In 2016 it was reported that Eaton Square was the most expensive place to live in Britain, and for almost 200 years it’s been one of London’s most prestigious addresses. Owned by Hugh Grosvenor, the 7th Duke of Westminster and the world’s richest person under thirty, the land came into the family when his ancestor, Sir Thomas Grosvenor, married a 12 year old girl called Mary Davis in 1677. Along with the child-bride came an area of marshland known as Five Fields – a place teeming with robbers, bandits and highwaymen. The Westbourne river at Five Fields was crossed at the Bloody Bridge – so called after a man’s body was discovered by the bridge in 1728 with half his face and five fingers removed. The bridge was roughly where Sloane Square Underground station is now and you can still see the conduit containing the Westbourne crossing above the platforms)
In 1824 Richard Grosvenor, the 2nd Marquess of Westminster, employed the master builder Thomas Cubitt to build a square of large terraced houses on the Five Fields marshland. Named after Eaton Hall the family’s country seat in Cheshire, the square become popular with the royalty, politicians and the rich which continues to this day. Despite the salubrious respectability of the square, however the area’s association with criminality and immoral behaviour didn’t end with the brutal Bloody Bridge killing.
One of the most infamous murders of the 20th Century was committed in a house on the corner of Eaton Square and Lower Belgrave Street when Richard John Bingham, more commonly known as Lord Lucan, murdered his family nanny Sandra Rivett and brutally attacked his estranged wife Veronica. Lady Lucan managed to escape while her husband was cleaning the blood from his hands in the bathroom. Dressed in her nightclothes covered in blood she staggered through the door of the nearby Plumbers Arms screaming at the drinkers: “Help me! I have just escaped from a murderer. My children, my children. He’s in my house. He’s murdered the nanny. Help me.”
Later that night “Lucky” Lucan called his mother to say there had been a ‘terrible catastrophe’ and he wrote to a friend to say that he was going to ‘lie doggo for a while’. Soon a blood-spattered Ford Corsair he had borrowed was found at the channel port Newhaven. What was almost the murder weapon was found in the boot. Despite numerous ‘sightings’ over the years Lord “Lucky” Lucan was never seen again.
About 50 metres from Lord Lucan’s house lived another peer of the realm who was also an habitual gambler. Number 1 Eaton Square was the home of Lord ‘Bob’ Boothby – almost forgotten nowadays but once one of the country’s more famous politicians. In 1965, not long after he had appeared on This is Your Life, Boothby’s life changed forever when the Sunday Mirror obtained a photograph that showed Boothby and Ronnie Kray (along with a good-looking young cat-burglar called Leslie Holt) sitting in the peer’s Eaton Square sitting room. They ran an article entitled ‘The Peer and the Gangster’ and although the protagonists were unnamed it sent shockwaves through Westminster and Fleet Street.
After thirty-four years as an MP, nearly all of them as a backbencher, Boothby had been made a peer by the Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. It was a benevolent act – the first (and last) Baron Boothby had been having an affair, almost openly, with Macmillan’s wife Dorothy since 1930. Not only that but Macmillan’s daughter Sarah was almost certainly Boothby’s. The writer and broadcaster Sir Ludovic Kennedy (and Boothby’s cousin) once said of him “…to my certain knowledge [Boothby] fathered at least three children by the wives of other men (two by one woman, one by another).” Kennedy also once called him, and to his face, “a shit of the highest order”; Boothby’s response was to rub his hands, give a deep chuckle and say “Well a bit. Not entirely.”
Boothby, despite two marriages and numerous affairs with women, was bisexual and it was his penchant for young men that led to his downfall. Boothby was a regular at Esmeralda’s Barn casino situated at Wilton Place in Knightsbridge (where the Berkeley Hotel is now) . Owned by the Kray Twins the ‘Barn’ was the centre of Ronnie Kray’s own ‘private vice ring’ which included private sex shows attended by Boothby and his friend the Labour MP Tom Driberg. According to Francis Wheen, Driberg’s biographer ‘rough but compliant East End lads were served like so many canapés’. Boothby went on to sue the Sunday Mirror and was awarded £40,000 compensation. As he had essentially perjured himself, the peer became vulnerable to anyone who could prove he had lied. Thus much, if not all, the money went straight to Ronald Kray. Fleet Street refused to go anywhere near the Krays after this and for almost three years the Twins were known by the Mirror and other publications as ‘those well-known sporting brothers’.
Before the war Boothby, like his friend Winston Churchill was a consistent anti-appeaser. During a trip to Germany he was once greeted by Hitler’s secretary with a ‘Heil Hitler’ salute to which he responded with an admirable ‘Heil Boothby’. Such behaviour would not have impressed Joachim Von Ribbentrop, the Nazi Ambassador in London who from autumn 1936 lived at number 37 Eaton Square. His landlord, extraordinarily, was Neville Chamberlain. ‘Amusing’, Chamberlain wrote to his sister at the time, ‘considering my affection for Germans in general and Ribbentrop in particular’. It was about this time that Diana Mitford, who lived at 2 Eaton Square, secretly married Oswald Mosley in Berlin (just two days after Mosley’s Blackshirts ignominious retreat at Cable Street) – a wedding arranged by Dr Goebbels himself. Hitler came to dinner in the evening and generously presented a picture of himself in a silver frame as a wedding present.
Von Ribbentrop, who would be executed for crimes against humanity less than a decade after he moved to Eaton Square was strongly disliked by his staff. He continually lost his temper and for no reason, often summoned his officials in the middle of the night. Ribbentrop believed that anyone who telephoned, other than people ranked above him, should be kept waiting on the line. Many callers, not sharing his view, just hung up – cueing more rages about traitors and saboteurs. While his father was at Eaton Square fifteen year-old Rudolf von Ribbentrop was a day pupil at Westminster School (Eton had rejected him). According to the future diplomat Brian Urquhart, a contemporary at the school, Rudolf was ‘doltish, surly and arrogant’ and arrived at school each day in a plum-colored Mercedes-Benz to the cry of ‘Heil Hitler,’ shouted by the chauffeur. He was, however, a brilliant athlete and easily the best in his year at running, shot-putt and javelin. Rudolf joined the SS in 1939 and while obviously fighting on the wrong side was an extraordinarily brave and decorated soldier before surrendering to the Americans in 1945.
The politician Leo Amery lived at 112 Eaton Square during the war at a time when many of the square’s houses were requisitioned by the Government. It was in this house where a meeting of senior Conservative politicians not long after after Amery had told Chamberlain during the Norway debate in the House of Commons May 7 1940 – In the name of God, go” decided that Churchill had to be installed as Prime Minster. Chamberlain resigned three days later.
While the son of Chamberlain’s tenant Rudolf von Ribbentrop was running around Vincent Square at Westminster school Leo Amery’s son John had run away to Europe obsessed with the Nazi cause and convinced Communism was the fault of the jews. Educated at Harrow, like his father and Churchill, by the age of twenty Amery had managed to receive 74 driving convictions, usually because if he was driving and fancied a drink, he’d just stop his car and leave it in the middle of the road.
In 1942 John Amery began making Nazi propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Acutely embarrassed Leo Amery immediately called Churchill and offered to resign. His friend exclaimed ‘Good God. No one should be blamed for the aberrations of a grown-up son’. Two years later John travelled to Italy to support the Italian dictator Mussolini where he was soon captured by Italian partisans. A young British officer called Captain Alan Whicker (yes, that Alan Whicker) was sent to find him. Amery was brought back to England – dressed in full fascist costume including jackboots and was charged with high treason.
John Amery’s trial took place at the Old Bailey on November 28, 1945 (not long after his father, like many Tory MPs after the war had lost his seat). It lasted just eight minutes not least because an unashamed John Amery pleaded guilty. Three weeks later, and just after he said to the famous hangman, ‘Mr Pierrepoint, I’ve always wanted to meet you, but not, of course, under these circumstances,’ Amery was hanged in Wandsworth Prison at 9am on December 19, at the age of 33.
On 22 June 1922, around the corner from Eaton Square at 36 Eaton Place, an assassination took place that had reverberations in Ireland that could be said to have kick-started the Irish Civil war.When Field-Marshall Sir Henry Wilson arrived home by taxi after unveiling a war memorial at Liverpool Street Station two 24 year old men, Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan ran up and shot him seven times on his doorstep. Much of Britain was outraged with the murder and one newspaper wrote: ‘The murderers were Irishmen. Their deed must rank among the foulest in the foul category of Irish political crimes.’ Six months earlier in December 1921 the Anglo-Irish Treaty had been signed by an Irish delegation led by Michael Collins that envisaged an independent Ireland to be known as the Irish Free State. It was hugely controversial, especially back in Ireland and just a few weeks before Wilson’s assassination, a group of 200 anti-treaty IRA men had occupied the Four Courts of Dublin in defiance of their Government. It was assumed by the British that Dunne and O’Sullivan were anti-treaty IRA men and after the shock of the Field Marshall’s murder Winston Churchill (at the time Secretary of State for the Colonies and a signatory of the Anglo-Irish Treaty) wrote to Collins threatening that unless he moved against the anti-treaty IRA men he would instruct British troops to do so for him. After a final attempt to persuade the men to leave the Courts, Collins borrowed two 18 pounder Artillery guns from the British and bombarded the Four Courts until anti-treaty garrison surrendered. It was a surrender that almost immediately led to the Irish Civil War. Fighting soon broke out over Dublin and subsequently the rest of the country.
Ten days after Wilson’s murder and after a trial that lasted only three hours Dunne and O’Sullivan were sentenced to death and hanged on the 10th August 1922. Less than two weeks later Michael Collins was ambushed and shot dead in his home county of Cork by anti-treaty IRA members. The ironic aspect to the story of the murder of Sir Henry Hughes Wilson was that Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan were both born and bred in London and indeed fought for the British during WW1, whereas Field-Marshall Wilson was born smack bang in the middle of Ireland at Ballinalee in County Longford.
It’s fair to says that there aren’t so many assassinations and bloody murders in Eaton Square these days. It’s a much less violent place. Although in January 2017 a gang of ‘masked thugs’ hurled missiles and abuse at some squatters who had taken over a Russian Oligarch’s Eaton Square home. This part of Belgravia never seems to become as respectable as it wants to be and with rumours of money laundering via off-shore anonymous companies, the Square, once the home of Sean Connery, Vivien Leigh, Rex Harrison and Barry Gibb, has become so popular among ultra-rich Russians close to the Kremlin that it is now often known as Red Square.
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