Today (November 8) in London History – Lord Lucan

Lord Lucan went to the family home to murder his wife. He killed the children’s nanny instead. Or so goes the story. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


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London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

It’s 9.45 pm on the night of November 7th, 1974. A frantic, terrified young woman bursts into the bar of The Plumbers Arms pub on Lower Belgrave Street in Belgravia. She cries out, “help me, help me, I’ve just escaped from being murdered. He’s in the house. He’s murdered the nanny.” The young woman was bleeding from wounds to her head. She collapsed unconscious and was taken to hospital.

The terrified young woman is Veronica Mary Duncan – Lady Lucan – the wife of Richard John Bingham. AKA Baron Lucan. Lord Lucan. The Earl of Lucan. Also known as Lucky Lucan because of his inveterate gambling.

The man she’s talking about, the man she’s fled from, the man who she says is in the house and has murdered the nanny is her husband, Lord Lucan. 

The police were called. They broke into the house. They found the children unharmed. Two of them were asleep. Their sister was watching television in her bedroom.

That was the good news. The bad news was what the police found when they went down into the basement. Blood was splashed on the wall. There were bloody footprints. The body of the nanny, Sandra Rivett, was in a canvas bag.

She had terrible injuries to the back of her head. Nearby was a piece of lead piping wrapped with tape. In short, the murder weapon. 

The story is of course very well known. The literature about what happened on November 7th-November 8th is extensive. I’m not going to go over that ground in detail – you can dig it out for yourself. All I propose to do is to add my bit to the story – a take on it that took shape from guiding it, and more especially, from my going over the ground preparatory to guiding it.

The facts very quickly are as follows. The couple had married in 1963. Lord Lucan can’t have been an easy man to be married to. Though he of course blamed his wife for the marriage coming unstuck. And blamed her for pretty much everything else. The scion of an ancient titled family he regarded his wife as his social inferior. She was of good family but upper middle class rather than upper upper. 

When the marriage collapsed there was a bitter custody battle over the three children. A custody battle which Lord Lucan lost. He moved out. He had legal expenses. He’d run up huge gambling debts. His finances weren’t in a good way. And of course he had to support his estranged wife and their three children in the family home, which was 46 Lower Belgrave Street, just off Eaton Square. The house is just a few doors along from the Plumber’s Arms, the pub Lady Lucan fled to.

On the fateful evening – November 7th – Sandra Rivett, the nanny of the Lucans’ children, was bludgeoned to death in the kitchen of the Lucan family home. Lady Lucan was also attacked after going to investigate Rivett’s whereabouts. She identified Lord Lucan as her assailant. Sandra Rivett – she was a mother herself, she had a ten-year-old son who’d been adopted and was being brought up by her parents – Sandra Rivett was not supposed to be at 46 Lower Belgrave Street that night. It was her night off. Lord Lucan was given to understand that his wife would be alone in the house with the children. He hid in the kitchen. It was dark – he removed the lightbulb. Sandra Rivett asked Lady Lucan would like a cup of tea. Lady Lucan said “yes, please.” Sandra Rivett went down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea.

When she didn’t return, Lady Lucan went to investigate. 

At the top of the stairs leading down into the basement – the kitchen was in the basement – she noticed the light wasn’t working. She called Sandra’s name. 

And then she was attacked. Beat about the head with a heavy object. 

Lady Lucan said she recognised the attacker as her husband. She managed to stay him for a few seconds by grabbing his testicles. 

She told the police he then calmed down and said the nanny was dead. 

Lady Lucan outwitted her husband. She bought time by telling him she would help him conceal the nanny’s body. He went to the bathroom to fetch a wet cloth to tend to her wounds. That gave her her chance. She fled the house. Fled to the pub. 

Apparently realising how compromised his position was, Lord Lucan left as well. 

His movements can be tracked for just a couple of hours. He went to a friend’s house. He made several phone calls, including one to his mother. He wrote two letters to his sister-in-law’s husband, in which he claimed he had been passing the house, saw a commotion in the basement, keyed his way into the house and interrupted a fight between his wife and an intruder.

In one of those letters Lucan suggested his wife was paranoid and added: ‘The circumstantial evidence against me is strong in that V. will say it was all my doing and I will lie doggo for a while, but I am only concerned about the children.’

Lord Lucan was last seen on this day in London history – November 9th. Seen at 1.15 am driving away in a Ford Corsair, which was found three days later abandoned on the coast near Newhaven.

What happened to Lord Lucan? Nobody knows for sure. Or if they do they’re not saying. Probably the best guess is he took a ferry and went over the side at sea. Effectively committed suicide. But of course there are people who think that his aristocratic friends rallied round, got him safely away, perhaps to somewhere in Africa. And he’s effectively been a fugitive ever since. If he’s still alive. He’d be 87 now. A very successful fugitive because people claim to have spotted him from time to time – or somebody who looked like him at any rate – but he’s always been, still is, if he’s alive, MIA. Missing in action.

Now my bit. 

The time came a few years ago when I decided I was going to push the envelope on my Belgravia pub walk. I decided I was going to work the Lucan dreadfulness into the weave. We were going to look at the family home on lower Belgrave Street, and of course visit the Plumber’s Arms. And make one more stop. Go to the flat Lord Lucan moved to when he moved out of the family home.

It was at 72 A Elizabeth Street, just a couple of hundred yards away from the family home on lower Belgrave Street. Getting ready to guide it, I did what you do. I took survey of 72 A Elizabeth Street. I went up the couple of steps, turned around, stood there on the little porch, as if I were Lord Lucan and had just opened the door and stepped outside, preparatory perhaps to heading off to a gambling session at the Clermont Club.

Standing there, I noticed that the address right next door, to the immediate right of 72 A Elizabeth Street, is 49 Eaton Square. And I noticed that that entryway is a little bit grander than that of 72 A Elizabeth Street. And I looked across the street from 72 A – and what do you know, there’s a mews. And there’s a huge old sign high up on a wall there. That sign reads Horse Infirmary and Shoeing Forge. Well, that’s a bit of 19th-century Belgravia. Today the Belgravia Garage is located in that mews, and you can imagine the sort of cars that are serviced there. But still, it’s a mews. It was a horse infirmary, it’s a garage today. Work. And workers. Common people. Right out Lord Lucan’s front door. And I also remembered that when he was a child Lord Lucan’s family lived in Eaton Square. Eaton Square, one of the two or three grandest squares in London. It has a private tennis court. Only people who live in Eaton Square can go into the square, can use that tennis court. Lord Lucan would have been able to do that when he was a little kid. And indeed his next door neighbours – remember, their address was 49 Eaton Square – they would have had access to the square, to the private tennis court. But not so Lord Lucan– not living at 72A Elizabeth Street.

And can you imagine how galling that address – 72 A Elizabeth Street – must have been to him. Especially that A. What does that say? It says a flat. Not a house. A flat. Really grand people don’t live in a flat in Elizabeth Street – they have a palatial residence in Eaton Square. 

They don’t come out of their front door and see a sign for a Horse Infirmary and Shoeing Forge just over the way. 

How it must have galled him having to live there. Having to key himself into that door. He must have shuddered when he had to tell people where he was living. Now, at no little risk of belabouring the obvious – any of us here would be thrilled to get to live at 72A Elizabeth Street, just off Eaton Square. But not the 7th Earl of Lucan. It would have been deeply humiliating. And if his wife was the cause of all of his troubles – as he appears to have convinced himself –  well, one way of getting his kids back, getting his house back, making a start on getting his finances in order – if he could get away with it – would to be get his wife out of the picture, so to speak. Indeed, two friends admitted they’d had conversations with Lord Lucan in which he’d expressed a desire to kill her. 

And a Today in London recommendation. We’re not so very far from Westminster Abbey. How does Evensong – the choral service – at Westminster Abbey sound. Well, it’ll certainly sound good. But it’ll also be – here’s that word again, I also used it yesterday – it’ll be cleansing. It’ll be good for us. The awfulness of what happened at 46 lower Belgrave Street – we can do with having that ravelled sleeve of care knitted up. The Abbey’s Evensong service will do that for us. 

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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