Today (December 14) in London History – sex, class, drugs, money, the cold war, race

It was the shot heard round the United Kingdom. It was fired on December 14th, 1962. It was fired outside a Mews flat in Marylebone Christine Keeler was staying in. It lit the fuse of the Profumo Affair. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The gunshot that changed everything. It was the linchpin. It lit the fuse. The beginning of the unravelling. 

The trigger was pulled outside a flat at 17 Wimpole Mews in Marylebone. The date was December 14th, 1962.

And here you’re right into one of the essences of what we do as guides, what London Walks does.

It’s great fun to single out a house and say, “this is where it happened.” It’s transformative. The house, the property ceases to be just another building, an anonymous pile of bricks and mortar. Putting the principals in there and telling the story – it’s like throwing a switch, it lights it up from within. If you’re a walker you might have a passing acquaintance with the story, with the history but suddenly what was a vague blur comes into sharp focus: “oh, so this is the house, this is where that happened, this is where it all started to come undone.” 

Another way of putting it, those are Wizard of Oz moments: plain, grey, ho-hum, black-and-white rural Kansas suddenly turns into fantastic, technicolour Oz. 

Another example in this connection – and this is what a good walking tour does, is string these moments together – anyway, another example in this connection was Lewis Morley’s studio above Peter Cook’s Establishment Club in Soho. It was there that Christine Keeler posed for that iconic, defining photograph of the case, and perhaps of the decade. She’s naked astride a V-shaped modernist plywood chair. If I were guiding it, I would show the photograph at that moment. What you’re creating there is an epiphany – a moment of sharp recognition – “oh, so this is where that happened.” Those things are just fun to know. The walker takes it away with him (or her). And then invariably shares it with a friend if they’re walking by there a year later.  

Now in this case, the property, 17 Wimple Mews in Marylebone was owned by the high society osteopath Stephen Ward. Biographer Thomas Grant described Stephen Ward as “a sort of perverted Professor Higgins.”

A generation on, he almost could have been called “a party planner.”

He was the go-between man. He looked after his upper-class clients’ aches and pains and needs in more ways than one. He was their osteopath. But he was also a fixer, something of a pimp. He was the chef. Socially speaking. He organised discreet sex and drug get-togethers for establishment types, gatherings that were enlivened with talent – shall we say – from the other side of the class divide. A man of his background and in his position, Stephen Ward regularly moved back and forth across that barrier. He moved in wider circles, had access to lower-class pulchritude that members of the establishment would never have. 

If it sounds familiar, it should. Think of Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein and the Duke of York. And the 17-year-old Virginia Giuffre. For the record, Stephen Ward’s parties were regularly frequented by royalty. Things never change.

Anyway, Stephen Ward met Christine Keeler when she was a showgirl at Murray’s Cabaret Club in Soho. He moved her into his flat in Wimpole Mews. And before long he said, ‘c’mon Christine, I’d so like it if you’d come to a pool party that I’m throwing at Cliveden House.’ Well, it was actually at a cottage on the grounds of Cliveden House. 19-year-old Christine was skinny dipping. Some of the VIPs in the big house thought it might be a good idea to take a stroll down to the cottage. One of the VIPs was 46-year-old Jack Profumo, the British Secretary of War. He liked what he saw in the pool. One thing led to another. And before long the working-class girl who grew up in a converted railway carriage was having an affair with one of the most important men in the country, the married 46-year-old Secretary of War. 

Christine Keeler’s biographer Richard Weight puts it very well, he says, “To paraphrase another martyr of British puritanism, Keeler was born in the gutter but briefly lay on her back looking up at the stars.”

What she neglected to tell the Secretary of War was that one of the stars she was looking up at was a red star. In short, she was sharing her favours at the same time with a Soviet Naval attache, which made her affair with Profumo a cold war security issue.

But it gets much richer, even more satisfyingly complicated. 

Stephen Ward and Christine Keeler were wont to head out to Notting Hill, where, in search of sex and cannabis, they’d hang out with West Indian artists and hustlers. Two of whom she got into bed with. Though not at the same time. One of them, jazz promoter and marijuana advocate Johnny Edgecombe, got very jealous of his fellow West Indian, petty criminal, singer and cook Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon. Johnny Edgecombe came round to 17 Wimpole Street. He was packing – yes, he had his handgun, and he fired off those shots.

That got the police’s attention. And they just tracked back. 

The thing is, Johnny Edgecombe and Lucky Gordon introduced a whole new filament to the tale: race. 

It absolutely has everything, the Profumo case. Sex, class, drugs, money, the cold war, race. Or you want it in one word: hypocrisy. The hypocrisy of the establishment. There had to be a cover-up. And a fall guy. The shortest straw went to Stephen Ward. The prosecution described him as ‘a thoroughly filthy fellow’ who plunged the very depths of lechery and depravity.’ Stephen Ward ended up blowing out his brains. 

It wasn’t much better for Christine Keeler. She was tried for perjury.

Her barrister said she was ‘a victim of circumstances and a kind of unquenchable male desire’. He said her only crime was immaturity. He begged the judge to ‘resist the temptation for what I might call society’s pound of flesh.’ The judge didn’t resist the temptation. Christine Keeler was sentenced to nine months in prison. She was behind bars for four months. Once she was out of prison, the press had at her in all its viciousness. It published her phone number. Her phone rang off the hook – barrage after barrage of abusive calls – the terror and pain and despair that a vivisection animal must feel – that young woman, Christine Keeler was barely out of her teens – must have felt something akin to that when members of the public were in effect stoning her at the behest of the press. The dog whistles were headlines such as ‘Keeler the shameless slut’. 

She later said, ’I enjoyed sex and I indulged in it when I fancied the men but I was no hypocrite. It was others who were disguising their peccadilloes in dinner jackets, diamonds and evening dresses, indulging in weird fantasies’.

What the press engineered wasn’t enough. The establishment needed to put a wooden stake in the heart of the Profumo affair. 

They tapped Lord Denning for that – he presided over the subsequent judicial inquiry.

History hasn’t treated him kindly.

Richard Davenport Hines says Denning’s report was the cover-up that followed the show trial. It was, in Davenport Hines’ words, “awash with the spite of a lascivious, conceited old man.”

Apparently Denning kept a Bible to hand when he wrote his judgements. Judgements which, in his damning of the deviants involved, included open disgust at Keeler’s sleeping with what he, Denning, called “coloured men” who used cannabis.

Ugly isn’t it.

Have I left anything out? Well, this is a 2,000-word summary. Books have been written on the subject. But it needs must be mentioned, for anyone who doesn’t know, that Profumo was asked in the House of Commons about the affair. And he lied. You did not lie to the House. He was caught out. Forced to resign. It’s interesting isn’t it what has changed. There’s less of that vile racism now. And things are probably more relaxed about sex and cannabis. Those are positive steps. But lying in the House now and that leading to your resignation. The porkie pies – the lies – are done without a second thought now. The scoundrels – not all of them are of course – who are in elective office today would regard it as hopelessly naive of anyone to resign because of a few fibs. 

John Profumo was, in the end, rehabilitated. His reputation was restored. Through keeping to the straight and narrow and performing good works – voluntary social work in the East End of London. He was given a gong, a CBE. Absolutely full rehabilitation in other words. The establishment looks after its own. 

As for Christine Keeler, she was reduced to a series of menial jobs around West London in the 1970s. She worked in tele sales. Worked for a dry cleaning business. Worked as a dinner lady. Ended up surviving on welfare benefits, drifting between a caravan site (think of that railway carriage she grew up in), drifting between a caravan site and a homeless shelter. And finally into a Council Flat at World’s End, the poor end of Chelsea. 

The Establishment looks after its own; it doesn’t look after working-class girls it uses and then discards. Discards if they’re lucky. Stamped on and ground down if they’re not lucky. Christine Keeler wasn’t lucky. Those young women from the other side of the class barrier, it’s their own look-out once they’ve served their purpose. 

This is still a class-ridden society. And it can be tough sledding. Savage even. 

And a Today in London recommendation? Well, I think some detox is called for. Let’s go get ourselves a dose of humanity in its better nature, its inspiring nature. Let’s go to the Science Museum. Human beings aren’t all about selfishness and callousness and stupidity. They can also do some pretty wonderful things, make things that perform miracles, that make the world a better place. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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