauri Ahonen generously translated a Finnish passage for
me; Tineke Hellwig and Dick Unger did the same from the Dutch. Jill Ainsley
was an imaginative and industrious research assistant, and at the University of
Victoria, Karen Hickton has been an ever-­helpful departmental secretary. My
previous books ­were all supported by the Social Science and Research Council
of Canada, which allowed me to make several overseas research trips. I am
happy to acknowledge once more the Council’s crucial role in generously encouraging historical research. This study was launched with the funds left
over from my last major grant.
And fi­nally, no words can adequately express all that I owe to Arlene, who
has supported me in so many ways. One trifling example: I’m embarrassed to
think of the number of times I have interrupted her in the midst of writing or
reading to “share” with her yet another anecdote relating to playboys or Mayfair men. She not only tolerates ­t hese countless intrusions and hears me out;
she often has a better notion than I do as to how such material could be most
effectively used. It is due to her aversion to the use of the strained or artificial
that I do not conclude t­hese acknowl­edgments—as I had first planned—by
lauding her as my “life preserver.”

INTRODUCTION

In the spring of 1938 the En­glish author Fryniwyd Tennyson Jesse wrote to
her friend Grace Burke Hubble, the wife of the American astronomer Edwin
Hubble: “I do not know w
­ hether the respectable newspaper which I am sure
you and Edwin take, had an account of the trial over h
­ ere known as the trial of
the Mayfair men. Anyway I went to it. It was not an impor­tant trial but very
in­ter­est­ing as a social phenomenon.”1 Jesse was well positioned to judge. As a
self-­taught criminologist, she was to edit several volumes in the Notable British ­Trials Series.2 London society found the trial of the “Mayfair men” or the
“Mayfair playboys” (as they ­were often called) absolutely riveting. Four young
men in their twenties, all products of elite En­glish public schools, and respectable families, had conspired to lure to the luxurious Hyde Park ­Hotel a representative of Cartier, the famous jewelry firm. ­There they brutally bludgeoned
him and then made off with eight diamond rings that ­today would be worth
approximately half a million pounds. Such well-­connected young ­people w
­ ere
not supposed to appear in the prisoners’ dock at the Old Bailey. Not surprisingly, the popu­lar newspapers had a field day in responding to the public’s
appetite for information on the accused’s pasts, their friends, and families. The
trial is fascinating, and not simply for what it tells us about four young men’s
loutish be­hav­ior; the con­temporary press and public of the 1930s saw that this
court case revealed aspects of class, gender, politics, crime, and punishment
that had other­w ise escaped serious scrutiny.
This sensational robbery and the responses to it reveal several paradoxes.
The first, and one that ­every historian of crime encounters, is that criminals—­
far from being asocial—­are very much products of their society. As F. Tennyson
Jesse argued in her popu­lar criminological volume Murder and Its Motives
(1924): “The criminal and the community are not two separate ­factors but one
and the same ­t hing. Over the gate of ­every prison ­t here might with truth be

2   Playboys and Mayfair Men

carved this paraphrase of some immortal words: ‘­There but for the grace of
God go I.’ ”3 The court had the task of individualizing the guilt of the Mayfair
men, but the worrying question hung in the air: to what extent w
­ ere they representative of their class and generation?
A good deal of recent historical scholarship has looked at the issues of
crime and punishment to see what they tell us about normative notions of
class, race, and gender.4 Trial reports have proven to be especially vital sources
for understanding the lives of the poor, who rarely left their own written accounts. Social historians have repeatedly demonstrated how useful such an
approach can be. Similarly, scholars such as Lucy Bland and John Car­ter Wood
have shown how judicial rec­ords can be exploited to reveal by what standards
­women w
­ ere judged in interwar Britain.5 Bland in par­tic­u ­lar highlights the
performative aspects of the criminal justice system, in which a ­woman’s guilt
or innocence often depended not so much on what she had done as on her
ability to pres­ent herself in accord with current norms of respectable femininity. In the same way, when the courts dealt with the Mayfair playboys and
their acolytes, the judges spent as much if not more time condemning them
for being idlers and loafers as for being thieves. In effect the judge and prosecution defended the British class system by strenuously denying, with all the
rhetorical skills at their command, the suggestion that ­either the accused’s
class background or education in any way fostered the sense of entitlement
that led them into criminality. The court directed this message to both the
Old Bailey audience and the far larger national and international newspaper
readership.
Historians have long noted the obvious theatricality of t­ rials, though court
officials publicly did not.6 When in June 1938 the crown tried a ­woman in
Downham Market, Norfolk, for the strychnine poisoning of her husband, the
local interest was so g
­ reat that w
­ omen fought for seats in the courtroom. A
police officer, in attempting to restore order, made the plaintive plea: “Please
be quiet. This is not a theatre.”7 But the ­women knew better. Likewise, some
who attended the trial of the Mayfair men described it as better than any play.
The audience was further titillated to hear the judge sentence two of the accused to be flogged. It could be argued that since neither the public nor the
newspapers ­were allowed to witness the whippings, they ­were not theatrical
per­for­mances. David Garland effectively ­counters such a view in observing,
“Punishment has an instrumental purpose, but also a cultural style and a historical tradition.”8

Introduction   3

The figure of the playboy poses a second paradox. W
­ omen’s history predated the writing of histories of masculinity by a de­cade or two. Feminist historians have traced the public concern in the interwar period that the forces of
modernity had endangered young ­women. Some feared that ­women would
become oversexed, and that, in contrast, the stresses of the regimented workplace could render modern men effeminate, if not impotent.9 Historians of
masculinity, noting ­these concerns, have tracked the declining trajectory of
manliness from the distant Victorian patriarch to the 1920s family-­oriented
suburban male.10 British scholars writing in the 1990s noted that the domestication of men was complemented by post–­World War I campaigns for their
revirilization. Eugenicists and o
­ thers preoccupied by the specter of demographic
decline stressed the importance of sports and physical culture as a way of reinvigorating men’s bodies and minds.11
The press referred to the main characters in this study as “Mayfair men” or
“Mayfair playboys” or simply “playboys.” In the late nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries ­t here was a shift away from the cult of rugged masculinity
­toward a new model of “masculine domesticity.” Yet British culture was far
from being monolithic and supported both the men who fled domesticity and
­those who embraced it. The emergence of the playboy complicated m
­ atters.
Where did one locate such a character—­neither rugged nor domesticated—on
the manliness scale? The trial of the Mayfair men pop­u­lar­ized in Britain the
term “playboy.” This character represented a new style of masculinity, a style that
historians have argued was not supposed to have surfaced ­until the 1950s.12 The
1930s playboy was necessarily a dif­fer­ent sort of creature from that conceived
of by Hugh Hefner in 1953, but in what ways?13 Sociologist R. W. Connell
coined the term “hegemonic masculinity” to describe the social code that advances the ideas and practices promoting the dominance of men and the subordination of w
­ omen.14 For the purposes of this study what is most impor­tant
in Connell’s theory is his contention that masculinity is not monolithic, that
hegemonic masculinity exists in tension with subordinate, marginalized forms
of masculinity. It is ­here on the margins that we can locate our playboys. They
certainly sought to control ­women, but as the following chapters demonstrate,
they pursued a lifestyle that was quite distinct from that of normative British
middle-­class masculinity.15
Of course, men w
­ ere often wracked by competing desires. Martin Francis
points out that in the 1930s some w
­ ere “attracted by the responsibilities of
marriage and fatherhood, but also enchanted by vari­ous escapist fantasies

4   Playboys and Mayfair Men

(especially the adventure story or war film) which celebrated militaristic hyper-­
masculinity and male bonding.”16 What Francis does not note is that married,
suburban men could also imagine the sophisticated life of the single man-­
about-­town. One of the obvious reasons why the playboy figure received such
attention in films, tabloid newspapers, and popu­lar fictions is that he personified the desire to be ­f ree of domestic duties, to kick over the traces.
At first glance it may seem surprising that the indolent playboy should burst
onto the scene in the 1930s, when so many ­were desperately seeking work. The
de­cade was dominated by the repercussions of the 1929 crash, with the British
economy bottoming out in 1932. Trade fell by half, heavy industry was down a
third, and unemployment was over three million. Attempts by the government
to impose austerity programs only made the situation worse. When the gold
standard was fi­nally abandoned in 1931, the pound lost 25 ­percent of its value.
The devaluation did benefit exporters, and a slow recovery began in 1933. By
1938 ­people ­were sick of discussing the economy. Escapist film and tabloid accounts of playboys’ antics ­were so popu­lar in part ­because the social situation
was so dire. This reaction against the shoddiness of traditional politics goes
some way in explaining the popularity of two other charismatic womanizers
whose po­liti­cal princi­ples w
­ ere problematic to say the least—­Edward VIII and
Oswald Mosley. The illustrated weeklies, in keeping the public up to date on
the charmed lives of such celebrities, implicitly lauded the playboy lifestyle.
The newspapers referred to the accused in the 1938 trial as the “Mayfair
men,” knowing that this evocative term would have an immediate resonance
for its readership both at home and abroad. Anglophiles around the world
could name its boundary—­Park Lane, Regent Street, Piccadilly, and Oxford
Street. John Buchan, author of The Thirty-­Nine Steps (1915) and other thrillers,
set several of his novels ­there. “The West End of London at night always
­affected me with a sense of the im­mense solidity of our civilization,” admits
one of his heroes. “­These ­g reat ­houses, lit and shuttered and secure, seemed
the extreme opposite of the world of half-­lights and perils in which I had sometime journeyed. . . . ​But to­night I felt differently ­towards them. I wondered
what was g
­ oing on at the back of ­t hose heavy doors. Might not terror and mystery lurk ­behind that barricade as well as in tent and slum?”17 Buchan was
shrewd to use Mayfair as his locale, as it was “familiar to readers all over the
world as one of the most well-­k nown and written about districts in London.
Mayfair was the seat of diplomatic power, it sat next to po­liti­cal power, and it
contained two royal palaces as well as embassies and government buildings. It

Introduction   5

London’s West End. Bacon’s Pocket Atlas of London (London: G. W. Bacon, 1928).
Rare Books & Special Collections, University of British Columbia Library

was also the clubland zone, where Buchan heroes . . . ​belonged socially, and
where young unattached men could encounter adventure.”18
Some historians who have taken the “spatial turn” argue that the city is not
just a locale but a character that, in offering anonymity and freedom from
traditional restraints, helps shape the experience of urban modernity. A generation of historians has successfully demonstrated how studies of specific
London neighborhoods can reveal much about social attitudes, power relationships, and economic disparities. The vast majority of t­hese studies have
focused on poorer neighborhoods. For example, on the East End we have the

6   Playboys and Mayfair Men

works of Seth Koven, Ellen Ross, John Marrriott, Gareth Stedman Jones, and
Judith Walkowitz; on Soho ­t hose of Judith Walkowitz and Frank Mort; and on
Holloway a book by Jerry White.19 Most, if not all, of t­hese scholars w
­ ere
drawn to the subjects living in t­ hese locales out of a sympathy and a concern to
give voice to the marginalized or, in E. P. Thompson’s words, to rescue them
“from the enormous condescension of posterity.”20 The lives of the Hyde Park
­Hotel robbers may not elicit such sympathy, but they do illustrate, in morbidly
fascinating detail, the many ways, both l­egal and criminal, by which members
of the upper classes attempted to maintain their privileges and advance their
interests. Even conservative writers like John Buchan, who sympathized with
such tactics, acknowledged that London’s West End was in its own way as mysterious as Whitechapel.
To understand the Mayfair men obviously necessitates locating them in
their social milieu. In investigating the upper m
­ iddle classes, this study risks
once more being regarded as unfashionable. We already know more than
enough, so the argument goes, about dead, white, wealthy men. Most social historians “study down”—­that is, they seek to give agency to the poor, to ­women,
to sexual and racial minorities. Focusing on the crimes and misdemeanors of
the upper classes, by contrast, entails “studying up.”21 But far from glamorizing the upper classes, such studying up seeks to understand how they exploited
their social advantages. From their families to public school to Mayfair to the
Old Bailey, t­hese playboys w
­ ere supported by networks of friends and kin.
They tended to be members of the same clubby elite who had been schooled in
places like Harrow and Wellington, spent their weekends in the home counties and their holidays in France, drank in Mayfair and Soho nightclubs, and
lived in London’s West End. Only their clique could fully decode the sorts of
purposely opaque news items so beloved of the Times.
The Atherstone (North) met at Shenton and had an excellent hunt from Sutton-­
Ambion. ­G oing away over the Fenn Lane hounds ran very fast across the brook
and over Harper’s Hill to Stoke Lodge spinney. Swinging left-­handed they
crossed the Hinckley road and continued through Wykin to the canal at Higham
Thorns, which they reached in 35 minutes. Turning back sharply they hunted
more slowly by Wykin Hall and the Stoke Lodge spinneys to the Twelve Acre at
Sutton-­Cheney, and then crossed the Fenn Lane to Sutton-­A mbion where a
beaten fox escaped among fresh foxes ­after a fine hunt of over two hours. Hounds
did not find again.22

Introduction   7

Their pampered lives ­were proof that the British class system was still
firmly in place. In the “London Gazette” and “Court Circular” columns of the
Times appeared accounts of the elite’s accomplishments—­t heir engagements,
weddings, dances, pre­sen­ta­t ions at court, appointments, promotions, regimental dinners, transfers, and travels—as well as their occasional losses, including
bankruptcies, divorces, and deaths. Such politics of display explic­itly promoted
a snobbishness and caste consciousness. The middle-­class reader would have
found it next to impossible to ignore this constant stream of flattering reports
of who was d
­ oing what in society.
For the historian seeking to trace the emergence of new models of masculinity, the newspapers are an invaluable source. When young men began to
call themselves “playboys” it was largely due to their following the media coverage of a number of sensational ­trials. ­These cases familiarized the public
with a par­t ic­u­lar lifestyle and in effect served as a vehicle for the per­for­mance
of new identities. Police reports, trial transcripts, and a range of published
primary and secondary sources offer details about the investigation and proceedings, but newspaper reportage represents the best source for gauging the
public’s knowledge of and reaction to the d
­ oings of the West End elite. The
Times, the leading broadsheet, was the newspaper of rec­ord and provides reliable coverage of the most impor­tant t­ rials. The tabloids had much larger circulations. Alfred Harmsworth’s Daily Mail, in the 1920s the world’s largest
paper, had two million readers by 1930 but was surpassed in turn by Lord
Beaverbrook’s Daily Express on the right and the Daily Herald on the left.23
The newspaper press was not monolithic. The most obvious difference was
that the popu­lar newspapers carried photo­g raphs. The broadsheets or quality
papers like the Times and the Manchester Guardian did not, but maintained
their traditionally austere design, devoting their front pages to advertisements.
In contrast, the tabloids, along with the racy Sunday papers such as the News of
the World and the Sunday Pictorial, depended on photo­g raphs and reports of
sensational crimes, society scandals, and escapist fantasies to draw a mass readership. They devoted more space to court reporting than to any other category.24 Observers assumed that the tabloids’ gossipy style especially attracted
­women while the broadsheets’ more intellectually demanding articles drew
men. The quality papers gave their stories s­ imple titles. The tabloids set out to
seduce the reader with sensational banner headlines. The Times’s main articles on the Cartier robbery w
­ ere “Diamond Ring Theft,” “Robbery with
­V io­lence,” “Jewel Robbery Charge,” and “Jewel Robbery Sentences.”25 The

8   Playboys and Mayfair Men

popu­lar ­papers responded with “Jeweller’s Six Skull Fractures,” “Thought He
Was ­Going to Die,” “Playboy Gangsters Had Flight Planned,” and “Mayfair
Playboy Gangster Weeps When He Hears His ‘Cat’ Sentence.”26 The two
types of paper differed dramatically in style, but the content of their coverage
of court cases was not that dissimilar.
Periodicals also differed in their po­liti­cal stances, which colored how they
reported stories. Most papers supported the Conservative Party. A right-­w ing
publication like the Daily Mail raised the specter of Bolshevik and trade
­u nionist plots in the 1920s and applauded Italian and Spanish fascists in the
1930s. The Mail attacked scroungers, asserting that the dole produced “soft”
men. The left-­leaning Daily Herald responded that capitalism, in de-­skilling
­labor, was responsible for creating an emasculated, effeminate work force.27
The conservative press devoted countless column inches to well-­off young
men who came into conflict with the law. One might have expected the Daily
Herald to have headlined reports of the disreputable conduct of the upper
classes, but unlike its right-­w ing competitors it played down such scandalous
stories, concerned that indulging in gutter journalism would detract from the
paper’s reputation for seriousness.
Films, too, helped publicize the character of the playboy. In the single year
of 1934 ­there ­were in Britain an astounding 963 million admissions to the
movies. One official report asserted that film was the “most impor­tant f­actor
in the education of all classes.”28 Reviewing the movies’ depiction of the playboy allows us to test Daniel LeMahieu’s argument that in the 1930s filmmakers made a concerted effort to express sympathy for the plight of the working
class while still appealing to middle-­class consumers.29
The book consists of two sections. Part I gives a detailed account of the Hyde
Park H
­ otel robbery and its aftermath. The attack on the Cartier representative, the theft of the diamonds, the testimony of the eyewitnesses, and the
spotting of the suspects are described in chapter 1. The question of ­whether
their capture was due to their incompetence or Scotland Yard’s brilliance
­u nderlies the careful unpacking of the police investigation presented in chapter 2. In chapter 3 I introduce the main characters—­John Lonsdale, Peter
­Jenkins, David Wilmer, and Robert Harley—­and review all the information
available on the suspects’ families, schooling, social networks, and earlier
brushes with the law. Within days of the robbery the police had arrested all
four. Chapter 4 gives a thorough analy­sis of the trial of the Mayfair men—­a

Introduction   9

sensation that enthralled London’s high society—­and the courtroom drama
beginning with the accused viciously turning on each other and ending with
their convictions. Chapter 5 follows our four felons through prison and their
attempts, upon being released, to reintegrate themselves into society and probes
the question why the media and the authorities believed some succeeded while
­others failed.
The first five chapters (about a third of the book) consists of a richly detailed account of the case—of the crime, the villains, their trial, and their punishment. This thick description provides us with an intimate portrayal of
the world of the Mayfair men. Without losing track of t­ hese micro-­narratives,
we then turn to the larger picture. ­A fter the trauma of the First World War,
the 1920s and the 1930s ­were de­cades of social, cultural and po­liti­cal renegotiation, a period of uncertainty in which the playboy arose and operated.30 In
part II we examine the social and cultural context in which the robbery was
publicly dissected. This par­t ic­u­lar felony clearly struck a nerve, precipitating
discussions of issues that obviously preoccupied the 1930s newspaper reading
public. Or to put it the other way around, talking about the crime proved to be
a useful way of grappling with such subjects as the emergence of new models of
masculinity, the tenacity of social inequities, and the rise of fascism.
The courts sentenced two of the Mayfair men to be flogged. Chapter 6 provides an in-­depth analy­sis of the corporal punishment debate, over which the
Mayfair men cast a long shadow. Supporters of the cat-­o’-­nine-­tails presumed
it would be used against illiterate ruffians who only understood the lesson of
pain, but how was one to respond when old boys of Wellington and Oundle
had their backs bloodied? Chapter 7 provides a history of the “playboy” identity, explores the origin of the term, and tracks the ways a modernizing culture
pop­u­lar­ized a new style of masculinity. It seeks to explain how the anxious,
who believed that a man’s interest in fashion was a symptom of effeminacy,
could at the same time hold him responsible for the unfair treatment of ­women
in courtship, marriage, and divorce.
The 1930s was a period in which a generation of young men and ­women
renegotiated their identities. Feminist scholars have written a good deal about
society’s alarm at the emergence of the flapper, bachelor girl, or modern
­woman. Historians have also produced insightful studies on the relationship of
the homosexual and the metropolis. They have said ­little ­u ntil now about
young heterosexual males whom society regarded as behaving badly.31 To trace
the emergence of the playboy as criminal, chapter 8 introduces some ­additional

10   Playboys and Mayfair Men

shady characters. It begins with Victor Hervey, a ne’er-­do-­well aristocrat, and
then compares him to other young men who ended up in the prisoner’s dock.
They set themselves apart from the ­m iddle class by flaunting an interest in
fashion, seeking thrills in motorcars and airplanes, abandoning homes for
­hotels and nightclubs, and pursuing wealthy w
­ omen. They made half-­hearted
attempts at securing employment, but preferred to live by their wits. Moved
solely by self-­interest they graduated from sponging and cadging to outright
crime. Yet popu­lar thrillers and films appeared in many cases to justify such
predatory be­hav­ior. Chapter 9 moves the story away from individual Mayfair
men to the class to which they belonged. Having well-­off parents, an elite public school education, a place in London society, and an extensive network of
friends did not prevent some in the 1930s from feeling relatively deprived, in
par­t ic­u­lar ­t hose who proclaimed themselves the “new poor.” The benefits the
playboys enjoyed—­instead of assuaging their cravings—­goaded them on to
steal that which they felt was their due. The discussion of class leads fi­nally to
the topic of politics in chapter 10. In the 1930s, ­t hose who debated such impor­
tant issues as the rise of fascism and the turn ­toward appeasement often
dragged in references to the playboy. Focusing on Lord Kinnoull and Oswald
Mosley, both well-­k nown playboys who switched their po­liti­cal allegiances, this
chapter seeks to explain why commentators in the 1930s assumed that personal
lifestyle choices w
­ ere often predictive of a person’s politics.
With hindsight one can see that the popu­lar press presented the playboy’s
­career as reflecting the experiences of the entire British nation. He emerged in
the 1930s, part escapist fantasy figure whose adventures diverted a readership
recuperating from the slump, part representative of an elite motivated by the
unbridled pursuit of self-­interest that led, so the story went, to appeasement
abroad and a flirtation with fascism at home.32 Then came the war, and newspaper references to the playboy all but dis­appeared. His sort was not supposed
to exist in a country fighting a classless “­people’s war.” Before long, however,
propagandists saw the usefulness of resurrecting him, showing that the war
offered the playboy—as it did the nation—­the opportunity of redemption
through self-­sacrifice.
The ways in which observers commented on the Mayfair playboys evokes
anthropologist Claude Lévi-­Strauss’s notion that some cultural groups found
certain animals “good to think with” (bonnes à penser)—­t hat is, they served as a
vehicle for discussing and dealing with the tensions within the community.33
Was the playboy “good to think with” for 1930s Britain? Social observers’ in-

Introduction   11

terest was aroused not b
­ ecause t­ here was a sudden surge in the a­ ctual number
of hedonistic males but b
­ ecause the concept of the playboy proved useful for
­t hose trying to explain, or explain away, disturbing social shifts, particularly
­t hose involving relations between men and ­women.
Though the 1938 Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery and the responses to it have
been long forgotten, t­ here are good reasons for unearthing this episode. I do
not intend to rescue the Mayfair playboy from the condescension of traditional historians. Rather, I want to determine why this disreputable character
made so many appearances in discussions of crime, class, gender, and politics
in 1930s Britain.
The Daily Express provided some of the most extensive coverage of the
Hyde Park H
­ otel robbery trial. On the front page of its February 19, 1938, issue it included a bizarre photo­g raph that showed Robert Harley (one of the
accused) and five friends at a nightclub. The caption stated that he “was known
by many famous p
­ eople in the West End,” but in fact the reader could only
recognize Harley in the photo. As the paper explained, “A number of prominent p
­ eople w
­ ere t­ here, and at their request the Daily Express has had all f­ aces,
but Harley’s painted out.”34 The doctoring of this photo­g raph graphically
demonstrates the lengths to which some would go in seeking to distance the
bad be­hav­ior of a handful of miscreants from the normal activities of the
members of respectable Mayfair society. Countering such crude attempts to
airbrush the past, this study firmly locates the Mayfair playboys in their social
and geo­g raph­i­cal milieu.

This page intentionally left blank

Part I: The Crime

I

n 1929, ­u nder the headline “Mr. Edgar Wallace on the Murder Men of
Chicago,” the Daily Mail reported that Britain’s most prolific writer of
thrillers had gone to the United States to gather material on the lives
of gangsters. His apparent hope was that he could reinvigorate his fictions by
larding them with references to ruthless “racketeers,” victims who ­were “taken
for a r­ ide,” or rivals who ­were “bumped off.”1 Wallace’s obvious goal was to
exploit the growing British fascination with accounts of American crime. In
the 1930s and ’40s En­glish readers turned in increasing numbers to the sex and
vio­lence ridden American thrillers of James Cain and Mickey Spillane.
­Progressives such as Richard Hoggart and George Orwell considered this addiction to the hard-­boiled school of American crime fiction a tragedy.2 Such
intellectuals could not understand why so many workers found American works
refreshingly realistic. They did not appreciate that class-­conscious readers
judged the classic British detective novel, complete with country estate, bumbling bobby, deferential servant, and bourgeois amateur sleuth, too transparently a defense of the social status quo. Working-­class readers felt far more
comfortable in the hardscrabble urban worlds of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Workers sensed that the “tough guy” novel in which the legitimacy of the authorities was often questioned, spoke to their concerns.3
It was also the case that ­u ntil the 1940s moviegoers in search of gangster
films necessarily went to American movies. The portrayal of gangland was essentially an American enterprise. Some put it down to cultural differences or
taste. The United States had crime bosses, Britain had villains. What few
­people at the time noted was that the British film industry’s failure to portray
criminal networks was not by chance, it was inevitable, given the British Board
of Film Censors’ resolute opposition to domestic productions that could be
interpreted as in any way glorifying crime. The board had the power to

14   The Crime

prevent the making of films that depicted minor police indiscretions or momentary criminal successes.4
­These restrictions help explain why no one produced a film devoted to the
Mayfair playboys, despite newspapers around the world giving them extensive coverage. Indeed the British popu­lar press provided the masses with the
true crime stories that the film industry failed to deliver. The Daily Mail and
Daily Mirror devoted more column inches to trial reports than to any other
topic, and they bulked even higher in the Sunday papers.5 In focusing on sensational crimes the popu­lar papers of the 1930s w
­ ere maintaining a century-­
old tradition, as w
­ ere their critics, who at best regarded them as regurgitating
escapist and distracting pap and at worst inspiring the impressionable to become copycat criminals.
The tabloids especially valued stories of the toff gone bad. Thanks to ­t hese
popu­lar papers it is pos­si­ble to trace the c­ areers of the Mayfair playboys from
their trial backward in time to their childhood and schooling, their escapades
and crimes, and forward to their convictions, punishments, and attempts at
rehabilitation. The tabloids provided close-­to-­verbatim accounts of the ­leading
­t rials and carried on the policy of publishing the “confessions” of the convicted.
Their editors could in addition reprint easily accessible police depositions and
witness statements. They customarily did not employ investigative journalists,
even for the most sensational court cases.6 As one historian has noted: “Newspapers often presented such cases as exposing a dangerous underworld to the
purifying light of the public gaze, but they rarely undertook that task themselves.”7 Part I of this study responds to this challenge. It provides an overview
of the world that produced, sheltered, and ultimately punished the Mayfair
playboys. The narrative lays out who t­ hese young men w
­ ere, the harebrained
scheme they concocted, and the price they paid.

Chapter 1: THE ROBBERY

Monday, December 20, 1937, dawned cold and wintry in London. On Sunday
­t here had been snow at midday; ice and fog made driving treacherous and contributed to the interruption of commuter rail ser­v ices. ­There w
­ ere even delays
on several underground routes, but not on the District Line that served Putney. It took ­little more than half an hour for forty-­n ine-­year-­old Etienne
Bellenger to make his way from his home at 11 Lytton Grove in this quiet suburb south of the Thames to his office at 175–177 New Bond Street.1 Bellenger
was the managing director of the London branch of Cartier, the world’s most
famous jeweler. Founded in 1847, the Pa­ri­sian firm catered to Eu­rope’s elite. It
particularly prided itself on being the official supplier of gems to the British
royal ­family. Edward VII famously referred to Cartier as “the jeweler of kings
and the king of jewelers.”2
That Monday after­noon, a l­ittle before 3:00 p.m., the Cartier offices received a phone call from a guest at the nearby Hyde Park ­Hotel. A gentleman
identifying himself as Captain Hambro stated that he was about to be engaged
to a wealthy young w
­ oman, and he wanted a variety of expensive diamond
rings brought to his ­hotel suite for his appraisal. The rings had to be “of a certain value”—he cited the figure of £4,000 per ring—­because they would represent part of the marriage settlement. Apparently pressed for time, the client
rang off with the brusque injunction: “­Don’t be long.”3 Bellenger immediately
selected nine rings and was at the h
­ otel by 3:15.
Why ­
wasn’t this extraordinary request—an unknown client asking for
thousands of pounds of jewelry to be brought to his ­hotel room—­simply dismissed out of hand? The answer was class. Any suspicions that Bellenger might
have harbored w
­ ere effectively countered in the first instance by where the
request originated. The opulent Hyde Park H
­ otel—­ostentatiously flaunting its
turrets, balconies, and pillared porticos—­was located at 66 Knightsbridge, one

16   The Crime

The Hyde Park ­Hotel

of London’s most prestigious addresses. In 1889 investors built the massive
red brick structure as a gentlemen’s club, then transformed it in 1908 into a
­g rand ­hotel. Its guests included many of the royals and a wide range of celebrities, including the combative Conservative Party MP Winston Churchill,
press baron Lord Beaverbrook, popu­lar author Evelyn Waugh, and Indian
nationalist leader Mahatma Gandhi. It boasted richly furnished ballrooms
and restaurants, as well as its own private entrance to Hyde Park. Its terrace
offered a perfect vantage point for watching the House­hold Cavalry’s morning exercises.4
One would naturally assume that a guest at the Hyde Park ­Hotel would
have had his or her bona fides established, but the guest who called Cartier

The Robbery   17

was not just anyone; he had registered as Captain P. L. Hambro of Wimborne
Court, Dorset. The Hambros w
­ ere a well-­k nown financial dynasty. C. J.
Hambro, a Danish merchant, established the Hambros Bank in 1839. In the
twentieth c­ entury, Angus Valdemar Hambro was Conservative MP for South
Dorset. His ­brother Sir Eric Hambro was Conservative MP for Wimbledon
and was, coincidentally, on Cartier’s board of directors. Sir Charles Hambro,
chairman of Hambros Bank, was also a director of the Bank of ­England.5 Given
the ­family’s social prominence, it is hardly surprising that Bellenger should
have responded to a Hambro call with such alacrity.
Once at the ­hotel, Bellenger found that he had to wait a few minutes as his
client was momentarily engaged. At 3:30 the liftman took Bellenger up to the
third floor where in the hallway he met the tall young man who called himself
Captain Hambro. He led Bellenger to room 305 and introduced him to ­another
young man who acted as his secretary. The formalities concluded, Bellenger
presented the nine rings, pointing out their most attractive features. Two of
the diamonds ­were rectangular; seven w
­ ere emerald cut (that is, octagonal).
They ranged in size from 5.06 to 10.69 carats. Smaller diamonds decorated the
shoulders of the rings. The settings ­were platinum. Cartier valued the jewelry
at £16,000, approximately sixty-­four times a factory worker’s annual wage.6
The three men compared the brilliance of the gems in the natu­ral light
streaming in from the win­dows and chatted briefly about Cartier’s rivals, the
jewelers in Hatton Garden, and the general question of the resale value of diamonds.7 Fi­nally the customer asked to see the gems ­u nder a desk light. This
obliged Bellenger to turn his back to the communicating door that led to the
adjoining room, 309. As he did so he caught sight of the secretary making
some sort of signal. In response a third man immediately launched himself
from the next room into 305, attacking the jeweler with a weighted cosh, or life
preserver. Bellenger turned just in time to catch a glimpse of his assailant,
whose features w
­ ere half hidden by a pair of tinted glasses and a colored handkerchief, covering in bandana-­fashion the lower part of his face.8
The intruder rained blow ­after blow down on Bellenger’s head, but being a
large man endowed with an unusually thick skull, the Frenchman persisted in
fighting off his attacker, hitting out at his spectacles. At this stage the so-­called
secretary yelled, “Come on, finish it quick!” and tackled the jeweler, who, being brought to the ground, received an additional four painful cracks to the
skull. The young man who had posed as Hambro simply sat by and observed
the uneven fight. Amazingly enough, Bellenger, though he received fifteen

18   The Crime

blows to the head, never lost consciousness. Nevertheless, exhausted and outnumbered, he gave up the strug­gle and collapsed on the floor.9
At about 4:20, Henrietta Gordon, a ­house­maid who not only worked but also
lived in the ­hotel, heard some unusual noises—­like something being smashed—­
coming from room 305. She ­later told the police that she remembered the hour
as that was “the time I have to call a titled lady.” She alerted Enrico Laurenti,
a waiter, who detected what he thought sounded like “muffled laughing.” The
two domestics listened at the door and initially heard nothing more, but two
minutes l­ater the gentleman whom Laurenti had earlier served that day came
out of room 305 and, partly walking, partly ­r unning, dashed down the hall. A
moment l­ater a second man emerged from 305 and strode briskly to the lift.
Gordon noted that the second man was laughing, had a fash­ion­able “teddy
bear coat” negligently draped over his arm, and “had the most beautiful set of
teeth.”10
Concerned that something was amiss, Gordon and Laurenti knocked on
the door of 305. When they received no response Laurenti used his master key
to get in. He was shocked to find a large man lying on his back in a pool of
blood. The waiter’s first instinct was to prevent Gordon from entering. “For
God’s sake d
­ on’t come in, get the man­ag­er or get somebody.” He called the porter
to try to apprehend the two men from 305, but they had already fled the ­hotel.
He then phoned the man­ag­er, Mr. Burdett, who in turn called the police and a
doctor.11
In the meantime Laurenti thought it wise to put up a screen by the open
door to hide from public view the disturbing crime scene. A small side ­table
with two broken legs lay on the carpet along with a large diamond ring and a
ring box. Laurenti picked up the ring and put it and the box on the mantelpiece. In the center of the room lay a man with a split skull whom the maid
first thought was dead. Revived, he managed to cry out, “Help, help,” and repeated again and again, “­They’ve got my rings.”12 Taking towels from the
bathroom, Gordon did her best to clean and comfort him ­u ntil the doctor
arrived.13
Dr. Victor Constad got to the ­hotel along with the police at a l­ittle ­after
4:30. He found Bellenger fully conscious “in spite of the terrible battering he
had obviously received.”14 The maid, the waiter, and the doctor lifted him onto
a couch. He had received at least a dozen head wounds and manifested the
classic symptoms of traumatic brain injury. His left arm was para­lyzed, and
one side of his face was uncontrollably quivering.15

The Robbery   19

Detective Inspector Henry Hayward of Scotland Yard led the first police
on the scene. In the room the detectives found a diamond ring and ring box, a
pair of tinted glasses, a Chesterfield cigarette package, a depleted b
­ ottle of
whiskey, several glasses, and a soda siphon. Bellenger gave a brief if somewhat
garbled account of the robbery before being rushed by ambulance to the Beaumont House Nursing Home (off Marylebone High Street), the doctor telling
the officers that it was impossible for him to provide a prognosis.
Based on what Bellenger and the ­hotel staff told them, the police began to
sketch out a picture of the assailants. All the witnesses agreed that at the very
least three men w
­ ere involved—­t he one who called himself Captain Hambro
and booked the room, his “secretary,” and the man who wielded the cosh. All
three, according to Bellenger, w
­ ere in their twenties and wore dark lounge
suits.16
The h
­ otel staff had had the most contact with the first suspect, who had arrived at 1:20 that after­noon. They described him as a tall man with a pointed
chin and nose. He called himself Captain P. L. Hambro of Dorset and asked
for a suite. He stated that he would be staying ­u ntil Christmas Eve and that his
luggage would be arriving ­later in the after­noon.17 Reginald Sidney Kelly, the
receptionist, recalled the man insisting, “I want a single bedroom and sitting
room,” but not caring if the suite faced the park or Knightsbridge. Kelly assigned him 305 and 309.18
The young man ordered a b
­ ottle of Black and White whiskey and a siphon, adding, “And send along some glasses.” Since he had no luggage the
receptionist asked him to pay for the drink in cash. Kelly was suspicious, in
part ­because he noted that the new arrival kept his gloves on, even when
signing the registration form. He told the other receptionist that he thought
the client might be a “bogey” or fraud.19 He certainly was concerned about
money. At about 1:45, Enrico Laurenti, the waiter on duty, took the ­bottle of
whiskey to 305. As he was about to leave the guest, sprawled on a couch, asked,
“What about my change?” Laurenti pointed out that ­t here was no change, as
the pound the guest had given was just sufficient to cover the costs of the
drink.20
It was that elusive something, the style or bearing of the suspects, that the
­hotel staff most remembered. James Clarke, one of the liftmen at the Hyde
Park, thought he might recognize at least one of the men he took to the third
floor at about 2:00 p.m. He was between twenty-­four and thirty years of age,
five feet ten inches tall, and dressed in a blue-­g ray, double-­breasted overcoat,

20   The Crime

belted at the back. To Clarke he looked like “a traveler” or salesman, for he did
not have “the accent of a cultured and well educated person.”21
Sloan, another liftman at the ­hotel, reported taking to the third floor a
smartly dressed man, twenty to thirty years of age, about six feet tall, with
dark brown, brilliantined hair. “This man spoke like a gentleman and gave me
the impression of being rather effeminate.”22
When Sloan ­later took Bellenger up to the third floor, William Peter Jefferies, one of the h
­ otel’s receptionists, who had been told by his colleague that
he was doubtful about the man in 305, accompanied him. In the hallway he
found a tall man asking the way to 305. Jefferies told the police he had a pointed
nose, wore a blue suit and red carnation, and was “very good looking in an effeminate way.”23 Kelly recalled a man with dark wavy hair, good teeth, wearing
a blue pinstripe suit, red carnation, and white gloves, but no hat or overcoat.
“He was exceptionally well dressed and walked and spoke rather effeminately.
He was well spoken but I could not trace any par­t ic­u­lar accent.”24
Henrietta Gordon gave a similar account of the scene. She said that the new
guest had taken the wrong direction and she had to direct him to room 305.
She described him as a slim, tall man, sporting a red carnation and wearing a
blue suit with the trousers riding high. “He was definitely like a pansy boy—­a
proper ‘Sissy.’ ” His associate, in Gordon’s opinion, had a more “gentlemanly
appearance.”25
The men of London’s B Division, working from the Gerald Road Police
Station, located between Victoria Station and Sloane Square, carried out the
police investigation. One of the first acts of the Metropolitan Police was to
broadcast a bulletin stating that they sought for questioning three smartly
dressed young men.26
Three men; 1st, gave name P. L. Hambro, b. 1911, 6ft., slim build, h. dk. brown
(wavy), sharp pointed nose turning slightly to l., pimply face, good looking;
dress, blue suit (white pin stripe).—2nd, b. 1902 to 1907, 5ft 10in., medium build,
h. brown (brushed back); dress, dk. suit, lt. teddy bear overcoat (buff colour), no
hat.—3rd, b. 1917, 5ft 10in., slim build, h. fair; smartly dressed. All effeminate in
manner.27

Though the police first reported that they sought P. L Hambro and two ­others
for robbery, they soon realized that the chief suspect had merely presented
himself as a member of the banking ­family.28 They learned in addition from

The Robbery   21

Angus Hambro that though several members of the ­family lived in Dorset,
Wimborne Court itself did not exist.29
Concerned that the suspects might try to leave the country, Special Branch
sent descriptions of the three men and the jewels to police detachments at
­Dover, Folkestone, Gravesend, Grimsby, Harwich, Holyhead, Hull, Newcastle, Newhaven, Southampton, Plymouth, and the port of London, and to
the airports at Croydon, Heston, and Lympne.30 Scotland Yard’s Information
Room instructed officers to alert pawnbrokers and jewelers about the robbery
and have them provide information on any gems offered for sale. To rouse the
public’s interest, Lloyd’s of London, the insurer, offered a reward of £1,500 for
information that would lead to the arrest of Bellenger’s attackers and the recovery of the rings.31
As so often happens with criminal cases, the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery,
sensationally reported by the press, drew the attention of cranks who peppered
the police with misinformation. On December 21, Jack Davies, of Kentish
Town, telephoned to say he knew that the robbers would meet that night to
dispose of the loot. He dramatically concluded: “I cannot say anymore now as
I believe I am being ‘tailed.’ ”32 That was the last the police heard of him. An
anonymous female correspondent had an equally vivid imagination. She wrote
to say that she had just seen g
­ oing into a bookstore on Artillery Row a man
who had been connected a few years earlier with a group of robbers. “This
man would not be in ­England ­u nless it would be for some Business,” she
warned. Having read of the plundering of Cartier she knew he must be involved. “This tall elegant effeminate man usually has a smart suite of rooms in
a fash­ion­able square of London & has an extraordinary fascinating manner &
if he is with a gang are [sic] most dangerous. I know ­because I met most of them
a few years ago while chaperoning an actress. I ­w ill not sign my name. It would
be too dangerous.”33
Despite such red herrings, the police owed their most impor­tant lead to the
actions of yet another private citizen. The breakthrough came when Cyril
Smith, a night porter at the Clarendon ­Hotel in Oxford, informed the local
police that on the morning of December 21, at about 6:30 a.m., three men
­arrived from London in a four-­seat, gray saloon Jaguar. Apparently unfamiliar
with the car, they had to ask Smith to open the trunk. The youn­gest of them,
though pale and trembling, asked if a suite was available. Two of the travelers registered and the h
­ otel gave them a large room with two beds. Their

22   The Crime

companion drove off in a northerly direction. Ending his shift at 9:00 a.m.,
Smith had the chance to read the morning newspaper accounts of the previous
after­noon’s robbery.34 Could ­t hese three well-­dressed fellows, he asked himself, be the men the police w
­ ere looking for? It was hard to understand why
they would have left London at 4:00 in the morning.
Smith reported his suspicions to the local police, who in turn informed
Scotland Yard. Inspector Arthur Rolphe of the Oxford police went along to
the Clarendon, taking several constables with him. T
­ here the maid told him
that the new arrivals had had tea in their room but asked her not to put on the
light or draw the curtains. ­Going to the room Rolphe found that the two who
had registered as Lammer and Jamieson now identified themselves as John
Lonsdale and Peter Jenkins. The former stated that he was a com­pany director
and a steward of the Greyhound Racing Association and gave as his address
Wimborne, Dorset. Jenkins, a handsome young man, said he was an accountant with Lester Parry and Com­pany at 11 ­Great Marlborough Street, where
he worked with his ­brother, Gerald Jenkins. When the police turned up, Jenkins was still in bed, and the blond-­haired Lonsdale was dressing, but neither
seemed obviously perturbed by this unexpected visit. They readily admitted
having read about the robbery. On one of the beds lay a copy of the Daily Mail,
which contained a full account. Their story was that they had been at a Mayfair “­bottle party” (an after-­hours drinking establishment) the night before
and in the wee hours of the morning deci­ded to drive up to Oxford with a
friend who was visiting relatives in the neighborhood. He was to pick them up
­later.35
Rolphe left two constables to keep an eye on the suspects while he sought
London’s advice. At 12:45 the men left the ­hotel to cash a check and then went
to the Mitre ­Hotel where Jenkins asked a page boy (who ­later described him as
a tall, “very good looking” gentleman) if he could “very quickly” arrange a
phone call to Ladbroke 0707; when he got through, a w
­ oman answered.36 The
two suspects then attempted to slip out the h
­ otel’s back door, but finding the
police waiting for them, they fi­nally lost their composure. “We are tired of
being chased around like a ­couple of criminals,” complained Lonsdale, “and
we are getting the 1:47 train to London. Where can we get a taxi?” They ­were
indeed to return to London, but ­u nder police escort. Chief Inspector Leonard
Burt in London had told Rolphe that the facts that the men’s descriptions
matched that of the suspects and that Lonsdale and P. L. Hambro both gave
Wimborne, Dorset, as their home address ­were grounds for insisting that the

The Robbery   23

three visitors be detained, brought back to London, and subjected to a thorough interrogation.37
Chief Inspector Burt took the 4:45 train from Paddington up to Oxford
where he met the now indignant suspects, who demanded to see their solicitors. Lonsdale was particularly excited, insisting that he be shown Burt’s
warrant card. What proof was ­t here that he was a policeman? When that
ploy failed, Lonsdale asked to see Burt privately. He now told the chief inspector that he was linked to the Secret Ser­v ice and had impor­t ant information for the War Office. It was imperative he make calls to London and Paris.
When asked who his contact was in the Foreign Office he could only think
of a chap in Copenhagen. His final claim was that he was an agent for an arms
com­pany—­Hermann Zollinger of Limmatquai 94, Zu­rich, Switzerland. Burt
was unmoved.38
In the meantime the police located the third suspect, the driver of the car,
when a call came in to the Clarendon ­Hotel for “Mr. Lammer,” the name Lonsdale had registered u
­ nder. It was from a David Wilmer at Blockley 227, the
number of Sir John Porter’s home near Moreton-­in-­Marsh, one of the principal market towns in the northern Cotswolds, approximately thirty miles to
the west of Oxford. At 4:45 on December 21, Sergeant Thomas H. Smith of the
Gloucestershire Constabulary went to Keytes End, Bourton-­on-­t he-­H ill, the
home of Sir John and Lady Porter. The police had a complicated relationship
with the upper classes. One officer recalled in his memoirs of how, in pursuit
of a jewel thief, he once had to negotiate with a haughty ­woman who was offended by his ­simple request that he be allowed to search her ­house. “She considered me as though she suspected some fault with the drains.”39 Smith was
accordingly cautious. He first had to talk to the Porters and Brigadier Wilmer,
David’s ­father. They fi­nally let him speak to David, a young man whose most
notable feature was his dark, artificially waved hair. He admitted knowing the
other Londoners. “Yes, I know Lonsdale and Jenkins. I brought them to
Oxford ­today.” Having cautioned and arrested him, Smith drove Wilmer to
Moreton-­in-­Marsh. He did not seem to understand the seriousness of the situation, asking the constable: “Can we stop at the Chemists. I must get some
peroxide. I use it e­ very day to clean my teeth.” When the policeman did not
answer, he repeated his request.40 The Gloucester police handed Wilmer over
to Inspector Robert Fabian, who had come up from London with Burt. He
brought Wilmer back to Oxford that eve­ning. The Gloucestershire Constabulary, who searched the Jaguar, reported finding six gloves, one pair of lady’s

24   The Crime

gloves cut to fit a man, slightly stained with what could have been blood, one
jewel case, one piece of flex, and one small metal casing.41
In London, the police added Robert Harley as the fourth man to the list of
suspects. They knew he had ties to the three other men. This linkage alone
clearly did not provide evidence of his involvement in the robbery. Nevertheless,
on the after­noon of December 21, Inspectors Fabian and Hayward accosted
him at the Queen Street Post Office. “We are Police Officers,” declared Hayward. “A jeweler was attacked in the Hyde Park ­Hotel yesterday and robbed of
a number of valuable rings.” “I know, I have read about it,” replied Harley, a
powerfully built, mustachioed man in his mid-­t wenties. He protested his innocence but, given that he fit the description of one of the suspects, agreed to
come to the Vine Street Police Station to provide an account of his movements
on December 20.42
In Oxford, having missed the last train back to London, the three Londoners and six police officers set off at 11:00 p.m. in two motorcars for the capital.
The suspects had driven up to Oxford in a luxurious Jaguar. In order to return
them to London, the police, who had at their disposal only one modest Morris
12, had to borrow a car belonging to Superintendent Norman Goodchild of
the Oxford police. If the police ­were embarrassed by their lack of resources
they made no mention of it in their report. They also made no explicit reference to the detained men’s class. It was nevertheless highly unusual for them to
deal with such well-­dressed gentlemen. John Lonsdale, Peter Jenkins, David
Wilmer, and Robert Harley had been apprehended. The question was: who
­were they?

Chapter 2: THE INVESTIGATION

In the 1930s the authorities recorded about 80,000 offenses each year in the
700 square miles of London’s Metropolitan Police District. Setting aside the
Special Branch, the chief constable had at his disposal 1,000 detectives, 150
working out of Scotland Yard. They had access to 60,000 photo­g raphs of
rogues and over half a million sets of fingerprints.1 With the news of the attack
on Cartier’s representative, this elaborate machinery swung into action.
When the police arrived at the Hyde Park ­Hotel they first spoke to the victim, Etienne Bellenger. Bruised and bloodied, he was understandably confused. He gave a description of his attackers but was not sure which of them
had pushed him to the floor. And although he spoke of bringing eight rings to
the ­hotel, he had actually brought nine. He believed all ­were taken, but the
police had found one on the floor during their search.2 They then interviewed
the ­hotel staff. They searched rooms 305 and 309. Chief Inspector Frederick
Cherrill, superintendent of the Fingerprint Bureau of New Scotland Yard, was
soon on the scene.3 By 6:30 he had taken prints off a whiskey b
­ ottle, two tum4
blers, and a siphon. He returned the ­bottle, one-­quarter full, to the ­hotel
man­ag­er. That night the officers who rushed to the h
­ otel combed the West
End in search of the assailants. Scotland Yard publicized the reward on offer,
passed on descriptions of the villains to local police stations, and sought the
help of ­those who traded in diamonds. All ­these undertakings appeared to
have been rendered unnecessary when, the next morning, the Oxford police
phoned London to announce that three suspects had been apprehended.
Chief Inspector Leonard Burt, who was ­later best known for his work on
counterespionage and security a­ fter the war, was in charge of the investigation.5
Among his colleagues he had a reputation for being a gifted interrogator, and
that was the skill required at this stage of the case. Having detained the likely
suspects, the police no longer had to be concerned with detection and capture.

26   The Crime

Their goal now was to extract from the suspects a full account of the events of
December 20.
The Judges’ Rules stipulated that a police officer should first caution before
questioning or taking a statement. He repeated the caution when making a
formal charge: “Do you wish to say anything in answer to the charge? You are
not obliged to say anything ­u nless you wish to do so, but what­ever you say w
­ ill
be taken down in writing and may be used in evidence.” The rules held that
the police ­were not to cross-­examine or question anyone making a voluntary
statement. When they charged two or more persons with the same crime, they
had the accused read, correct, and sign their statements and exchange copies.
The rules stated that the police w
­ ere not to suggest that the accused had to
reply to their confederates’ statements.6
Burt’s best hope was that one or more of the accused would provide a full
confession. At the very least he knew, as a seasoned interrogator, that when
two or more individuals ­were charged with the same crime they almost always
abandoned their loyalty to each other and sought to save their skins. It was almost inevitable that each would attempt to minimize his own culpability while
shifting the blame onto o
­ thers. Burt’s tactic was to separate the suspects, have
them produce their self-­serving accounts, and then give them each other’s
statements to goad them into making further disclosures.
In Oxford the three suspects ­were first asked to give an account of their
movements on the after­noon of December 20. The blond-­haired Lonsdale reported that he had had a full day: he had brunch at a Lyons’ Corner House at
1:00, then went to the Monseigneur Cinema in Piccadilly, met a Mr. Wilby
(man­ag­er of the Florida nightclub in Bruton Mews), between 3:30 and 4:00 was
at the Quebec ­Hotel on business, then called at his ­father’s place at 155
Gloucester Terrace, proceeded to the Coburg Court ­Hotel where he made two
calls to Paris, took after­noon coffee on the Edgeware Road, and returned home
at about 5:45.7
Jenkins, the best looking of the three, gave a shorter but equally bland account of his uneventful after­noon in London’s West End. He had had a 1:00
p.m. lunch at a Lyons’ tea shop on Coventry Street, killed some time wandering about Mayfair, and had coffee at the Kardomah in Piccadilly; from 3:15 to
5:00 he was with his accountant, Lester Parry, then returned to his ­hotel
before ­going out that eve­ning to Jack’s Bar in Mayfair, where he got “pretty
tight.” He had had dinner on Curzon Street, met Wilmer, and together they

The Investigation   27

went to the 19th Club in Cork Street around midnight, where Lonsdale joined
them.8
Wilmer was not cooperative and would only state: “I drove down from
London to Oxford in my friend’s car. My friend being Mr. Blacker-­Douglas of
31 Hans Place, London. We started at about 3:30 am this morning and arrived
at Oxford at 6:30 am and Bourton-­on-­t he Hill at 8:30 am to stay with my aunt,
Lady Porter for Christmas, and I dropped Lonsdale and Jenkins at Oxford.”9
He refused to sign an official statement.
In London, on December 22 at the Gerald Street Police Station, the suspects ­were more forthcoming. The advice their solicitors offered no doubt
played a role. Lonsdale now stated that on December 20 between 12:15 and
12:45 he was at Stewart’s Restaurant on Bond Street, where Jenkins, Wilmer,
and a man he did not know told him of their scheme to use an expensive ­hotel
room as a front in which by some ruse they would trick a jeweler out of his
gems. He warned them that the plan was unwise and dangerous. He would not
participate. Nevertheless, that after­noon at about 2:30 out of curiosity he rang
up their h
­ otel room. “We have got a b
­ ottle up h
­ ere,” Wilmer told him. “You
might as well come up and have a drink.” He popped in for a few minutes and
was relieved to see t­here was ­little likelihood of anything resulting from his
friends’ undertaking.
Lonsdale made repeated references to his supposed involvement in the arms
trade. A
­ fter the drink at the h
­ otel he said he went off to confer with Wilby—­
“who has been financing me for the sale of Mausers” (­rifles)—­and on to see his
­father, who was g
­ oing to Paris that night “to protect my interests in the deal
which I have referred to before.” He made some calls to Paris and dined with
his ­father at Bertorelli’s near Westbourne Grove. Lonsdale was at a friend’s
(John Davies of Ivor Court, Gloucester Place) at 11:00 p.m. when Wilmer
called. Lonsdale and Davies joined him at the 19th Club. Jenkins and Richard
Blacker-­Douglas ­were also ­t here, as was the man who had been at Stewart’s,
who was now introduced as Michael Harley. Lonsdale stated that Jenkins appeared very ner­vous and asked for money. Lonsdale refused, telling Jenkins he
would only spend it on drink. They all moved on to an after-­hours drinking
establishment (referred to as a “­bottle party”) next door to the Florida nightclub. Lonsdale claimed he was now quite drunk and “for no par­t ic­u­lar reason”
opted to go off with the ­others to Oxford. They arrived about seven, and since
it was too early to impose on Wilmer’s aunt he and Jenkins took a room at the

28   The Crime

Clarendon. At a coffee stall by the train station he saw a newspaper report of
the robbery. To his amazement Wilmer and Jenkins now told him they ­were
involved in the affair but had had no idea that it would result in a violent assault. They added that when Harley “who had stayed in the suite unbeknown
to them had attacked the man most savagely,” they lost their nerve and fled.
Harley took all the jewels. What should they do? “Harley had apparently
threatened them with physical vio­lence if they did not keep their mouths shut.”
This explained why they had drunk so much the previous night. But b
­ ecause
he too was tired and hung­over, Lonsdale claimed he did not fully realize the
significance of what he heard, and went to bed.10
In Oxford, Wilmer had been taciturn; in London he declared that he was
now ready to make a “clean breast of it.”11 His story was that he, Lonsdale, and
Jenkins had cobbled together an amateurish plan of peacefully palming a diamond from a distracted jeweler. It was not clear exactly how they would do it.
“Our idea was r­ eally unformulated and our plan of action was left to chance in
that if an opportunity of getting possession of the jewellery did not occur,
Jenkins was simply ­going to say he needed time to consider the m
­ atter.” The
fourth person involved was to help facilitate their escape “and also he had arranged to carry, some adhesive plaster, a fixed strip which he might be able
to slip over the man’s mouth if he ­were manoeuvred near the door of the
bedroom.”12 But the fourth person’s attack on Bellenger was completely unexpected. Neither Jenkins nor Wilmer played any part in the assault. Horrified by the bloodshed, they immediately fled. Indeed, Wilmer claimed that he
was so “absolutely terrified” that he had trou­ble walking normally down the
­hotel steps.
­Later that same day Wilmer made further admissions: First, he named
Harley as the fourth man, the man who not only attacked Bellenger but took
possession of the loot that same night. “At this time Harley was endeavoring to
dispose of the jewellery.” Second, Wilmer admitted he was responsible for
dumping Harley’s weapon at a tube station. “In the taxi Harley gave me the
instrument he used wrapped up in the spotted scarf he had covered his face
with and told me to hide it in a public lavatory, which I did.”13 He reiterated
the argument that he was not fully responsible. “My mind is still very misty
regarding my movements ­after the assault, perhaps due in some part to the
whiskey I had drunk and did drink subsequently as well as fright.”14
In his December 22 statement Jenkins similarly stressed that the crime was
not thought out. In his telling it was no more than a drunken lark that got out

The Investigation   29

of hand. One eve­ning at his flat the three friends had all complained of being
short of money. They dreamed up a plan to book a ­hotel room ­u nder a well-­
known name and have a jeweler bring round an expensive engagement ring,
hoping that by some scam they would relieve him of it. T
­ here was never any
suggestion of employing vio­lence; they envisaged a s­imple confidence trick.
Wilmer had included Harley at the last minute, as he supposedly was in ­contact
with a fence. It was other­w ise understood that Harley’s only duty was to transport the rings. Meeting at Stewart’s Restaurant at 12:15 on December 20, they
worked out the final details of the operation. Jenkins described how he bought
a carnation and took a taxi to the Hyde Park H
­ otel, where he booked a suite.
Wilmer joined him shortly ­after 2:00 p.m. Harley showed up sometime ­later.
Lonsdale popped in but stayed for only a few minutes. Cartier’s representative
at first said he was not sure if they could send someone over, but soon telephoned to say that they would.
Jenkins asserted that Harley’s attack on Bellenger was completely unforeseen. “The next ­thing I knew Harley was coming from the bedroom. . . . ​I
saw one of his arms raised with an object in his hand. He looked desperate
and I flew out of the place and got on a bus to Knightsbridge.”15 That eve­n ing
Wilmer phoned him to say something terrible had happened and they should
meet at Jack’s Bar. Jenkins arrived to find Harley and Wilmer in a taxi outside.
They proceeded to the 19th Club, where Lonsdale joined them about 11:00 p.m.
They finished the night at the b
­ ottle party. Harley had the rings. “I was definitely
­under the influence of drink but I remember Harley showing me a handful of
diamond rings in a café in Curzon Street.” Wilmer’s advice was to lie low. He
was g
­ oing off to visit his aunt in the country. Lonsdale and Jenkins deci­ded to
accompany him as far as Oxford.16
By the night of December 22 the police had received a fairly full summation
of the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery. Lonsdale admitted to consorting with the
three ­others but insisted that he had cautioned them not to attempt anything
rash. He did not know a robbery had been committed and knew nothing about
Harley’s assault u
­ ntil Wilmer and Jenkins informed him in Oxford. The stories that Wilmer and Jenkins told ­were slightly dif­fer­ent. They conceded that
they had had the silly notion of acquiring a diamond by some sleight of hand.
But whereas Lonsdale said the idea was theirs alone, they included him as one
of the architects of the plan. They all concurred, however, that they never envisaged that vio­lence would occur and consequently w
­ ere terrified when Harley pummeled Bellenger. They had been stupid and drunk. Harley had been

30   The Crime

vicious. He had wielded the cosh and taken the rings. If anyone ­were guilty of
robbery with vio­lence it was Harley. Where was he?
Robert Honey Fabian, one of the best-­k nown Scotland Yard detectives,
claimed the credit for solving what he called in his memoirs “the case of the
Mayfair Playboys.”17 He asserted that the morning a­ fter the robbery an in­for­
mant phoned to say that the night before he saw several “geezers” with rings in
a café “palled-up with a fence.”18 He d
­ idn’t know them, but “they looked like
proper college toffs to me.” From Fabian’s photo collection of ­people on the
margins of high society, cut out of the glossy weeklies, the grass, or in­for­mant,
identified Harley. At 1:55 on December 21, Fabian and Inspector Hayward accosted Harley at the post office in Queen Street, and he agreed to accompany
the officers to the Vine Street Police Station.19
In his first statement on December 21 the mustachioed Robert Harley (also
known as Michael Harley) stated that he had not done much on December 20.
He visited his ill ­brother and left his coat with him. He lunched at Stewart’s
but saw no one he knew. Between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. he was at the Spotted Dog,
where he bumped into David Wilmer. They had several scotches and then
went to some other pubs; he was too drunk to recall which ones. He heard
that someone said he looked like one of the robbery suspects, but he had not
been at the Hyde Park ­Hotel in a long time.20 His account was dutifully recorded, but even as he spoke detectives w
­ ere finding evidence that undermined
his story.
At 4:00 p.m. on December 21 police went to 50a Curzon Street, a block of
ser­v ice flats, apartments that offered ­hotel ser­v ices. Harley had rented flat 14
since December 7. In his rooms investigators found an empty Chesterfield
cigarette packet that matched the one discarded at the Hyde Park H
­ otel. Detective Inspector Percy McDouall more importantly discovered in a writing
bureau drawer two “life preservers.”21 In Fabian’s self-­aggrandizing account he
and Hayward ­were the ones who, in searching Harley’s rooms, found the cigarette package and a bill for life preservers.22 He also claimed he knew Harley
was associated with Lonsdale and Jenkins.23
Peter James Kearney, a valet at Curzon Street, l­ater provided helpful
­information on Harley’s associates. Wilmer had visited Harley on several occasions, the last time being the eve­n ing of Sunday, December 19. On Monday,
December 20, Harley went out at 10:00 in the morning, returning Tuesday
morning. And Harley wore, the valet recalled, a distinctive “teddy bear
coat.”24

The Investigation   31

In his autobiography Fabian says he knew Harley but does not mention
how. Harley was in fact a police informer. When he was formally detained on
the morning of December 22 he asked if he could see Fabian privately. He then
asked him if he could talk about their relationship. Fabian said he could. At the
same time Fabian in­de­pen­dently informed his superiors that he had known
“Mike Harley” as an informer since October 20, 1937.25
The in­for­mant (spy, grass, or nose) according to Cecil Bishop, a Scotland
Yard veteran, was crucial in real policing, though rarely mentioned in thrillers.
One set a thief to catch a thief. Each officer jealously guarded his own in­for­
mants. The public, most policemen, and the underworld despised such spies, but
many felons could find no other source of work and relied on the money paid out
of the “Information Fund.” Bishop warned that normally they should not be
called to testify in person, for in court they ­were easily discredited. Judges
understood that the names of in­for­mants would usually not be provided. When
giving evidence the police officer would simply say, “From information received,
I understood that . . .”26
In his second statement Harley placed his actions in this context. If his be­
hav­ior ­were suspicious, he argued, it was ­because he was a police informer. He
had called Fabian at Gerrard 2604 on Sunday, December 12, and left a message. He called again on Saturday, December 18, and told him he could alert
him to an impor­tant event that would occur the following Monday or Tuesday.
His account of his movements on December 20 was cryptic. He said that much
of the day he attended his sick ­brother at 22 Wright’s Lane, Ken­sington. Leaving his distinctive teddy bear coat at his ­brother’s, he departed for the Hyde
Park ­Hotel, arriving at about 4:15. He was ­t here for only fifteen minutes. He
did not say how, but that eve­ning he came to have the rings in his possession.
As it was too late to hand them over to the authorities, he hid them. His plan
was to contact the insurers the next day, but as he was coming out of the post
office at about 2:00 p.m. on December 22 he ran into Fabian and Hayward,
who took him along to Vine Street, where he made his first statement. Harley
underlined that he had helped Fabian in a similar situation once before. In the
case of the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery he insisted that his sole object was to get
the insurance money. In other words he simply wanted the reward offered for
the return of the diamonds. He now realized that he had acted foolishly and
concluded by saying ­either “We’d better go and get the stuff ” or “And now I’ll
take you to the rocks.”27 In any event, at 2:00 p.m. Burt and Hayward accompanied him to a small, first-­floor room at 22 Wright’s Lane. ­There Hayward

32   The Crime

found hidden ­behind the waste pipe of a washbasin two sealed envelopes. Inside w
­ ere eight diamond rings.28
The tabloids w
­ ere to attribute the capture of the four Mayfair men and the
recovery of the rings to a “brilliant police investigation.” In real­ity the utter
incompetence of the robbers was their undoing. They had neither disguises
nor alibis prepared, and no flight plan in place. The News Chronicle reported
that a pi­lot offered to fly them to Belgium, but they did not have the £150 he
demanded.29 Most impor­tant of all, they failed to do what any seasoned jewel
thief knew was essential: have a fence standing by who—­paying a small percentage of the true value of the gems—­would dispose of the loot within a few
hours.30
To confirm Harley’s role in the robbery Burt had him participate in an
identity parade. Burt had the first attempt scrubbed when Harley objected that
he was the only tall man in the lineup. A
­ fter the police found the rings they
or­ga­n ized a second parade, at 5:00 p.m. Sloan and Clarke, the lift operators
from the Hyde Park H
­ otel, thought they had seen Harley before, but they w
­ ere
not sure when. Their testimony, complained Burt, was “useless.” More troubling was that none of the other witnesses recognized him.31
At this stage Burt showed Harley the statements of Jenkins and Wilmer
implicating him in the assault on Bellenger. He responded by making a further statement, which attempted to shift the blame back to them. He now admitted that on December 20 he left his flat at 10:45 to meet Wilmer and then
went to Stewart’s Restaurant to join Jenkins and Lonsdale. It was Jenkins and
Wilmer who proposed that he knock out the Cartier representative. “A definite proposition was put to me by both Wilmer and Jenkins that I should hide
in a suite and knock him out when they had maneuvered him into a suitable
position. As I had anticipated that they had intended only a confidence trick I
was naturally taken aback, but I tentatively acquiesced.”32 He pretended to
agree, but only so as to know where and when the robbery would take place. In
making it clear that he was not g
­ oing to be the fall guy, Harley sowed further seeds of dissent. “I wish to add that I was not particularly surprised at
their suggestion of vio­lence, as, in the previous case in which I assisted Inspector Fabian, Wilmer suggested in front of my ­brother and another witness that
I do practically the same t­ hing to Jenkins to obtain his £655.”33 Harley insisted
that he only had gone to the ­hotel at about 4:30. Entering via the Buttery Entrance, down a passage by the barbershop to the lobby, he ran into Wilmer,
who was hurrying to the front exit. They went together by taxi to Green Park

The Investigation   33

Station and on to Piccadilly, where Wilmer used the toilet.34 Harley made this
statement at 9:30 p.m. on December 22. At 10:00 a.m. the next morning at the
Westminster police court Burt showed it to Harley’s confederates.
The police w
­ ere unhappy with the staff of the Hyde Park H
­ otel for their
difficulties in identifying the suspects. This was brought home when the Daily
Mail splashed photo­g raphs of the four accused on its pages on December 24.35
As a result, on December 27, Reginald Kelly, a receptionist at the ­hotel, identified Jenkins as the man who had engaged the suite ­u nder the name P. L.
Hambro.36 William Peter Jefferies, Kelly’s colleague, in reviewing the photos
recognized Wilmer as the man who was on the third floor when Bellenger got
out of the lift.37 Thanks to the pictures, Enrico Laurenti identified Jenkins as
the first man and thought Harley “resembled” the second.38 Sloan in a further
statement admitted he picked out the wrong man in the identity parade. From
the press photos he was now certain it was Jenkins, not Harley.39 Clarke went
to the identification parade at the Gerald Road Police Station on December 22
and picked out Harley whom he remembered having seen at ­the hotel on
December 20. But Harley was not the man he had described in his original statement.40 Henrietta Gordon recognized Jenkins and Harley in the Daily Mail
photos but could not identify anyone in the December 22 lineup.41 Saying that
she could recognize the suspect by his teeth, Gordon asked Harley to take his
hand away and smile, but she still failed to recognize him.42
The police tracked down other witnesses. Jenkins had been staying at the
New Clarges H
­ otel since about December 10. The hall porter stated that
Wilmer and Harley had visited Jenkins on December 20, between 10:00 and
1:15. Jenkins was out all after­noon, returning in the eve­ning between 5:20 and
6:00.43 Greta Vaughn, ­house­keeper at the Mayfair ­Hotel, Down Street, Piccadilly, said Lonsdale was a guest t­here from December 14 to 20, registered
­u nder the name of Mainwaring. At around 2:00 p.m. on December 20 she saw
him drinking in the lounge with Wilmer and Harley. She had seen this group
together on previous occasions. When asked to s­ ettle his bill for £3 19s. 6d.,
Lonsdale said he would pay at 6:00 p.m. To the question, “Can you rely upon
that?” he replied, “Absolutely.” Overhearing Wilmer wondering aloud if she
wanted money, she snapped: “Yes, I do.” They left at 2:15. Harley was wearing
a teddy bear coat, Lonsdale a navy blue coat, and Wilmer a camel hair coat.44
Despite the spotty quality of the eyewitness evidence, within a few days the
police believed that they had gathered enough material to warrant the Department of Public Prosecutions g
­ oing to trial. They had the incriminating s­ tatements

34   The Crime

of the four accused. All ­were socially well connected but prob­ably had been involved in previous cases of fraud and larceny. Lonsdale was a deserter. If he had
not participated in the robbery he nevertheless was part of the conspiracy that led
to it.45 ­There was now bad blood among the accused, and Burt believed that at the
very least Jenkins would testify against Harley. Harley had a reputation for vio­
lence, but no convictions. He had, in Burt’s words, put “forward a fantastic and
carefully thought out story of assisting Police and restoring the property to the
insurance assessors.”46 The police in addition had physical evidence. They had
the h
­ otel registration written in Jenkins’s hand. They had found Wilmer and
Jenkins’s fingerprints on the drinking glasses used in room 305.47 In Harley’s
flat, detectives had uncovered two life preservers, with cord attachments identical to the cord found at the Hyde Park H
­ otel. Burt was pleased to report, “A
representative of Messers Gamages, Holborn, ­w ill say that at about 2 pm the
day of the robbery he sold two life preservers to a man answering the description
of Harley.” 48
At Westminster Police Court on December 23, before Magistrate Ronald
Powell, the four men ­were charged with robbery with vio­lence. Powell granted
an application to allow Wilmer to see his wife and Harley to see his ­brother.49
­Because of Bellenger’s condition the judge refused to grant bail to the accused.
He extended their remand, and they continued to be held in custody at Brixton
Prison.50 In January, Vincent Evans, director of Public Prosecutions, added
the charge of conspiring to commit robbery.51 As ­there was no evidence of
Lonsdale being at the h
­ otel at the time of the attack on Bellenger, his barrister
argued that he should be discharged. The magistrate disagreed, pointing out
that t­ here was a conspiracy and he was charged with being an accessory before
the fact—­t hat is, he had aided and abetted ­others to commit a crime.52
The police ­were confident that within a ­matter of days they had tracked
down all the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbers. ­Others ­were not so sure. Several in­for­
mants asserted that Lonsdale’s friend Victor Hervey was also involved.53 Hervey’s name came up in a report Detective Constable W. Chamberlain and
­Detective Sergeant Heathfield of Kent County submitted to the commissioner. An informer told them that Hervey was the gang’s ringleader. In December he was supposedly in France or Germany collecting loot from other
jobs and was three days late returning. As a result the ­others panicked and
bungled the robbery at the Hyde Park H
­ otel. Stewart Cappel, eigh­teen to
nineteen years of age, was a friend of the four accused and, along with his ­sister
Betty Cappel, about twenty, visited Lonsdale in Brixton on January 14 or 15.

The Investigation   35

Stewart, having suspicious amounts of money on occasion, the in­for­mant said,
was somehow involved in the robbery. The in­for­mant was afraid that if the
gang found out that Cappel passed on information they would punish him.54
The snitch concluded by suggesting that if the rings had not yet been located,
he could help. A few days l­ater another unnamed in­for­mant, being questioned
about his link with Lonsdale and Harley, mentioned the relationship between
Lonsdale, Hervey, and Stewart Cappel. The authorities knew that Lonsdale
and Hervey ­were involved in delivering arms to the Spanish right-­w ing rebels.
The in­for­mant said that Stewart Cappel was also engaged in the scheme and all
three could be connected to the Hyde Park H
­ otel robbery.55
Burt set out to squash ­t hese rumors. Writing to the superintendent, he said
that it was true that Miss Cappel of 26 Basil Street, Knightsbridge, visited
Brixton Prison on January 14, but she saw Wilmer and Jenkins, not Lonsdale.
Turning to the report of the superintendent of the Kent County Constabulary, who had suggested that Victor Hervey was an accomplice of the four
­accused, Burt stated categorically: “I know the Hon. Victor Hervey, son of Lord
Hervey, very well, and I am aware that he is associated with the four men in
custody, but I am satisfied that he is in no way implicated in the m
­ atter of robbery which is now before the Court.”56 Despite such assertions, ­there ­were some
who continued to believe that Hervey’s relationship with the Mayfair playboys
had yet to be clarified.
The solicitor Reginald Thomas Philip Bennett, of Speed and Com­pany,
also played a shadowy role in the proceedings. Wilmer claimed that he spent
most of December 20, the day of the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery, dealing with
Bennett. Harley sought similar cover. On December 30, Horst Robert Leopold
Bonsack informed the police that the day of the robbery a man believed to be
Harley offered Bennett £100 to support his alibi. According to Bonsack the
unscrupulous Bennett had once been struck off the Law Register. He added
that Jenkins had been robbed of £600—­prob­ably by his colleagues—­but had
not called the police. Bennett somehow resolved the dispute.57
Equally mysterious was the fact that the cash-­strapped Harley suddenly
came into a sizeable amount of money. In early February the governor of Brixton Prison notified Scotland Yard that Harley’s ­brother had visited the prisoner. A prison officer sat in on the meeting and reported that Harley told his
­brother (now living at 171a High Street, Ken­sington) to see Mr. Ellis Lincoln,
of 118 Upper Street, Islington—­a solicitor who had not ­u ntil now acted for
Harley. He wanted Lincoln to help him open a bank account with £1,000. He

36   The Crime

asked his b
­ rother to contact A. Kramer (Wilmer and Lonsdale’s solicitor), who
would give him a sealed packet that he was to take to the bank. He was not to
tell Harley’s current solicitor, Emanuel Garber, anything about this transaction,
but he was to reassure Lincoln that it was “perfectly honest money.” On the
way back to his cell Harley appeared anxious to tell the officer that t­ hese transactions w
­ ere necessary since his old bank asked him to close his account with
them.58 But where did the money come from? What did he do to earn it? Was
he being paid to take the fall for the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbery or, at the very
least, not to compromise a wealthy friend?
The police did not pursue such issues. They congratulated themselves on a
job well done and split the £80 of reward money provided by Lloyds. Chief
Inspector Burt received £21, Detective Inspector Fabian £17, and so on down
to Detective Lewis at £5.59 Burt noted the trial “created unusual interest and
publicity.” 60 He recognized the assistance provided by the police in Oxford
(who ­were given £20); Moreton-­in-­Marsh, Gloucestershire; Newbury, Berkshire; and Andover, Hampshire.61 In London most of the investigation was the
work of B Division, with help from Fabian from C Division and Inspector
Cherrill of the Fingerprint Bureau. Burt particularly hailed the contribution
of Fabian, who was responsible for Harley’s second statement and the handing
over of the rings. A March report praised the work of both Burt and Fabian.
Without their skillful h
­ andling of the prisoners, it stated, difficulties would
have arisen. What the police meant by this cryptic remark was not clarified.
Did it relate to their use of in­for­mants? Or aggressive interrogation techniques?
The author of the report restricted himself to mysteriously concluding, “The
details of it do not and cannot appear on this file.” 62
Scotland Yard’s work did not end with the filing of the robbery charges.
Between the time of the arrests of the suspects in December 1937 and their
trial in February 1938 police and newspaper reporters in Britain and North
Amer­i­ca continued to collect information on the backgrounds of the four
young detainees. The result was a detailed and disturbing portrait of the dark
side of London’s polite society.

Chapter 3: THE SUSPECTS

In constructing an image of the Hyde Park ­Hotel robbers the press drew as
much from popu­lar notions of the lives of the rich as from police reports:
“Four men who gate-­crashed parties, night clubs and restaurants. All of good
­family, all four public school boys, one the son of a general. High life they
certainly had—­all of them. They followed the sun, they travelled in luxury,
they spent thousands of pounds seeking plea­sure. They gambled, they bickered over the finer points of rare wines, they ­were pictured in magazines as
fashionable-­young-­men-­about-­town.”1 The writers of such gossipy accounts
called the suspects “playboys” and projected onto them what they believed to
be their audience’s desires and fantasies. Readers often found the results entertaining, but a deeper look at the checkered pasts of t­ hese four young men on
the make reveals more about their pos­si­ble motives, and about the society in
which they operated.
John Christopher Mainwaring Lonsdale was in some ways the most marginal of the four suspects. The twenty-­four-­year-­old Lonsdale—­plump, with
his blond hair already thinning—­had been born in Alberta, Canada, in 1914.
Though his ties to the country w
­ ere tenuous, the Canadian press took a perverse pride in referring to him as a “Calgary native.”2 In fact he came from a
well-­respected En­glish f­amily whose home was the Further House, Wimborne, Dorset.3 His grand­father, the Reverend John Henry Lonsdale, had spent
some years as a barrister with chambers at 4 Kings Bench Walk before being
ordained in 1887 and appointed to the curacy of Wimborne Minster.4 He had
two sons. Arthur, the younger, educated at Radley and Trinity College, Cambridge, was killed at Neuve Chapelle on March 13, 1915.5 The elder, John
Claude Jardine Lonsdale, born in 1889, immigrated to Canada in 1908, when
he was only eigh­teen.6 Georgina Beatrice, his f­ uture wife, had come as a child

38   The Crime

in 1900. In 1916, John Claude Lonsdale and Georgina Beatrice Lonsdale w
­ ere
living in ­Macleod, Alberta, with their two-­year-­old son, John Christopher.7
During the war John Claude came back to Britain and enlisted in the Third
Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment; he was promoted to second lieutenant
and l­ater captain.8 He returned to Canada once the conflict ended. The 1921
census had the Lonsdales living in Ellice, Manitoba. In fact they appear to
have been quite peripatetic, which was often a signifier of mi­g rants’ inability
to establish themselves. Passenger lists document a number of the young John
Christopher’s trans-­Atlantic crossings. The ­family fi­nally settled in ­England,
John Claude becoming a successful businessman well known in the City.
For what­ever reason, John Christopher failed to win the public re­spect garnered by his ­father and grand­father.9 This was despite having ­every social advantage. He was educated at Radley College (founded in 1847), a prestigious
in­de­pen­dent boarding school for boys on the southern outskirts of Oxford. He
left Radley in 1929, head of the upper modern sixth. He learned French in
Lausanne and claimed to have studied for the diplomatic ser­v ice in Munich,
Paris, and Berlin, though he never stated exactly when or where. Similarly, one
has to take at face value his boast that at eigh­teen he worked in Paris as secretary for the American actress Marilyn Miller.10
We do know that at nineteen Lonsdale enlisted in the King’s Royal R
­ ifles.
Apparently garrison life did not suit him, and his ­father bought him out.11 In
November 1933 he joined the RAF and was appointed an acting pi­lot officer.
He served briefly in Egypt. In 1934 his short ser­v ice commission was terminated, and he was discharged for overstaying his leave in Marseilles, making
false statements, and issuing worthless checks.12 ­Under the name of “Trevelyan” that same year he joined the Dorsetshire Regiment, in which his f­ather
had served. He once again regretted his decision, but rather than be bought
out, he simply deserted. His unit still listed him as a deserter when he was detained in 1937.13
Lonsdale drifted into ever more serious forms of criminality. In November 1933 he insured his jewelry through Cox and Kings Insurance Ltd. In
January 1934 he put in a claim and received in return a check for £7 8s. 6d. at
the No. 4 Flying Training School, RAF, Abu-­Sueir, Egypt. But in February,
now living in Paris, he asked for a stop payment order to be made on the check
and a fresh one drafted. When the ­Hotel Ritz discovered that he had pocketed
the cash from the second check and used the first invalidated check to pay his
restaurant bill they went a­ fter his insurers, who in turn informed the police.14

The Suspects   39

Given Lonsdale’s shady reputation it was ironic that his sole financial coup
resulted from winning a slander suit. Miss Pamela Blake, the twenty-­year-­old
­daughter of Lady Twysden, of Nea House, Highcliffe was the defendant. The
case went to trial on June 17, 1936. Norman Birkett, regarded by many as Britain’s most formidable barrister, represented Lonsdale. He charged that on
March 6, 1936, Miss Blake—­portrayed in the press as a “young society girl” or
debutante—­told a girl at the Florida nightclub in Bruton Mews, Mayfair, that
Lonsdale had a venereal disease. “Moon (which was the pet name of another
girl) is ­going out with John Lonsdale, who has the—­—.” On March 7 at the
bar of the May Fair H
­ otel she went on to assert that Lonsdale had inherited
the complaint from his f­ather. “He (the plaintiff ) has hereditary—­—. That
is why—­—[another girl] dropped him.”15 In the witness box, Lonsdale adamantly denied that ­t here was any truth in the allegation. He presented himself
as indifferent to any financial compensation but driven by an honorable desire
to curb destructive gossip. “­There is too much loose talk ­going on in Mayfair.
Reputations are ruined by the lightest whisper or innuendo which grows
alarmingly as it is passed on.”16
Birkett stressed that Lonsdale’s conscience compelled him to take ­legal proceedings. He insisted that his client was not seeking a large monetary reward;
he simply sought the vindication of his honor. Nevertheless, a meaningful
penalty had to be provided, Birkett asserted, as Lonsdale’s reputation had been
severely damaged.17 For a businessman like Lonsdale, who claimed to be the
assistant secretary to the International Exchange and Clearing Corporation
Ltd., a financial ­house in the City, such a disparaging attack could entail real
costs.18
No defense was offered. Pamela Blake’s solicitors, Joynson-­H icks and Com­
pany, had written to Lonsdale’s solicitors on April 17: “She desires through us
to convey to your client her unqualified apology for any pain which her words
may have caused him. She is also prepared to do all that she can to put the
­matter right, and with this end in view, is agreeable to signing any proper form
of apology and withdrawal you think fit which your client can show.” In court
her counsel added: “I ask you to bear in mind that this girl is only 20 years of
age, and however much one regrets that she should publish such slanders, you
cannot expect a person of that age to have the restraint and wisdom of ­people
of more advanced age.”19 The sitting judge was not impressed. In his summation, Lord Hewart said that it would be difficult to imagine anything more
disgusting or repulsive than Blake’s statements. She now admitted that t­ here

40   The Crime

was not a word of truth in the disgraceful allegations. He concluded his stern
lecture in awarding Lonsdale £500 damages.20 Lonsdale would meet Birkett
and Hewart again in less happy circumstances two years ­later. For the moment, however, he was triumphant.
Miss Blake married a few months ­later.21 Though Lonsdale won his slander
case, in so d
­ oing he lost a marriage. He had launched his suit in April 1936. On
May 1, 1936, the press employed the traditional formula in announcing that “a
marriage had been arranged” between John Lonsdale, son of J. C. J. Lonsdale
of Wimborne and Mrs. Lonsdale of Paris, and Evelyne, younger d
­ aughter of
22
Mr. and Mrs. Mervyn Wolseley of Sutton Park, Guildford. Miss Wolseley
initially supported Lonsdale. The press quoted her as saying:
I knew John was innocent of all the nasty ­t hings that ­were said about him and I
was determined to clear his name. He knew nothing of the beastly rumours u
­ ntil
I told him and we immediately started to trace them to their source. I believed
John so completely that when he proposed to me a­ fter he had started the action,
I accepted, knowing full well his honour would be vindicated in the courts. It is
unfortunately true that Mayfair is a hive of gossip and I hope that the action in
which John has succeeded ­w ill help ­towards putting an end to such scandal
mongering.23

Her parents w
­ ere undoubtedly unhappy to see the sexual health of their f­ uture
son-­in-­law made a subject of tabloid discussion. The trial in mid-­June took its
toll. On June 27, the Times carried the announcement that the Lonsdale-­
Wolseley marriage would not take place.24
Lonsdale had other proj­ects on the go. He appe