Death in Belgravia

Rosemary Hill

  • A Different Class of Murder: The Story of Lord Lucan by Laura Thompson
    Head of Zeus, 422 pp, £20.00, November 2014, ISBN 978 1 78185 536 2

Rosemary Hill: Death in Belgravia

‘Well,’ said the heavily bandaged Countess of Lucan from her hospital bed, eyeing her sister and brother-in-law with no great affection, ‘now who’s the one with paranoia eh?’ Forty years after the murder of the Lucans’ nanny, Sandra Rivett, the answer is pretty much everybody. The events of the night of 7 November 1974, when Rivett was bludgeoned to death in the basement of the Lucans’ London house, 46 Lower Belgrave Street, the countess was violently assaulted and her husband, John Bingham, seventh earl of Lucan, disappeared, offer all things to all tastes. The story has the violent glamour of crime fiction with the additional thrill of reality, and the facts are just enough to make a narrative while leaving hugely tantalising areas of doubt. Also the Lucans looked right. He the central-casting aristocrat, dashing with his guardsman’s moustache and a hint of the cad round the eyes, she, tiny beside him, bouffant hair in a velvet band. There followed four decades of obsessive gossip, conspiracy theories, sightings of the earl on every continent except Antarctica, and grisly accounts of his death, as well as some more thoughtful studies of the case and what it reveals about postwar Britain and its social structure.

Lord Lucan and Veronica Duncan on their wedding day, 28 November 1963.
Lord Lucan and Veronica Duncan on their wedding day, 28 November 1963.

Thompson’s book is a mixture of all of these and the result is persuasive and revealing in some parts, absurd and tasteless in others. Yet it is a compelling read. The story doesn’t pall because it has become a myth and myths change with time. As the Lucan affair recedes to the horizon of living memory, revelations and theories once libellous are now printable, while first-hand recollections become clouded and the pattern of light and shade in the story shifts. Some things have changed less than might have been expected. While the press at the time called it ‘the Upstairs, Downstairs’ murder there is no difficulty, as Thompson points out, in reinterpreting it as a Downton Abbey affair. James Fox’s articles in the Sunday Times and the New Review saw in it the ‘whole waterlogged English class system’ sinking under its own weight. But the system has proved remarkably buoyant. Old Etonians and alumni of the Bullingdon Club continue to thrive. By contrast their antagonists of forty years ago, the police and the press, have fared less well. This side of the Stephen Lawrence case and the phone-hacking trials neither has the same level of credibility they enjoyed in the 1970s.

Born in 1934, Lucan would have been, or just possibly was, eighty in 2014. The second child and eldest son of George Charles Patrick (‘Pat’) Bingham, the sixth earl, and his wife, Kaitlin, much was made in 1974 of his ancestry, in particular the life and character of his great-great-grandfather, the third earl. In addition to treating his Irish tenants at the time of the Famine with a cruelty that was remarkable even by contemporary standards, he also ordered the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. A brute and an idiot, what else, it was implied, could be expected of his descendants.

In fact, as Thompson explains, Lucan’s pedigree sported a familiar range of lordly personalities. Like a row of cartoon portraits by Osbert Lancaster she runs us through them. The first earl was the clever one, a Whig who got the title, the second was the cultured earl, who lived in Italy and commissioned busts of his daughters from Thorvaldsen. The inevitable spendthrift earl was the fourth. He married a daughter of the Duke of Richmond and lived in style on the far from limitless family fortune, his enjoyment marred only by half a century spent avoiding his bankers. With the next generation came the reaction. His son, Lucan’s grandfather, was the consolidating earl, a privy counsellor and Conservative MP with a devotion to public service. He took control of the estate in 1900 and did what he could to stop the rot. But few noble families could withstand the rigours of the 20th century, and war and taxation reduced the family seat to little more than a golf course.

With Lucan’s father, there was another reaction and the birth of that peculiarly modern figure, the socialist earl. To the dismay of his parents and some of his children Pat Bingham and his wife were active members of the Labour Party and anti-apartheid campaigners. He served as an under-secretary of state in Attlee’s government. They were not unconventional enough, however, to keep their four children in England during the Second World War. Like many who could afford it they sent them to America. Lucan and his brother and two sisters arrived in Washington in 1940, returning to London in 1945. That episode, his elder sister Jane Griffin told Thompson, was ‘when it all started’. Griffin, one of the members of the family who sympathised with her parents’ politics, has long made her home in New York. Her account of her childhood and of Lucan’s character is balanced, regretful and affectionate. Through her eyes the man begins to emerge from behind the cardboard cut-out, and it is her recollections and those of Lucan’s unnamed schoolfriend, who had not previously told his story, that justify Thompson’s subtitle and make the book, at its best, a portrait of the man who is both the centre and the missing middle of the story.

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