Lord Lucan is like Cliff Richard and the Carry On
films: his name won’t mean much to many people outside the British Isles.
During the 1970s he became one of the most frequently mentioned and discussed
people in the British media. But it wasn’t for good reasons. He was catapulted
to infamy by two things: a murder and a disappearance.
The murder was that of his family nanny, a 29-year-old woman
called Sandra Rivett, and the disappearance was his own. Lucan was the only
suspect for the murder, which was committed on 7th November 1974, and his
failure to surrender to police only increased the certainty of his guilt.
Speculation about his whereabouts has continued ever since, but it has now been
ruled by the High Court that he is dead.
If he isn’t, then he will be celebrating his eighty-sixth
birthday later in 2016. He was born on 18th December to George Bingham, Sixth
Earl of Lucan, and George’s wife Kaitlin (née Dawson). The Lucan name was then
most famous for its association with the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 during
the Crimean War, because an earlier Lord Lucan played a central role in the
catastrophe. In the light of subsequent events, it was an unhappy portent.
Lord Lucan was born Richard John Bingham in Marylebone in
London, and seemed destined for a life of luxury and privilege, because his
family was rich and aristocratic. But, like countless millions of other people,
he found his life interrupted and altered for ever by the Second World War. In
1939 he was evacuated first to Wales, then to Canada and the United States,
where he lived for five years with a millionairess called Marcia Tucker.
His return to England in 1945 must have been an enormous
shock. He had become used to the rich and peaceful United States, where food
was plentiful and clothes were easy to buy in the latest fashions. Now he was
in heavily bombed London, with rationing in full force and many people dressed
in drab old clothes. Britain was victorious, but seemed like a defeated nation.
His parents, despite their high positions in the aristocracy, were sympathetic
to socialism and did not provide the luxuries their son had become accustomed
to whilst living in the United States.
Did this period spark a determination in the young Richard
Bingham that one day he would become rich and never again endure discomfort or
austerity? Perhaps so, but he chose the wrong route to riches: gambling. He
began betting on horse-racing during his time at Eton College, then learned
poker during his National Service in the Coldstream Guards in Germany. After he
left the army in 1955, he became a merchant banker, but he continued playing
cards for high stakes. He won huge sums, by the standards of the day, but also
lost huge sums, and he was setting himself up for disaster when he left the
bank and tried to become a professional gambler.
He married in 1963 and became the Seventh Lord Lucan the
following year, when his father died of a stroke. With the title came a
substantial inheritance, but he wanted much more money than that and still
believed that gambling was his road to Eldorado. He was certainly highly
skilled at cards and he won the nickname of “Lucky Lucan” with several
spectacular and well-publicized successes. But the truth was that he lost more
than he won and his debts were growing steadily.
As a consequence, his marriage came under increasing strain
and in 1972 he separated from his wife Veronica (née Duncan), giving her
custody of their three children. He continued to see her, but she complained to
friends of his unreasonable and sometimes violent behaviour, and even predicted
that she would be murdered by him one day. Lucan began a court battle for
custody of the children, but it failed, leaving him with big legal bills.
His continued losses at gambling left him in an even worse
position. All his problems were of his own making, but it’s a human
characteristic that it is usually much easier to blame others than face our own
shortcomings. Lord Lucan is a perfect example of this truth: his anger and
frustration finally exploded on the evening of 7th November 1974, when he
battered his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, to death with a lead pipe and
attacked his wife, injuring her seriously. She managed to escape and raise the
alarm, but Lucan escaped the scene.
The great mystery was about to begin. Lucan now disappeared
and there have been no proven sightings of him in the many years that followed.
Did he change his name and appearance and go into hiding overseas? The murder
and disappearance would no doubt have interested the public if he had been a
humble bank-clerk or shop-assistant, but he was an aristocrat with a glittering
title. His innocence of the crime was upheld by his family and some of his
friends, but to most people he was undoubtedly guilty. If he wasn’t, why did he
not surrender himself to the police and assist their enquiries?
After his disappearance, the alleged sightings began. He was
seen in every corner of the world under all kinds of circumstances: in the
Indian city of Goa as a hippy; in New Zealand as a member of the homeless
community; in the south of France and Colombia. There were rumours that he had
been smuggled out of the country by underworld friends, then murdered in
Switzerland. Even today the theories continue to circulate, but the solution to
the mystery may be simple: that he committed suicide by throwing himself into
the sea and his body was lost to the tides and underwater scavengers.
Whatever happened to him, the official ruling today is that
he is deceased. His title descends to his son George, who became the eighth
Lord of Lucan in February 2016. A story that burst in the headlines forty-two
years ago is back there today, wakening the memories of millions. Will the
mystery of his disappearance ever be solved? It seems more and more unlikely,
but I suspect that Lucky Lucan will be back in the headlines again one day.