This July will mark 60 years since the beginning of the chapter in our nation’s history known as the ‘Profumo scandal.’ It was this unhappy episode in which my mother Christine Sloane, formerly Christine Keeler, had a starring role, and is credited with the fall of Harold Macmillan’s government.
The story of that affair is well known: Chris met John Profumo, the secretary of state for war, at a summer pool party at Cliveden. She found herself the focus of the world’s press attention two years later when her relationship with the Tory MP became public knowledge. She had also briefly been with a Soviet called Yevgeny Ivanov, prompting feverish claims that she had been passing him British intelligence from Profumo.
What is less well known, however, is the consequences for Chris after being splashed across papers around the world. Her name, deeply tainted, ensured that she was the innocent victim of a subsequent, grave miscarriage of justice. For in December 1963 – six months after Profumo’s resignation – she was sentenced to nine months in jail for lying under oath about an entirely different entanglement.
The incident happened in April 1963. Shortly before she was due to leave her friend Paula’s house in Westminster for an evening of dancing, Chris was attacked by jazz singer Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon. She had known him for 18 months, during which time he had abused, assaulted and, according to Christine, even raped her on two occasions. That evening, in full view of two of Paula’s friends, he hit and kicked my mother. Paula called the police, and Gordon fled. The two men who had witnessed the attack, Rudolph Fenton and Clarence Camacchio, wanted nothing to do with it, so ran and hid in a bedroom when the police arrived. As West Indians with criminal records, they were afraid of the police. That, and the fact they were married.
Christine felt in court that she was being encouraged to say the two men were not there. So, under oath, she denied that they had been witnesses to the attack. Gordon, who had a criminal record for violence against women, admitted to the assault and was sentenced to three years in prison.
A few weeks later, a tape emerged of my mother admitting that there were two more witnesses to the assault. Despite confirming the assault to police, Gordon’s conviction was overturned. My mother was arrested and charged with perjury and obstructing justice. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine months.
My mother’s barrister, Jeremy Hutchinson QC, said of talking with her at this time: ‘It was the voice of a person who had lived many years longer than her twenty-one years and who seemed to have grown entirely weary of life. It was a voice which had lost any joy in life.’
In court there was no disputing that she had been assaulted by Gordon - even the prosecution accepted that she had been attacked. But in 1963, the courts were more concerned with punishing Christine for lying about who witnessed her assault than punishing the man who assaulted her. It was an unforgivable miscarriage of justice.
At the time, she was being dismissed in Parliament and the press as a ‘slut’ and a ‘prostitute’. After being at the centre of four very public court cases in 1963: Johnny Edgecombe, Lucky Gordon, Stephen Ward and then her own, she simply could not fight anymore. And, after seeing what had happened to Stephen Ward at his trial, she knew that the system was against her. Therefore, on the second day of the trial, she pleaded guilty to perjury and obstructing justice. She was sentenced to nine months in prison.
‘I should never have gone to prison, Seymour,’ my mother would often say to me when I was growing up. But the story was complicated, she would say, and she found it very difficult to explain.
In December 2019, shortly before the BBC released a six-part drama about my mother, the show’s executive producer, Kate Trigg, phoned me to say that the drama would tell Christine’s story up to her sentence. Nobody had done that before and the memory of mother’s sense of injustice at what had happened to her came flooding back to me.
In the last line of her will, she wrote: ‘It is my wish that Seymour will look after my rights and reputation and do what he can to make sure that the truth is told about events of which I took part during my life.’ It struck me that it was this episode which she had in mind, so, with the help of solicitor Desmond Banks, I began piecing together what had happened through books, court documents and newspaper clippings.
In August last year, I was contacted by a British lawyer, James Harbridge, who saw our campaign’s website and wanted to help. He has since worked pro bono on the case, and, with the help of a Felicity Gerry QC, drew together a first draft of a petition for mercy - which we are shortly filing.
Her story is another terrible example of the system that does not protect women from violence, and sadly this is still true today. There is a myth that woman lie about being assaulted and in the year to March 2020, just 1.4 per cent of rape cases recorded by police resulted in a suspect being charged.
Of course, lying under oath is terrible, but victims of violence often lie because they are afraid and intimidated. Sometimes they don’t feel they have a choice, or they lie to protect their last shred of dignity. The truth is my mother wasn’t a liar about material facts. It was just because two men who saw a crime didn’t want to be involved. It did not change the fact that she was assaulted. Denying they were there would not have changed the outcome of the trial: it was not material and therefore was not perjury.
All the men around her, honourable or not, didn’t care about the danger she suffered from Gordon, because none of these young women had any value to these men. She went to prison because she was Christine Keeler of the Profumo affair. I hope that 2021 is the year we see this grave miscarriage of justice reversed and her reputation restored.
For more on the campaign, visit www.christine-keeler.co.uk