British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

John Stonehouse was a Labour Party member of Parliament who falsified records of his business and then attempted to flee by faking his suicide and taking on another identity. He had hoped to start a new life in Australia with his mistress. He was discovered, extradited, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Summary of Event

John Stonehouse was for a time a high-flying politician in Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Labour Party government. When the Labour Party was defeated in the 1970 election in the United Kingdom, Stonehouse pursued various business interests that soon became mismanaged. Stonehouse attempted to fabricate the business accounts but finally realized he was going to be investigated for fraud. This led to his desperate attempt to escape and start his life again under a new name by faking his own death. [kw]Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide, British Politician John (Nov. 20, 1974) [kw]Suicide, British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His (Nov. 20, 1974) Buckley, Sheila Wilson, Harold Stonehouse, John Buckley, Sheila Wilson, Harold Stonehouse, John [g]Europe;Nov. 20, 1974: British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide[01530] [g]Australia;Nov. 20, 1974: British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide[01530] [g]Australasia;Nov. 20, 1974: British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide[01530] [g]England;Nov. 20, 1974: British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide[01530] [c]Government;Nov. 20, 1974: British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide[01530] [c]Politics;Nov. 20, 1974: British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide[01530] [c]Sex;Nov. 20, 1974: British Politician John Stonehouse Fakes His Suicide[01530]

Stonehouse had been educated at Tauntons School, Southampton, the city where his mother later became mayor. After a period in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he attended the London School of Economics, graduating in 1951. While there, he had been chairman of the Labour Society, and after graduating he became involved in the co-operative movement, a socialist retail and political movement. He served the co-op in Africa, becoming its manager in Uganda (1952-1954). He returned to work with the London Co-operative Society and became its president (1962-1964).

John Stonehouse, far right, returns to England in July, 1975. He was soon indicted for fraud, conspiracy, and forgery after faking his own suicide in 1974.

(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Stonehouse maintained an active interest in politics, contesting two elections in 1950 and 1951 before finally being elected member of Parliament (MP) for Wednesbury in the West Midlands in 1954, as a Labour and Co-operative Party candidate. He continued to hold this seat until it was abolished in 1974. He then won the new Walsall North constituency.

When the Labour Party came to power under Wilson, Stonehouse gained his first government position as parliamentary secretary to the minister of aviation (1964-1966). He quickly moved up the ladder to the office of postmaster-general, a cabinet post, in 1968. He reorganized the British postal system and then became minister of posts and telecommunications until the Labour government was defeated in 1970.

Though Stonehouse was reelected, he was not appointed to the shadow cabinet, and he could see his political progress was blocked. He turned to setting up various business ventures, many connected to his colonial and overseas experience, with his nephew Michael Hayes and businessman James Charlton. In the end, these totaled twenty-three different companies, which soon ran into trouble. Stonehouse began transferring funds from one company to another, then asset-stripping some of them. Some of these moves were fraudulent, designed to trick his accountants and investors, and he came to the attention of the British Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

Aware of the likely repercussions, Stonehouse hatched a plan with his long-time secretary and mistress, Sheila Buckley, to fake his own death. He discovered that two of his constituents, who had been about his own age, had died recently. He applied for passports under their names once he had obtained their birth certificates from their widows. The planning took several months. In late November, 1974, he planned a business trip to Miami, Florida, with Charlton. While staying at the Fontainbleu Hotel on Miami Beach, he left his clothes on the beach and took a plane to San Francisco, California, using one of his fake passports. He was soon reported missing, his clothes were found, and it was presumed he had drowned while swimming. Buckley told police that Stonehouse was a strong swimmer, but he preferred swimming alone. The U.S. Coast Guard and local police mounted an intensive search, even digging up a car park. They found a body, though it was not his. The news of his disappearance was overshadowed in Britain by several bomb atrocities committed by Irish terrorists and subsequent antiterrorist legislation.

Stonehouse’s wife, Barbara, was in shock. No body was washed up on shore at the beach but, nonetheless, he was declared dead. Stonehouse, in fact, had journeyed to Australia under the surname Markham and then left the country again. He traveled back to Europe, met Buckley in Denmark, and saw how his alleged death had been reported. He then returned to Australia using his other alias, Donald Clive Muldoon, and rented a house in a beach area of Melbourne, Victoria. The Australian police were tipped off both by British contacts and the banks that Stonehouse was moving his money. The police thought, however, they were looking for Lord Lucan, another prominent figure who had also disappeared following the mysterious death of his children’s nanny.

On December 24, the Australian police arrested Stonehouse for illegal entry into Australia. He confessed to document tampering but because he was a British MP it was not clear whether he broke any law. MPs were exempt from certain entry requirements. After being held briefly, he was released.

Stonehouse claimed he had fled Britain because he was being blackmailed, and Buckley supported the story. He said his fake suicide had been a result of a “brainstorm.” His wife, who knew nothing of his involvement with Buckley, flew out to be with him. Stonehouse sent a telegram to the prime minister to apologize, stating he wished to stay in Australia. Immediate speculation was that he was involved in spying, though the British authorities soon squashed such speculation. Others had believed his death had been a result of a Mafia;and John Stonehouse[Stonehouse] Mafia hit.

At a personal level, once Barbara Stonehouse had been faced with the truth, she divorced him in 1978. John Stonehouse married Buckley in 1981 and they had a son. He had two daughters and a son with Barbara. More immediately, he was charged on twenty-one counts of fraud, theft, forgery, conspiracy to defraud, causing a false police investigation, and wasting police time.

Stonehouse’s trial began in the summer of 1976 and lasted sixty-seven days, the longest fraud trial in British history through that year. He conducted his own defense. He was convicted on eighteen counts and sentenced to seven years in prison. In prison, Stonehouse suffered three heart attacks and needed open-heart surgery. He was released from Wormwood Scrubs Prison in 1979, after serving three years only. Buckley also was sentenced to two years, which was suspended. Stonehouse occasionally appeared in public and continued to write, mainly fiction. He had another heart attack and died in 1988.

Impact

The Stonehouse affair was a major embarrassment to the Wilson government, which had just been reelected in 1974 with the slimmest of majorities. Stonehouse’s absence meant the party was basically managing with a majority of one. He returned to his position as a Labour MP. He then resigned from the Labour Party during his trial and joined the English National Party, an anti-immigrant right-wing party.

The British press, with no other crisis on hand, did a good deal of investigating, discovering the Buckley connection and the fraudulent business dealings, especially with the Anglo-Bangladesh Trust. The DTI and the fraud squad later established that Stonehouse had illegally obtained about £2 million. Immediate calls for his resignation from Parliament came to nothing. The British authorities eventually had enough evidence to apply for his extradition, which was finally granted after six months of legal wrangling. Meanwhile, Stonehouse had applied unsuccessfully for asylum status to Sweden and Mauritius.

When Stonehouse finally resigned his seat after his conviction on August 28, 1976, the Conservative Party opposition won the seat in the subsequent by-election. He also had to resign as a privy councillor, one of only three councillors to have done so in the twentieth century. Buckley, Sheila Wilson, Harold Stonehouse, John

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adut, Ari. On Scandal: Moral Disturbances in Society, Politics, and Art. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A comprehensive analysis of scandals of all types. The author explores the contexts in which “wrong-doings generate scandals and when they do not.” Focuses on how people experience scandals emotionally and cognitively.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stonehouse, John. Death of an Idealist. London: W. H. Allen/Virgin Books, 1975. A personal confession by Stonehouse of his fall from grace. Includes discussion of the 1974 fake-suicide scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. My Trial: My Blow-by-Blow Account and Psychological Reaction to Trial and Verdict from the Old Bailey Dock. London: Star, 1976. Stonehouse’s own account of his trial.

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