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Playboys and Mayfair Men

Playboys and Mayfair Men


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-free paper

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Johns Hopkins University Press

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Baltimore, Maryland 21218-4363

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

A catalog record for this book is available from the British Library.

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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.




Part I: The Crime

1. The Robbery

2. The Investigation

3. The Suspects

4. The Trial

5. The Aftermath

Part II: The Context

6. Pain

7. Masculinity

8. Crime

9. Class

10. Fascism





When I first came across ne; wspaper 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 English and the Americans are two peoples 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.”a Friends and colleagues were more understanding. Taking time out of their busy schedules, Lucy Bland, Stephen Brooke, Brian Dippie, Jack Little, 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 these 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.”

a 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.


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 whether the respectable newspaper which I am sure you and Edwin take, had an account of the trial over here 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 were 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 otherwise 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 thing. Over the gate of every prison there might with truth be 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 were 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 were judged in interwar Britain.5 Bland in particular 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 trials, 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 great that women 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

The figure of the playboy poses a second paradox. Women’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 others 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 there 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 matters. 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 women.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 were often wracked by competing desires. Martin Francis points out that in the 1930s some were “attracted by the responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood, but also enchanted by various escapist fantasies (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 free 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 were 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 great 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 going on at the back of those 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-known 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 was also the clubland zone, where Buchan heroes … belonged socially, and where young unattached men could encounter adventure.”18

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

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 works of Seth Koven, Ellen Ross, John Marrriott, Gareth Stedman Jones, and Judith Walkowitz; on Soho those of Judith Walkowitz and Frank Mort; and on Holloway a book by Jerry White.19 Most, if not all, of these scholars were drawn to the subjects living in these 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 middle 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 were 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. Going 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-Ambion where a beaten fox escaped among fresh foxes after a fine hunt of over two hours. Hounds did not find again.22

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—their engagements, weddings, dances, presentations 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 doing 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 particular 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 doings of the West End elite. The Times, the leading broadsheet, was the newspaper of record and provides reliable coverage of the most important trials. 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 photographs. 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 photographs 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 simple titles. The tabloids set out to seduce the reader with sensational banner headlines. The Times’s main articles on the Cartier robbery were “Diamond Ring Theft,” “Robbery with Violence,” “Jewel Robbery Charge,” and “Jewel Robbery Sentences.”25 The 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-wing publication like the Daily Mail raised the specter of Bolshevik and trade unionist 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-wing 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 Hotel 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 underlies 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 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 these micro-narratives, we then turn to the larger picture. After 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 particular 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 until 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 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 middle class by flaunting an interest in fashion, seeking thrills in motorcars and airplanes, abandoning homes for hotels and nightclubs, and pursuing wealthy women. 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 particular those 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, those who debated such important 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-known playboys who switched their political allegiances, this chapter seeks to explain why commentators in the 1930s assumed that personal lifestyle choices were 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)—that 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’ interest was aroused not because there was a sudden surge in the actual number of hedonistic males but because the concept of the playboy proved useful for those trying to explain, or explain away, disturbing social shifts, particularly those involving relations between men and women.

Though the 1938 Hyde Park Hotel robbery and the responses to it have been long forgotten, there 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 Hotel robbery trial. On the front page of its February 19, 1938, issue it included a bizarre photograph that showed Robert Harley (one of the accused) and five friends at a nightclub. The caption stated that he “was known by many famous people in the West End,” but in fact the reader could only recognize Harley in the photo. As the paper explained, “A number of prominent people were there, and at their request the Daily Express has had all faces, but Harley’s painted out.”34 The doctoring of this photograph 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 geographical milieu.

Part I: The Crime

IN 1929, under 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 ride,” 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 until 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 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 were maintaining a century-old tradition, as were 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 these popular papers it is possible to trace the careers 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 trials 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 these young men were, 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 there had been snow at midday; ice and fog made driving treacherous and contributed to the interruption of commuter rail services. There were 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-nine-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 woman, 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 hotel 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 were effectively countered in the first instance by where the request originated. The opulent Hyde Park Hotel—ostentatiously flaunting its turrets, balconies, and pillared porticos—was located at 66 Knightsbridge, one 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 grand 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

The Hyde Park Hotel

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 was not just anyone; he had registered as Captain P. L. Hambro of Wimborne Court, Dorset. The Hambros were a well-known financial dynasty. C. J. Hambro, a Danish merchant, established the Hambros Bank in 1839. In the twentieth century, 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 were 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 under 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 were 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 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 running, 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 don’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 until 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

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 bottle 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 were involved—the one who called himself Captain Hambro and booked the room, his “secretary,” and the man who wielded the cosh. All three, according to Bellenger, were in their twenties and wore dark lounge suits.16

The hotel 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 until 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 bottle 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 there 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-gray, double-breasted overcoat, 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 hotel’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 particular 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 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 going 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 unless 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 will 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 hotel gave them a large room with two beds. Their 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 these three well-dressed fellows, he asked himself, be the men the police were 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. There 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 woman answered.36 The two suspects then attempted to slip out the hotel’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 under 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 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 there 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 Service and had important 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 under. 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-the-Hill, 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 every 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 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-twenties. 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?


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 photographs 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 bottle, two tumblers, and a siphon.4 He returned the bottle, one-quarter full, to the hotel manager. That night the officers who rushed to the hotel 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 after 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. 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 unless you wish to do so, but whatever you say will 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 were 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 others. 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 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-the 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 hotel room. “We have got a bottle up here,” 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. After the drink at the hotel 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 going 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 there, 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 particular 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 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 because 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 really 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 matter.” 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 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 under 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. There 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 otherwise 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 Hotel, 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 evening 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 bottle 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 going 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 until 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 were terrified when Harley pummeled Bellenger. They had been stupid and drunk. Harley had been 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-known 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 after the robbery an informant phoned to say that the night before he saw several “geezers” with rings in a café “palled-up with a fence.”18 He didn’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 were finding evidence that undermined his story.

At 4:00 p.m. on December 21 police went to 50a Curzon Street, a block of service flats, apartments that offered hotel services. 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 Hotel. 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 evening 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

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 informants. 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 behavior 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 there 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 found hidden behind the waste pipe of a washbasin two sealed envelopes. Inside were eight diamond rings.28

The tabloids were 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. After the police found the rings they organized a second parade, at 5:00 p.m. Sloan and Clarke, the lift operators from the Hyde Park Hotel, thought they had seen Harley before, but they were 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 going 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 thing 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 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 were unhappy with the staff of the Hyde Park Hotel for their difficulties in identifying the suspects. This was brought home when the Daily Mail splashed photographs 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 under 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 Hotel 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 under 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 settle 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 going to trial. They had the incriminating statements 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 violence, 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 hotel 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 Hotel. Burt was pleased to report, “A representative of Messers Gamages, Holborn, will 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 hotel at the time of the attack on Bellenger, his barrister argued that he should be discharged. The magistrate disagreed, pointing out that there was a conspiracy and he was charged with being an accessory before the fact—that 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 informants 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 Hotel. 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. 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-wing rebels. The informant said that Stewart Cappel was also engaged in the scheme and all three could be connected to the Hyde Park Hotel robbery.55

Burt set out to squash these 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 matter 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 until now acted for Harley. He wanted Lincoln to help him open a bank account with £1,000. He asked his brother 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 these transactions were 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 handling 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.


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 these 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 were 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 future wife, had come as a child in 1900. In 1916, John Claude Lonsdale and Georgina Beatrice Lonsdale were 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 migrants’ 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 service 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 Rifles. 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 service 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 after his insurers, who in turn informed the police.14

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 Hotel 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 there 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-Hicks and Company, 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 there 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 doing 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 daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Mervyn Wolseley of Sutton Park, Guildford.22 Miss Wolseley initially supported Lonsdale. The press quoted her as saying:

I knew John was innocent of all the nasty things that were said about him and I was determined to clear his name. He knew nothing of the beastly rumours until I told him and we immediately started to trace them to their source. I believed John so completely that when he proposed to me after 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 will help towards putting an end to such scandal mongering.23

Her parents were undoubtedly unhappy to see the sexual health of their future 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 appears to have learned to fly in the RAF. Like many wealthy young men in the interwar period, he regarded the airplane as offering new technological powers that the elite had to recognize and embrace. He was associated in some way with the right-wing National League of Airmen, established in 1935 by the press baron Lord Rothermere, publisher of the Daily Mail and a fascist sympathizer. Rothermere’s plan was to use a group of young pilots, led by Norman Macmillan and Montague Smith, to impress on the public the need to catch up to Germany in the race for air power.25

In 1936 Lonsdale met the Honorable Victor Hervey, a rich and notorious ne’er-do-well. The two young playboys discovered that they not only had similar interests in flying and conservative politics. They were also both excited at the prospect of the money that could be made in gunrunning to the combatants in the Spanish Civil War. A detailed account of their undertaking is provided in chapter 10. Here it only has to be noted that they failed completely. Hervey incurred enormous debts. He was declared bankrupt at the age of twenty-one, to the tune of £124,000.26 Lonsdale, needing to ferret out some means of surviving, fell back on fraud.

Lonsdale spent most of 1937 in France. Some of his activities came to the notice of the authorities. In November 1937, Rudolph Slavik, a barman at the Hotel George V, complained to the Paris police that Lonsdale had used a bad check to defraud him of 1,000 francs. When he heard of Lonsdale’s arrest in England, he appealed to Scotland Yard for assistance but was informed that Lonsdale, who was awaiting trial, had “no means.” Therefore nothing could be done about the check stamped “returned R.D.” (“Refer to Drawer,” meaning payment suspended).27

Élie Lévy made a more serious charge. Lévy, a Parisian jeweler, asserted that Lonsdale had swindled him out of a ring worth 85,000 francs. The Paris inspector general wrote to the commissioner of police in London that on December 10, 1937, a warrant had been issued obliging Lonsdale (who now c