"Rattenbury: The case of the murdered Victoria architect"
by Robert Fulford

(Globe and Mail, May 27, 1998)


Has an architect ever done more for a city than Francis Rattenbury did for Victoria? First he designed its signature buildings. Then he provided the raciest scandal of the 1920s by leaving his wife for a younger woman. Finally, he took his new wife to England, where he became the victim of the most celebrated British homicide of the 1930s. Today both his buildings and his murder are part of Victoria's tourist industry.

If you take a bus tour from the Empress Hotel, the driver first tells you to look around at three Rattenbury buildings--the 1898 Romanesque B.C. legislature, which, when lit at night, resembles a Disneyland replica of itself; the pompous old Empress itself, from 1908; and the neo-classical steamship terminal, built in 1923, now a wax museum. He then informs us that Rattenbury came to a bad end, which he promises to reveal later. Sure enough, before the tour is over he's described the murder, to gratifying gasps from the passengers.

Like most who tell this story, he mentions Alma Rattenbury only in passing, which is unfair in a way: she was no ordinary trophy wife. A prospector's daughter, she was a child prodigy admired for her piano recitals. She wrote songs that were published, played by dance bands, and performed on the BBC. Her first two marriages took her to England, France, and New York. She could have been called Alma Wolfe Clarke Dolling Pakenham Rattenbury--Wolfe for her father, who died young, Clarke for her stepfather, Dolling for her first husband, killed in the war in France, and Pakenham for her second husband, a rather dodgy member of the literary Longford family.

After separating from Pakenham in the early 1920s, when she was still under 30 (her precise birth-year remains obscure), she went home to Victoria and met Francis Rattenbury. His marriage was so wretched that he and his wife lived in different wings of their house. Alma said to him, "Do you know that you have a lovely face?" He was conquered. In 1925 his wife divorced him, with Alma as co-respondent.

She became the second Mrs. Rattenbury, and by 1935 they were living in Bournemouth with their young son, another boy from her last marriage, and an 18-year-old chauffeur. The chauffeur, George Stoner, was thought to be dim, which eventually helped him. Soon after taking the job, he began an affair with Alma, who was two decades older. One night someone beat Rattenbury with a wooden mallet; he remained half-conscious for some hours, then died in hospital. Wife and chauffeur, obvious suspects, were tried together. He was convicted, she was not.

The newspapers made all they could of the case. The London Daily Express assigned the most famous drama critic in England, James Agate, to cover it. He saw it in literary terms, embodying themes from three great French novelists. "The way in which the woman debauched the boy so that he slept with her every night with her six-year-old son in the room, and the husband who had his own bedroom remaining cynically indifferent--pure Balzac," Agate said. As a witness, Alma talked just like Flaubert's Emma Bovary. "And...she described how, trying to bring her husband round, she first accidentally trod on his false teeth and then tried to put them back into his mouth so that he could speak to her. This was pure Zola." Mrs. Rattenbury said when her lover got into bed that night and told her what he had done, "My first thought was to protect him." Agate wrote, "This is the kind of thing Balzac would have called sublime."

The trial destroyed Alma's reputation, so acquittal meant only that she would live permanently in disgrace; furthermore, she expected George to be executed. Within a few days the London newspapers had another sensational heading for their placards: MRS RATTENBURY STABBED AND DROWNED. One Londoner, quoted in Agate's diary, said it was the most dramatic news he had seen in the streets since TITANIC SINKING. She had stabbed herself several times while standing on a riverbank, then fallen in the water and drowned.

Stoner was sentenced to death, despite the jury's recommendation of mercy. Now the newspapers depicted him as the pathetic, slow-witted victim of a woman's lust; Alma was treated as an evil seductress. "He was subjected to undue influence," said a petition, meaning Alma's sexual power. "He might have been the son of any of us." It was signed by 350,000 people.

The home secretary pleased the public by commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. Michael Havers, Peter Shankland, and Anthony Barrett tell us in their 1980 book, Tragedy in Three Voices: The Rattenbury Murder, that Stoner served only seven years. In 1942, at age 26, being a model prisoner, he was allowed to join the army. He survived the war, married, and settled down to a quiet life.

He was briefly famous again in 1977, when Terence Rattigan based his last play, Cause Celebre, on the Rattenbury case. Defying the conventional wisdom, Rattigan argued that Alma (played by Glynis Johns) was manipualated by the chauffeur. The play ran only a short time: perhaps that wasn't a message people wanted to hear. One night at the theatre, someone recognized George Stoner in the audience.

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