What really happened when West Midlands MP John Stonehouse faked his own death

A new drama is currently being shown on ITV about the former Wednesbury MP who faked his own death amid the assertion that he was a Czechoslovak spy - here are 11 photos of the real John Stonehouse

Stonehouse, a new drama about the disappearance of Labour MP John Stonehouse, began on ITV on Monday, 2 January with the final episode broadcast tonight (Wednesday, January 4).

The series, which stars Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen as Stonehouse, charts Stonehouse’s political rise and subsequent downfall, and his eventual decision to fake his own death and disappear to Australia.

Emer Heatley plays Sheila Buckley, Stonehouse’s secretary who he starts an affair with and Keeley Hawes playes his wife Barbara.

But who exactly is John Stonehouse and what happened to him?

John Stonehouse was a rising star in the Labour Party during the 1960s, tipped by some to be its eventual leader and a potential Prime Minister. But by 1974, he was at the point of financial ruin, and faked his death and disappeared.

He was first elected as Labour Co-operative Member of Parliament (MP) for Wednesbury in Staffordshire in a 1957 by-election, having contested Twickenham in 1950 and Burton in 1951.

In 1969, Stonehouse was subjected to the assertion that he was a Czechoslovak secret service agent. He successfully defended himself, but the allegation was substantiated in the official history of MI5.

In December 2010, it was revealed that, in 1980, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had also agreed to cover up revelations that Stonehouse had been a Czechoslovak spy since the 1960s as there was insufficient evidence to bring him to trial.

When the Wednesbury constituency was abolished in 1974, he stood for and was elected to the nearby Walsall North constituency.

Why did he fake his own death?

Stonehouse really did fake his own death in 1974, and is believed to have spent time spying on behalf of the Czech intelligence services (though both Stonehouse and his family have always denied this).

After 1970, Stonehouse had set up various companies in an attempt to secure a regular income, but by 1974, most of these were in financial trouble, and he had resorted to deceptive creative accounting. So, with the government planning to look into his affairs, he decided to flee.

He had left a pile of clothes on a beach in Miami Beach to make it appear that he had gone swimming and had drowned, and he then transferred large sums of money between banks as a further means of covering his tracks.

While living in Melbourne, Stonehouse lived under the name of Donald Clive Mildoon. He had two daughters and a son with his wife Barbara (played by Keeley Hawes). But after faking his own death, he hoped to set up a new life with his mistress and secretary, Sheila Buckley. Stonehouse spent a while in Copenhagen with Sheila, but later returned to Australia, unaware that he was under surveillance.

Stonehouse, who was initially suspected of being Lord Lucan, was eventually caught due to a suspicious bank teller in Melbourne.

He was eventually arrested in Melbourne on 24 December 1974, and in 1976, conducted his own defence on 21 charges of fraud, theft, forgery, conspiracy to defraud, causing a false police investigation and wasting police time.

After a 68 day trial, he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison for fraud. Sheila also received a suspended sentence of two years.

What has Stonehouse’s relatives said about the ITV show?

Stonehouse’s great nephew Julian Hayes has calimed that the true story was much more fascinating than the ITV drama actually suggests. Speaking to The Guardian, Hayes said the show is a ‘classic case of truth being stranger than fiction.’

He added: “It says it’s based on a true story, and that’s really as far as it goes. Most of the peripheral characters are made up, and very little is factually correct.”

Hayes also says one thing the ITV drama hasn’t got right is Stonehouse’s relationship with the Czech government. He says the drama portrays a ‘honeytrap’ when infact Stonehouse was ‘psychologically groomed’ over a period of time.

“A Czech agent befriended him and worked on him over lunches and dinners,” Hayes said. “He (Stonehouse) provided the Czechs with information and got a lot of money from them.”

How can I watch the show?

The show is being broadcast in the UK on ITV1 and ITVX in three one-hour episodes on 2, 3 and 4 January 2023 from 9pm.

You can catch up with the show on ITV iPlayer.

To mark the show, we’ve put together 11 photos of the real John Stonehouse from the 1960s and 70s, including from his time in Australia after fleeing Britain. You can see them below.

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