Czech mate: John Stonehouse, last Postmaster General, fraudster and spy
50 years ago The Post Office became a public corporation. Senior Archivist Gavin explores the extraordinary life and career of the last Postmaster General.
History of Postmasters General
Fifty years ago on 1 October 1969, the Post Office changed from a government department to a publicly owned corporation. One effect of this was the end of the historic role, Postmaster General. Introduced by a 1657 Act, the first person to hold this title was John Thurloe who had been Oliver Cromwell’s head of intelligence.
Over the next three centuries or so more than 100 people performed this role (sometimes jointly with another person). In the 20th century politicians as famous as Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee and Tony Benn were all Postmasters General.
The infamous Postmaster General
In this blog, I focused on the last Postmaster General, John Stonehouse and his extraordinary life and career. Stonehouse entered Parliament as a Labour MP in 1957 and later took on ministerial roles in Harold Wilson’s government.
Although he successfully defended himself against accusations that he was a spy in 1969, in the last decade or so much has emerged to suggest he was indeed in the pay of the Czechoslovak Secret Service. He had allegedly been recruited in the early 1960s and later negotiated a deal designed to foster technological co-operation between Britain and Czechoslovakia.
New 2-tier postage and a PR disaster
As Postmaster General Stonehouse is probably best remembered for the introduction of first and second class stamps in 1968 (so-called ‘two-tier’ postage).
Under the fee structure that applied before September 1968, the Post Office could delay items sent at discounted rates and posted after mid-afternoon until fully paid letters had been sorted.
Under the new system, all mail prepaid at the second-class rate was held back until the first-class letters had been sorted. The aim was to despatch second-class letters by 1.00 pm on the first working day after posting.
It was only in the last few months before the launch that the Post Office considered active marketing of the new two-tier system. The launch proved a PR disaster with many negative stories concerning the treatment of letters at the different rates making the press. Stonehouse was criticised for ‘a classic example of incompetence and bungling’ at an all-day debate in the House of Commons on 4 November.
The end of an era
1 October 1969 marked ‘Vesting Day’ and the switch to Post Office Corporation.
In the foreword to a book in the Discovery Room library, The Post Office: from Carrier Pigeon to Confravision (a contemporary term for video conferencing), Stonehouse begins:
‘A new age has begun this year for Britain’s Post Office with the change from Government department to public corporation. The change will enable the two vast businesses of telecommunications and posts to develop according to their individual needs, and in a way that will meet today’s – and tomorrow’s – increasingly demanding standards.’
On 30 September John Stonehouse sent the following message to Post Office staff: ‘As the one hundred and first, and the last, Postmaster General, I send my best wishes to the Post Office’.
After 1970 when Labour lost power, Stonehouse set up a network of companies. By 1974 his fraught financial affairs were under investigation and he decided to disappear.
On 20 November 1974 Stonehouse’s clothes were discovered on a beach in Miami with him nowhere to be found. Had he drowned or been killed by a shark? He was presumed dead, and obituaries were published although no corpse had been found. Much like the 1970s fictional TV character Reggie Perrin, Stonehouse had faked his death.
Taking on a secret identity under the name of the deceased husband of a constituent, he hoped to start a new life in Australia with his former secretary and lover Sheila Buckley. Attempts to transfer large sums of money between bank accounts raised doubts, with the Australian police initially suspecting him of being Lord Lucan, who had disappeared just two weeks before Stonehouse.
He was arrested on 24 December 1974 and six months later deported to Britain. He remained an MP until August 1976 by which time he had been convicted of fraud, spending the next three years in prison.
I find Stonehouse’s life intriguing and enjoy the irony that a post first occupied by a spy chief was last occupied by an actual spy.
– Gavin McGuffie, Senior Archivist