Ladybird Books, those wonderful, pocket-sized publications which – for those of a certain age – offered the reader the basics of every subject from magic tricks to King Arthur, celebrate their centenary in 2015. To mark the occasion, London’s House of Illustration is holding an exhibition about the history of the series with many original illustrations and examples, and a book has been published which details the history of the imprint and the driving force behind it.

It’s author, Lawrence Zeegen, is Professor of Illustration and Dean of the School of Design at the London College of Communication, and although he might deny it, he seems a natural choice to write the books’ history. “I’d grown up with Ladybirds,” he says. “I was born in London in 1964, left and grew up in Basingstoke and my mother was primarily responsible for putting Ladybird books in front of me. We had them at school as well, so you’d take a reading book to the corner of the mat at the end of the day and it would frequently be a Ladybird book.”

The original Ladybird logo, registered in 1915 by Wills & Hepworth of Lughborough

The original Ladybird logo, registered in 1915 by Wills & Hepworth of Loughborough

But researching the book – called Ladybird by Design and published by Penguin Random House – took time and patience. Zeegen realised that he would have to immerse himself in the subject and had to rebuild his Ladybird Book library after he discovered his childhood collection had been given to charity shops. “I imagined myself re-buying between 40-60 Ladybird books to carry out the book research,” he continues “and 450 books later I managed to quit what was beginning to look like an addiction! I pretty much spent my entire fee on the collection but you don’t get involved in projects like this to supplement your pension fund; you do them because they are fun.”

And that enjoyment is evident as Lawrence describes in his book how a Ladybird book ‘offered a utopian vision of an innocent world – where learning to read was fun, nursery rhymes were enchanting, nature was abundant, history was heroic, science was enthralling and modern life was seemingly bathed in the bright sunshine of an eternal summer.’

The Life of the Honey Bee, series 651, published 1969

The Life of the Honey Bee, series 651, published 1969

Yet it wasn’t just the idyllic, near-perfect representation of life in Ladybird world which was a draw for children and their parents; it also represented something more for the young, ‘a rite of passage – a sense of independence from parent and teacher and a quest to embrace knowledge on one’s own terms, on one’s own time.’

The first Ladybird book was published in 1915 by a Loughborough company called Wills and Hepworth. Faced with downtime between jobs on their printing presses, they decided to publish inexpensive children’s books to keep the machines rolling.

These were very different to the Ladybird offerings of later years with such early titles as Tiny Tots Travels and Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales. It was only when paper shortages were introduced during World War Two that the company limited wastage by using one sheet of 40×30-inch paper to produce 56 full-colour pages, each measuring 7×4 inches. The left-hand side of the page displayed the text while the right-hand page carried the illustrations, 24 in all.

The first small, hardback format book from W&H for children - Bunnikins Picnic Party of 1940

The first small, hardback format book from W&H for children – Bunnikins Picnic Party of 1940

The first title published in the new format was Bunnikin’s Picnic Party in 1940, telling the tale of a rabbit’s day out at a picnic. But only five more books were released in the next two years, aimed at very young readers. In fact, the Wills and Hepworth board had decided to cease publication of children’s books when the war ended and revert entirely to their original business, producing glossy car and company advertising brochures. It was then that the man who did more than anyone else to forge the success of Ladybird Books changed their minds.

Douglas Keen had joined W&H in 1936 as a salesman. But his background was in advertising and he was a brilliant marketing man. He oversaw a new range of children’s books based on fairy tales and animal stories and was determined to branch out further into educational titles. His motivation was rooted in his own, relatively poor background. Born into a working-class family in Cheltenham, his father left home when he was still young and his mother brought up the children on her own. Keen was a bright pupil and went to grammar school, then set himself up for a career by taking night classes in art and marketing.

Douglas Keen, edeitorial Director, Ladybird Books, seen here in the 1970s. © Douglas Keen family archive.

Douglas Keen, Editorial Director, Ladybird Books, seen here in the 1970s. © Douglas Keen family archive.

His daughter, Jenny Pearce, feels that there is a lot of her father’s character displayed in the Ladybird range “both in their ethos and their realisation through the illustrations and the topics he chose. Because he was aware that there was a certain amount of injustice in that access to education and knowledge wasn’t always equal, and we’re thinking back to the 1940s, 1950s primarily here. He himself would have liked to have had more education and hadn’t been able to have it. He wanted children to realise that the key to success was through knowledge and education and learning and he wanted to make that process enjoyable and fun so that children wouldn’t be put off. He also realised that there were quite a lot of adults around who had gaps in their knowledge and he didn’t want them to be ashamed of reading what looked like a children’s book.”

Given his desire to expand the range into educational titles, he conducted widespread research throughout Britain, going into shops and schools, in order to find out what children most liked and what would sell. He at first met with an unfavourable board response at Wills and Hepworth, but persevered and in 1952 designed a prototype book called A Book of Birds and Eggs, with the help of his wife and mother-in-law, both trained artists. Keen’s background in advertising meant he knew exactly how to get a message across in concise form and realised that, no matter how interesting talking about something might be, the best way to sell an idea to a client was to produce a mock-up of the poster or book, and this is exactly how he sold his idea to the W&H board.

Douglas Keen's mock-up of how he envisaged a factual Ladybird Book for children, A Book of Birds & Eggs, 1952.

Douglas Keen’s mock-up of how he envisaged a factual Ladybird book for children, A Book of Birds & Eggs, 1952.

In addition to an educational factor, Zeegen believes that Douglas Keen was also motivated by his socialist views and personal needs. “Having come from a pretty ordinary, working-class background, one factor would have been about ensuring that he could put a roof over his family’s head and, whenever he saw difficulties in publishing generally, he made sure that Ladybird did well, so safeguarding his own job. I think the other driver was putting out books that would be educational, informative and accessible, so pricing them at 2s. 6d. for 29 years adhered to his socialist principles, and they weren’t just sold in bookshops but in corner stores and even petrol stations.”

Keen also realised that to reach his target markets of parents, teachers and children, he would have to secure prominence for Ladybird Books in shop windows. The art of window-dressing had not altered much in the UK since the pre-war years so Keen, again working with the same family team, actually made displays for the books in his home at Stratford-Upon-Avon and drove around the country personally delivering the stands and cases his family members made. Jenny Pearce remembers the effort her father expended to get the Ladybird message across.

“He would cover the whole of the UK visiting bookshops, persuading them to buy Ladybird. And then when the Nature series was developed the window displays became much more orientated towards the educational books and he did some particularly good displays using stuffed birds and real branches in windows and what was attractive about them was that they were all designed for individual shops. He would work on them with the shop manager, whether this was an individual shop or a branch of W H Smith. And he would then ensure he got feedback from the manager on what had happened to sales when that display went in, and there are a lot of letters on file from bookshop managers, most of them unsolicited, saying we’ve had a terrific increase in sales after the display, can we have another one like that for a different range of books, for example.”

"He he did some particularly good displays using stuffed birds and real branches in windows and what was attractive about them was that they were all designed for individual shops." A 1940s window display designed and built by Douglas Keen at his home in Straford-upon-Avon. © Douglas Keen family archive

“He he did some particularly good displays using stuffed birds and real branches in windows and what was attractive about them was that they were all designed for individual shops.” A 1940s window display designed and built by Douglas Keen at his home in Straford-upon-Avon. © Douglas Keen family archive

British children had recently emerged from a world war or been born into its aftermath. Adults had fought and survived through six years of deprivation and, occasionally, downright fear, and now the war had been won. There was a feeling of optimism in the air and lives could be lived as normal again, without the constant and necessary pressure of conforming to the national good. Personal life took precedence once more.

However, life did not improve immediately. Rationing was still in force and so Ladybird Books reflected a simple life for children with natural pleasures such as the countryside, the seasons and animals to the fore, and these immediate post-war years probably did reflect the last true period of innocence for most British children.

Ladybird’s ever-sunny approach, its choice of non-controversial subject-matter and its clear text and life-like colour illustrations, coupled with a cheap cover price, perfectly suited the times where people – both adults and children – wanted to look forward in hope.To open a Ladybird Book in the 1940s and ’50s meant entering an upbeat world of hyper-realistic optimism where everything was at its best in the best of all possible worlds. And the books’ educational value was an important element for many young people during their formative years.

Douglas Keen devised and developed such important Ladybird series as the Key Words Reading Scheme with Mummy, Daddy, Peter and Jane, People at Work and the How it Works series. In fact, says Zeegen, “his impact on the education of British children between the late 1940s and the mid-1970s – the golden age of Ladybird – simply cannot be overestimated”

The Key Words Reading Scheme has proven to be the best-selling and longest-running series in Ladybird history, with almost 100 million copies sold worldwide by 2015. Jenny Pearce explains its origins.

Some Great Men and Women, Book 6, Key Words Easy reader, 1972

Some Great Men and Women, Book 6, Key Words Easy reader, 1972

“It was an idea developed by an educationalist and headmaster called William Murray. His theory was that the majority of our everyday vocabulary is actually made up of very few words so if you have children learning those words first then that gives them the key to unlocking sentences and then the paragraph and finally the whole book because they recognised the familiar, recurring words. My father had met Murray at a conference and was very interested in his theory. Murray had previously explored the idea of developing a reading scheme with a publisher and it hadn’t got anywhere. My father saw that the thing that would persuade William Murray was if he could see what a book would actually look like so he got his friend and collaborator, the illustrator Harry Wingfield, to do a sample book, with the characters Peter and Jane, for which Harry used models of children he knew. So it was very realistic and William Murray saw that this was something he could sign up to and he was happy to proceed.”

It is interesting that, yet again, as with the genesis of Ladybird Books themselves, Keen realised that showing Murray a mock-up of what he had in mind might just persuade him to approve the project – and yet again, it did.

In the 1950s, Douglas Keen convinced the Ladybird directors that there was a market for children’s non-fiction. Series included Nature (series 536), Natural History (651), Animals of the World (691) and Conservation (727), published between the 1950s and 1980s.

Disappearing Mammals, A Ladybird Conservation Book, 1973

Disappearing Mammals, A Ladybird Conservation Book, 1973. Ilustrator: John Leigh Pemberton

The conservation series, first published in 1972, saw Ladybird, and Douglas Keen in particular, tackle issues which were contentious, then and now. When environmental pollution and the destruction of animal habitats were first discussed in the 1960s, there was debate as to the extent of the damage being done to the environment just as now there are arguments about the validity of man-made climate change. Ladybird, with its educational remit and philosophy of shaping young minds to be the good citizens of the future, took what was for the publisher a highly subjective view when it came to these books, stating in one introduction, for example, ‘for too long Man has believed that he can dominate, exploit and alter Nature with impunity’ and in Disappearing Mammals that ‘Man has no right to rob future generations of the interest, inspiration and beauty that can be had from contact with animals.’ All a far cry from Bunnikin’s Picnic Party.

Ladybird books were livelier and better illustrated than the dull and limited schoolbooks children were forced to read on the same subjects. Their small, compact size also meant they could easily be put into a coat pocket, taken on a countryside walk and used in the field to study the exact same objects the books described.

Turning to the adult world for inspiration, the People at Work books (series 606B) were published between 1962 and 1973 when the country still had major manufacturing industries and manual labour predominated. So titles included The Builder, The Miner, The Shipbuilders and The Pottery.

But they also displayed a confused attitude towards women in the workplace. For example, in The Nurse we read that ‘the doctors tell nurses what to do’, and in The Customs Officer, the female officers ‘help with the office work’ when they are not busy. The author of The Policeman, however, stated that ‘policewomen are trained in the same way as the men and they can do the same jobs. They arrest criminals, just as policemen do.’

The Policeman, People at Work , 1962. Illustrator: John Berry.

The Policeman, series 606B, People at Work, 1962. Illustrator: John Berry.

The series was illustrated entirely by John Berry and, as Zeegen says ‘rather mundane situations appear almost frozen in time – from the images of draughtsmen working in an office in The Road Makers to men mail-sorting in The Postman and The Postal Service….it is the everyday aspects of each career that today offer such fascinating insights into Britain’s workforce during the 1960s and 1970s.’

In a video screened in the exhibition, Zeegen expands on that idea, claiming that “we’ve lost something of our heritage and understanding of working class graft. The working class aren’t portrayed here as heroes but honest hard-working folk that work for their community and their families and I think that’s a really key aspect of British life that needs to be understood and celebrated and I think the People at Work series does that in a subtle but real way. And John Berry’s illustrations depict people happy with their work – not striving to win the Lottery or X Factor but just happy with their lot in normal working roles that also contributed to society. Ladybird Books presented an honest view of society at that point.”

Yet there’s one thing which strikes Zeegen as strange given Ladybird Books encouraged children to follow a healthy lifestyle and get outdoors as often as possible. Why were there so few sport titles? “The story of football, the story of cricket and that’s pretty much it, given how important sports were then in the school curriculum.In some of the How to Do books you’ve got titles on archery, swimming and horse riding, for example, so they may have seen sport covered in that way but you would have thought that in keeping with the house style, books on the history of other sports would have been a winner.”

The How it Works series (654) was a staple of Ladybird output and fascinated generations of children with its straightforward texts and detailed illustrations of everything from cars to computers. Published from 1965 to 1972, they proved of use not just to the casual child reader, but also, thanks to their clarity and accuracy, to an older audience.

Original artwork by David Carey for The Motor Car, How it Works, series 654, 1965.

Original artwork by David Carey for The Motor Car, How it Works, series 654, 1965.

For example, The Motor Car (1965), was used as a primer on car mechanics by the Thames Valley Police Driving School and university lecturers recommended The Computer (1971) to their students in order to give them a basic grounding in the coming technology. “Legend has it,” writes Zeegen, “that 200 copies of the same book were also ordered by the Ministry of Defence, but with plain covers to avoid any potential embarrassment for their staff.”

It is generally agreed that the golden age of Ladybird Books lasted from the 1950s and went on until the mid ’70s. But with series such as Talkabout, says Zeegen, “they were scrabbling around…they’d lost their way. The sales were starting to decline and Ladybird Books were thrashing round, looking for a new direction. By now they’d lost their decades-long affinity with the children’s market; the books were looking corny, cheesy and rather out of date.”

Talkabout Baby, Series 735, 1974, unknown cover illustrator

Talkabout Baby, Series 735, 1974, unknown cover illustrator

So they experimented for the first time with photography, but that didn’t differentiate them from other children’s book publishers. The Garden Gang books written and illustrated by nine-year-old Jayne Fisher, saw the company trying a new approach, but the old magic had gone. And as Zeegen says, very little of the original style that made Ladybird Books famous, remained. “By then – the early 1980s – the only thing that was still holding true was that the format hadn’t changed; the books were still the same size with the same number of pages. Other publishers had caught up and TV was increasingly a big competitor for them with kids glued to the set in ways they probably hadn’t been in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Wills & Hepworth was taken over by the Pearson Longman Group in 1972 and Douglas Keen retired in 1973. In 1995 Ladybird became part of the Penguin Group and the 1990s also saw a tie-in with Disney. That same year sales of titles linked to Disney productions such as The Lion King reached 20 million and the arrangement only ended in 2005.

April 1999 saw the closure of the Loughborough printing works with the loss of 210 jobs and Penguin itself merged with the American publishers Random House in 2013.

Today, Ladybird publishes eBooks, has a comprehensive and popular website and has again achieved remarkable success with such characters as Peppa Pig, Topsy and Tim and Angelina Ballerina, and the Key Words Reading Scheme continues more than 50 years after its first appearance and is now published in 36 territories worldwide.

A look which meant children just had to have the book - Danger Men, Book 2 of the Key Words Reading Scheme form 1970

A look which meant children just had to have the book – Danger Men, Book 2 of the Key Words Reading Scheme form 1970

The Ladybird motto is ‘for every age and every stage’ and that is exactly what the imprint’s books have done for decades, driven in particular by Douglas Keen, the creative force behind the unparalleled standards of excellence achieved in the ’50s and ’60s. And it is thanks to him, and his fellow enlightened board members, that Ladybird Books continues so successfully to this day.

For Lawrence Zeegen “it’s timely that Ladybird’s centenary is this year. Had it been ten years ago there would have been far less interest. I think we’ve needed this period of time between the end of that golden period and now to step back and reflect on how important Ladybird actually was.

“We can look back with a kind of fondness. We can see how much society has changed, how much technology has changed, how the world is so much smaller. I think there’s something about our age and our generation that allows us to look back at the influential things of our youth and I may not have been able to do that in the same way had I been asked to do the book when I was in my early 40s. I think there’s something that comes with the passage of time.”

Ladybird by Design by Larence Zeegen (Penguin Random House, ISBN: 978-0-723-29392-7, £20)

The exhibiton at London’s House of Illustration, also called Ladybird by Design, continues until 27 September, 2015.



An English Affair: Sex. Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines. £9.99, Harper Press ISBN:978-0-00-743585-2

An English Affair: Sex. Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard Davenport-Hines.
£9.99, Harper Press ISBN:978-0-00-743585-2

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Profumo Affair, when the War Minister slept with a good-time girl called Christine Keeler while she was, allegedly, also bedding the Assistant Soviet Naval Attaché. Coming in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis and the continuing threat of nuclear annihilation posed by the Cold War, a juicy spy scandal was lapped up by press and public alike. But even today questions are raised. Did Keeler actually sleep with the Russian spy? Just how many secrets did the minister know anyway? And did the affair truly change Britain for ever? These questions and many more are addressed in a new book on the subject and the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) has mounted a photographic display which tells the story of the scandal through press photos and related memorabilia of the time.

The book is called An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo and its author is historian and biographer Richard Davenport–Hines. He has carried out an immense amount of research into the social mores of the post-war era and many of his findings are a revelation, especially in terms of how establishment figures thought nothing wrong in openly disparaging women and the blinkered, prejudiced attitude towards homosexuality. But there are also elements of his case which do not withstand close analysis and present divergent, and perhaps more probable, interpretations, not least about whether there ever actually was a security risk behind the affair or not.

In addition, his depiction of the shabby and sordid behaviour of the press at the time will surely come as no great surprise to his readers post-Leveson, but, contrary to Davenport-Hines’s view, this rabid tabloid approach was hardly unknown pre-Profumo, although it may have taken on a more aggressive tone due to ever-falling newspaper circulations and a far less deferential attitude by the media to the ruling class.

John Profumo himself was a scion of Sardinian royalty, immensely rich and well-known for pursuing young women, despite his marriage to former actress Valerie Hobson. He was a favourite of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan who promoted him, probably too far as Davenport-Hines states, to the position of Secretary of State for War, although outside the cabinet. He first encountered Christine Keeler by the swimming pool of Lord Astor’s house Cliveden, in the Berkshire countryside, on a hot weekend in July 1961.

Profumo, the ambitious minister aged only 38, at his desk at the Ministry of Aviation in 1953. (© Popperfoto/Getty Images.)

John Profumo, the ambitious minister aged only 38, at his desk at the Ministry of Aviation in 1953. (© Popperfoto/Getty Images.)

Keeler had been invited to a party there by her London landlord and close friend, society osteopath Stephen Ward, who rented a cottage in the grounds from Bill Astor. He had use of the outdoor swimming pool and it seems that Astor quite liked meeting Ward’s sometimes louche house guests. That was why he and Profumo wandered down to the pool that day to see who might be frolicking there. Keeler was then 19 and Profumo 46.

The minister obtained Keeler’s telephone number from Ward and matters quickly progressed to an affair which, sexually at least, petered out just a few months later. Another guest of Ward’s that weekend was Yevgeny Ivanov, Assistant Naval Attaché at the Soviet Embassy and an officer of the GRU, Soviet military intelligence, whose mission it was to infiltrate the upper echelons of society and seek out persons of influence to obtain information and perhaps even turn them. He was followed everywhere by MI5 surveillance teams who attempted to gain information on his own activities, including any peccadilloes. The plan was either to blackmail him into becoming a double agent or, failing that, to reveal the embarrassing evidence to the world, as the Russians still do today, and so make his intelligence role impossible. This is when spies are politely requested to leave as their presence is no longer deemed ‘conducive’ to the public good.

In many respects, Stephen Ward is the most interesting person in the whole story. He was a qualified osteopath, went by the title of doctor (his qualification was gained in America although not recognised in Britain), and successfully treated many famous people including Paul Getty, Elizabeth Taylor, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill.

Yet he was a gossip and his indiscretion and overly familiar approach in the consulting room were not welcomed by all. He seemed to get on better with women than men and made enemies as easily as friends. His sexuality was also open to question. Judged by some to be homosexual, he appears to have enjoyed S&M beatings and the company of young women. Although “quite busy” sexually, as Davenport-Hines relates, he was perhaps more of a voyeur. In a recent talk at the NPG, the author said: “Unusually for men of his generation, he loved sharing his flats with young women because he loved the whole business of their bras and knickers over the backs of chairs. So he had at different times both Christine Keeler and then Mandy Rice-Davies as tenants, first off Bayswater Road and then a mews flat in Marylebone.” Ward himself told a close friend just before his death that he “loved people – of all types.”

The front page of the Winnipeg Free Press, 10 June 1963, shows the much-reproduced photograph of Ward with Keeler and two other girls taken by John Profumo. (© Winnipeg Free Press.)

The front page of the Winnipeg Free Press, 10 June 1963, shows the much-reproduced photograph taken by John Profumo of Ward with Keeler and two other girls. (© Winnipeg Free Press.)

It was Keeler’s disappearance from his Marylebone flat after shots were fired there that broke the story. She had long favoured the company of black men, partly through sexual attraction and also because they supplied her with the marijuana which she used heavily. She had had a relationship with one man, Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon, a Jamaican with a violent past and convictions for breaking and entering and assault. His violence against Keeler led to her leaving him and she then took up with a former merchant seaman from Antigua, Johnny Edgecombe, who had served time for larceny, pimping and possession of drugs.

Edgecombe knifed Gordon in a confrontation outside a Wardour Street jazz club in October 1962 after the latter had struck Keeler. She then ditched Edgecombe himself two months later. He, riven with jealousy, promptly turned up at Ward’s Wimpole Mews flat, raging that she had been seeing Gordon again. Mandy Rice-Davies was staying there at the time and tried to fob Edgecombe off with a story about Keeler being at the hairdresser’s. This did not placate him and he took out a gun, fired two shots at the flat, dropped the weapon and fled.

Detectives scrutinising the bullet holes at Stephen Ward’s flat after the shooting incident, December 1962 (© Rex Features).

Detectives scrutinising the bullet holes at Stephen Ward’s flat after the shooting incident, December 1962 (© Rex Features).

Although Keeler left Ward’s apartment after the shooting she maintained her racy lifestyle, smoking a lot of dope and being generally indiscreet about her activities. In addition, the shooting incident in December 1962 had alerted the press to a major story involving so-called call-girls and a government minister. It did not take long for the hacks to track Keeler down and offer her money for her story and Fleet Street’s presses suddenly became red hot.

A contact sheet showing a topless Christine Keeler shot by the famous celebrity photographer Brian Duffy at his studio in 1964. (Photo by Duffy © Duffy Archive.)

A contact sheet showing a topless Christine Keeler shot by the famous celebrity photographer Brian Duffy at his studio in 1964. (Photo by Duffy courtesy © Duffy Archive.)

Davenport-Hines is particularly good at relating the seedy and disreputable press manoeuvres during the whole affair. However, he maintains that, contrary to what Keeler herself has repeatedly stated, she never slept with Ivanov, in which case, he believes, “if the Ivanov affair didn’t happen then the whole security story behind the Profumo affair is actually nugatory, it just isn’t there at all. And I certainly think that the [Profumo story] reached the state it did because of the state of Fleet Street at the time.”

Personally, I find it more difficult to believe that Keeler and Ivanov didn’t sleep together given the climate of the time, Ivanov’s intelligence mission to influence senior members of the establishment, Keeler’s own contacts, her sexual appetite and general availability. He was drinking heavily with her at Cliveden the weekend they met, drove her home to London and continued drinking in her flat. He may not have been capable of sex after the amount of alcohol he had imbibed, but it is a safe bet that he tried, and perhaps subsequently succeeded. Ivanov’s wife left him, apparently in part as a result of the affair, and he later told Keeler in Moscow that everyone in the GRU was jealous of his glamorous London assignment.

There could have been an intelligence implication, whether fabricated by the gutter press or not. Even if Ivanov wasn’t sleeping with Keeler, the situation still represented a high security risk. Davenport-Hines maintains that despite his impressive job title of Minister of War, “it didn’t mean as much as it implies and he was in charge above all of the end of National Service and conscription.” Yet it is difficult to believe that no classified material ever crossed his desk or that he never attended any confidential briefings or meetings, especially with the Americans who were supplying Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Even if he was just a humble bureaucrat, he was an obvious blackmail risk and Ivanov and his fellow agents could have induced him to obtain higher-grade intelligence information from his more senior colleagues or risk exposure. MI5 may not have been able to reveal Ivanov’s indiscretions as planned as a result of the information he possessed about Profumo’s own activities, so a sort of Mexican stand-off may have prevailed in London’s spy world.

Colonel Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov of Soviet Military Intelligence, who became yet another victim of the affair.

Colonel Yevgeny ‘Eugene’ Ivanov of Soviet Military Intelligence.

Ward had also been used as a conduit by MI5 to pass on information to Ivanov and feed back intelligence to them. This suited both sides as a means to spread genuine information or disinformation. Ward had his own MI5 handler – Keith Wagstaffe, who used the alias ‘Woods’ – but who found Ward “of doubtful reliability” according to his case report published in the official history of the intelligence agency.

Ward told Wagstaffe that Ivanov had asked him to find out when the US was going to provide nuclear weapons to West Germany. Davenport-Hines agrees that Ward did ask Keeler to question Profumo about this but claims it was ‘a joke’ on Ward’s part. If it was, it was a singularly unamusing one. This information was vital to Russia’s security and a major concern to the Soviets as they feared nuclear encirclement by America. They already had Jupiter intermediate range nuclear missiles ranged against them in Turkey and Khrushchev feared more missiles stationed close to Russia’s western border could encourage the United States to mount a first-strike attack. He tried to counter this by basing nuclear weapons in Cuba which led to the crisis of 1962 when Ward was again used as an intermediary in London between the government and Ivanov at the Soviet Embassy. Although Khrushchev eventually agreed to withdraw his nukes from Cuban soil, America also removed the Jupiter missiles from Europe as part of the deal.

As to why Ward would be working for MI5 yet seeking to gain intelligence for Ivanov, he loved to be the centre of attention and holding secret information would place him in this position. Given his self-important nature, love of gossip and appetite for excitement, he could have been a double agent or simply naïve. It is just as likely that MI5 asked him to do this when told of Ivanov’s interest so as to maintain his relationship with the GRU man and also test Profumo’s loyalty.

Presuming Profumo had such information and had he leaked it to Keeler during pillow talk, the Soviets would have had an intelligence coup and Profumo would have unknowingly acted against western interests as a result of his cupidity. As it happened, the US never did arm West Germany with nuclear missiles although they were stationed on its soil under US control for many years during the Cold War.

Davenport-Hines comes into his own when he describes the machinations to set  Ward up as a scapegoat in this whole lurid affair. He knew both too much and too little as his gossipy nature and perceived unreliability were causing problems for the government and MI5. As Davenport-Hines says: “It was an extraordinary investigation. Normally the police are called when a crime has been committed and then try to find out from clues who committed it. In this case they were told to find out if there was anything they could charge Stephen Ward with. They interviewed between 120 and 130 witnesses, some of them repeatedly. They stopped anyone going into Ward’s osteopathic practice if they were female and asked them if he had pounced on them or made an improper proposition. If it was a man had he tried to introduce them to women? They detained people, usually vulnerable people such as Paddington street walkers, threatening to take their children away from them or their sisters if they lived with them.

“They threatened them with arrest, kept them up till two in the morning before they let them sign their statements and used the most improper and ruthless pressure on witnesses and as a result got a lot of very false statements which could eventually be used against Ward.”

A portrait of Christine Keeler by Stephen Ward, 1961 or 1962 (© Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.)

“To dear Christine” – a  portrait of Christine Keeler by Stephen Ward, 1961 or 1962 (© Collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Keeler had been in a ludicrous fight with the brother of an acquaintance, Paula Hamilton-Marshall, in which she sustained minor cuts and bruises. The police knew this but ‘persuaded’ her to say that ‘Lucky’ Gordon was actually her attacker, which she duly did. Gordon was then told the charge would be dropped if he gave false testimony against Ward who the police wanted to convict on charges of procuring. To his credit, Gordon refused and was sentenced to three years for GBH.

Six weeks later he was released after the case against him collapsed due to Hamilton-Marshall’s brother telling anyone who would listen that he had attacked Keeler and the emergence of tape recordings of Keeler herself revealing the truth. She was then tried for perjury and sent to Holloway for nine months.

Profumo had already made a statement to the House of Commons in March 1963 saying that “there was no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintanceship with Miss Keeler.” No one in the House believed him but it was a convenient way to settle the issue as personal Parliamentary statements such as this cannot by convention be questioned. However, for him to have lied to the House indicates how high he believed the stakes to be and his fear of the consequences of exposure.

Ward knew he was being framed for living off immoral earnings and used all his MI5 and government contacts to plead his case and portray Profumo as the liar he was. Keeler was also talking at length to the press and although they created stories to sell their papers, the truth itself was so damning they hardly needed to. Pressure began to mount on Profumo and he finally resigned in June 1963.

Mandy Rice-Davies leaving the Old Bailey in July 1963 after giving evidence at Stephen Ward’s trial (© Getty Images).

Mandy Rice-Davies leaving the Old Bailey in July 1963 after giving evidence at Stephen Ward’s trial (© Getty Images).

Stephen Ward’s trial opened at the Old Bailey on 22 July 1963. He was charged on five counts, three of living off immoral earnings and two of procuring. The prosecution was led by Treasury Counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones who, three years previously, had uttered the famous ‘servants’ remark during the Chatterley obscenity trial. The journalist and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy wrote that Griffith-Jones was not simply prosecuting Ward but was behaving “as the state guardian of private morals…acting as a sort of Establishment front man for an ethos which few people besides himself any longer believed in.”

Ward knew he was going to be found guilty given the judge’s hostile summing up, despite the fact that the evidence showed he had supported Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies financially rather than lived off them. The day before the trial was due to conclude he took an overdose of barbiturates and died three days later.

In retrospect, the Profumo Affair now seems to have been a catalyst for the radical changes which came about in British society during the decade that followed. It signalled the end of the old, disciplined way of life which had endured for generations and led to distrust of their elders as the default posture of the younger generation. Whereas previously children had largely aspired to become like their parents in an atmosphere of obedient conformity, now they reacted against everything they stood for, from music to politics. As Davenport-Hines said during his talk “the well-drilled military aspect of British society in the 1950s was becoming harder and harder to maintain. More and more people didn’t like doing what they were told or knowing their place or keeping quiet. And from 1963 onwards there was increasing and open disrespect of established authority with the view that anyone in a senior position was probably a humbug.”

As for the press, which Davenport-Hines sees as the real villains in the affair, I am only surprised he did not find time to quote Humbert Wolfe’s famous epigram of 1930:

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there’s
no occasion to.

However, in a recent newspaper article he did quote Larkin and his famous view of the year 1963:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Larkin’s own sexual life had actually begun much earlier but it was the feeling of the time, the zeitgeist, that he was describing and nothing has ever been quite the same since that annus mirabilis of fifty years ago.

The display of photographs and related material – Scandal ’63 –  can be see at the National Portrait Gallery, London.



















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