Sat, 20 April, 2024


Stonehouse revisited

Posted: January 3rd, 2023

The current ITV series about the John Stonehouse scandal presents an opportunity to review the whole affair. Former Sunday Mirror editor Peter Thompson sent us this extract from his book Cudlipp’s Circus, and says: “It was a big story for the Mirror and we beat everybody day after day.” The graphic (Daily Mirror, August 7, 1976) is a marvellous creation by the late, great Bob Williams, whose unique work graced the Mirror’s pages for many years. (Illustration and Stonehouse portrait ©Mirrorpix.)

  How the Daily Mirror  exposed Stonehouse’s disappearing act

ON November 21, 1974 John Stonehouse, the Labour MP for Walsall North and a former Postmaster-General, went missing in the sea off the Fountainbleu Hotel at Miami Beach. He had left his clothes in a beachside kiosk, telling the female attendant he was going for a swim. Although he walked off in bathing trunks, no one, not even the hotel’s two lifeguards, had seen him enter the water. As Stonehouse was described by a friend as a strong swimmer and the tide was a long way out at the time, American police were not prepared to list him as ‘presumed drowned’.

Richard Stott and Nick Davies turned up the facts that the forty-nine-year-old MP’s business interests were collapsing, that he was short of ready cash and had recently taken out four life insurance policies under which his beneficiaries would receive £120,000 provided he died within seven years. All the evidence suggested he had run away to start a new life somewhere else, perhaps with his attractive secretary Sheila Buckley, who was known to have stayed in his Westminster flat.

Our coverage of the Stonehouse riddle provoked an angry response from his wife, Barbara, who rang me on the Mirror night desk in the middle of the drama. ‘My husband is dead,’ she said. ‘How dare you suggest he’s still alive.’ I said there were several mystifying things about his disappearance that needed to be cleared up. ‘Oh God,’ she sighed. ‘This wouldn’t have happened in Hugh Cudlipp’s time.’

On December 16 we led the paper on STONEHOUSE SECURITY SENSATION in which Stott disclosed suspicious links between the missing MP and Czech Intelligence. Terry Lancaster received a call from one of Harold Wilson’s aides, who said it had been decided not to deny the story because of the Government’s special relationship with the Mirror, but we should take careful note of the fact that in terms of security Stonehouse was regarded as ‘absolutely clean’.

The next day the Mirror revealed that Stonehouse had been named as one of Czech Intelligence’s contact on the strength of information from the defector Josef Frolik, a revelation that provoked Harold Wilson to tell the House of Commons that Stonehouse was neither a Czech spy nor a CIA agent. It was time the Press stopped asking ‘far-fetched questions’ about his death, he said, and gave his family ‘a little decent privacy and understanding’.

Down in Melbourne that same day Detective Sergeant John Coffey, head of the Victoria Police fraud squad, was inquiring into the activities of a man calling himself Joseph Markham. The police had started watching Markham after a bank clerk reported he was behaving suspiciously. The clerk had helped him bank some cash and then, in his lunch break, was surprised to see the same man enter another bank where, he discovered, he was using the name Donald Mildoon. DS Coffey learned that Markham/Mildoon was collecting his mail over the counter at the Bank of New Zealand. For the next few days Coffey intercepted his letters before returning them to the bank. They were addressed to ‘My Dear Dums’ or ‘Dearest Dums’ and were signed ‘S’ or ‘Sheila’.

The first letter was written on December 13, the day the Mirror reported the existence of the insurance policies on his life. It read: ‘The rags are hounding. I have come away for everybody’s sake. This is all because of my friend’s death, which seems incredible. My boyfriend is away at the moment and I have heard the most dreadful things about him from his former wife.’

Coffey went to the reading room of the British High Commission and scoured copies of the Daily Mirror for stories about anyone called Markham or Mildoon. ‘We first of all came up with the name of Lord Lucan, who at that stage was front page news,’ he says. ‘Then we found a reference to John Stonehouse, the MP missing off Miami Beach. I thought, “Christ, this is it. Bloody hell, we’ve got ourselves an ex-Pom minister”.’

On Christmas Eve we chose the Mirror’s biggest type for STONEHOUSE FOUND ALIVE. The fugitive’s true identity was established after he was arrested at his lodgings in central Melbourne as a suspected illegal immigrant. He was travelling on a passport in the name of Joseph Arthur Markham and had booked into a residential club as Donald Mildoon, taking the names from two deceased constituents. While Stott was dashing to Heathrow to take the first plane to Australia, another reporter broke the news to Barbara Stonehouse. She was, in the words of her daughter Jane, ‘shocked, astonished and absolutely delighted’.

Brought back to London, Stonehouse served three and a half years in prison on charges of fraud and forgery. Two years after his release in 1979 he married Sheila Buckley. Never fully recovered from a series of heart attacks during his prison term, he collapsed and died on the night of April 15, 1988. Was he guilty of betraying his country? Cabinet papers released under the thirty-year rule in 2010 show that a second Czech defector confirmed Josef Frolik’s claims that Stonehouse had indeed supplied information to Czech Intelligence in return for cash payments.

At 10 Downing Street on October 6, 1980, Attorney-General Sir Michael Havers told Margaret Thatcher that ‘he was sure that Mr Stonehouse had been a spy for the Czechoslovaks but he had no evidence which he could put before the jury’. Thatcher agreed with Havers and the Home Secretary William Whitelaw that Stonehouse should not be confronted about the claims nor prosecuted. Ironically, Lord Havers, as he would become thanks to Margaret Thatcher, would one day find himself working for a genuine Czech-born spy – Robert Maxwell.

 

 

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