Francis Rattenbury - Part Two
Decline And Fall
When Francis Rattenbury married in 1898, people were surprised at his choice. He had just built the B.C. Legislature, making him B.C.’s most celebrated architect. He had many projects on the go, and was a highly ambitious man. A society lady would have been an obvious choice and would have furthered his ambitions. But he did something else. He picked Florence Nunn, who was quiet and plain, and from very humble origins. He had known her for several years, and was presumably very comfortable with her. Otherwise it seemed a strange match.
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, and an antipathy developed. This grew into outright animosity. By the onset of the war they were no longer speaking to each other.
The War years marked a bad time for Rattenbury. Demand for his style of architecture was disappearing, and his Grand Trunk Railway investments had become a disaster. This combined with a miserable home life was turning him to drink. He had never been abstemious, but his previous drinking had been social. Now he would consume a bottle every night alone. Much of the time he was depressed. His renovations of the legislature kept him financially afloat, but otherwise he was in a bad way.
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. In the distance she heard loud choruses of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”. Curious to find out more, she wandered in the direction of the sound. There she saw the man of the hour, being celebrated with a dinner. A friend was there, who happened to know Rattenbury. He introduced them, and their friendship began.
Alma Pakenham (nee Clarke) 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. She was also a composer of songs. In 1914 she married Caledon Dolling, who was killed two years later at the Battle of the Somme. She herself served as a war nurse with great distinction. After the war she married Thomas Pakenham, of the literary Longford family. A son Christopher was born, but the marriage ended disastrously. She moved to Vancouver, and resumed her concert career. It was at such a concert that she met Rattenbury.
Alma moved to Victoria, and a relationship quickly developed. Both were starved for passion, especially Rattenbury. He 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 was determined to get it. 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. Or so he thought.
What he was not prepared for was social ostracization. His behaviour was so outrageous that respect for him had vanished. He had never been well-liked , but always well respected. Now that disappeared. Alma too was not prepared. Growing up a musical prodigy, she had always been feted and her faults overlooked. 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. Although she and Rattenbury married and had a son, they were never accepted.
The final break came in 1929. Florence Rattenbury died, but the bitterness remained. The children would have nothing to do with their father. Rattenbury saw that reconciliation was impossible, and decided to leave. In December they set sail for England.
They settled in Bournemouth, a seaside resort town. With its population of ex-colonials and retirees it was much like Victoria. 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 always agreeable and willing to go along with his wishes.
Getting along with Rattenbury, though, was getting harder. He had not realized how dependent was on personal status and prestige. He also needed challenging work. Bournemouth had none. There he was just one of many ex-colonials, all with interesting stories to tell. Nobody knew of his career in Victoria, and nobody cared. No one wanted him as an architect. Added to this was his rapidly diminishing financial resources. In consequence he sank into alcoholism and depression.
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. He seemed to fit the job perfectly. Perhaps too perfectly. 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, though, was young and naive. Still only in his late teens, he had little experience with the world. Alma, by contrast, had been married three times and was old enough to be his mother. The gulf between them was enormous. Emotions were welling up in Stoner that surprised Alma. He became jealous of her husband, and could not cope with a love triangle. It was an explosion waiting to occur.
Alma precipitated things. She took Stoner to London for an intimate weekend alone, and had 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. He said she would be sleeping with Rattenbury again, and renew their marital relationship. Alma denied it, but it was no good. Stoner had hit the breaking point.
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. Alma then excused herself at 9:30 p.m. to go and pack. 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. Two doctors came, and Rattenbury, still alive, was sent to a hospital. They could also see it was deliberate assault, and the police were called.
The police came and 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 for assault. But later Stoner admitted to Irene he had done it. In the meantime Rattenbury died. The police, acting on Irene’s information, arrested Stoner. Both he and Alma were now 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 had recanted her confession and plead not guilty. Despite intense questioning she could not be discredited. In a low, rich voice she handled all her questions well and emerged as believably innocent. Her testimony, though she did not intend it, put the blame on Stoner. As Stoner did not testify, the direction of the case was clear. The jury acquitted Alma, and convicted Stoner. He was sentenced to hang.
Alma was distraught at his conviction. She was put in a nursing home, and talked incessantly of Stoner. She frequently mentioned suicide. But after a few days she improved dramatically. And then one night she had an unknown visitor. It was a woman who stayed several hours, then left. She insisted Alma come with her, despite protests from the nurse. Alma did go , then returned later alone. What was this meeting about? We will never know for sure, but notes Alma made, found afterwards, give us a clue. The woman had emphasized that Alma could not save Stoner from hanging.
The next day Alma borrowed two pounds from a nurse. With it she bought a knife. Later that night Alma was seen on the Avon riverbank. She swung her arms wildly, and then fell into the river. When they retrieved her they could see the wounds. Alma had stabbed herself to death.
No one could ever identify the visitor. But goading Alma into suicide had the desired effect. Reprieving Stoner had been impossible with Alma around. 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 her gone something could be done. A campaign was launched, and soon there was mounting public pressure to commute his sentence. The Home Secretary was presented with a huge petition. He deferred all comment until legal appeals had run their course. Then 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 the year 2000, less than a mile away from where Alma had died.
And what of Alma’s sons? Both, according to the magazine Dorset Life went on to “lead happy family lives and have successful professional careers”. John Rattenbury, the son of Francis and Alma, is the only one still alive. He became an architect and worked with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen West. In 1998 he was invited back to Victoria. The occasion was the one hundredth anniversary of the Legislature, his father’s building. The festivities were a revelation for John. He could see the old scandals were forgotten, and his father honoured once again. Throughout Victoria were his father’s achievements. Oak Bay in particular had been shaped by Rattenbury. Later in the day John could see that for himself. He was taken to Iechineel, the house his father had built, and where he had been born. The house, now Glenlyon-Norfolk School, is a landmark in local architecture. Surrounding the house are the beautiful areas that his father, as Reeve, had preserved. The experience was very moving for John. He later described it as a personal “closing of a circle, and the highlight of a my life”.
Great things had been predicted of Francis Rattenbury when, as a young man, he had built the Legislature. He had gone on to lead a turbulent life, full of many ups and downs. But he was a man of great vision and ability, and knew what he wanted to achieve. And in the end he fulfilled his promise.
For further reading:
Rattenbury by Terry Reksten.
Call number: 927.2 RAT 1998
Francis Rattenbury And British Columbia: Architecture And Challenge In The Imperial Age by Anthony Barrett and Rhodri Windsor Liscombe.
Call number: 927.2 RAT
Murder At The Villa Madeira: The Rattenbury Murder by Sir David Napley.
Call number: 927.2 RAT
Tragedy In Three Voices: The Rattenbury Murder by Sir Michael Havers et. al.
Call number: 927.2 RAT
Central Library Local History Room
Cause Celebre: A Play by Terence Rattigan.
Call number: 822.912 RAT
Central Library Local History Room
In addition to these books we have an extensive clipping file on Francis Rattenbury in our Local History Room’s clipping files.
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian