The Profumo Affair


The Profumo Affair was a national crash-course in sex education. During the summer of 1963, it shook the foundations of a society that was based on snobbery, deference, sexual hypocrisy, primitive notions of guilt and punishment, anxious panicky attempts at banning and censoring, blackballing and whitewashing.  It rocked the British Establishment and changed the course of British politics.  It also wrecked several lives, and killed its scapegoat – Stephen Ward.  

In the summer of 1961 John 'Jack' Profumo, the Minister of War in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government, had a brief affair with nineteen-year-old Christine Keeler.  He first met her at the swimming-pool on Lord Astor’s country estate, Cliveden House, and got her telephone number from Stephen Ward, the osteopath with whom she shared a London flat. 

Christine was also involved with a couple of low-life characters, Aloysius ‘Lucky’ Gordon and Johnny Edgecombe.  In a Soho street-fight over Christine in October 1962, Edgecombe knifed Gordon, who needed seventeen stitches in his face.  Edgecombe later went to the Marylebone mews where Stephen Ward lived, and from the street fired two shots at Ward’s flat inside which Christine Keeler and her friend Mandy Rice-Davies were cowering.  Edgecombe was soon arrested and charged with attempted murder.  

Meanwhile, Stephen Ward, in whose flats both Christine and Mandy stayed from time to time, had been used by MI5 as an intermediary in contacts with Eugene Ivanov, a naval attaché at the Soviet Embassy.  During the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 Ward made fatuous attempts to act as an emissary between the British Foreign Office and the Russian Embassy.

Almost simultaneously with the Cuban crisis a civil servant named John Vassall was convicted at the Old Bailey of having passed naval secrets to the Russians.  There were lurid stories that Vassall had been the gay lover of a junior government minister, who was bullied into resigning.  Fleet Street journalists started running exaggerated, paranoid features about gay men in positions of power.  

When Johnny Edgecombe shot at Christine and Mandy, the nation’s press was full of stories of sex and spies. It was at this juncture that Christine Keeler offered her story to journalists.  She was soon induced to say that she had been the mistress of Ivanov as well as of Profumo, and that she had been asked to extract nuclear secrets from Profumo in their pillow-talk.  The British Security Services, and everyone who knew Christine, thought both claims were highly unlikely.  

The ensuing press furore alarmed the Home Secretary, who asked the Metropolitan Police to see what criminal charges could be fixed on Stephen Ward.   Witnesses against him were threatened and suborned; he was arrested in June and put on trial at the Old Bailey in July 1963; though the evidence against remained unsubstantiated, in the end he was hounded to death.

The aftermath of the Profumo Affair brought about a change of government:

The strain of the scandal contributed to the breakdown of health of Harold Macmillan, who abruptly resigned as Prime Minister in October 1963.  His successor, Alec Douglas-Home, faced a general election a year later.  Harold Wilson’s Labour party won an overall majority of just four seats in the general election of 15 October 1964 – much helped by residual memories of the Profumo Affair.  

It also changed the national psyche:

It brought explicit, sensational, disrespectful sex stories about public figures onto the front pages for the first time.  Protective mothers cancelled the Sunday papers so that their children should be protected from the ‘filth’.

It was a momentous milestone in the dismantling of the moral policing of Britain, which began with the unsuccessful attempt to ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960 and ended with the lifting of theatrical censorship and partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967-68. 

It was a clash between the Old Guard – who believed in traditional morality, virginity until marriage, and missionary-position sex with the lights out – and the new post-war generation who scoffed at these notions.  It loosened tongues, and broadened attitudes.  

History courtesy of Richard Davenport-Hines author of An English Affair.

Images credit: Stephen Ward © Getty Images / Other images © Express Syndication