John Stonehouse: He was a fraudster, but was he a spy?

January 28, 2023 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

If you have never heard of John Stonehouse, it is probably because of Lord Lucan. The British peer, Lucan, disappeared on November 7, 1974, after the murder of Sandra Rivett, his children’s nanny, and the attempted murder of his wife, Veronica.

Lucan was never seen again by any officials, even after extensive international searches. Many have speculated on what happened to him, but nothing has ever been verified. He was finally declared dead in 1999, twenty-five years after his disappearance.

The Lucan disappearance, as you might imagine, consumed the British press for weeks.

Almost ignored by comparison was another disappearance, that of John Stonehouse, a member of parliament and a minister in Harold Wilson’s Labor government. He disappeared two weeks after Lucan, on November 20, 1974.

Even though the Lucan disappearance included a murder, the disappearance of John Stonehouse, to my mind, is a more interesting story because we know how it ended.

Stonehouse, unlike Lucan with his peerage, was the product of a working class family. He was born in 1925 in Southampton, England, and he served in the Royal Air Force in the latter part of World War II. He graduated from the London School of Economics and tried unsuccessfully to gain a parliamentary seat in 1949. He finally won election to parliament in 1957.

Stonehouse made a name for himself by traveling to Rhodesia, and speaking to the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, a speech in which he encouraged Blacks to stand up for their rights. He was promptly deported from Southern Rhodesia and banned from returning there.

He served as a junior minister of aviation when Labor came to power, and he was involved in the French collaboration of the development of the Concorde airplane. In 1968 he helped negotiate an agreement on technological cooperation between Britain and Czechoslovakia. He seemed destined at that point to rise to a position of leadership in the Labor party. In 1967 he became Postmaster General of Great Britain.

Behind the scenes of his life and career, however, there was another story developing. Early in the 1960s, a defector from the Czechoslovak Secret Service denounced him as a spy, but Stonehouse successfully defended himself. While the charge that he was a spy was never proven decisively, it has cast a shadow over his name ever since.

Stonehouse maintained the lifestyle of a normal member of parliament until November 1974 when he traveled to Miami Beach. There, he appeared to have gone swimming and drowned in the Atlantic Ocean. He had actually stolen the identity of two deceased men who had been members of his parliamentary constituency.

He used these identities to transfer large sums of money between banks and was living in Australia when a bank teller suspected something odd about his accounts. Because of the Lucan disappearance and investigation, police throughout the world were watchful for any British citizen whose identity might be in question. Australian police first believed they might have nabbed Lucan, but the man they arrested actually turned out to be Stonehouse.

Stonehouse was extradited to Great Britain in July 1975. He was charged with various illegal acts, but he was released on bail and actually continued to serve in parliament. In 1976 he went on trial for fraud, theft, forgery, conspiracy to defraud, and a couple of other charges. He dismissed his own lawyers and conducted his defense himself. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Three years later in 1979, Stonehouse was released from prison because of good behavior, and because of ill health. After his release, he wrote three novels and made various television and radio appearances.

Stonehouse died in March 1988.

His life has continued to generate discussion and controversy. His daughter Julia Stonehouse has vigorously defended her father from the charge that he was a spy for the Czech government. (See her book, John Stonehouse, My Father: The True Story of the Runaway MP). That charge has been made numerous times, including by his great nephew, Julian Hayes, who wrote a book titled Stonehouse: Cabinet Minister, Fraudster, Spy.

Stonehouse is back in the public consciousness now because of a recent three-part dramatization of his life. That program can be seen in America on the Britbox streaming service. You can read more about the program and about Stonehouse’s life in this article in The Guardian.

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