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What went Wrong?

AnalysisWhat went Wrong?

It’s an everyday story, isn’t it? Teenage showgirl meets married Tory cabinet minister, and they give themselves over to passion while a spy from a hostile nation watch from the wings. This isn’t the latest hapless calamity to befall our current Government. I’m talking about the events that led to the trial of Stephen Ward in 1963.

By Jason Elliot, Editor, Halsbury’s Laws

We all think we know the story – Ward was the well-connected society osteopath and amateur artist who introduced teen showgirl, Christine Keeler, to then Minister of War, John Profumo, at the outdoor pool at Lord Astor’s family estate, Cliveden. Keeler would later claim that in addition to Profumo and other undesirables, she had slept with a Soviet deputy naval attaché (and therefore spy), Yevgeny “Eugene” Ivanov.

So far, so sleazy, but how did a series of events that sound vaguely reminiscent of the plot of a ‘Carry On’ movie result in Ward’s suicide?

If we believe Ludovic Kennedy’s account – and there’s no reason not to – the crowds were gathered ten deep outside the Bailey on the first day of Ward’s trial. Across the street, Fleet Street’s finest had mustered the biggest coterie of cameramen Kennedy had ever seen.

The trial exhibited several features that may seem unusual to today’s observer, and it’s worth examining them in the glare of hindsight. They go a long way to explaining how a criminal trial can go wrong.


The trial followed hot on the heels of Ward’s committal from the Magistrates’ Court. It’s worth remembering that all committals back then involved a consideration of the evidence. In Ward’s case, that gave the press the opportunity to comment about matters where they had previously felt constrained.

Although the proceedings against Ward were notable for the absence of both Profumo and Astor, Christine Keeler’s love life had long been the worst kept political secret in the country. Ward’s appearance before the examining magistrate gave Fleet Street the chance to abandon caution to an extent that would have been otherwise unthinkable at a time when two journalists had recently been imprisoned for contempt after refusing to name their sources in relation to events surrounding the compromised civil servant, John Vassall. There can be little doubt that the media circus and resultant public interest operated to Ward’s detriment.


The trial was prosecuted by Mervyn Griffith-Jones, who had recently secured his place in the history books by asking the jury in the Lady Chatterley trial whether they would allow their servants to read Lawrence’s work. Given Ward’s lifestyle choices and the nature of the offences on the two indictments that he then faced, (a second indictment alleging the procuring of abortions was never proceeded with), the choice doesn’t seem coincidental.

Similarly, the choice of Judge, Sir Archie Norman, a man with religious leanings, plucked from the Midlands circuit where, in his days at the Bar, he had been known as ‘The Hen’ seems to have done little to redress the balance.


History, as we know, tends to be authored by the victor. Profumo’s legacy has become one of a momentary indiscretion followed by a lifetime of charitable atonement. In reality, he committed the greatest offence of his, or any, age – he lied to the House. Ward’s initial unflinching and televised support for Profumo’s dishonesty can’t have benefited the appraisal of his credibility when he came under the spotlight at the Central Criminal Court. And, did I mention, his chum Profumo was nowhere to be seen by then?


The common wisdom that Christine Keeler brought down the Macmillan Government may well have been overstated – the Tories lost the next year’s General Election by a handful of seats, but there’s evidence that Macmillan, and others in high places, weren’t prepared to take that risk. There’s also evidence to suggest a level of involvement from Home Secretary Henry Brooke in the decision to investigate Ward in the face of high-level police doubts over the ability to secure convictions.

This unfortunate position can scarcely have been assisted by the fact that Macmillan’s wife was enjoying a long-standing affair with Lord Boothby – a name now more widely associated with sexual proclivity than political achievement.

Further political intrigue is added by the shadowy presence of the Security Services. It’s now clear that Ward had been used as a back channel by the Foreign Office, both at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and in relation to Berlin. He had a handler, now accepted to have been Keith Wagstaffe, although Ward would have known him under the more sinister soubriquet of Mr Woods from the War Office. Ward’s solicitors sought to call the mysterious Mr Woods as a defence witness, but the official correspondence shows they received a frosty response.


Perhaps unusually, given the level of notoriety that the case attracted, Ward wasn’t represented by a Silk. His counsel, James Burge, sometimes credited as an inspiration for John Mortimer’s Rumpole, found himself on the receiving end of the Judge’s prejudices. Sir Archie Norman even appeared to develop the habit of forgetting his name during the currency of the trial.

Ward didn’t escape the Judge’s opprobrium either. He notoriously – and unfairly – commented in his summing up on the failure of Ward’s society friends to stand by him and provide evidence in his defence.


The prosecution’s star witness, Christine Keeler, appeared in four criminal cases during 1963, three times as a prosecution witness and once as the defendant. She found herself indicted for perjury as a result of her evidence at the trial of ‘Lucky’ Gordon. She later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 9 months imprisonment. Burge knew about the false evidence, and sought to cross-examine Keeler about it, but, in the absence of a definitive ruling from the Court of Appeal, his hands were tied.


Before the conclusion of Ward’s trial, Lucky Gordon was freed on appeal. The Law Lords were chaired by the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker, and contemporary accounts suggest the manner in which the hearing was conducted was less than transparent, with the Court announcing as fait accompli that they didn’t need to hear evidence. While a note explaining the overturning of Gordon’s conviction was rushed to the Bailey, the wording left much to be desired and could not be used to cast credibility on the evidence of the prosecution’s star witness, Keeler.

Ultimately, Ward was convicted in absentia of two counts – those relating to Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies. It is shameful that a jury was allowed to convict on the strength of Keeler’s evidence without a warning that she had lied in her evidence against Gordon only months earlier.


Ward’s investigation involved disproportionate use of police resources to secure a conviction for relatively minor offences. An idea of the pressure to secure a conviction can be gained from the testimony of a prosecution witness, Margaret ‘Ronna’ Ricardo, who informed the jury that she had provided the police with false statements to implicate Ward because she was scared that she would lose her flat and her young sister would be taken into care. Similarly, Mandy Rice-Davies found herself in Holloway prison for nine days as an incentive to assist the Ward investigation.

What Have We Learned?

The pervading evil of the Ward trial was secrecy. Wagstaffe’s existence and Keeler’s lies were never made known to the jury. The Government commissioned first Lord Dilhorne and later Lord Denning to author reports that Ward had been an isolated problem and nothing else had gone wrong.

Lately, the CCRC have found themselves in the spotlight. It’s worth remembering that the reasons they recorded when refusing Geoffrey Robertson KC’s 2013 application to refer the Ward convictions to the Court of Appeal included the absence of a transcript of the summing up. A cursory look at the newspapers of the day reveals the summing up was reported practically verbatim by the press – so why isn’t it available? The answer is that, along with many other potentially valuable documents, including the transcripts of the evidence taken for the Denning report, the summing up remains locked away until, at the earliest, January 2048. That represents a political decision to cling to secrecy long after the protagonists in the Profumo affair are dead.

More recently, in 2018, a FOIA request was made to the Attorney General’s Office asking about the existence of correspondence linking the late Duke of Edinburgh to the Ward case. The AGO’s response was drafted as a refusal to confirm or deny.

Secrecy and justice make uncomfortable bed fellows, but we haven’t learned the lesson yet. Sixty years have passed since Stephen Ward preferred to overdose on Nembutal rather than hear guilty verdicts announced. There are many reasons for terming his trial a sham. Clinging to the notion of State secrecy as a valid reason for avoiding posthumous justice damages the reputation of the legal system but also encourages adverse speculation against many who were probably beyond reproach.

         Jason Elliott

[email protected]

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