Glamorous young wife Alma Rattenbury takes her chauffeur as a lover and their scandalous relationship leads to a murder most foul.
The 1935 murder of architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury, famous for his design of the iconic Parliament Buildings and Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, and the arrest and lurid trial of his 30-years-younger second wife, Alma, and the family chauffeur, George Percy Stoner, her lover, riveted people.
Francis and Alma had moved to Bournemouth, England, after the City of Victoria had ostracized them for their scandalous, flagrant affair while Francis was married to his first wife. Their life in Bournemouth was tangled. Francis became an impotent lush. Deprived of sexual gratification, Alma seduced George, previously a virgin who was half her age. They conducted their affair in her upstairs bedroom with her and Francis’s six-year-old son in a nearby bed, “sleeping,” she said, and the near-deaf Francis in his armchair downstairs in a drunken stupor.
The lovers were tried together for Francis’s murder at the Old Bailey Criminal Court in London, resulting in intense public interest and massive, frenzied media coverage. The trial became one of the 20th century’s most sensational cases, sparking widespread debate over sexual mores and social strata distinctions.
About the author
Susan Goldenberg is the author of nine books and has won both a Canadian Author’s Award and a Canadian Business Press Editors’ Award. She has written for the Sunday New York Times, the Financial Post, and the Financial Times of Canada, and currently pens articles for Canada’s History magazine. She also writes a heritage column on the district of Toronto where she lives.
Excerpt: Deadly Triangle: The Famous Architect, His Wife, Their Chauffeur, and Murder Most Foul (by (author) Susan Goldenberg)
Bournemouth, England, March 24, 1935, Near Midnight
An elderly man slumps in his armchair, blood pouring from his head. His false teeth have flown out of his mouth. A heavy wood mallet dripping with blood is on the floor nearby. His young wife runs about barefoot, gulping whisky and crying out, “Look at him! Look at the blood! Someone has finished him!”
“One of the most dramatic ‘triangle’ cases,” the Canadian Press newswire service wrote about the three main deadly triangle characters: victim Francis Mawson Rattenbury, a very famous architect, and the two people charge with his murder—his second wife, Alma, and her lover, the family chauffeur.
Francis’s 1935 killing is in Wikipedia’s list of “notable” murders in the U.K. since 1800, one of five singled out for the period 1931–40.Google calls his and Alma’s premarital affair British Columbia’s all time most famous sex scandal.
Love, hate, abuse, squandered talent and wealth, lust, adultery, lies, deception, cocktails, whisky, cocaine, conventional versus uninhibited, class divisions, massive press coverage, riveted public, false confessions, hypocrisy, misogyny, biased trial, disputed verdict, shocking aftermath. This murder, this deadly triangle, had it all!
It sparked widespread debate over social mores and social strata distinctions, issues that remain today, making it of current significance, too.
No wonder it continues to fascinate.
Chapter 1 - Francis
During his lifetime, admirers praised Francis Mawson Rattenbury as “a visionary, a genius.” Critics called him “unscrupulous, a thief, fraudster, cheating husband and drunk. All these descriptions were accurate.
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, Canada’s westernmost province, looks great largely due to him. He also changed the appearance of many other places in the province, as well as in the neighbouring province of Alberta, for the better.
However, Francis made many enemies along the way because he didn’t handle success nicely. Rather, he was egotistical, rude, fiery-tempered, and frequently unprincipled,which led to sensational investigations that he managed to squirm out of. He overspent, overcharged, and overdrank.
Francis was born October 11, 1867, in Leeds, England, a large industrial city in West Yorkshire in northern England, the second son of John Owen Rattenbury and Mary Ann Mawson, whose relatives were prosperous textile merchants. At the time of Francis’s birth, John was working for them but chafed under their supervision. In 1877, when Francis was 10, he quit to become a professional artist. He wasn’t very good and didn’t earn much. The family had to downgrade to a much smaller house.
Francis apprenticed in architecture at a practice owned by his mother’s brothers. He was gifted, winning a national competition organized by the Royal Institute of British Architects when he was just 23. He was handsome and dashing as a young man, tall, slim, with red hair and moustache.
He didn’t want to wait patiently to be promoted gradually through the ranks at his uncles’ firm. He decided to start his own practice, not in England but in Vancouver, British Columbia’s business centre. The province at the time was promoting itself as “a land of hope, promise, and opportunity.” Francis arrived in May 1892 at age 24 and set up shop.
Unfolding events in British Columbia were in his favour. Provincial officials wanted Victoria to be regarded as a world-class city. They believed the best way to convey this was to replace the existing humble and squat wooden Parliament Building with a new imposing one that would give the capital status and prestige. They launched a design contest open to candidates across Canada and the United States. Francis is said to have learned about it because a notice for the competition coincidentally happened to be on the same page as the placement of an advertisement of his in Vancouver’s Daily World on July 5, 1892. He had many rivals; all told, there were 67 submissions.
To prevent charges of bias, the judges instructed the contestants to submit their ideas under a descriptive pseudonym. Francis astutely appealed to local pride by calling himself “A British Columbia architect,” saying his design was “to the glory of Our Queen.”
He wasn’t afraid to think big and had a flare for showmanship. Francis knew first impressions were important. For this reason, he said the Parliament should be at Victoria’s Inner Harbour, the entrance to the city for most visitors. He proposed a complex of three multi-domed majestic buildings, a big centre one in which the legislative chamber would be and two smaller ones on either side for government offices. The newcomer to Canada promised to use B.C. sandstone and granite for the exterior, B.C. copper for the domes, and marble in the interior. He had a passion for marble.
When the five finalists were selected, Francis was the only one from Canada, giving him an advantage. Declared the winner on March 16, 1893, he had been in British Columbia only 10 months and was just 25. It was a remarkable achievement. “The buildings will afford a striking example of what Canadian materials, combined with Canadian skill, can effect,” Victoria’s Daily Colonist wrote enthusiastically and proudly the next day in an editorial. It heaped praise on Francis: “The competition for the Government buildings afforded him an opportunity of showing the knowledge and skill which he had acquired, particularly in this class of building, and against great odds. Success has crowned his endeavours and made for him a name, not only here but on the whole west coast.”
Francis closed his Vancouver office and relocated to Victoria to oversee construction. It was problem-plagued, mainly due to him. He gained a reputation for unsavoury business practices, obtaining materials and funds through means that bordered on dishonesty. He treated anyone who questioned him with contempt and had no respect for their experience. They regarded him as a rude, arrogant young pup. Frederick Adams, the building contractor, accused Francis of shortchanging him in payments and overspending on materials. They constantly quarrelled.
Adams desperately wanted to no longer deal with Francis. That led to his acting imprudently. On March 22, 1895, two years into the construction, he insisted that the Velos, a steamboat he had hired to take him to a marble stone quarry in the north on Haddington Island, proceed despite the captain warning it was extremely risky because of gale-force winds. Just 30 minutes into the trip, the fierce winds slammed the boat into rocks. It quickly sank, and most of those on board died, including Adams. Francis’s detractors maintained he was partly to blame.
Francis had negotiated that he would be paid based on a percentage of the buildings’ final cost. Apparently, the government foresaw no possibility that he would go overbudget; it soon realized it had made a big mistake. The original budget was $500,000; the final cost was $923,000, close to double, and equivalent to $21 million today. Thus, the payout to Francis would be much bigger than the government had anticipated. Naturally, officials were very displeased. They pored over work orders, memos, and accounts to ensure that he wouldn’t profit from increased expenditures caused by his own mistakes or by extras he had included without government approval. The very public feud went on for two years.
Francis had made sloppy mistakes of the kind that even a rank amateur wouldn’t. He had ignored the obvious — his pride and joy, the high-vaulted ceiling in the legislative chamber he designed, would swallow up sound. Politicians like to be heard. They were very annoyed at Francis, whose habit was to walk away from problems he created and let others clean up the mess. Finally, somebody, not him, came up with the bright idea to hang a huge salmon fishing net from the ceiling to improve the acoustics. (British Columbia has a large salmon fishing industry.)
Why in the world didn’t he include a washroom in the suite of the lieutenant governor, the Crown’s senior representative in the province? Was he trying to antagonize all VIPs, or did he simply pay no attention to detail? By the time the lieutenant governor and his guests had hiked to the faraway nearest washroom, it was filled. There was a lot of griping. Furthermore, Francis neglected to include a press gallery. It’s not a good thing to irritate the press plus legislators who want their every word recorded by reporters. Francis made amends, sort of. He turned a high loft into a makeshift press gallery, but adding insult to insult, he made the only access a narrow, steep staircase. By the time they reached the top, reporters were huffing and puffing. Francis didn’t care whom he offended. But when he needed friends as he ran into difficulties in the future, he would find that he had alienated everyone, and nobody wanted to help.
Goldenberg’s style titillates with the skill of a good gossip columnist, armed with the tools of both a criminalist and a historian.
A riveting tale of love, greed, courage, and determination, Deadly Triangle is rich with personal and historical details that take the reader on a ride through time, as it follows the trajectory of its characters towards their own demise. A fascinating story linked to one of Canada’s best known landmarks.
Norm Boucher, retired RCMP officer and author of Horseplay: My Time Undercover On the Granville Strip
Deadly Triangle is an absolutely absorbing tale. Meticulously researched and methodically told, this true story of adultery and murder captivates early on and makes for a fascinating read. The tragic outcome lingers long after the last page is turned.
Brenda Chapman, author of the Stonechild and Rouleau Mysteries and Blind Date: A Hunter and Tate Mystery
Deadly Triangle: The Famous Architect, His Wife, Their Chauffeur and Murder Most Foul is a fascinating true crime story that is perfect for anyone who loves history, betrayal, and murder. Written by award-winning author Susan Goldenberg, this gripping story presents the byzantine lives of real people as they make their way towards a fatal finish.
Desmond P. Ryan, Retired Police Detective, Current Crime Fiction Author