Collections Crossover: Political Scandals
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Collections Crossover: Political Scandals

The last few months have seen more government scandals than you can shake a stick at, so in this Collections Crossover, we thought we'd take a look at dirty laundry, disreputable deeds and rumours of wrongdoing in British political scandals of the past couple of centuries.

We begin with Frederick, Duke of York (second son of King George III and Commander-in-Chief of the army) and his mistress Mary Anne Clarke, who in 1809 caused a national scandal when she testified before the House of Commons that she had sold army commissions with the Duke's knowledge. The case inspired a great deal of mockery and caricature and Frederick was forced to resign, even though he was eventually exonerated.

The king's first son, who ruled as Prince Regent and later as King George IV, fared no better with the caricaturists who despised his extravagant spending and dissolute way of life. In 1795, the Prince married his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, who he had never met, and it was clear from the outset that they repelled each other. The Prince continued to lobby for a divorce and set up a commission to gather evidence of the popular Caroline's supposed adultery, which was debated in the Lords under the Pains and Penalties Bill 1820. It was reported in salacious detail and became in essence a public trial. The government, fearing national unrest, withdrew the bill. Though Caroline was feted by the public, her victory was short-lived. Barred from George's coronation in 1821, she fell ill and died three weeks later.

The collections of the Reform Club, Grosvenor Prints, Castle Howard and Historic Royal Palaces all hold cartoons on our first two scandals. For our next two, the Illustrated London News archive, John Frost Newspapers and the National Army Museum have come up with the goods.

In 1892, Jabez Balfour, MP for Burnley, was at the centre of a scandal over the failure of a series of companies he had set up, concluding with the Liberator Building Society, which defrauded thousands of investors. Balfour fled to Argentina but was arrested and returned to the Old Bailey for trial in 1895, whereupon he was sentenced to 14 years penal servitude.

A shortage of ammunition in the First World War had dogged the British army since 1914, but culminated in the disastrous Battle of Aubers in May 1915 when a lack of high-explosive shells was blamed for the collapse. The scandal triggered a political crisis with Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, receiving the full force of criticism from the press, and Prime Minister Asquith's attempts to deny a shortage contributing to his eventual loss of power. A new coalition government created the post of Minister of Munitions, in which Lloyd George vigorously overturned the system to maximise munitions output for the remainder of the war.

Collections from the Marx Memorial Library, Everett and Keystone USA, provide the bulk of images for our final two scandals. John Profumo, Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan's government, lied in Parliament when he denied an affair had taken place with call girl Christine Keeler in 1961. A police investigation exposed the truth and although Profumo resigned, the scandal severely damaged the government's credibility and led to Macmillan's resignation in 1963. Meanwhile, the trial of society osteopath and artist, Stephen Ward, who had introduced Profumo and Keeler, for living off immoral earnings had come to a shocking end with Ward's suicide while awaiting the verdict. Ward's portraits of national figures, including members of the royal family, commissioned by the Illustrated London News in 1960 are among our archive.

The Thorpe affair, subject of the BBC's A Very English Scandal in 2018 with Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw, centred around allegations by Norman Scott that he had been in a gay relationship with leader of the Liberal party Jeremy Thorpe, and that Thorpe had conspired to murder him for threatening to expose the affair. Thorpe was forced to resign in 1976, and brought to trial in 1979. Although he was acquitted on all charges, public feeling was that Thorpe had not satisfactorily explained himself, and the adverse publicity destroyed his career.

This last selection includes images of many more scandals we haven't had room to cover, including the Zinoviev letter; MP Robert Boothby's long affair with Macmillan's wife, Lady Dorothy Cavendish; the sale of peerages; and the jailing of Lord Joseph Kagan, made a life peer by long-standing friend and former PM Harold Wilson, for theft.

We hope you've enjoyed this scandalous edition of Collections Crossover, and don't forget we're just an email or call away if you need a search, a quote or an answer to a question. Please do get in touch at or on 020 8318 0034.

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.  59 Tranquil Vale  Blackheath  London  SE3 0BS. United Kingdom.
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