John Stonehouse

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John Stonehouse
Postmaster General
In office
1 July 1968 – 1 October 1969
Prime Minister Harold Wilson
Preceded by Roy Mason
Succeeded by Position abolished
Member of Parliament
for Walsall North
In office
28 February 1974 – 27 August 1976
Preceded by William Wells
Succeeded by Robin Hodgson
Member of Parliament
for Wednesbury
In office
28 February 1957 – 28 February 1974
Preceded by Stanley Evans
Succeeded by Constituency abolished
Personal details
Born (1925-07-28)28 July 1925
Southampton, United Kingdom
Died 14 April 1988(1988-04-14) (aged 62)
Southampton, United Kingdom
Political party Liberal Democrats (1988)
Other political
Labour Co-operative (before 1981)
Social Democratic (1981–88)
Alma mater London School of Economics

John Thomson Stonehouse (28 July 1925 – 14 April 1988) was a British Labour and Co-operative Party politician and junior minister under Harold Wilson. Stonehouse is perhaps best remembered for his unsuccessful attempt at faking his own death in 1974.

More than twenty years after his death, it was publicly revealed that he had been an agent for the communist Czechoslovak Socialist Republic military intelligence. In 1979 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and top cabinet members learned from a Czech defector that Stonehouse had been a paid Czech spy since 1962. He had provided secrets about government plans as well as technical information about aircraft, and received about £5,000. He was already in prison for fraud and the government decided there was insufficient evidence to bring to trial, so no announcement or prosecution was made.[1]

Education and early career

Stonehouse had a Trade Union[clarification needed] upbringing and joined the Labour Party at the age of 16. He was educated at Taunton's College, Southampton, and the London School of Economics. His mother was the sixth female mayor of Southampton[2] and councillor on Southampton City Council. Stonehouse was in the RAF for two years from 1944 when he was called up.

Stonehouse married Barbara Smith in 1948, and they had three children. An economist, he became involved in co-operative enterprise and was a manager of African co-operative societies in Uganda 1952–54. He served as a director (1956–62) and president (1962–64) of the London Co-operative Society.

Political career

Stonehouse was first elected as Labour Co-operative Member of Parliament (MP) for Wednesbury in a 1957 by-election, having contested Twickenham in 1950 and Burton in 1951.

In February 1959 Stonehouse travelled to Rhodesia on a fact-finding tour in which he condemned the white government of Southern Rhodesia. Speaking to the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress, he encouraged blacks to stand up for their rights and said they had the support of the British Labour Party. He was promptly expelled from Rhodesia and kept from returning a year later.[3]

Stonehouse allegedly began spying for Czechoslovakia in 1962. He served as a junior minister of aviation, where he was involved in BOAC's order of Boeing 707 aircraft from the US, against his own recommendation that they should buy a British aircraft, the Super VC10. This led to his making accusations against colleagues about the reasons for the decision. In March 1968 he negotiated an agreement providing a framework for the long-term development of technological co-operation between Britain and Czechoslovakia. It provided for the exchange of specialists and information, facilities for study and research in technology, and such other forms of industrial co-operation which might be agreed.[4]

While in the Colonial Office, Stonehouse's rise continued, and in 1967 he became Minister of State for Technology under Tony Benn and later Postmaster General until the post was abolished by the Post Office Act 1969.

As Minister of Posts and Telecommunications in 1970, he oversaw the controversial jamming of the offshore radio station Radio North Sea International. When Labour was defeated in the 1970 General Election, he was not appointed to the Shadow Cabinet.

When the Wednesbury constituency was abolished in 1974, he stood for and was elected to the nearby Walsall North constituency. Appointed to the new government, Stonehouse oversaw the introduction of first and second class stamps.

In 1969 Stonehouse was subjected to the assertion that he was a Czech secret service agent. He successfully defended himself,[5] but the allegation was substantiated in the official history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm by Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew.[6] In December 2010 it was revealed that then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had agreed in 1980 to cover up revelations that Stonehouse had been a Czech spy since the 1960s as there was insufficient evidence to bring him to trial.[1] Until Ray Mawby, briefly a member of a Conservative government, was exposed in June 2012,[7] Stonehouse was the only minister known to have been an agent for the former Eastern bloc.

Business interests

After 1970, Stonehouse set up various companies in an attempt to secure a regular income. By 1974 most of these were in financial trouble, and he had resorted to deceptive creative accounting. Aware that the Department of Trade and Industry was looking at his affairs, he decided that his best choice would be to flee. Secret British government documents, declassified in 2005, indicate that Stonehouse spent months rehearsing his new identity, that of Joseph Markham — the deceased husband of a constituent.[8]

Faking his own death

Stonehouse maintained the pretence of normality until he faked his death on 20 November 1974, leaving a pile of clothes on a Miami beach. It appeared that he had gone swimming, and had been drowned or possibly killed by a shark. He was presumed dead, and obituaries were published despite the fact that no body had been found. In reality, he was en route to Australia, hoping to set up a new life with his mistress and secretary, Sheila Buckley.

Using false names, Stonehouse set about transferring large sums of money between banks as a further means of covering his tracks. Under the name of Clive Mildoon he deposited $21,500 in cash at the Bank of New Zealand. The teller who handled the money later spotted "Mildoon" at the Bank of New South Wales. Inquiries led the teller to learn that the money was in the name of Joe Markham and he informed the local police. Stonehouse spent a while in Copenhagen with Sheila Buckley, but later returned to Australia, unaware that he was now under surveillance. The police initially suspected him of being Lord Lucan, who had disappeared two weeks before Stonehouse following the murder of his children's nanny, Sandra Rivett. Investigators noted that the suspect was reading British newspapers that also included stories attacking the "recently deceased" John Stonehouse. They contacted Scotland Yard, requesting pictures of both Lucan and Stonehouse.[9]

Stonehouse was arrested on 24 December 1974. On his arrest the police instructed him to pull down his trousers so they could be sure whether he was Lord Lucan, who had a six-inch scar on his inside right thigh.[10] He applied for the position of Steward and Bailiff of the Chiltern Hundreds while still in Australia (one of the ways for an MP to resign), but decided not to sign the papers.

Six months after he was discovered, he was deported to the UK, though he had tried to obtain offers of asylum from Sweden or Mauritius.

He returned in June 1975, and was remanded in Brixton Prison until August. He continued to act as an MP. Although unhappy with the situation, the Labour Party did not expel him. On 7 April 1976, three weeks before his trial, he resigned the Labour whip, making them a minority government. A few days later he joined the English National Party.

On trial

The MP's trial, on 21 charges of fraud, theft, forgery, conspiracy to defraud, causing a false police investigation and wasting police time, lasted 68 days. Stonehouse conducted his own defence. On 14 July 1976 it was revealed in court that Stonehouse had an IQ of 140.[11]

In August 1976, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud.[12]

He was imprisoned in HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, where he complained that the prison workshop where he worked played pop-music radio stations.

He finally agreed to resign as a Privy Counsellor on 17 August[13] (becoming one of only three people to resign from the Privy Council in the 20th century), and resign as an MP on 27 August.[14] The subsequent by-election was won by Robin Hodgson, a Conservative. In October 1976 Stonehouse was declared bankrupt.

On 30 June 1977 the House of Lords refused him appeal against five of the charges he was convicted of.

Stonehouse's wife divorced him in 1978. She remarried in March 1980.

Whilst in prison, his health deteriorated. He was later moved to Blundeston Prison. Stonehouse was released early from prison in August 1979 because he had suffered three heart attacks, the first of which he suffered on 18 April 1977. He had a second one four days later, on 22 April, and then a massive heart attack on 13 August 1978, and had undergone open heart surgery on 7 November 1978.

After prison

After his release, he worked as a volunteer fundraiser for the east London charity, Community Links, for several years from January 1980. He joined the Social Democratic Party, which later merged with the Liberal Party to become the Liberal Democrats.

Stonehouse married his mistress Sheila Buckley in Hampshire on 31 January 1981 and shortly afterwards their son was born. Stonehouse wrote three novels, and made several TV appearances, mostly in connection with discussing his disappearance.

Actual death

On 25 March 1988, Stonehouse abruptly collapsed on set during an edition of Central Live in Birmingham. He was kept in hospital overnight and released the following day after tests. However, just under three weeks later, Stonehouse died in Southampton, aged 62,[15] in the early hours of 14 April 1988 from a fourth heart attack. A fourth novel he was working on at the time of his death was published posthumously, in 1989.

He was cremated in Bassett Green, Southampton on 22 April 1988.


  • Prohibited Immigrant, The Bodley Head, 1960, ISBN 978-1-135-35474-9<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> — Stonehouse's account of his 1959 African tour, which culminated in his deportation from Northern Rhodesia.
  • My Trial, Star, June 1976, ISBN 978-0-352-39749-2<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Death of an Idealist, WH Allen, & Virgin Books, 1975-11-25, ISBN 0-491-01615-8<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Ralph, Jonathan Cape, 1982, ISBN 0-224-02019-6<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • The Baring Fault, Calder Publications, 1986-05-15, ISBN 0-7145-4106-0<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Oil on the Rift, Robert Hale, 1987-08-13, ISBN 978-0-7090-3056-0<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  • Who Sold Australia?, UK: Robert Hale, 1989-03-30, ISBN 978-0-7090-3623-4<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.


  1. 1.0 1.1 >Travis, Alan (30 December 2010), "Margaret Thatcher in cover-up after Czech spy exposed John Stonehouse", The Guardian; Politics, UK<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  2. "The Secrets of Stonehouse", Southern Daily Echo, UK, 11 October 2009<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  3. Keesing's Contemporary Archives Volume XII, (April 1959) p. 16774
  4. Keesing's Contemporary Archives, Volume 14, (March, 1968) p 22619
  5. Meikie, James (5 October 2009), "MI5 suspects: John Stonehouse, Bernard Floud and Will Owen", The Guardian, UK<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  6. Richard Norton-Taylor "MI5 monitored union and CND leaders with ministers' backing, book reveals", The Guardian, 5 October 2009
  7. Gordon Corera "Tory MP Raymond Mawby sold information to Czech spies", BBC News, 28 June 2012
  8. "MP planned fake death for months", News, UK: BBC; Politics, 29 December 2005<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  9. Wright, Edward ‘Ed’ (2006), History's greatest scandals: shocking stories of powerful people<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.
  10. Robertson, Geoffrey (1999). The Justice Game. London: Vintage. pp. 62–63. ISBN 978-0-09-958191-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. The Guardian - 15 July 1976
  12. MP planned fake death for months, 29 December 2005, BBC, retrieved at 2 September 2014
  13. "Announcement from the Privy Council Office", The London Gazette, 19 August 1976<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Announcement from the Commons Speaker", The London Gazette, 31 August 1976<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Deaths, England and Wales, 1984–2006", Find My Past<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>.

External links

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Stanley Evans
Member of Parliament for Wednesbury
Constituency abolished
Preceded by
William Wells
Member of Parliament for Walsall North
Succeeded by
Robin Hodgson
Political offices
Preceded by
Roy Mason
Postmaster General
Position abolished