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The Luck of the Lucans

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.