Francis Mawson Rattenbury (1867–1935) was an architect born in England, although most of his career was spent in Canada where he designed many notable buildings.
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When he married in 1898, people were surprised at his choice. He picked Florence Nunn, who was quiet and plain, and from humble origins. He had known her for several years, and was presumably very comfortable with her. Otherwise it seemed a strange match.
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In the years to come the mismatch became more obvious. When Rattenbury went out socializing he went alone. Florence pottered around the house, and rarely entertained. She grew increasingly stout, prim and dull. The gulf between them widened, growing into outright animosity. By the onset of the war they were no longer speaking to each other.
The Crystal Gardens project saved him. Not only did it give his career a jolt, but it led him to someone new. Alma Pakenham was in Victoria to give a concert. A fine pianist, she had just finished a recital at the Empress. A friend was there, who happened to know Rattenbury. He introduced them, and their friendship began.
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Alma was born in Kamloops in 1895. A lively, vivacious child, she showed great musical ability early on. So gifted was she that at age eighteen she played two different concertos with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. In 1914 she married Caledon Dolling, who was killed two years later at the Battle of the Somme. After the war she married Thomas Pakenham, of the literary Longford family. A son Christopher was born, but the marriage ended disastrously. She resumed her concert career in Vancouver where she met Rattenbury and started an affair.
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Both were starved for passion. Rattenbury was not interested in being discreet, and Alma was never one to hide her feelings. Soon they were the talk of Victoria. Many were angry at the way Florence was being treated. Rattenbury wanted a divorce, and when Florence refused he repeatedly harrassed her. He moved furniture out of their house and cut the power. When that failed he began entertaining Alma in their house, forcing Florence upstairs. Eventually he got his way.
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What he was not prepared for was social ostracization. His behaviour was so outrageous that respect for him had vanished. Alma too was not prepared. Growing up a musical prodigy, she had always been feted but now she was seen as a bewitching temptress, a disrupter of family life. In addition, she was accused of taking drugs, and introducing Rattenbury to them.
They settled in Bournemouth, England. The choice was undoubtedly Rattenbury’s. Alma was, after all, not yet forty, and she still had career hopes. She would have preferred the bustling life of London. But she was agreeable and willing to go along with his wishes. Getting along with Rattenbury, though, was getting harder. He had not realized how dependent he was on personal status and prestige.
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He became a shadow of the man he once was. Along with alcoholism and depression came another development: impotence. He was becoming an old man, while his wife was still young and beautiful. Not surprisingly, she took a lover. George Percy Stoner was just seventeen when he went to work for the Rattenburys. They needed a chauffeur and someone who could do various odd jobs. Alma had not sought out a lover, but the presence of a young man was too much. She succumbed to temptation, and seduced him.
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She took Stoner to London for an intimate weekend alone, and lavished expensive gifts on him. But when they got back he became just a servant again. So when she and her husband decided to go on an overnight trip it drove Stoner wild.
Exactly what happened next will never be known for sure. The night before Alma and Rattenbury were to leave on their trip they were playing cards. A little later she went to bed, and Stoner joined her. At about 10:30 they heard loud groans from below. Alma rushed out, to discover Rattenbury covered in blood. He had obviously been hit with some implement. Alma’s servant Irene came out, and immediately phoned for a doctor.
The police questioned everyone, particularly Alma. After many wild and contradictory statements, fueled more and more by alcohol, Alma confessed she had done it. She was arrested but later Stoner admitted to Irene he had done it. The police, acting on Irene’s information, arrested Stoner. Both he and Alma were charged with murder.
It was a sensational trial at the Old Bailey. The public lined up for hours to get a seat, and the press had a field day . The main feature was Alma’s testimony. She recanted her confession and pleaded not guilty. The jury acquitted Alma, and convicted Stoner. He was sentenced to hang.
Alma became distraught at his conviction. She was put in a nursing home, and frequently mentioned suicide. One night she had an unknown female visitor who stayed several hours, then left. She insisted Alma come with her, despite protests from the nurse. Alma did go, then returned later alone.
The next day Alma borrowed two pounds from a nurse and bought a knife. That evening she was seen on the Avon riverbank swinging her arms wildly, before falling into the river. When authorities retrieved her body they found multiple wounds. Alma had stabbed herself to death.
No one ever identified the visitor. But goading Alma into suicide had the desired effect. Reprieving Stoner had been impossible while she was alive. The thought of them together again, even after many years, was intolerable to the public. She was seen as an evil seductress who had led him astray. But with Alma gone something could be done. The Home Secretary was presented with a huge petition. He made an announcement: Stoner’s sentence would be commuted to “penal servitude for life”.
In the end Stoner only served seven years of his sentence. He was released to the army to fight in the war. After the war he faded into private life. He died in 2000, less than a mile away from where Alma had taken her own life.