what the stoner did next

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.

image found here

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.

strange match found here

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.

image found here

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.

image found here

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.

their home found here

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.

Bournemouth found here

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.

Stoner found here

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.

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49 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. A heartbreak story. It would make a great book.

    • There are only seven stories in the world and the first one is Tragedy. This fits the bill perfectly.

  2. It seems a dull thing to say of such an exciting story, but I wonder whether Rattenbury (given his middle name) is related to Thomas Mawson, the great garden designer of England, of whose slightly rigid-looking but highly individual Art Deco influenced gardens there are examples near where I live.

    I’d love to be seduced by a piano-playing temptress. I have the desired poverty, if not the youth.

    • Or Douglas Mawson the explorer

  3. I’ve been away for a bit so i guess i’m a bit lost, but is there no more t-shirt and sexy lingerie friday???!!! :((

    • sorry Sabrina, I’ve hung up my corsets

  4. What a story …

    • Boy wants girl, boy gets girl, girl gets bored, girl gets new boy, new boy kills old boy……

  5. Rattenbury is a fantastic name. You’d have to embroiled in some kind of scandal and high drama with a name like Rattenbury.

    • Great, isn’t it? really rolls off the tongue

  6. Ma’am, Rattenbury is still the talk of Victoria.

    Every retiree in Canada moves there, or wants to. So, really, not much else has happened since he and Alma scandalized ’em.

    • I was hoping for some comments from Canadians 🙂


    • Have you been there norma?

      • I have.

      • Dinah, you and zmkc seem to have been everywhere

  8. “The course of true love never did run smooth” – again and again and again…
    Bits of this story struck a familiar chord – and not just mention of Canada… 😉

    • But was it true love?

      • True love? These were hormonal flings, not love.

  9. I am sure Alma would have been much happier if she owned a Rodger Rabbit vibrator.

    • She doesn’t strike me as a happy woman

  10. Very sad, even to the end I was hoping for a twist in the tale

    • I suppose the twist is that Stoner only served seven years

  11. Very sad when people whose lives look so promising make a few ill-judged decisions and everything goes downhill. Oh, the bottomless pit of human frailty….

    Re Coyote’s comment, I’ve been to Victoria and it’s certainly stuffed with retirees. Its one big old folk’s home, with shuffling residents blocking every pavement. A bit like Bournemouth in fact. I certainly wouldn’t want to retire there and join all the other shufflers.

    • Ha ha ha – That reminds me of Miami beach in the 1980s. None of the sex body’s and hip art deco stuff its was wall to wall zimmer frames and worse those mobility scooters. Times have changed and today we have sun sea and lots of sex…

      I love your blog its great. Look forward to every other day.

  12. Penile servitude for life would be a sentence for some, others a reward.

    • haha… don’t twist my words Ian. Oops, i forgot, they’re not my words

  13. So who do we think really did it?

    • This we thinks Stoner did it.

      • I think they were in cahoots

  14. What train wrecks of lives

  15. The Somme battle lasted about a week. France lost 50,000 men a day to German machine guns. Talk about slow learners….

  16. The place where I live has two buildings designed by Rattenbury: the courthouse and the Bank of Montreal.
    The courthose is really neat in Fall when the ivy turns color. The bank doesn’t look like that much but it has a small garden area up on the roof.

    • Love the courthouse!

  17. Pah!!! Stoner my arse. I don’t recall ever seeing HIM at a Kyuss or Monster Magnet gig.

  18. What a messy affair. A sad one too…

  19. I think I’d prefer death to a lifetime of penal servitude.

  20. Honestly, this kind of thing happens here all the time. It’s nice, however, that the cool stories about Canada and Canadians are starting to slowly trickle out. An even greater heartbreak and tragedy is how few “notable buildings” have been built in the last fifty years in Canada. I think we stopped trying after the CN Tower went up.

  21. Fascinating story, NM. Thanks so much!

  22. Fantastic, I saw a movie adaptation of that story, a bit modified but the general deal down to the drowning- someone fantastic like Helen Mirren played the Alma part and it was utterly entertaining although I can’t remember the name of it.

  23. I guess Florence Nunn is the only person who’s really innocent in this story, and she suffered less than the rest of them.

    It’s amazing how one bad decision can set off a chain of events that ruins so many lives. If Rattenbury hadn’t married Florence, then she wouldn’t have had to deal with his harassment, he and Alma might actually have had a happy marriage, and the affair with Stoner might not have happened.

  24. ‘someone to do various odd jobs’ – yes, indeed.

  25. What a mess for everyone involved . . .

  26. Still it’s an interesting story. Good to see that Canada isn’t composed of lumberjacks and polite people. 😛

  27. Wow. I can’t imagine stabbing myself to death. Falling on my sword, maybe, but swinging the knife? I don’t think so.

  28. how tragic. it seems like everyone is a villain is some way.

  29. I used to work for a small architectural firm…
    nothing very unusual terribly happened there, though
    (to my knowledge, anyway)…

  30. I wonder if Stoner’s penal woes would have still, uh, popped up if Viagra had been invented in time to assist Rattenbury.

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