It was one of the most astonishing political – and personal scandals – in modern British history.
A Labour MP who stole a dead man’s name, left his clothes neatly folded by a Miami beach and vanished.
Here, in the final part of our serialisation of her book about John Stonehouse, his daughter breaks a 46-year silence to explain how his financial deceit and sexual betrayal unravelled.
We were wrapping presents in my father’s study and remembering him on a surreal Christmas Eve, five weeks after he had disappeared from a beach in Florida, presumed drowned.
What exactly had happened to our adored father we didn’t know. But we were very sure that we would never see him again.
As for any family suffering tragedy or grief, Christmas 1974 was unbearably poignant.
Our father, John Stonehouse, had always left his festive preparations until the afternoon of Christmas Eve, when he’d go shopping in Central London.
Back home, he’d always wrap the gifts he’d bought using unusual and amusing paper and make his own gift-tags with funny little drawings on them. We missed him so much.
At about 1am on Christmas morning, my mother Barbara, brother Mathew, older sister Jane and I were still in his study when the phone rang.
It was a newspaper reporter saying they were 99 per cent certain my father had been found in Australia.
The journalist rang back and confirmed the news, saying that the Melbourne police were going to make a statement at 4am our time.
I can’t even begin to describe our feelings at this astounding turn of events: elation, bafflement, disbelief – all mingled with despair in case it wasn’t true.
At 4am, Jane answered the phone. We saw the utter amazement on her face and heard her say: ‘Daddy, Daddy, is it really you?’
What exactly had happened to our adored father we didn’t know. But we were very sure that we would never see him again. Pictured: John Stonehouse and his wife, Barbara
Jane wrote in her diary: ‘I went weak, cold, hot, shaky. He sounded as if all his nerves were being stretched right to their limit, ready to snap. His voice was high and he was definitely not himself. All he could say was that he was sorry, sorry, sorry.’
Jane handed the phone to my mother, who was visibly shaking. She fell into a chair.
‘John?’ she asked, unbelieving.
‘Yes, darling, it’s so good to hear your voice,’ he said.
My mother’s questions came in quick succession: ‘What’s happened? Where are you? What have you been doing?’
He replied: ‘I’m sorry I’ve given you so much trouble, darling. It didn’t work out. I tried to make it easier for you all. I’m here at Melbourne police station.’
Jane answered the front door. It was three journalists holding air tickets to Melbourne. She wrote a note to my mother, who was still on the phone: ‘Reporters have tickets to Australia. Do you want to go?’
My mother told my father what the note said and asked if he wanted her to come. ‘Yes, come as soon as you can,’ he said, adding: ‘And bring Sheila with you.’
This request came as a total shock to the family. We had no idea that Sheila, his secretary and the woman who had been his secret mistress for five years, was so important to him.
He’d had affairs before but they had always fizzled out.
Sheila was 28, Jane was 25, and I was just about to turn 24. She was our generation, not his. In her diary, Jane would later write: ‘What a nerve – he’s flipped his lid.’
But in that moment we were all crying, laughing and hugging each other and trying to analyse what he meant by ‘it didn’t work out’ and ‘make it easier for you all’. We were baffled but thrilled.
Before she packed, my mother phoned Sheila with the news that my father was alive. It sounded as if she already knew – as we’d later find out, she did.
My mother asked her not to go out to Australia and Sheila agreed. By 5.30am a three-car cavalcade was heading for Gatwick Airport.
My parents were reunited on Boxing Day at Maribyrnong Detention Centre, near Melbourne. My father looked dreadful: ashen, with glazed but wild eyes.
Sheila was 28, Jane was 25, and I was just about to turn 24. She was our generation, not his. In her diary, Jane would later write: ‘What a nerve – he’s flipped his lid’
He’d lost a stone, looked more than his 49 years, his hair was turning grey and his voice was strangely high-pitched.
He was quite unlike the confident, self-assured man my mother knew. After warmly embracing in the full gaze of prison officers and police, they were ushered into a bleak interview room.
My mother had many things to say to him. He’d allowed her and the family to think he was dead for five weeks, and then had the audacity to ask her to bring his mistress with her, she said.
She’d told him before that another affair would be the end of their marriage.
For five minutes she explained how cruel he’d been to casually abandon his children, allowing us and her to suffer the grief of believing him to be dead when he was very much alive – not to mention leaving her to deal with all the problems he’d left behind with his numerous political and business activities.
When she’d finished, my father broke down and cried and cried, sobbing his heart out. My mother realised for the first time that he was really ill, and was almost certainly suffering a complete nervous breakdown.
A few days later my father had a consultation with an eminent Australian psychiatrist Dr Gerard Gibney, who diagnosed severe depression.
A large part of this, he said, was to do with the fact that as an MP, my father had persisted in following causes for oppressed peoples around the world, becoming seriously distressed when he couldn’t improve their lives in the way he wanted.
Dr Gibney said that instead of physical suicide, my father had committed ‘psychiatric suicide’, by taking on the identities of two of his deceased constituents, Joseph Markham and Clive Mildoon, and escaping into their personalities.
Leaving those new identities behind and returning to being John Stonehouse again was causing him immense mental anguish.
His doctors and lawyer suggested that it would be very bad for my father in his fragile psychological state to contemplate a return to Britain in the near future.
On December 29, he was released on bail, and afterwards moved into a flat in Melbourne with my mother and 14-year-old brother Mathew.
John (pictured in the 1970s) and Barbara Stonehouse, celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary at their favourite restaurant in London on the evening of November 13, 1974
Members of our family would take it in turns to fly out to live with him in Australia, experiencing at close quarters his tragic and ongoing breakdown.
We never knew what to expect. Some days he would cry, scream, bang his head on the floor repeatedly, rush around shouting, and even lose complete control of his body. On others he would be found curled up in a ball on the sofa.
Or he’d just cut out completely when somebody was talking to him by falling asleep in a chair. In public, he would put on a brave face, but in private he was a wreck.
Back in Britain, the knives were quick to come out in the Labour Party for their runaway MP.
Even while my father was still missing, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson had made a Commons statement about allegations that my father had been acting as a Czech spy.
Josef Frolik, a defector from the Communist Czech secret service, had accused him of being one of their agents.
Frolik had no proof, had never seen my father’s file, or given him any money. The head of MI5 didn’t believe Frolik because he was a known liar: his unfounded fabrications included stories about Prime Minister Edward Heath and Labour’s Michael Foot.
But rogue Right-wing elements within MI5 wanted to use the Frolik misinformation for their own purposes and they made sure the rumour about my father being a spy spread.
As the information came from MI5, people believed it. A miasma of suspicion and contempt fell over my father and he was doomed.
However, Wilson said that the claims had been thoroughly investigated and disproved, as had suggestions that my father had been working for the CIA. John Stonehouse ‘was in no way a security risk’, he told MPs. But the rumours continued to rumble.
When he was arrested on December 24, my father sent a telegram to Wilson saying he’d had a mental breakdown and adding: ‘I can only apologise to you and all the others who have been troubled by this business.’ The Prime Minister didn’t reply.
By early spring, there had been so much bad publicity about the Stonehouse case that Labour politicians were keen to dissociate themselves completely from my father. My mother, too, would face years of total silence from former friends and colleagues.
Being involved in the party as an MP for 17 years meant nothing.
There was no sympathy or understanding. So much for the supposed ‘comrades’. On January 28, 1975, a parliamentary select committee was set up to ‘consider the position of Mr John Stonehouse’.
But, shockingly, a detailed report on my father’s condition written by Dr Gibney was kept from them by civil servants and diplomats.
Mr A. R. Clark of the Foreign Office’s south west Pacific department had sent a memo to colleagues saying: ‘I do not think that it would be appropriate to give the [Dr Gibney’s] letter a wider distribution. If the select committee want a psychiatric report, they will no doubt formally go about getting one.’
Sir Thomas Brimelow, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, agreed, adding a handwritten note: ‘The Secretary of State may think it better that letters such as this should be kept in the Private Office under Ministerial Control.’
While all this was going on unknown to my father, he himself was desperate to see his mistress. On February 6, my mother picked up the phone in our rented flat in Melbourne and found Sheila on the line.
‘Where are you?’ my mother asked.
‘Singapore,’ replied Sheila. ‘John asked me to come.’
My mother handed the phone to my father and heard them making arrangements to meet in Perth.
Mum was devastated, telling my father: ‘If she comes to Australia, she can take on the role of nursemaid, secretary, chief cook and bottle-washer. I’m going home.’
There was a silence, and then my father lost control.
He grabbed my mother and threw her to the floor, yelling: ‘Why can’t you understand?’
My mother was face-down on the floor and my father leaned over, grabbed her hair, and used it to bang her head up and down.
My brother was in the sitting room and came running in, shouting ‘Stop it, Dad, stop it!’ and pulled him away, telling my mother to get in the kitchen and shut the door.
Mum stood with her back to the door, panting and amazed. Nothing like that had ever happened to her in her life before. He’d turned into a monster. Usually my father was so gentle.
In the bedroom, he was banging his head against the wall and crying his heart out.
My mother reached for the phone to try to contact his psychiatrist, but my father burst into the room, snatched the phone from her hand, and shouted: ‘Who are you calling? I suppose you’re calling the police.’
‘I’m trying to get the doctor,’ my mother replied. ‘You need help.’
He shouted: ‘Yes, I do need help! Your help! And what do you do? You call the police. You bitch!’
He then pulled the phone cord from its socket and started beating my mother about the head with the handset.
My mother had no idea it would be their last ever anniversary dinner. Six days later, my father flew to Miami. Pictured: John and Barbara with their children, including Julia (left), in 1965
It broke, shattering on the floor. Then he put his hands around her throat and started banging her head against the wall. My mother thought he’d choke her to death, but Mathew managed to drag him off.
My father broke loose, and rushed out of the front door, shouting: ‘I’m going. Do you hear? This is the last you’ll see of me! I’m going to kill myself. That’s what everybody wants and then you’ll all be happy.’
Mathew ran after him, but he was in the car and away.
It was many hours before my father’s solicitor Jim Patterson tracked him down, by which time he was subdued and contrite.
But it was not to be the last such terrifying episode.
The day after the attack, my father went to Perth to meet Sheila.
My mother by this time had decided she’d had enough and was driving to Sydney to fly home with Mathew. But perhaps against her better judgment, she was persuaded by Patterson that it would be good for her to talk to my father and Sheila face to face.
With emotions running so high, a showdown was inevitable.
The ill-fated meeting took place in the early evening at a picnic area near a dam at Albury, New South Wales.
As the love triangle sat together, my father told my mother he wanted both women in Melbourne: his wife so she could transcribe a book he was writing; Sheila so she could help him with questions about his business affairs from the Department of Trade and Industry, whose inspectors would be arriving shortly.
The insensitivity didn’t seem to occur to him.
My mother told him: ‘No. I won’t have that girl there. If she goes to Melbourne, I go back to England.’
He shouted: ‘I want you both! You are both important to me.’
‘Look,’ my mother said, ‘our suitcases are packed and in the boot of the car. I’m ready to fly to England tomorrow with Mathew and I will do so if you bring that girl back to Melbourne.’ She meant it.
His manic behaviour was truly frightening
Suddenly, he jumped to his feet and yelled ‘If you leave me, I’ll kill myself’, and started running towards the dam.
Sheila screamed at my mother: ‘Barbara, you must do something!’
Something inside my mother snapped and she turned to Sheila and said: ‘You do something.’
Sheila ran after him. My brother, who was waiting in the car nearby, turned the headlights on in time to see my father climbing up on to the edge of the dam.
Mathew drove up to my mother and she slipped into the driving seat and sped towards my father and Sheila.
By now, he was off the dam and he and Sheila were sobbing in each other’s arms.
Somehow my father persuaded my mother to stay on in Australia, and they returned together to the flat in Melbourne. Sheila, who had until recently wrongly believed she was pregnant with my father’s child, remained in Sydney.
My father’s manic behaviour was so out of character that it was truly frightening. It could well have been a symptom of him withdrawing from the drug Mandrax on which he had in recent years become dependent – a procedure so dangerous it often necessitated hospital supervision.
Perhaps he had taken some Mandrax or Mogadon, the other prescription drug he regularly used, to Miami when he faked his death and he had reached the last of his supply?
Eventually the medical profession became wise to the dangers of the highly addictive Mandrax and it was banned in the UK in 1984 – ten years too late for my father.
In March 1975, my father and Sheila were arrested on various charges relating to his disappearance, including conspiracy and the theft of four cheques that belonged to one of his companies worth £7,500, £6,981, £2,112 and £3,029.
My father faced a further 15 charges including not paying his most recent credit card bills, applying for a credit card and passport in the name of Joseph Markham, and obtaining birth certificates in the names of Joseph Markham and Clive Mildoon.
On July 17, escorted by Scotland Yard, the pair returned to Britain.
DURING my father’s trial at the Old Bailey in the summer of 1976, the judge, Edward Eveleigh, told the jury it was not their business to consider mental health issues.
‘Those are matters which can be taken into consideration in mitigation by the court, if appropriate, but they are not matters which affect guilt itself,’ he said.
The difficulty faced by my father’s defence team was that he had seen a psychiatrist only after his arrest. The court was constantly trying to press the idea that he wasn’t crazy before his arrest, but only became so because of it.
To us, as his family, it was patently obvious that a sane John Stonehouse wouldn’t adopt alternative personas and fake his own death. But people just weren’t interested in the mental health aspect of what had happened.
If this trial was happening today, experts would be asked to describe the psychological effects of taking too much Mandrax and Mogadon, taken individually and in combination, over a two-year period.
But this was 1970s, when those drugs were handed out like sweets, and the subject of men’s mental health was not talked about.
Convicted on charges of theft, fraud and deception, my father was sentenced to a total of 95½ years in prison, to run concurrently, which meant he would be locked up for just seven.
Judge Eveleigh said the extraordinarily harsh sentence was about being a deterrent.
‘Its principal object is to inform others that they cannot profit by this kind of behaviour or any criminal behaviour,’ he stated.
Sheila was given a suspended sentence of two years. The lead prosecutor, Michael Corkery QC, accused her of being a ‘shrewd and tough operator’.
But having read all the trial statements, I see nothing to indicate that Sheila had any idea what was going on inside my father’s head before he faked his death.
While I might not admire her capacity to have an affair for years with my father, she was never the wild sort of character who’d go along with such a mad plan.
John Stonehouse was escorted from the Old Bailey to Wormwood Scrubs in London before being transferred to a high-security prison at Blundeston in Suffolk.
From there, he wrote to the family: ‘I have been feeling happier and more relaxed than for at least four years and possibly longer. I feel more like a whole person.
‘The worst possible conditions at the Scrubs are so much better than the tension and desolation that I had to bear before. I am learning at last what a joy it is to have an “ordinary” life.’
He was released from jail in 1979, and married Sheila in 1981. He died in her arms at the age of just 62, seven years later after a series of heart attacks.
I wish my father had never been caught in Melbourne and had succeeded in his escape from reality, living a calm, new life, playing chess, listening to jazz and classical music, soaking up the sun.
He might have lived to the age of 83, when he could have used newly released files from the Czech secret service to prove that he was, in fact, innocent of the allegations of treason that never quite went away.
For most people, John Stonehouse will for ever remain the infamous runaway MP. But to me, my wonderful father was a hero.
Everywhere I’ve gone in my life, I’ve met people across the world who were helped by him.
Travelling around East Africa in the late 1960s, I spoke to many who remembered his efforts on their behalf in their struggle for justice and independence.
For years, I wasn’t allowed to pay in Indian restaurants in Britain because many are run by people from Bangladesh (another country he helped), and when they saw the Stonehouse name on my credit card or cheque they’d say: ‘No, no, you must accept our gratitude. Come again, any time, no charge.’
My father taught me something invaluable: that the world can be changed if people talk enough and work enough together.
After all he suffered, he is at peace. I send him my undying love and respect.
John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story Of The Runaway MP, by Julia Stonehouse, is published by Icon on July 19 at £16.99.
To pre-order a copy for £14.44, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193 before July 25. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
This post originally posted here The European Times News