For years the world was fascinated by the fate of Lord Lucan, the British aristocrat who fled the UK after a murder – and simply disappeared. Now new evidence has emerged to suggest that he ran to Africa. By REBECCA DAVIS.
The title of 'Earl of Lucan' was made notorious by the last man to hold the title, but at least one of his descendants was no stranger to infamy either. George Bingham, the third Earl of Lucan, ordered the catastrophic Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimean War, the British cavalry advance which saw 118 men killed in an act of such futility and rashness that the opposing Russian forces were said to have believed that the British soldiers must have been drunk.
George’s prominence in the Lucan history books has been usurped by the seventh Earl of Lucan, Richard Bingham, who was more commonly known as 'Lord Lucan' or 'Lucky Lucan'. Lucan earned the latter sobriquet at the baccarat table, but some would say it remained a fitting title for a man who is widely assumed to have, literally, gotten away with murder. In order to do so, however, he had to disappear forever.
Lucan fitted the stereotype of a layabout aristocrat. While his forebears had played prominent roles in military service and parliament, Lucan’s only known period of employment took place between 1955 and 1960, when he worked at a small merchant bank. A glorious two-night winning streak at baccarat in 1960 netted him £26,000, however – a fortune compared to his annual salary of £500 a year, and Lucan retired.
In 1963 he met the woman who would become his wife: Veronica Duncan. Duncan was sister to the wife of jockey Bill Shand Kydd, who was the half-brother of Peter Shand-Kydd, best known for being Princess Diana’s stepfather. They married in 1964, which was also the year when Lucan inherited his father’s title. Over the next six years, they had three children.
But all was not well in the Lucan household. Lady Lucan reportedly suffered badly from post-natal depression, and was also increasingly worried about what she saw as her husband’s gambling addiction. Lucky’s luck was running thin – he was suffering heavy losses, but refused to give up his cards. In 1972 the couple separated. Lucan was dead set on maintaining custody of his children, which should have been a sure thing: at that stage it was the norm for British Peers of the Realm to be granted custody. In the Lucans’ case, however, the judge ruled in favour of the mother – a decision which allegedly caused Lucan great mortification.
The day on which Lucan was to enter the halls of infamy was 7 November 1974. On that night, Lady Lucan burst through the doors of a pub near her house in London, bleeding profusely from several head wounds. “Help me, help me, help me, he’s in the house, he’s murdered my nanny,” she reportedly pleaded. When police entered the Lucans’ home, they found the dead body of nanny Sandra Rivett, who had apparently been beaten to death with a lead pipe.
According to the statement Lady Lucan would give from hospital, Rivett had gone downstairs to the kitchen to make tea for Veronica. After 15 minutes passed and she did not return, Veronica ventured downstairs to see what had become of the tea. Entering the dark basement, she was set upon by an intruder who hit her with a heavy object. When she screamed, he told her to keep quiet, and she recognised her husband’s voice. Managing to calm his attack, she asked where the nanny was, and he replied that she was dead. Lord Lucan then allegedly went to the bathroom to fetch a cloth to sponge the blood off his wife’s face, and, seizing her opportunity, Lady Lucan fled.
Lord Lucan’s story was that he had been passing by his house when he noticed a fight happening, but “couldn’t bring himself to look”. We know this because this was the story he gave to his mother by phone shortly afterwards. He repeated the story at the home of his friends Ian and Susan Maxwell-Scott, to which he drove after phoning his mother. He also claimed to them that he had entered the house and slipped on a pool of blood in the basement. Lucan slept overnight at the Maxwell-Scotts, and left the house the following day in the early afternoon. That was to be the last time anyone would confirm having seen him alive.
Before he left, however, he posted two letters to his brother-in-law, Bill Shand-Kydd. In the first, Lucan said that he suspected his wife would blame him for the murder of the nanny, because she was bent on vengeance. “The circumstantial evidence against me is strong in that V will say it was all my doing,” he wrote. In the second, he left instructions for the auctioning of some family silver to clear his overdrafts.
Four days later, Lucan’s car was found abandoned on the south coast. The front seat showed traces of bloodstains, and there was a lead pipe in the boot which matched the instrument used to murder Sandra Rivett. A day later, the police issued a warrant for Lucan’s arrest – a full five days after the murder.
The reason for this delay owes much to the 'close ranks' instinct and protectiveness of the British aristocracy, which refused to believe that their pal Lucky could be guilty of murder. In particular, police later accused the group of rich gamblers known as the 'Clermont Set' of having actively obstructed their investigation. To quote a 2004 article in The Independent, “many of the detectives investigating the case came to deeply resent what they saw as a cold, callous and self-serving wall of silence erected by Lucan’s family and friends”. Nonetheless, an inquest jury took just 31 minutes to deliver a verdict of “Murder by Lord Lucan” – the last occasion in British law when an inquest jury was permitted to name a murderer.
Regardless of the jury’s findings, there have been three main theories as to the murder case ever since. A woman called Sally Moore wrote a book attempting to exonerate Lucan, suggesting that his story was accurate – he encountered his wife being attacked by an unknown assailant and attempted to rescue her, before fleeing when he realised how suspicious the circumstances looked. A second theory holds that Lucan hired a hitman to kill his wife, with Lucan arriving on the scene afterwards to take care of the body. An important detail to mention here is that Rivett was of identical height to Lady Lucan, and was not expected to be in the house that night as it wasn’t one of her regular working days. There are some who say that it is implausible that Lord Lucan would have mistaken Rivett for his wife, even in the dark, and this points to the involvement of an external figure. The third, and most simple, explanation is that Lucan was indeed the murderer.
We’ll never have a conclusive answer because Lucan was never seen again. He simply disappeared into thin air, despite an international police manhunt. Lucan-spotting was all the rage for a period in the 70s and 80s. Police in Australia arrested a man in December of 1974 who they suspected was Lucan, but turned out to be a British MP who had previously faked his suicide. For a while, if you were a single British man with a posh accent living in a far-flung corner of the globe, you had reason to sweat. As recently as 2007, in fact, Scotland Yard were following up alleged Lucan identifications; in that year the New Zealand neighbours of a man going by the name of Roger Woodgate shopped him to the police on the basis of his upper-class English accent, air of secretiveness and the fact that he appeared to be funded by sources in the UK. “I should be so lucky,” he angrily told the media at the time.
South Africa was also fingered as a possible destination for Lucas to be hiding (as we’ve seen lately, we’re quite the popular choice for fugitive criminals). The rumours about Lucan being in South Africa were immortalised by the Spitting Image puppet show song I’ve never met a nice South African (1986), which featured Lucan as a bartender. In the early 90s, a former apartheid spook claimed that a Brit living in Johannesburg, known alternately as 'Jeff' and 'James Chilton', was the missing aristocrat. This, too, turned out not to be the case.
Lucan’s close friend John Aspinall claimed to be convinced that Lucan had killed himself by scuttling his boat on the English Channel. In 1999 the High Court ruled that Lucan was officially dead, which allowed executors to wind up his estate (worth less than £15,000 when all Lucan’s gambling debts were finally paid off) and allowed his son to inherit his title. Lady Lucan told The Times that “I hope that will put an end to it. It was 25 years ago, a quarter of a century, and it should be forgotten”.
But it is very much not forgotten. A new BBC documentary contains startling revelations from a woman who worked as a secretary for Lucan’s friend John Aspinall. The woman, who has chosen to go by the pseudonym Jill Findlay, told the BBC that she twice arranged trips for Lucan’s two eldest children to travel to Africa between 1979 and 1981 for Lucan to see them. On the first occasion the children went on safari in Kenya, and on the second, travelled to Gabon. On neither occasion are they believed to have actually met with their father – according to Findlay, he merely wished to be able to observe them at close range without them seeing him.
The BBC documentary contains one other new piece of information: an interview with Bob Polkinghorne, a detective who was assigned to the Lucan case in the 80s. Polkinghorne told the BBC that a reliable witness saw Lucan in the early 80s while holidaying in Africa. Intriguingly, though, Polkinghorne says he was actively prevented from following up any leads. “I was then later told, a few days later, discontinue the inquiry,” Polkinghorne said. “You haven’t got approval to continue.” Did one of Lucan’s rich and influential friends have a word with Scotland Yard?
If Lucan was alive, he would be 78 years old this year. Keep your eyes peeled for ageing aristocrats with cut-glass English accents when holidaying on the continent. DM
- Lord Lucan 'lived secret life in Africa', claims former assistant, in the Guardian.
Photo: Could Lord Lucan still be alive, well and living in Africa?