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THE SOHO CONNECTIONS: Murder of the Royal Biographer, 1974

The Murder of James Pope-Hennessy

20th November 1916 – 25th January 1974


Richard James Arthur Pope-Hennessy was the former editor of The Spectator, a well-connected author and commissioned by the Queen in 1955 to write a biography of Queen Mary.  He was the brother of Sir John Pope-Hennessy, who was the Director of both the V&A and British Museums, and had formerly shared a flat with the disgraced spy, Guy Burgess.  He lived at 7 and then 9 Ladbroke Grove, London and in 1960 was invested with the Insignia of Commanders of the Royal Victorian Order by the Queen.  He had previously been in a relationship with Harold Nicolson, a former diplomat, writer and MP. (Nicolson also listed Guy Burgess as another of his conquests).

In a book by James Lees-Milne, he describes Pope-Hennessy as ‘the devil got a firm grip of him in his twenties and early thirties.’  He spent the money of older women whilst frankly discussing his homosexual life to them.  (Lees-Milne was also a former lover of Pope-Hennessy, who had acted as a witness for Lees-Milne’s marriage).

His Wikipedia entry states that he was careless with money and suffered from a series of financial crises.  ‘He was a heavy drinker and frequented back-street bars and shady pubs where he mixed with a rough crowd, associations that eventually contributed to his death when he was brutally murdered…‘.  Indeed, a number of advertisements for auctions such as Sotheby’s, shows that Pope-Hennessy sold off some of his personal items. (The Times)

It was reported that on 25th January 1974 thieves ransacked the home of James Pope-Hennessy, 57, following recent newspaper reports that he had been offered $150,000 to write a book about Sir Noel Coward (they assumed he had the money in his flat).  He was bound and stabbed by three men.  During the attack his valet, Leslie (Walter) Smith, 25, returned to the property and discovered the three men.  He was immediately set upon before the assailants fled the scene.  Smith staggered into the street and shouted for help from local contractors.  He was taken to St George’s Hospital with a serious head wound but survived.  Pope-Hennessy was taken to St Charles’ Hospital but died from multiple stab wounds.  The Queen was informed of his demise, and subsequently sent a message of condolence to his brother, Sir John Pope-Hennessy.

Over the next few days three men were arrested and charged with the murder.  They were:

  • John James O’Brien (aka Sean Seamus O’Brien), 23, Ladbroke Grove
  • Edward John Wilkinson: 22, Arlington Road, Southgate
  • Terence Michael Noonan: 25, Tisdall Place, Walworth

They eventually stood trial and were each found guilty of murder and GBH as well as burglary.  That’s the official story in a nutshell.  But it wasn’t the actual story…

James Pope-Hennessy at Chiswick House, taken by Cecil Beaton

Scratch the surface…

… and you soon discover that not everything is as it seems.  Because of the status of the victim, it seems the press went some way to cover up the real element of the story, which eventually came to light during a worryingly contrived court case.

Firstly, all three defendants were ‘Dilly Boys’.

Secondly, O’Brien had been living at Pope-Hennessy’s flat for a few months prior to the incident.  He had been in a sexual relationship with both Pope-Hennessy and Smith (who also lived there).  Pope-Hennessy and Smith were both users of the ‘rent boy’ scene in Piccadilly.

The official version of events

In the July 1974 trial, Smith testified that on the morning of 25th January 1974 he was told by Pope-Hennessy that O’Brien had arrived at the flat and that they had chatted for a while.  Smith claims he then left to go to the bank and, conveniently, go and buy a new carving knife for the kitchen that morning.

He returned 20 minutes later but when he tried to open the door, the chain was on.  O’Brien, looking dishevelled, let him in.  Smith asked O’Brien what was going on but, conveniently, couldn’t remember the response in order to relay it to the court.  As he ascended the stairs in front of O’Brien, he felt a pain in his head.

***At this point, Smith almost fainted in the witness box and the case was adjourned.***

When the case resumed, Smith stated that he was laying on the floor with three men standing over him.  One was hitting him with a ‘wooden thing’ whilst the other two were holding him down by his arms.  He then heard one say “Kill him, Chris” and “You are going to die“.  Standing over him with a knife, one said “Do you want this in you?“.  He managed to escape and gain the attention of a contractor in the street outside, who then alerted police.  Whilst doing so, the three defendants fled the property – one headed for the tube, one in a taxi and one on a London bus.

Following this evidence, a deal was struck and the three defendants pleaded guilty to manslaughter with the murder charge being dropped.

  • John James O’Brien (aka Sean Seamus O’Brien): received 17 years reduced, to 12 on appeal
  • Edward John Wilkinson: received 15 years, reduced to 10 on appeal.
  • Terence Michael Noonan: received 15 years, reduced to 10 on appeal.

They also received further sentences for robbing Pope-Hennessy and attempting GBH to Smith, and O’Brien and Noonan were also accused of a £900 burglary in Cricklewood.



What was the actual version of events?

According to an article written by Simon Hoggart in The Guardian in 2007:

In 1974, the gay writer and historian James Pope-Hennessy was murdered in bed by some rough trade youth he had picked up. His diaries showed that his last appointment had been for lunch with Sherry that same day.

One of the assailants – O’Brien – had actually been living at Pope-Hennessy’s address for the previous few months and had been in relationships with both Pope-Hennessy and Smith.

It was admitted that Pope-Hennessy and Smith had initially met O’Brien in the West End and we now know that Pope-Hennessy would frequent the area.  O’Brien, Wilkinson and Noonan were all ‘rent boys’ from Piccadilly.

At 10:15am, Pope-Hennessy told Smith that O’Brien was there and the three of them went upstairs to the living-room and had a cigarette and a chat.  They then went down to the first floor lounge for sherry and Smith then left to go to the bank and buy a new carving knife.

Smith returned to the flat at around 11:30am.

Despite initial reports that Pope-Hennessy was stabbed, this wasn’t true – He was beaten.  The only one stabbed was the defendant – Noonan – who was arrested after collapsing on the bus as he attempted to flee the scene.  He had a nasty stab wound to his back.  O’Brien had acquired a cut to his leg and Smith admitted he had used his newly purchased carving knife in defence.

A post-mortem concluded that Pope-Hennessy had multiple bruising and abrasions to the head and had a hair net ‘forced down his throat which no doubt contributed to his death‘.  The actual cause of death was recorded as inhalation of blood.

Noonan denied killing Pope-Hennessy, claiming Wilkinson and O’Brien were the ones who had taken Pope-Hennessy upstairs as he was tasked with looking for items to take.  He said: “I heard noises and shouts and went upstairs.  They were hitting him; there was blood everywhere.  I went back down and sat on the stairs.  I wanted to be sick.

When Wilkinson was arrested he also denied killing Pope-Hennessy, allegedly telling police: “You do not know what it’s like.  I can’t sleep thinking about it.  I know I am guilty because I was with them, like, but I did not hit him.”

How does this fit in with Playland?

All this happened at the same time as a number of notorious rings operated in the West End, including the likes of Roger Gleaves.

Months after Pope-Hennessy’s death, police busted a ring of men who were exploiting and abusing young boys. The trial was held at the same time and place as the Pope-Hennessy murder trial at the Central Criminal Court in July 1975, and five men were found guilty of the abuse of young runaways (which I will blog separately about, as Playland has many different interconnected elements to it).  One of these men was Charles Hornby, a well-connected Etonian.  At the end of the trial, Judge Alan King-Hamilton made mention of the ‘state of affairs in and around Playland‘ and the police were forced to take a more proactive interest in the area, not least because during the trial, the infamous Johnny Go Home was broadcast to the nation exposing the sordid underbelly of Soho and the exploitation of youngsters on the ‘meat rack’.  The jury were kept in a hotel to prevent them watching the programme after the defendants claimed it could prejudice their views towards the them.

Unfortunately we also know that the matter didn’t stop and a number of subsequent vice rings were busted, as well as issues with police corruption, but I will cover this in far more detail in a further post.

Further reading:












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