John Stonehouse death
True Crime

The Spy Who Died Twice: Who was John Stonehouse, why did he fake his own death and where is he now?

It's a bizarre tale of an MP who was presumed drowned - only he was very much alive

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A fascinating new documentary looks into the baffling case of prominent MP John Stonehouse, who faked his own death to start a new life.

As if that wasn’t bizarre enough, he’s also thought to have been a spy at the height of the Cold War.

So who was John Stonehouse, was he really a spy for the Czech security service, and why did he pretend to die by drowning?

Here’s everything you need to know about the tale, which is currently being made into an ITV series starring Matthew Madfadyen and Keeley Hawes.

John Stonehouse
John Stonehouse was a prominent Labour cabinet minister (Credit: Keystone Pictures USA/Shutterstock)

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Who was MP John Stonehouse?

John Stonehouse was a high-flying member of Labour leader Harold Wilson’s Government.

The MP for Walsall North came from a working-class background.

He was born on July 28 1925 in Southampton, and went on to graduate from the London School of Economics.

John was in the RAF during the War and seemed the ideal candidate for a life in politics.

Charismatic and confident, he had impressed Harold Wilson and Labour stalwarts from an early stage in his parliamentary career.

An onlooker would have seen a happily married, devoted family man with three children.

But the truth spilled out when he faked his own death in 1974.

What did John Stonehouse do?

One day in November 1974, John Stonehouse vanished from the beach of a large luxury hotel in Miami, Florida.

He left a neatly folded pile of clothes as he swam into the sea – and didn’t return.

His wife Barbara assumed her husband and father to her three children had drowned or been eaten by sharks.

In fact, like fictional TV character Reginald Perrin, John Stonehouse had deliberately faked his own death in a bid to start a new life abroad.

John was, in fact, en route to Australia, hoping to set up a new life with his mistress and secretary, Sheila Buckley.

But the police, the public and his family soon found him out…

John Stonehouse
John Stonehouse is remembered for his unsuccessful attempt at faking his own death in 1974 (Credit: Bill Howard/ANL/Shutterstock)

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Why did John Stonehouse ‘go swimming’ and fake his own death?

John Stonehouse attempted to fake his own death on November 20 1974 in a bid to start a new life with his mistress.

The MP wanted to flee suspicions that he was a spy – accusations that ultimately stalled his promising political career.

His financial affairs were in tatters – forcing him to set up various companies in an attempt to secure a regular income.

But he had deep money troubles.

His personal life has also been upended by a scandulous affair with his secretary.

In events that seem straight out of fiction, he stole the identity of a recently deceased constituent Joseph Markham.

He applied for a passport in the dead man’s name.

He then began to weave an elaborate conspiracy, seeking a new life in Australia.

Where was John Stonehouse caught?

Sadly for John, his plans were thwarted by Australian police.

They arrested him in Melbourne on 24 December 1974 – just over a month after arriving in the country.

Australian police officers arrested him under the mistaken impression that he was the fugitive peer Lord Lucan.

Alerted to the odd behaviour of an Englishman, the police interviewed him.

They asked him if he was the Lord Lucan, the man wanted for the murder of his nanny in London.

Although not the murderous missing Lord Lucan, John Stonehouse was deported to the UK six months after he was arrested.

John eventually confessed to faking his own “Miami suicide”.

Back home, he was soon declared bankrupt.

He was remanded in Brixton Prison until August 1975 when he was released and put on bail.

Unbelievably, perhaps, John continued to serve as an MP.

The Labour Party did not expel him partly because of their very narrow parliamentary majority.

John Stonehouse
John Stonehouse was eventually jailed for fraud (Credit: Ferd Kaufman/AP/Shutterstock)

Did John Stonehouse ever go to jail?

Police convicted John Stonehouse of fraud.

He was sentenced to seven years after a trial in which he conducted his own defence.

John Stonehouse was imprisoned in HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs.

On August 14 1979, John was freed early on account of his good behaviour.

He had also suffered three heart attacks in jail.

John Stonehouse left jail a broken man, with his reputation in tatters.

Was John Stonehouse a spy?

More than 20 years after his death, it was publicly revealed that John Stonehouse had been an agent for the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic military intelligence.

In 1979, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher learned from a Czech defector that John Stonehouse had been a paid Czechoslovak spy since 1962.

He had provided secrets about government plans as well as technical information about aircraft, and received about £5,000 (double an MP’s salary).

The government made no prosecution, instead deciding there was insufficient evidence to bring him to trial.

The evidence established that John Stonehouse was a spy working for the Czechs during the Cold War (tension between the US and the Soviet Union which began following World War II).

Files in Prague reveal that John Stonehouse had regular meetings with “diplomats” from the Czech Embassy in London for more than 10 years.

John Stonehouse
Police captured John Stonehouse in Australia and bought him back to the UK (Credit: ANL/Shutterstock (1275221a)

Who was John Stonehouse’s wife?

John Stonehouse married Barbara Joan Smith in 1948, and they had two daughters, Jane and Julia, and a son, Mathew.

After their divorce in 1978, he married his mistress.

John wed Sheila Elizabeth Buckley in Hampshire on January 31 1981.

In December 1982, their son James William John was born.

Where are his family now?

Two books by members of his own family are now available to buy.

Both tell the story in radically different ways.

His daughter Julia, now 70, is desperately trying to clear his name of spying charges.

Instead she believes he became addicted to prescription drugs and battled mental health problems, the consequences of which made him act irrationally.

She wrote John Stonehouse, My Father, which paints a sympathetic picture of a wronged man, broken by his public disgrace.

She also has a web site called John Stonehouse – so where’s the evidence?

Meanwhile, Stonehouse, by the barrister Julian Hayes, concludes that he was indeed a spy and the author of his own misfortunes.

Barrister Julian is a relation through the author’s father, who was the MP’s nephew and his lawyer.

Other members of the Stonehouse family have chosen to keep a low profile since his death.

John’s second wife Sheila, now 80, lives in a secluded cul-de-sac in a quiet area of the UK.

First wife Barbara is now 90.

Where is John Stonehouse now?

After his release from jail, John Stonehouse volunteered as a fundraiser for the East London-based charity, Community Links.

He joined the SDP, an early version of the Liberal Democrats.

John Stonehouse wrote four novels, and made TV appearances and radio broadcasts during the rest of his life, mostly in connection with discussing his disappearance and subsequent downfall.

The former MP collapsed on March 25 1988, after suffering another heart attack.

He was on set during an edition of Central Weekend in Birmingham during the filming of a programme about missing people.

Three weeks later, early on April 14 1988, he suffered a massive heart attack at his house at Dales Way in Totton, Hampshire.

He died that morning, leaving behind his grieving widow and four children.

How can I watch the John Stonehouse TV series?

Succession actor Matthew Macfadyen and his real life wife Keeley Hawes will star in a TV dramatisation coming soon.

They will play John Stonehouse and his wife Barbara in what promises to be a gripping three-part period drama.

Stonehouse on ITV tells the real-life story of the disgraced Labour minister John Stonehouse.

Matthew Macfadyen says of the role: “What happened to John Stonehouse is the stuff of legend.

“I’ve always been intrigued by what motivated him to fake his own death, and leave behind the family he loved and doted upon and a promising political career.

“John Preston’s script truly captures the man and his colourful life and I’m looking forward to taking on his character.”

Preston adds: “The story of how [Stonehouse] faked his own death and tried to start a new life in Australia under an assumed name is one of the most bizarre true-life tales I’ve ever come across.”

Viewers can expect to see the series air in late 2022 or early 2023.

The Spy Who Died Twice on Channel 4

The Channel 4 documentary looks at politician John Stonehouse’s attempts to fake his own death in the 1970s.

A crime he subsequently went to jail for.

The documentary examines how Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Margaret Thatcher chose not to investigate the allegations that Stonehouse colluded with the Czech security service during the Cold War.

It features testimony from both the Czech security services’ files on Stonehouse and the National Archive’s government records.

The Spy Who Died Twice airs on Monday May 09 2022 at 9pm on Channel 4.

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