Scandal at Dolphin Square: A Notorious History
The perfect completion to the Whitechapel Society December weekend, the after- lunch speaker at The Chamberlain was Daniel Smith, who along with co-author Simon Danczuk (1) have written this compelling book.
In his introduction, Tony Power reminded us that Dan had previously spoken to the Society, via zoom during lock-down, about “The Peer & the Gangster”. As Tony pointed out, the proximity of Dolphin Square, only minutes from Parliament and the West End, along with its level of privacy and luxury has attracted a whole cast of characters over the years including MPs, spies, actors, businessmen, prostitutes, and conmen. We knew we were in for a good talk!
Dan started by reading from a 1935 Dolphin Square promotional brochure:
Dolphin Square will, for many reasons, be London’s most distinguished address. It will carry the prestige associated with many notable in public life and society. Members of Parliament, people of title, Government officials and professional men are among those who have attracted as residents to Dolphin square by reason of its unique location and exceptional appointments.
This 7.5-acre site, which by its completion numbered 1200 flats, was opened in 1936. As the brochure suggested, the initial residents included some well-known names including a Harold Wilson (who was yet to start his parliamentary career) and the actress Margaret Lockwood.
A lesser-known name today was that of Ellen Wilkinson a Labour MP who had taken an active part in the Jarrow march of 1936. Hers was an interesting story in that she became Education Secretary in the post-war Labour government of 1945 at the age of 54. However, in 1947 she was found unconscious in her flat in Dolphin Square and died in hospital shortly after. Whilst certainly suffering with pneumonia she had also taken a large dose of barbiturates. After her death it was revealed that she had been in an affair with then Home Secretary Herbert Morrison and he had, only just before, dropped the bombshell that he would not be leaving his wife. This, coupled with rumours that Ellen was about to be removed from post in a cabinet reshuffle, led to speculation of suicide.
Also, during the 1940s, the Free French were given office space in Dolphin Square and Dan said that there was evidence that Charles de Gaulle had stayed there. Maxwell Knight was another resident during these war years (2). Knight was a naturalist and there were a number of stories of residents of Dolphin Square having to share air-raid shelters with some of Knight’s exotic animals. However, Knight was also a prominent figure at MI5 and a friend of Ian Fleming, and many speculate that he was the model for “M” in the James Bond books.
The flat directly above Knight’s was occupied by Oswald Mosley and Diana Mitford. In May 1940 Knight expressed his concerns about the couple at an MI5 meeting. This started a chain of events and a few days later an expansion of the Defence Regulation 18B was passed and within hours Mosley had been arrested followed by Diana Mitford a few weeks later.
One of Dan’s favourite Dolphin Square occupants were spinster sisters, Ida and Louise Cook. Louise was a civil service secretary and Ida a prolific writer of Mills & Boon books. Both were passionate opera fans and they used this to great effect in assisting Jews who were fleeing Nazi occupied Europe. Initially, this was during the period whilst the Jewish population could legally leave Nazi Germany but couldn’t take any of their valuables or money with them. The sisters would fly out from Croydon airport dressed in modest clothes to attend an operatic event somewhere in Europe. Whilst there they would collect furs, jewellery and cash from fleeing or preparing to flee refugees, fly back from a different airport boldly attired in everything they had collected and would then reunite the money and belongings once the refugees were safely in London. As the war continued and this became impossible, the sister’s Dolphin Square flat became a safe house and was known to have given refuge to at least 30 people. Ida and Louise kept the flat for many years after the war and it was used to house people from the operatic world who had fallen on hard times and Maria Callas was known to have performed at the flat in 1964 to raise funds to support their work.
Post-war occupants from the world of entertainment included Peter Finch, Shirley Bassey and Diana Dors.
Moving onto the 1960s: A young man named John Vassall rented one of the apartments. He was a civil servant at the Admiralty on a salary of about £700 a year. The rent of the flat was about £350 a year; he had a pricey antique collection; had an extensive wardrobe of tailor-made high-end suits and enjoyed numerous foreign holidays. For many years, no one seemed to question how! However, his lifestyle unravelled, and it turned out that he had been a spy for the Soviet Union since 1954, an enormous embarrassment for the Macmillan government.
But Dolphin Square related embarrassment didn’t stop there – one year later Christine Keeler moved in. Initially she shared an apartment with Mandy Rice-Davis but when Mandy was reconciled with her boyfriend, Peter Rackman, Christine moved into her own flat. Whilst there, Christine’s love-triangle with Lucky Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe became very complicated and on one occasion Christine was held captive by Lucky Gordon in her flat for several days. Christine moved out of the apartment in 1962 and the Profumo scandal hit the headlines in 1963. Though Profumo was to say that his affair with Christine Keeler was over by the time she moved into Dolphin Square, at the later inquiry numerous witnesses said that they had seen the pair there together.
In March 1973 an IRA London bombing campaign tragically claimed 200 casualties. Car bombs went off outside the Old Bailey, the Ministry of Agriculture, Scotland Yard and outside an army recruitment office. On investigation, it was discovered that the cars, laden with high explosives had been parked overnight in the underground car park of Dolphin Square. Dan and Simon interviewed the then car park attendant, who was totally innocent of any involvement, and he described his hours of interrogation by the police and his indignation, upon release, of not being given a lift home!
Two years earlier, The People newspaper ran an expose about Sybil Benson’s brothel which was being run from a 3-bed flat in Dolphin Square. Described by Sybil herself as her “torture house” she said her clients included politicians, actors and members of the aristocracy. It was, she explained a lucrative business! Rent was £13.7.6 per week and the income generated was £1260 – a no-brainer really! She was very conscious not to disturb her neighbours, keeping strict business hours and there were no shenanigans on a Sunday. However, despite her neighbourly consideration Sybil was forced to give up her Dolphin Square lease.
Dolphin Square was to also be the “perfect love nest” of Barbara Windsor and Sid James. In 1974 they had both been cast in a West End production based on the Carry On films. At the time, Barbara was married to Ronnie Knight and Sid was married and living with his wife in Buckinghamshire. Sid had sustained a back injury some time before and said to his wife that rather than the discomfort of the late-night commute while the show was running, he would rent a London flat. It was there that Barbara would join him. One presumes his back made a miraculous recovery!
Whilst there have been a number of suspicious deaths in Dolphin Square, there has only been one murder which occurred in 1975. Michael Shepley, a 39-year-old, South African born, Oxford educated solicitor was stabbed to death in his Dolphin Square apartment. Michael had picked up a male prostitute and taken him back to the flat. The prostitute, along with an accomplice then attempted to rob Michael, confident in the likelihood that he would not report this to the police. However, there ensued a frenzied attack which resulted in a knife wound which was to kill Michael. His assailants were arrested and tried; an 18-year-old was found not guilty of murder but guilty of conspiracy to rob and received a short borstal sentence, and his 24-year-old accomplice received a life sentence for murder.
Dan then moved onto more recent allegations which involved Dolphin Square. We will all remember back in 2014 when “Nick” alleged that there was a VIP paedophile ring operating from Dolphin Square and it was responsible for the murder of three children. Various prominent public figures were accused and at that time the Metropolitan Police said they considered the allegations “credible and true”. Eventually, “Nick” was shown to have fabricated everything and “Nick” (Carl Beech) is now serving an 18-year prison sentence. The investigation by the Metropolitan Police was seriously questioned and many shortcomings found. Though everything that this fantasist alleged was false, Dan and Simon devote some of the last chapter of their book to interviews they had with various people that suggest that Dolphin Square can not be given an entirely clean bill of health regarding historical sexual abuse. Although this review is not the place to discuss this, I will leave you with the final paragraph of Dan and Simon’s book:
The moment that Carl Beech’s untruths were labelled “credible and true” by the police responsible for investigating them, an unpalatable but significant strand of the Dolphin Square story was skewed, perhaps forever. There was, all the evidence suggests, never an organised network of VIP paedophiles plotting the murders of children. But there were, it is fair to conclude from a wealth of evidence, powerful individuals who did abuse children in Dolphin Square and who got away with it because of who they were and who they knew: in other words, they abused because they knew they could.
Our grateful thanks to Dan for an excellent end to what had been a great weekend.
- Former member of parliament for Rochdale and former resident of Dolphin Square.
- He was to later host a children’s Wildlife radio programme and was known as “Uncle Max”.