Jeremy Thorpe, the Trial of the Century, a conspiracy hatched in Blackpool

Jeremy Thorpe and Norman Scott “Man is the problem, no man, no problem.”   The best picture of a politician ever taken? Jeremy Thorpe and Jimi Hendrix.  Jimi Hendrix stayed in a boarding house at Dickson Road when he appeared in Blackpool.

Britain was an unstable place in the 1970’s. Downing Street was run by a KGB coven.  The CIA were planning a right wing coup as they had in Chile.  Many people believed this. The Conservatives were led by Edward Heath who had the gift of making  all things tedious and the Labour Party by the crafty Harold Wilson. The Parties were neck and neck and the Liberal Party with its charismatic leader Jeremy Thorpe was an attractive alternative. The Liberal Party had a reputation for “niceness” and attracted those disdainful of the robber barons of capitalism or the howling mobs of socialism. We are talking geography teachers here.

Jeremy Thorpe was an outstandingly successful leader of the Liberal Party. He was charming, witty, a dandy. His first wife had died in a car accident and his second wife was a cousin of the Queen. In 1974 the Liberals won an amazing 19% of the  vote. For a moment it was possible that the Liberal Party could be part of a coalition with the Conservatives. Edward Heath discussed a Liberal Conservative pact. His argument was that although the Labour Party had won more seats the Conservative Party had won more votes. Edward Heath had the misfortune that even when right he sounded wrong.  Edward Heath considered Jeremy Thorpe for Home Secretary in a coalition.  It is intriguing to think that Jeremy Thorpe could have been the head of a legal establishment investigating Jeremy Thorpe.

The Liberal Party would not accept a Liberal Conservative Pact so Harold Wilson formed a government in which he needed the support of the Liberals.Jeremy Thorpe                                         Jeremy Thorpe.

What could possibly go wrong for Jeremy Thorpe?

A stable worker and male model called Norman Scott claimed that he had a long homosexual relationship with Jeremy Thorpe. In 1971 a Liberal Party Enquiry had investigated allegations about Jeremy Thorpe’s sexuality . Jeremy Thorpe had denied being a predatory homosexual. Homosexual relationships had ceased to be a crime in England and Wales in 1967. Things had improved since 1806 when sodomites were hanged at Lancaster, but gay men faced prejudice.  Older gay men might have a criminal record and this would effect their employment opportunities. Gay men lived lives which involved deceit and concealment.   Norman Scott                                          Norman Scott

In October 1975 an airline pilot, Andrew Newton drove Norman Scott and his dog Rinka from Norman’s home in North Devon to Exmoor where he stopped the car and shot the dog, Rinka. Why did this happen? Norman Scott had an obsession with Jeremy Thorpe. Norman Scott looked like a macho outdoor man but his voice was feminine. The story of Jeremy Thorpe is full of colourful characters and Norman Scott is among the colourfulest.  He was very attractive when young. A police officer investigating the case remarked, looking at photographs of Norman, “I’m not that way inclined, but if I were…”

Norman had a series of relationships gay and straight. When he was released from a psychiatric unit he set up a ménage a trois with a woman and a man from the same institution. Norman was not comfortable with his sexuality. He was brought up as a Catholic and believed that Jeremy Thorpe had “infected” him with homosexuality . A secondary concern was with his National Insurance Card which he was convinced that Jeremy Thorpe had taken from him and which prevented him getting a job, and living a normal life.

An observer might feel it was more than the lack of a National Insurance Card that prevented Norman Scott  from living a normal life. Norman’s early years were punctuated by suicide attempts. Between suicide attempts he insisted on telling anybody who would listen about his relationship with Jeremy Thorpe. Norman was good with animals, he was a natural horseman and he had a love of nature and solitude.

With people he was not so good. He was querulous,  argumentative and  unstable.  He found it difficult to keep a job.  Despite his difficulties there was a steely quality to Norman. Norman displayed very little interest in money.  He was not pursuing Jeremy Thorpe for profit.  It was hatred.  There may have been love once. At one time Jeremy Thorpe seems to have a genuine concern for Norman.  At one point in his fabulously indiscreet way Jeremy wrote to Norman: “Bunnies (his pet name for Norman)  can and will go to France. ”  It doesn’t sound to me like a couple of rampant heterosexuals planning a night out.

For Norman Scott  hatred of Jeremy  Thorpe was the single emotional  stable point in his life. Jeremy Thorpe was not  threatened by a male model former psychiatric patient. Nobody would listen to Norman’s story. The Establishment was a  more coherent and effective force than it is now. Jeremy Thorpe with a  network of friends and sympathizers and an arsenal of legal resources and with his role as the third most important man in British Politics had nothing to fear.

The story of how Andrew Newton came to shoot Rinka is a story of how Norman caused Jeremy Thorpe and his circle to lose reason and undertake activities so eye-wateringly stupid that we have to keep reminding ourselves that these people were not  insane.

Within that circle a kind of competitive loopiness became routine.  One of the reasons that the Jeremy Thorpe trial is so thrilling is that it introduces us to characters so dubious, so  flawed, so heart-stoppingly  self-seeking that they are delectable.  Unless you are very flawed indeed you will read about people who are worse and more stupid than you are.  Which is cheering.    Not only are the central characters  imperfect they are incompetent. There are flat out villains and  there are walk on parts for bigoted judges and crafty lawyers, such as George Carman.  At the centre of it all Jeremy Thorpe has a theatrical quality. He was famous for his impersonations and an unkind person might say he impersonated the Leader of the Liberal Party.  The inner-circle of the nice party planned to silence a citizen who had mental health problems and a sexually troubled past and were linked with the shooting of the man’s dog using money extracted fraudulently from a philanthropist. The  SS had taken over Disneyland.

You would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh.

To return to the question: how did Andrew Newton came to shoot Rinka the Great Dane? This is where people who take an interest in Blackpool can feel a surge of, well not pride exactly but… Let’s be honest it is pride. This sleazy pantomime farce originated in Blackpool. The conspiracy to silence Norman Scott was put together in Blackpool. We do not know in which hotel it originated. I am almost certain it was the Imperial Hotel because it is an obvious choice for a high class charity event. There were strippers and abundant alcohol when David Miller met Andrew Newton.


Time to introduce the main characters.  If you try to imagine what it was like being Jeremy Thorpe during the years that Norman Scott was going from disaster to  disaster you would have a great deal to be happy about. You were the leader of the third biggest party and each of the other leaders vied for your support. You were the most popular and trusted of the leaders. You were a dazzling, charismatic speaker who could charm the knickers off a nun. On the other hand on a bad day you looked like a seedy bookmaker. There were rumours about your sexuality.  Newspapers were more circumspect than they are today but could Jeremy be sure? Worst of a  mentally unstable suicidal individual going round sometimes in Jeremy’s own constituency telling everybody including Jeremy’s wife and his mother in some detail  that he had a long homosexual relationship with Jeremy Thorpe and telling them that he had proof in the form of papers and letters.

To Jeremy Thorpe Norman Scott came to embody all the threats and insecurities, all the things that stopped him achieving the glory which he merited. Peter Bessell, Jeremy’s one-time confidant,  was a rogue. He extracted money for business schemes that reliably failed. He skated on the verge of bankruptcy for years. He had  charm and was an epic womaniser. According to Peter Bessell his method of establishing Jeremy’s sexuality was to confess over a meal that he had homosexual tendencies. This was not true and it is likely that Peter Bessell was  fishing around for something that might be useful. Inevitably Peter Bessell had been a Methodist lay preacher.

Peter Bessell was not one of the conspirators on trial, he was a major prosecution witnesses. After the failure of all his schemes Peter Bessell found a beautiful younger woman and lived in a  beach hut in California. He was dying.

One of the  delightful characters in this drama was Jack Hayward. Jack Hayward had set up a business in the Bahamas to help companies evade tax. He was a flamboyant patriot. He made a fortune by helping British Companies avoiding paying tax.  He was a  philanthropist. We would expect him to support the Conservative Party but he met and was delighted with Jeremy Thorpe.  Jack Hayward was shrewder than he appeared.  He gave money to the Liberal Party. Jack Hayward met Peter Bessell. Jack Hayward knewthat Peter Bessell was a crook but gave him money because he found him amusing. In return Peter Bessell and Jeremy Thorpe made an attempt to defraud Jack Hayward by claiming that they needed money to make deals with giant American companies which would be beneficial to Jack Hayward’s Bahamas project. Jack did not fall for it and Jeremy Thorpe forced Peter Bessell to write a letter confessing and saying that it was his sole idea.

Jack Hayward continued to support Jeremy Thorpe and some of the money was channelled through an intermediary. This was the money that was used to pay for the silencing of Norman Scott. A benevolent philanthropist acting in the belief that he is benefitting a democratic and enlightened political party was  financing the silencing of a poor, bisexual, suicidal person.

David Holmes was from a humble background and by hard work he had secured a place at Oxford where he met and was entranced by Jeremy Thorpe.  David Holmes and Jeremy Thorpe went on holidays together, David Holmes was openly gay.   After university David Holmes suffered from cancer. He made a recovery and set about becoming, unlike Peter Bessell, a genuinely successful businessman, based in Manchester. David Holmes was an important part of Jeremy’s circle and acted as a advisor and protector. If anybody in Jeremy Thorpe’s circle deserves pity it is David Holmes. He did everything to help Jeremy and he allowed himself to become enmeshed in the conspiracy. True to form Jeremy dropped and betrayed him. Unlike the rest of Jeremy Thorpe’s circle David Holmes had no thought of using his situation to his own advantage. His life was about  service to Jeremy Thorpe.

After Jeremy Thorpe  dropped him, David Holmes went into a decline, hanging about public toilets.  Maybe he loved Jeremy Thorpe in a selfless way.  There was not much selflessness in Thorpe’s circle but he did attract the devotion of his first and second wife. Liberals complained that their leader was surrounded by a circle of courtiers and that access to Jeremy Thorpe was controlled by David Holmes. It was as if there were two Liberal Parties… the circle round Jeremy Thorpe and the MPs, activists and supporters in the Party.

There were smaller parts filled by  bizarre characters. John le Mesurier (no relation to the actor) sold carpets in South Wales. When a “final solution” to the Norman Scott problem was discussed John le Mesurier turned to George Deakin who sold slot machines in South Wales. George Deakin was a small man with sandy hair who wore spectacular suits, drove flash cars and had a younger blonde wife. It was George Deakin and a friend called David Miller who recruited Andrew Newton at a charity event in a Blackpool Hotel to (here accounts differ) either frighten or kill Norman Scott. This was the step that brought about the trial of Jeremy Thorpe.  We need to step back for a second and consider the likely outcome of this decision. The problem was that Norman Scott was trying to find a  platform to make accusations against Jeremy Thorpe. He was getting nowhere.  Even if Norman Scott were mysteriously shot dead  there would be an investigation and the most outstanding thing about Norman Scott was his claim to have had a homosexual affair with Jeremy Thorpe.

The plot to silence Norman Scott was involving increasingly unreliable characters. Of all the various rogues, crooks, liars, frauds, riff-raff  and suchlike  we have encountered none is so  devoid of a moral compass than Andrew Newton.

Some people have flaws.  Andrew Newton had nothing but flaws.  Good looking with  attractive girlfriends. He was intelligent. He gave off a miasma of shallow self-seeking so intense and pungent that he could not even impersonate an honest person. Peter Bessell the serial fraud  knew what honest people looked like so that he could portray one. Andrew Newton lacked this skill. Although he took on the job of silencing Norman Scott he had a sense that if his employers could pay £10,000 plus they could pay plenty more. This interested him. At various times the conspirators claimed that the plot had been to frighten Norman Scott , but in the only thing he said that rings true Andrew Newton said that £10,000 upwards was a lot to pay to frighten somebody.

The idea of a silent living Norman Scott was self-contradictory.  On Exmoor on 12 October 1975 Andrew Newton met Norman Scott in Barnstaple. He said that he was trying to protect Norman Scott from a threat. Andrew Newton was  trying to find out why Norman Scott was to be silenced. True to form it was not long before Norman Scott was telling the story of his relationship with Jeremy Thorpe. Andrew Newton thought that there might be something in Norman’s story. He reported to David Holmes that Norman Scott had a collection of papers. Holmes said that Scott must be silenced quickly. Andrew Newton, the hitman, did not have a weapon so he borrowed an unreliable 1910 Mauser from a friend.  And this is why and how it came about that on Friday 24 October Andrew Newton set off from Blackpool to meet Norman Scott. He met Scott at Combe Martin. Andrew Newton                                                               Andrew Newton

Norman Scott was accompanied by a Great Dane called Rinka. It so happened that Andrew Newton was  terrified of dogs. This was a bad thing for Rinka but a good thing for Norman Scott. Andrew Norman and Rinka were driving across Exmoor when Norman offered to drive. There was a misunderstanding, Rinka was excited jumping and wagging her tail.   rinka                                                                  Rinka

Andrew Newton killed Rinka with a shot to the head. According to Norman Scott Andrew Newton put a gun to his head which failed to fire. Andrew Newton drove off. He stayed with another of the conspirators, David Miller, where he made the breathtaking comment that he was working for a bunch of amateurs .

The next morning he decided to for a holiday so he set off  with his girlfriend Colleen Rooney and David Miller for a sunshine holiday in Pakistan. The mysterious shooting of a dog on Exmoor drew journalists to a story that seemed unusual. The Police were well aware of Norman Scott’s allegations but were desperate to avoid pursuing them. Instead they investigated Andrew Newton. A suspicious friend of Norman Scott had written down the registration number of the car that Andrew was driving on his earlier visit. When Newton returned from Pakistan with his girlfriend and David Miller he was arrested. He thought up a brilliant story. He had been contacted by Norman Scott when he had put a nude picture of himself in a sex contact magazine. When he met Norman Scott he was shocked to discover that Norman was a man, and was also intending to blackmail Andrew. So he borrowed a gun intending to frighten Norman and shot the dog by accident.

It is worth noting that if Andrew had killed Norman his career as a hitman would have lasted from the shooting until his arrest on return from Pakistan. And the conspirators would have been facing more serious charges, they were saved by their uselessness.  It was the  incompetence of the conspirators and Andrew Newton that turned Rinkagate from a tragedy into a farce.   Andrew Newton was charged with possessing a firearm with intent to endanger life. Before his trial he made use of his knowledge to extract money from Holmes.

It was “Private Eye” a satirical magazine run on a shoestring and not the multimillion pound giant papers such as the Times which first linked the shooting of Rinka with Norman Scott and Jeremy Thorpe. Andrew Newton ‘s Trial was at Exeter Crown Court on 16 March 1976. Norman Scott managed to repeat his allegations about Jeremy Thorpe. Andrew Newton was sentenced to two years which shook him since David Holmes had promised him that “powerful friends” would ensure that he was not imprisoned. From prison he continued to receive money from David Holmes. Worst of all Norman Scott was given a platform to repeat his allegations at the trial.  Jeremy Thorpe’s circle frantically tried to cover up one set of lies with another. Peter Bessell who was broke and living in a beach hut in California but was radiantly happy with his beautiful young wife was recruited to claim that he had been blackmailed by Norman Scott. It says something about the Liberal Party that further investigations of homosexuality against Thorpe were undertaken by the Chief Whip of the Liberal Party, Cyril Smith, who was himself later implicated in allegations of child abuse. cyril-smith-has-been-exposed-paedophile-since-his-death-2011-by-police                                                 Cyril Smith

These were also aired in Private Eye. As a result of the trial  newspapers were free now to refer to Norman Scott’s allegations. It was apparent that Jeremy Thorpe had lied about his relationship with Norman Scott. Jeremy Thorpe resigned the Liberal Leadership. Peter Bessell was dying in California and he was prevailed on to give evidence against Jeremy Thorpe.  The inner –circle was starting to fall apart not  helped by Jeremy Thorpe’s disregard for his most loyal friend David Holmes to whom he suggested that he take all the blame: “You must agree there doesn’t seem much point in both of us going down.” David Holmes had been Jeremy Thorpe’s most loyal supporter.

Jeremy Thorpe was replaced by David Steel as leader of the Liberal Party. Jeremy Thorpe was charged along with David Holmes, George Deakin and John Le Mesurier. The trial was delayed to allow Jeremy Thorpe to fight in the general election where he was  narrowly defeated. The trial started at the Old Bailey on 11 May 1979. Jeremy Thorpe was charged with attempted murder and, along with the other three defendants, conspiracy to murder. The trial had all of the elements of a classic murder case without the murder. There were colourful characters, highly-detailed sexual accounts, people in high-places, the misdeeds of eminent people. The nation read with glee Norman Scott’s account of Jeremy Thorpe’s unwanted sexual advances at Jeremy Thorpe’s mother’s home. He described himself as: “Biting the pillow.” The Prosecution was  gentlemanly. They chose not to dwell on the homosexual aspect of the case on the grounds that it was not relevant. Jeremy Thorpe had repeatedly denied homosexuality and if the Prosecution had chosen they could have demonstrated that he was dishonest in this matter. The defence was led by the nimble footed George Carman who came from Blackpool and had attended St Joseph’s College. The chief Prosecution witness was Peter Bessell who had agreed to give evidence in exchange for immunity from prosecution. The Judge, Justice Cantley, behaved like a representative of the establishment to such a degree that it seems as if he was indulging in self-parody. He described George Deakin as “probably the sort of man whose taste ran to a cocktail-bar in his living room.” When he heard that Jeremy Thorpe wore a pair of red trousers he opined: “the sort of thing that used to be worn by small-town Americans on their first trip to Europe. “ Norman Scott, the poor man who had his dog shot and was appearing in court as a witness in pursuit of justice, aroused Judge Cantley’s considerable ire: “He is a fraud. He is a sponger. He is a whiner. He is a parasite. But of course, he could still be telling the truth.”   ]NPG x166349; Sir Joseph Donaldson Cantley by Walter Bird                                                                          Judge Cantley

Judge Cantley’s summing up was  biased in favour of Jeremy Thorpe and the other defendants. It gave rise to a cultural treasure: “The biassed judge.”

Peter Cook’s funniest work.

Jeremy Thorpe and the other defendants were found Not Guilty. The defence case was that there may have been some kind of a conspiracy but its  purpose was to frighten Norman Scott and not to kill him and that when the defendants had talked about Norman Scott “disappearing” they were speaking metaphorically. When they talked about dumping his body in an abandoned mine they were being humorous. When they talked about silencing him they meant frightening him. Jeremy Thorpe had insisted that the three act as a group and none of them gave evidence. The other defendants may have been chagrined when George Carman suggested that some of the conspirators could be found guilty and Jeremy Thorpe still found innocent. George Carman could not have done this without Jeremy Thorpe’s knowledge.  Jeremy Thorpe was ratting on his friends, what is surprising is that they found this surprising.

So released without a stain on his character Jeremy Thorpe went on. The rest is painful. He was shunned by his colleagues. He attended state occasions such as Harold Wilson’s funeral where he was treated as if he had a highly infectious disease.. He developed Parkinson’s disease.  Norman Scott seems to have found some  peace living in the country with a host of pets. He never attempted to cash in on his role, he was uninterested in money, that was his noblest feature. An odd note is that in one part of his extraordinary life Norman Scott was briefly married and related through his wife to the actor Terry -Thomas who lent Norman and his wife a cottage. As Terry- Thomas might have said: “What an absolute shower.”


FURTHER READING There is a fine book on the case: Rinkagate by Simon Freeman and Barrie Penrose. Please watch “Peter Cook the biased judge” on youtube. For my money it is his best work and close to the truth.

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