“If I only thought it would help Stoner I would stay on”
Randy woman marries a man 29 years older who drinks too much and she takes young lover. Young lover bashes in husband’s head and both stand trial for murder. That was the scene that gripped puritanical, class-conscious Britain in the 1930s.
Yorkshire-born Francis Mawson Rattenbury was a distinguished architect who was living in Canada when, on 29 December 1923, he met Alma Pakenham, a divorcée with one son. They married in April 1925 and returned to England four years later. On 25 September 1934 they advertised in the Bournemouth Daily Echo for a “Daily willing lad, 14-18, for house-work; Scout-trained preferred”. George Stoner applied for the job and began work. Two months later, on 22 November, he and Alma had sex for the first time.
Francis Rattenbury was reclusive, impotent and drank too much. Stoner became jealous if Alma showed any affection to her husband and finally he snapped. On 24 March 1935 Stoner attacked Rattenbury with a wooden mallet in the lounge. The blows were so savage that they removed the back of 67-year-old architect’s head. Four days later he died.
Both Stoner and Alma were arrested — she was drunk at the time — and both confessed to the murder. However, when they went on trial at the Old Bailey on 27 May 1935 both pleaded not guilty. Alma was portrayed as an immoral woman who had “ensnared a hapless youth” while Stoner was apparently, “a poor lad cajoled into the vortex of this illicit love”. Stoner refused to say anything at the trial other than answer to his name, while Alma put up a robust defence. On 31 May, after the jury deliberated for 50 minutes, Stoner was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death and Alma was released. As she left the Old Bailey, the crowd booed her.On 4 June Alma Rattenbury took the train to Three Arches Railway Bridge in Christchurch where she stabbed herself six times in the breast with a knife. She left a note, “If I only thought it would help Stoner I would stay on. But it has been pointed out to me too vividly that I cannot help him. That is my death sentence.”
Villa Madeira, 5 Manor Road, Bournemouth, England
10.30pm Sunday 24 March 1935
After a more than 300,000-strong petition was signed, on 25 June 1935 Stoner was reprieved. He served just seven years in prison before being released in 1942. He served in the Army, fighting on D-Day. He died in Christchurch Hospital on 24 March 2000 aged 83, around 1 km (1/2 mi) from where Alma died and on the 65th anniversary of Francis’s murder. Terence Rattigan’s final play Cause Celebre was based on the story. The figurative jury is still out as to who actually wielded the murder weapon that night. Was it Stoner violently jealous of his girlfriend’s husband? Or was it the drug-addicted Alma who wanted to get rid of her husband?
YOU SHOULD KNOW:
On 28 September 1990 George Stoner, then 74, was convicted of a sex attack on a 12-year-old boy. He had sat naked in a public lavatory and lured the boy in, before kissing him and pulling his trousers down. The boy fled. Stoner was arrested wearing just a hat, socks and shoes. He was put on probation for two years.