I have chosen to begin this journey into the world of archives with the subject of my first thesis: the Profumo Affair.
I have mixed feelings about the name ‘The Profumo Affair’ as the events that unfolded in June 1963 were about so much more than a six week affair between John Profumo, Minster for War and Christine Keeler, a teenage social climber and purported prostitute. When John Profumo lied to the House of Commons about his affair with Keeler, a series of events unfolded that would ultimately lead to one man’s suicide.
For me, the most intriguing character of the ‘scandal’ is the man who lost his life: Dr Stephen Ward.
Ward, who introduced Profumo to Keeler, was ultimately put on trial for ‘living off immoral earnings’ and for ‘procuring’. Many people – historians, press and public – postulate that the trial was simply a way to throw the attention from Profumo and the Conservative Government onto Ward. Thus helping them reclaim the establishment’s dignity and that this relentless scapegoating eventually lead to Ward’s suicide on 3 August 1963.
Many of the documents in the National Archives that relate to the Profumo Affair and the Stephen Ward trial are sealed until 2048. (This is actually not as shady as it sounds, documents are sometimes sealed when evidence is given in confidence and you’re unaware of the age of the adult in question. It is assumed they are 16 and the document is therefore sealed for 84 years, pretty much ensuring their death.) However, the letter below is from an unsealed document, a small folder with letters pertaining to a conversation between Ms Jane Picton and Mr Michael Harrison. Could this shed some light on whether Ward was, in fact, scapegoated?
I was travelling to London from Gerrards Cross by train on Saturday, October 19, and met Mr. Michael Harrison of Upholland, Ethorpe Close, Gerrards Cross, Bucks, whom I knew slightly. He has been trained as a Barrister, and on the conversation coming round to the subject of the legal profession he told me of the following tale:
He had on some occasion been talking to the son of Mr. Burge, the Counsel who had defended Stephen Ward. Burge’s son had said, talking of Ward’s trial, that his father had a tape recording of a telephone conversation between the Judge at the trial and some other person. In the course of this telephone conversation it was mentioned that the Judge had been told, by the administration that Ward was to be found guilty. (I am afraid I did not gather to whom the Judge was talking, but I had the impression that it was another member of the legal profession.)
I thought the whole story quite fantastic, and in order to make sure I had not been mistaken about it I went over some details again. The only result was that I learnt that Burge’s son seemed to have had one or two drinks, and that the whole thing had been retailed into the presence of a journalist friend. I did not think to ask the name of the journalist or that of the paper for which he worked.
– Jane Picton, 23 Oct 1963 (Letter)
Depending on your point of view, this letter can either look really bad or really fantastical.
Jane Picton, who had either very little or nothing all at to gain from relaying this story, seems like a credible source. It is a perfectly reasonable assumption that she would have been riding a train on October 1963 and that she might have bumped into someone she knew who related this story to her. She then relayed this story to a friend who send it onto Timothy Bligh, the Principal Private Secretary of the Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home, who had only taken up office 4 days previously.
The fact that this letter ended up on Home’s desk isn’t all that surprising, either. Firstly, a lot of superfluous stuff probably ends up on PM’s desks all the time: that’s not to say they personally read it. And secondly, the Profumo Affair was a big deal – it was a massive factor in Harold Macmillan’s resignation and was making the Conservative Party look really bad.
So, are Jane’s facts correct? Firstly, James Burge (Charles George James Burge) was, in fact, Stephen Ward’s defence barrister. He was the barrister who Mandy Rice-Davies made her famous reply ‘he would say that, wouldn’t he?’
Secondly, the fact that she was on a train at Gerrards Cross on Saturday, October 19, and met Mr. Michael Harrison is probably true – it seems like a rather odd thing to lie about and could probably be corroborated by train tickets or Mr Harrison himself. However, much of the rest is harder to fact-check.
It’s plausible that James Burge told his son (hereafter: Burge Jnr) that he was in possession of a tape recording of Archibald Pellow Marshall (the judge who presided over Ward’s trial) talking to an unknown source about the Ward verdict. It is also plausible that, after a few drinks, potentially purchased by the aforementioned ‘journalist’ friend, Burge Jnr revealed this fact to the ‘journalist’ friend.
However, just as plausible is the idea that someone is lying or has been misunderstood/mislead. When the information landed on the Premier’s desk it had already passed through James Burge, Burge Jnr, Michael Harrison and Jane Picton. Had it come directly from James Burge, it might have more credibility. There’s also the possibility that Burge Jnr was flat-out lying, or in fact, Michael Harrison. Perhaps to impress Ms Picton, or the ‘journalist’ friend? However, if the case of the drinks is true, people are certainly more likely to tell the truth, when their whistle is wet.
Saying this, if James Burge was in possession of said recording, why did he not present it in court, or give it to the press? Perhaps he saw no point, as Ward was already dead? Additionally, if there was a ‘journalist’ friend and they believed the story, they surely would have printed it – the press at this time were printing anything with even a hint of Keeler/Profumo/Ward.
Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the story is true…
What Happened Next?
Nothing. Nothing happened. The Premier’s office stated:
I am sure that in the circumstances no further enquiry is called for.
– Tim Bligh, 11 Nov 1963 (Letter)
The letter had been passed to the Home Office who also thought the story was ‘fantastic’ and that they had no knowledge:
…of any telephone conversation of the Judge being recorded; and as you know, this could not be done secretly without the authority of a Home Office warrant.
– Charles Cunningham, the Home Office, 6 Nov 1963 (Letter)
So it was swept under the carpet, filled away in the National Archives and not spoken of again. If it does exist? It could confirm a lot of people’s suspicions that Ward was set up by the establishment to take the fall for their embarrassing scandal. And if it doesn’t? The fact that Bligh enquired to the Home Office and perhaps even put this to the Prime Minister shows how interested the Conservative Government were in keeping the Profumo business as in control as possible, even after the death of Ward.
Until 2048, we’re unlikely to know the whole story of the Profumo Affair, and those who were alive to see it, will likely be dead when those files are released. In my opinion, I’m pretty convinced that Ward was an innocent in all this. That isn’t to say he was a good man, but innocent of the crimes for which he was convinced (posthumously) and the Government, that fell not long after the scandal, was to blame for Ward’s suicide.
Want to check out the document yourself? Head to the National Archives in London and order document PREM 11/4336