Peter Anthony Grayson Rawlinson
Baron Rawlinson Of Ewell

Peter Rawlinson
Peter Rawlinson MP
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

If, like me, you occasionally get out the old family photo albums, your whole life skitters through your mind as the pages turn. Researching Peter Rawlinson has been very similar. I cannot say that I was aware of him until he became Attorney General, but I certainly knew of the issues and events that punctuated his career, stretching back to the 1950s. In a way, the Rawlinson story is a history of much of the latter half of the 20th century in Britain. He was MP for Epsom from 1955 (Epsom & Ewell from 1974) until 1978 and achieved high political office in the legal sphere, but did not quite get what he wanted, which was the office of Lord Chancellor or Lord Chief Justice. It has been said of him that he was, and preferred to be, a lawyer rather than a politician and history tends to bear this out. He has also been described as 'the Laurence Olivier of the Bar'. Perhaps ironically, the present MP for Epsom & Ewell, Chris Grayling, is the current Lord Chancellor (and also the Secretary of State for Justice) and he is not a lawyer at all, but these days the office is regarded as a much more political role than it once was.

Chris Grayling MP.
Chris Grayling MP.
Image source via Wikimedia Commons

Early years

Peter Anthony Grayson Rawlinson was born in Birkenhead, Cheshire (some sources say Iping, Sussex, but the birth was registered in Birkenhead) on 26 June 1919, the son of Arthur Richard 'Dick' Rawlinson and Ailsa Margaret Grayson, who were married at Christ Church, Paddington on 20 December 1916. At that time Dick was a 2nd Lieutenant in the York and Lancaster Regiment, seconded to the Machine Gun Corps. He left the army in 1919 and became a screenwriter and producer in the film industry; one of his screenplays was for the 1940 British version of 'Gaslight' (not to be confused with the classic 1944 remake which starred Ingrid Bergman). He re-joined the army in 1939 and rose to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in military intelligence. He was awarded the OBE in 1945 and in 1947 was appointed an Officer of the Legion of Merit by the US Government. Dick died in 1984 and Ailsa in 1990.

Dick's parents were solicitor Thomas Arthur Rawlinson and Gertrude Hamilton Walters. Ailsa was the daughter of shipbuilder Sir Henry Mulleneux Grayson, who was Conservative MP for Birkenhead at one point, and his wife Dora Beatrice Harrington.

Peter had one elder brother - Michael Henry Grayson Rawlinson (born 1918), who served as an RAF Pilot Officer during World War II and was killed in action on 16 May 1940.

Peter Rawlinson was educated at the Roman Catholic Downside School, near Bath, and went on to read law at Christ's College, Cambridge. However, he interrupted his studies to enter Sandhurst on the outbreak of war and served in the Irish Guards, being demobbed as a Major in 1946. He saw service in North Africa, was wounded and mentioned in despatches. In 1940 he had married Haidee Kavanagh.

Downside School
Downside School
© Copyright Ronald John Saunders and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

At the Bar

Having been called to the Bar in 1946 he cut his teeth as a junior counsel and first came to public notice in a case known as 'The Towpath Murders' (1953), which concerned the rape and murder of two teenaged girls near Teddington Lock, Middlesex. He unsuccessfully defended the accused, one Alfred Charles Whiteway, but made a sterling job of attacking the actions of the police, albeit that the cause was hopeless; he also assisted in the defence of Ruth Ellis (1955), who was hanged for shooting her lover. I have mentioned elsewhere on this website [link To The Cleft Chin Murder] a very brief history of the tortuous road to the ending of capital punishment and Peter Rawlinson was a supporter of the death penalty even after the momentum had turned towards abolition. Indeed, one obituary said of him that he lacked the ability to anticipate in time the tide of reform. The comment was made negatively and it is, I suppose, a negative for a politician, but on a human level one could take the view that he merely stuck to what he believed in.

It is impossible to divorce politics from law in Peter Rawlinson's life story, since he continued to practise law after entering Parliament in 1955 and, of course, he subsequently held two of the high legal offices in Government. I am conscious that some readers may well be much younger than I am, so I will include some potted history in an attempt to place events in a context. Peter was in law and politics for a very long time and was involved in many things that were watershed moments in the post-war period.

Peter Rawlinson (Centre)
Peter Rawlinson (Centre)
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum


The same obituary that I mentioned earlier claimed that Peter Rawlinson went on for too long defending the invasion of Egypt resulting from the 1956 Suez crisis, which had been caused by Egyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal: this had major implications for trade, transportation of oil and the future of the Middle East. The interesting point is that immediately after the nationalisation there was fairly strong public support for military intervention (although there was also a large body of opinion against it) and the Conservative Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden, was being urged to take action. By the time he did, in conjunction with France and Israel, the gung-ho mood had begun to wear off and history now perceives the whole thing as a misjudgement and disaster (as history has a habit of doing, the benefit of hindsight being a wonderful thing). As with many other instances in politics, you are damned if you do and damned if you don't and people tend to forget how the pro-war faction must have viewed the situation at the time. We were only a decade from the end of World War II, still getting back on our feet, in the midst of the Cold War period (and, while the Suez affair was going on, the Soviets brutally crushed the Hungarian Revolution) and then Gamal Nasser, a man who had taken over Egypt by means of a military coup, deposing the monarch, and who presided over a single-party State, nationalised the Canal. There was much more to it than this, of course, not the least of which was that Egypt had once been a British Protectorate, and Britain had occupied and/or controlled part or all of Egypt in some fashion from 1882 until after World War II. In other words, there was a lot of turbulent history between Britain and the Egyptians, especially concerning Palestine. Suez accelerated the end of British and French colonialism and finished Eden as a politician, but the Tory Government survived under the leadership of Harold Macmillan, which is really where my political memory begins.

Gamal Nasser
Gamal Nasser.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Royal Navy Westland Whirlwind helicopters
Royal Navy Westland Whirlwind helicopters taking the
first men of 45 Royal Marine Commando into action at
Port Said from the commando carrier HMS Theseus (R64)
during "Operation Musketeer", 1956.
Image source: Imperial War Museum

One interesting aspect of Peter Rawlinson is that he was known to be against reform of the law on homosexuality as it existed in the early 1950s, the central point being that homosexual activity was illegal even if it took place between consenting adults in private. It was bad law and made many people's lives a misery - the fear of being found out was very real and a scandal might well ruin you. It could have ruined Sir John Gielgud, who, in 1953, was fined £10 for importuning ('cottaging'), which seems a trifling matter now. He contemplated suicide but managed to tough it out and received a standing ovation at his first stage appearance thereafter. The iniquitous entrapment of homosexuals in public lavatories had been going on for many years, whereby the police sent in good-looking young officers wearing plain clothes with the sole intention of attracting 'propositions' from gay men, who were then arrested.

Peter Rawlinson was a Roman Catholic, which would almost certainly have influenced his attitude to reform of the homosexuality laws. However, as a barrister he defended people accused of breaking them and no case was more well known in this respect than that involving Lord Montagu of Beaulieu in 1954. In fact, it marked the turning of the tide, albeit that Montagu and his co-defendants were convicted and sentenced to imprisonment for terms ranging from 12 to 18 months. For those who were not around at the time and whose formative years occurred more recently, it may be hard to believe that more than a thousand gay people were imprisoned each year and many more thousands arrested and fined. The Wolfenden Committee was set up shortly after the Montagu case and this eventually led to the decriminalisation of private consenting homosexual activity, but not until 1967, by which time the 'Swinging Sixties', which cocked a snook at the traditional values/views of society, had been swinging for some time. Lord Montagu has fairly recently spoken about his treatment and conviction for the first time: he maintained his innocence and told of the seemingly almost pathological determination of the Establishment and police to punish homosexuals.

Lord Montagu and his wife Fiona
Lord Montagu and his wife Fiona on their wedding day, 1974.
Photo by Allan Warren via Wikimedia Commons

As one would expect of a Roman Catholic Peter Rawlinson was opposed to various reforms of the abortion and divorce laws but in 1954 he managed to obtain an annulment (that interesting Catholic device whereby Rome can decree that a marriage was invalid in the first place for any of a variety of reasons, notwithstanding that the union may have appeared to be subsisting normally for some years). They had three daughters and that same year he married American interior designer Elaine Dominguez, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. Haidee also remarried in 1954 and died in 1982.

Peter Rawlinson became a QC in 1959 and was the Recorder of Salisbury from 1960 to 1962. In 1962 he was knighted and appointed Solicitor General (deputy to the Attorney General) in the Macmillan Government, whereupon he became a central figure in the Government's handling of the Profumo affair. However, before that he had prosecuted the spy John Vassall, another scandal which was deeply embarrassing for the Government.

In 1952 Vassall had been sent to Moscow to work on the staff of the British Naval Attaché and was 'honeytrapped' by the KGB at a homosexual party. As just mentioned, the prospect of exposure was grim, so Vassall succumbed to blackmail and, on returning to London, began passing secret information to the Soviets. Although he was in a fairly lowly position, security was such that he found it easy to remain undetecetd and he was not arrested until 1962.

John Profumo was the (married) Secretary of State for War and in 1963 his affair with Christine Keeler became public knowledge. Keeler was allegedly a call-girl and it was believed that she was also having a relationship with a Russian diplomat stationed in London. Remember that we were still in the Cold War period at this time, so the equation of Secretary of State for War + Keeler + Russian diplomat added up to a very big scandal indeed. But the worst thing about it from Peter Rawlinson's viewpoint was that, as the Solicitor General, he apparently believed Profumo's protestations of innocence and helped him in preparing his denial statement to the House of Commons - a statement which was soon exposed as a tissue of lies. In some journalistic circles Rawlinson was suspected of knowingly assisting in a cover-up but he claimed that he was merely gullible. Whatever the truth about his involvement, the fallout from the scandal led to the Conservatives narrowly losing the 1964 election, which ushered Harold Wilson into power. Rawlinson was appointed a Privy Councillor and found himself on the back benches for the next six years. In the 1970 General Election the Conservatives returned to office under Edward Heath and Rawlinson became Attorney General for England and Wales and, from 1972, Attorney General for Northern Ireland.

Attorney General

The role of the Attorney General is to advise the Government and Crown on legal matters and he also superintends the Crown Prosecution Service and other bodies. He may and does sometimes conduct cases in court personally on important matters concerning the Government, but Peter Rawlinson appeared more often than most, perhaps because he really did prefer the law to politics.

It is especially unusual for an Attorney General to prosecute in a murder case, but it can happen where the case is very significant and, for example, Sir Michael Havers led the prosecution against Peter Sutcliffe, the so-called Yorkshire Ripper, in 1981. One of Rawlinson's first acts in 1970 as the new Attorney General was to prosecute Arthur and Nizamodeen Hosein, the Trinidadian brothers accused of kidnapping and murdering Mrs Muriel McKay. There were three points of major importance in this case. It was the first kidnapping for ransom ever seen in the UK; secondly the victim was married to Alick McKay (later Sir Alick Benson McKay CBE), the Australian deputy chairman of The News of the World (the kidnappers had intended to kidnap Anna Murdoch, the then wife of Rupert Murdoch, but abducted Mrs McKay by mistake) and, thirdly, Mrs McKay was never found. In the past it had been problematical to pursue a murder prosecution without a body (especially in the days of the death penalty when the alleged victim might turn up alive after the 'murderer' had been hanged), but this case marked a turning point on that score. It was a shocking thing and it was thought that the victim had been fed to pigs kept on the Hosein brothers' farm. They were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but are no longer in custody. Reports say variously that Arthur Hosein has died, or that he is alive and still living in England, and that Nizamodeen has returned to Trinidad.

In 1972, at Winchester Crown Court, Peter Rawlinson prosecuted three Irishmen accused of being concerned in the murder of seven civilians (five women and two men, one of whom was a Roman Catholic army chaplain) who were blown up by a car bomb outside Aldershot Barracks, headquarters of the 16th Parachute Brigade; a further nineteen people were injured. The Official IRA, which had intended to kill soldiers, regretted that the victims were civilians but 'justified' itself by claiming that this was an act of retaliation for the fourteen civilian demonstrators shot dead by the Parachute Regiment in Londonderry the previous month - the occasion that has gone down in history as 'Bloody Sunday'. The Official IRA called a ceasefire after the Aldershot tragedy, but the Provisionals took over, starting car bombings in London in 1973. Throughout the rest of the 1970s there were bombings in public places in England, with several fatalities and many injuries. In 1979 a new republican organisation, the Irish National Liberation Army, blew up the Conservative Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Airey Neave, and bombings by one organisation or another continued for the next 20 years or more.

Bloody Sunday memorial in the Bogside - Click image to enlarge
Bloody Sunday memorial in the Bogside.
Note the inscription on the base.
Click image to enlarge
Image by Zubro via Wikimedia Commons

As a postscript to the above, last year - 40 years after 'Bloody Sunday -' it was reported that the Northern Ireland police had been told by prosecutors to begin a murder investigation concerning the fatalities on that day. The Saville Inquiry into the killings was not set up until 1998 and did not report until 2010, at a financial cost once said to be in the region of £200m, which may well actually have been £400m - or even more. Last month it was reported that the victims' families and those injured on 'Bloody Sunday' had been offered compensation of £50,000 each by the British Government. There had been an earlier inquiry by Lord Widgery in 1972, which concluded that, whilst the firing from the paratroopers 'bordered on the reckless', the tragedy was mainly the fault of those who organised the demonstration for creating a situation where confrontation was inevitable. Saville, however, decided that the paratroopers lost control and that the actions of the soldiers had been unjustifiable.

Peter Rawlinson knew more than most what it was like to live in the shadow of the gun and bomb, for in 1970 his Chelsea house had been slightly damaged in an attack by the Angry Brigade, who styled themselves as urban terrorists: there were few members and most were apprehended quite quickly. One of the leaders, Jake Prescott, was sentenced to 10 years in prison (originally 15 years), as were several others. They were basically a left-wing group who wished to attract publicity for their views by blowing things up. They claimed that they never intended to harm people, and fortunately only one person was ever injured, but their activities led to the formation of the Bomb Squad and a lengthy period of police protection for senior politicians, including Rawlinson. Surprisingly, many years after his release from prison, Prescott apologised to Robert Carr (Lord Carr of Hadley), who had been Home Secretary in the early 1970s and whose house had also been bombed by the Angry Brigade. Carr apparently accepted the apology and invited him to tea at the House of Lords.

In 1972, as Attorney General, Rawlinson sought an injunction against The Sunday Times in connection with the thalidomide disaster; additionally he requested court orders against London Weekend Television and the Independent Broadcasting Authority for contempt of court in respect of comment already made. This was not a hostile thing between the Government and the newspaper, since the latter had shown the draft article to Rawlinson in advance to see if they could get it past him. Nothing more illustrates the dilemma of an Attorney General than this case. As readers most probably know, thalidomide was originally a sleeping pill, but it also had a beneficial effect on morning sickness in pregnancy and was prescribed for that purpose from 1957. However, it was withdrawn in 1962 when it was discovered to cause appalling birth defects in babies, from which they often died. There were approximately 2,000 cases in the UK, about half of whom died in infancy, and, it is estimated, more than 100,000 cases worldwide. We have all seen the terrible pictures of children who survived. There are two points to make here. Firstly, some countries never licensed this drug for use at all, but others did and were slow to ban it (for example, the link between thalidomide and birth defects was scientifically proved in 1961, but Canada did not withdraw the drug until the following year). Secondly, it took until 1968 for the UK distributors, Distillers Company, to compensate victims and that only happened after a campaign by The Sunday Times. Incredibly, and shamefully, the dwindling number of victims in other countries (many have already died waiting) are still battling for compensation, 50 years or more later. Anyway, The Sunday Times had not given up on the campaign, arguing that the compensation being offered by Distillers was insufficient and by 1972 a civil action was in progress (actually, it wasn't really in progress at all, but see later) between some of those affected and Distillers. The strict position of the Attorney General was that he felt he had to intervene to ensure that the court proceedings were not influenced, which is why he sought the injunction, but I suspect that his heart would not have been in it. The stated purpose of the newspaper and television comments was to pressurise Distillers into offering a better settlement, which, a decade after the events, was undoubtedly in the public interest. Rawlinson got the injunction, but in its judgement the court said enough to give the public a fair idea of what the suppressed article was all about. Early in 1973 the case went to the Court of Appeal and the three judges there lifted the injunction, saying that the Attorney General had not been the correct party to request the contempt order against the television people - the correct party would have been Distillers. Also, in the interval between the original hearing and the appeal, there had been a debate in the House of Commons on the thalidomide issue which was, of course, reported widely and protected by parliamentary privilege. The judgement was entirely fair and sensible, as one would expect when Lords Justices Denning, Phillimore and Scarman were sitting, and, as Phillimore pointed out, 'The litigation was dormant and had been so for several years. Both sides had displayed a masterly inactivity in its pursuit. Neither wished to bring one of the claims into court. Delay exerted pressure on the parents rather than on Distillers.' In lifting the injunction against The Sunday Times Lord Denning, then Master of the Rolls, said, 'Here we have a matter of the greatest public interest. The thalidomide children are the living reminders of a national tragedy. There has been no public enquiry as to how it came about.' He continued, 'The compensation offered is believed by many to be too small. Nearly twelve years have passed and no settlement has been reached. On such a matter the law can and does authorise the newspapers to make fair comment. So long as they get their facts right and keep their comments fair, they are without reproach.' (Source: The Times of 17 February 1973.) Lord Scarman added that the stalled suits by the victims were likely to be time-barred in any event. A decision like this was typical of Denning who, throughout his very long career, was not even averse to turning the law completely on its head to achieve what he thought was a just result; many of his decisions were subsequently overruled by the House of Lords but this never deterred the man and he carried on in the same way until he retired at the age of nearly 84. The Attorney General was ordered to pay the costs of The Sunday Times and leave to appeal to the House of Lords was refused. So, this was a pragmatic decision by the Court of Appeal and something of a bloody nose for Peter Rawlinson. (Funnily enough, Denning had been the man who, in 1963, had chaired the inquiry into the Profumo affair and his report on the matter, which spared none of the gory details, was a best-seller, causing queues when it went on sale at HM Stationery Office.)

The Conservatives lost power again in 1974, although it was a hung Parliament and the new Labour administration was in the minority. The following year Peter Rawlinson became Recorder of Kingston, Surrey (until 2002) and was Chairman of the Bar from 1975-76. He retired as an MP in 1978 and was created Baron Rawlinson of Ewell. Whilst the Conservatives were out of power Margaret Thatcher had become leader and it was said that she did not get on with him, so he was never going to be Lord Chancellor when she became Prime Minister and he would have known that. When the Conservatives returned to Government in 1979 the job went to the veteran Lord Hailsham.

Back at the Bar

One of Rawlinson's more interesting cases in the latter part of his career (he retired from practice in 1985) was to defend The Daily Mail in a libel action brought by the Moonies. The Moonies (full name = Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity or The Unification Church) were founded in 1954 by Korean Sun Myung Moon.

Sun Myung Moon
Sun Myung Moon.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The newspaper claimed that the Unification Church was an evil cult which brainwashed young people and alienated them from their families and won its case (a verdict that was later upheld in the Court of Appeal). The trial, which ended in 1981, lasted for 100 court days. Anyone wishing to see an objective account about the Unification Church is advised not to read the article on Wikipedia, which is exceedingly pro-Moonies and does not even mention this inconvenient court case. An example of Peter Rawlinson's statements, reported in The Times of 1 April 1981 by Marcel Berlins, was that 'One of the tenets of the cult was that sins had to be paid for, "indemnified". For instance, the Jews who had died in the concentration camps were paying indemnity for Christ's Crucifixion. The only way to be saved was to become a Moonie and reject the "satanic" world outside, including one's own family'.

Other activities

There were many strings to the Rawlinson bow: he was apparently an accomplished artist (although I can find only one example online and the image is too small for me to offer any opinion one way or the other), a published poet and a novelist. The novels drew on his legal and political experience. He also wrote an autobiography, entitled 'A Price Too High', and a book about the Jesuits.


Lord Rawlinson died on 28 June 2006; his funeral service and a Requiem Mass were held in the chapel of Wardour Castle, near Tisbury, Wiltshire, where he had lived in the East Wing for several years. He left an estate valued at just over £2m.

Linda Jackson
March 2013

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