Julian Burnside

Sixty-five years ago this September, Alma Rattenbury advertised in the Bournemouth Daily Echo for a “daily willing lad, 14-18, for housework. Scout-trained preferred.” The successful applicant was George Percy Stoner.

2 months later, Rattenbury had become lovers; 6 months after that, they were charged with the murder of Alma’s husband. Their trial was poisoned by the prudish morality of its time, and its aftermath shows what tragic nobility can flourish in the meanest ground.

Alma Victoria Rattenbury was born in British Columbia, Canada, the daughter of a printer. She showed considerable musical talent, and later had a number of songs published. She saw service as a nurse in France during the First World War. She had been once widowed and once divorced when, at the age of 31, she met Francis Mawson Rattenbury.

Francis Rattenbury was 61 when he met Alma. He was a prominent and successful architect. His courting Alma created a scandal, which increased greatly when he moved her into his house, and moved his wife upstairs until she eventually agreed to divorce him.

Such was the scandal caused by the Rattenburys’ romance and wedding, that Francis Rattenbury’s practice suffered as much as his social life. In 1928, he decided to leave Canada, and he and Alma migrated to England. They settled in Bournemouth, where they rented a house at 5 Manor Rd, called Villa Madeira.

By 1934, the passion which had so scandalised Canadian society had largely evaporated from the Rattenburys’ marriage. They lived in amiable companionship. Francis found his comfort in a bottle of whisky each day. By all accounts, he was a pleasant and kindly man, worried about money and slightly disappointed in love. Alma was impetuous and emotional; she wrote sentimental songs and longed for fame and romantic love.

George Stoner was 18 when he took employment at the Villa Madeira. He was a simple, uneducated and inexperienced lad. His position as chauffeur and general factotum was quickly overtaken by a passionate romance with Alma who, it is clear, initiated their romantic, then sexual, relationship. Whilst the initial impetus for their romance came from Alma, there is no doubt that Stoner soon fell in love with Alma; and, although they were very different in many ways, Alma fell in love with Stoner.

On 19 March 1935, Alma took Stoner to London for a four-day weekend. They registered at the Royal Palace Hotel, Kensington, as brother and sister. It was Stoner’s first time to London. It was their first chance to be together, away from the chance (always present at Villa Madeira) of being discovered. Alma took him to Harrods, where she bought him silk pyjamas and hand-made suits. During that weekend, Alma exposed Stoner to a life he had never experienced, and perhaps never imagined.

At the subsequent trial, Mr Justice Humphreys betrayed the moral judgment of the times when he described this weekend as “the orgy at the Royal Palace Hotel”. He also echoed the prevailing sentiment, which now seems astonishing, in suggesting that an active sex-life was unnatural and harmful to an 18-year old boy. He blamed Alma, as an older woman, for having led Stoner into such harmful ways.

When Alma and Stoner returned to Villa Madeira, life for both of them was irrevocably changed. Stoner was now obsessively attached to Alma. Francis Rattenbury suggested a visit to his friend Jenks at Bridport. Alma agreed enthusiastically, because Jenks was in a position to advance money for a building project which Rattenbury had conceived. However, the trip would entail an overnight stay. Stoner was maddened by the idea that he would be driving Alma and Rattenbury to a place where (as he imagined) they would share a bedroom as husband and wife. Alma assured him that she and Rattenbury would have separate rooms at Jenks’ house.

The Bridport trip was arranged on the evening of 24 March, 1935. They were to set out the next morning. Alma went up to bed at 9.30pm, leaving Rattenbury to his nightly bottle of whisky. After a short while, Stoner came to her bed. According to Alma’s evidence, Stoner was highly agitated, and told Alma he “had hurt Ratz”. Alma did not take this seriously, it seems, because she stayed in bed ” … until I heard Ratz groan , and then my brain became alive and I ran downstairs …”.

When Alma ran down to the drawing room, she found Rattenbury lying in his chair, with blood on his head, and a pool of blood on the floor. She then took a large glass of whisky, and soon vomited it up. She continued drinking whisky, and by the time a doctor had been summoned, she was drunk. After a cursory examination, Dr O’Donnell realised that Rattenbury had been seriously injured. He asked Stoner to drive him and Rattenbury to a nearby hospital. Stoner did so, and waited in the car for 2 hours whilst Dr O’Donnell attended to Rattenbury.

When PC Bagwell arrived at Villa Madeira at 2 am, Alma made the first of several admissions. He gave evidence that Alma said:
” … About 10.30 I heard a yell. I came downstairs into the drawingroom and saw my husband sitting in the chair. … I know who done it. (he cautioned her) I did it with a mallet. Ratz has lived too long. It is hidden. No, my lover did it. …”
At 4 the next morning, Dr O’Donnell gave Alma half a grain of morphia, and put her to bed.

At 6 am, Det-Inspector Carter was present when Alma awoke. She said things then, which she repeated in substance at 8.15 am. What she said at 8.15 am, in a statement which she signed, was:
“… About 9 pm on Sunday 24 March 1935, I was playing cards with my husband when he dared me to kill him as he wanted to die. I picked up the mallet. He then said ‘You have not guts enough to do it’ I then hit him with the mallet. I hid the mallet outside the house. I would have shot him if I had a gun.”

Later, at the police station, when Carter formally charged Alma with attempted murder, she said:
“That is right; I did it deliberately and I would do it again.”

Francis Rattenbury died the next morning. Alma was charged with murder.

Stoner was also charged with murder. He said only “I understand”.

The trial at the Old Bailey before Mr Justice Humphreys began on 27 May 1935. Alma was represented by T.J. O’Connor KC; Stoner was represented by J.D. Casswell, whose task was made exceedingly difficult by his client’s instructions that he should not say anything to suggest that Alma was guilty.

Alma gave evidence which exculpated herself, and implicated Stoner.

Stoner did not give evidence. He instructed his counsel to admit that Stoner had struck the fatal blows, but that he had done so under the influence of cocaine. He led medical evidence intended to convey that Stoner was addicted to cocaine, but the force of the evidence was diminished by the fact that no-one had ever seen Stoner use cocaine, Stoner gave no evidence of it, and it appeared that what Stoner thought to be cocaine was probably black pepper.

The trial judge summed up heavily against both accused, and was trenchantly critical of Alma for her dominating influence in Stoner’s life.

At the end of the 5th day of the trial, the jury returned a verdict of guilty in Stoner’s case. He was sentenced to death. The jury found Alma not guilty.

However, the truly remarkable aspect of the case was yet to come.

The public reaction to the verdicts was sharp: Alma was publicly reviled for the role she had played in Stoner’s fate; her friends deserted her; her husband was dead, and her lover was sentenced to die. On 3 June, 1935, just 3 days after the verdict, Alma went to a place on the River Avon called Three Arches Bend. There, she wrote a series of passionate letters, in one of which she said:
” … every night and minute only (prolongs) the appalling agony of my mind … If I only thought it would help Stoner, I would stay on, but it has been pointe out to me only too vividly that I cannot help him. That is my death sentence…”

She took a carving knife out of her bag and stabbed herself in the chest 6 times. She was dead when she fell into the river.

At the inquest, it was revealed that 3 of the knife blows had penetrated her heart.

* * * * * * *

On 24 June, Stoner’s appeal was heard and dismissed. The following day, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He served 7 years.

* * * * * * *

A number of books have been written about Alma Rattenbury and George Stoner. Opinions vary about Alma: some say she was a calculating and intelligent woman who was certainly implicated in her husband’s murder, and deserted Stoner to save herself. Others say she was not involved, and tried to sacrifice herself to save him. It is true that for a time she tried to take the blame for him; but at trial, when it really counted, she blamed him alone.

Whatever the truth is, her death reveals a strength of character which few mortals could claim; and (in view of Stoner’s reprieve 3 weeks later) it lifted a squalid domestic tragedy into a realm worthy of Sophocles.

Julian Burnside

Language | Home | Law