10 Facts About the Profumo Affair: The Scandal that Rocked the British Establishment

Katy Maydon

1960s Britain Twentieth Century
HISTORYHIT.TV A new online only channel for history lovers

On 6 June 1963 a story broke in British newspapers that shook the public. War Minister John Profumo had admitted to having an extra-marital affair.

Not only that, but he had lied about it in the House of Commons. The woman he had slept with was called Christine Keeler.

Here are 10 facts about what has come to be notoriously known as the ‘Profumo Affair’.

1. Keeler worked in a nightclub when she first moved to London

In 1959 Dr Stephen Ward, a noted osteopath, was visiting Murray’s nightclub in Soho when he met Keeler. Ward had many important patients and friends including members of Parliament and the royal family.

He also liked to introduce girls to these friends. Ward took an immediate liking to the young dancer and she soon moved into his London flat. Keeler was only eighteen at the time.

2. Profumo and Keeler first met at Lord Astor’s pool

In July 1961 Ward was entertaining a few friends, including Keeler, at a cottage he rented from Lord Astor. The group decided to move the merriment to the pool, which was near the main house.

Profumo as a younger man.
John Profumo as a younger man (Credit: Public domain)

That same night Lord Astor was also entertaining – Profumo was a guest. The story goes that Keeler was persuaded by Ward to strip off and jump into the pool – both were unaware that Lord Astor and Profumo were approaching the pool.

Clive Irving – who authored a book on the scandal – described the encounter:

‘Miss Keeler was wearing little else but a dripping wet towel when she was introduced to the dinner-jacketed Profumo.’

In this podcast, Virginia Nicolson talks about attitudes to sexuality during the rapid cultural change of the 1960s.Listen Now

3. There were allegations that Keeler and Ward were Soviet spies

On the day following that first meeting, all the guests congregated at the pool. These included a recent acquaintance of Ward – married Soviet attaché Eugene Ivanov.

Keeler spent that night with Ivanov; the start of a very short liaison which later led to Keeler and Ward to be accused of spying for the Soviets – something Keeler always denied.

4. The affair lasted less than two months

Within a few days, Profumo had persuaded Ward to help him make contact with Keeler and the minister was soon having an affair with the young, aspiring model. He was 46, Keeler barely 21.

By August the affair was over. Before departing on a trip, Profumo left a note for Keeler that read:

Darling, In great haste because I can get no reply from your phone – alas something’s blown up tomorrow night… I won’t be able to see you again until some time in September. Blast it. Please take care of yourself and don’t run away. Love J.

They did not see each other again after this.

5. A love triangle helped to break the story

The affair might have stayed a secret had Keeler not been in the middle of a love triangle between Johnny Edgecombe and Lucky Gordon, two West-Indian immigrants.

In December 1962, Edgecombe appeared at Ward’s flat with a gun, demanding to speak with Keeler.

Profumo and Keeler embarked on their illicit affair after their meeting at Cliveden House, which belonged to Lord Astor. (Credit: Daderot / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Ward rang the police and Keeler began appearing in the national press. Edgecombe was eventually put on trial in March 1963 for stabbing Lucky Gordon.

6. Profumo lied to the House of Commons

With Keeler in the press, the newspapers began digging into her past and Profumo was asked in the House of Commons if he had been involved with Keeler.

He denied the allegations and the prime minister, Harold MacMillan, believed him. Profumo said there had been

‘no impropriety whatsoever.’

However, Keeler didn’t stay quiet. She admitted to the police that she had been Profumo’s mistress and he got wind that the story would soon break.

Profumo took his wife, actress Valerie Hobson, to Venice and came clean with his affair. He then returned home and resigned – admitting he had lied.

7. Ward was put on trial for ‘living off immoral earnings’

The scandal had embarrassed the establishment – they needed a scapegoat. In July Ward was put on trial for living off immoral earnings, deflecting heat off the government and putting an end to the story of the affair.

Many of Ward’s ‘girls’ testified, including Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, who had also worked at Murray’s.

Mandy Rice Davies
Mandy Rice-Davies had also worked at Murray’s (Credit: Joop van Bilsen / CC / Anefo)

During the trial Rice-Davies was told Lord Astor had denied having an affair with her. She replied:

‘well he would, wouldn’t he?’

This quote has become famous for its innocence.

8. Stephen Ward took his own life

Ultimately, the affair ended in tragedy. Ward took his own life on 3 August – the day before the jury were to make their decision on whether he was guilty of ‘living off immoral earnings’. In a letter he left, he wrote:

‘the ritual sacrifice is demanded and I cannot face it.’

David Edgerton attacks outdated views of the British nation and the British Empire during the 20th century with his new book. He revitalises discussion about declinist views of empire, and challenges the idea that the new British nation was forged in World War Two by Britain's isolation.Listen Now

9. Harold Macmillan resigned later that year

Many cite the Profumo affair as the reason Macmillan’s Tory government fell – the public were losing faith in politicians.

Many cite the Profumo affair as the reason Harold Macmillan’s Tory government fell (pictured with Winston Churchill) (Credit: CC)

Harold Macmillan resigned in October, citing ill health and at the next election the Tories lost out to Harold Wilson’s Labour party.

10. Profumo was awarded a CBE

After resigning his position in government, Profumo devoted his life to charity work and was awarded a CBE in 1975. He attended Margaret Thatcher’s 60th birthday dinner in 1995, and was seated next to the Queen.

Profumo died in 2006. Keeler had little career success after the scandal and died in 2017.

Christine Keeler on television programme After Dark on 4 June 1988 (Credit: CC/Open Media)
Featured image credit: Creative Commons / 915-5221

Katy Maydon