THE ICI AFFAIR
IN the fashionable London suburb of Roehampton curtains were drawn against the year’s first winter blast. Away in the distance fireworks flared into the night sky as the clock of Holy Trinity Church commenced to strike ten. At the junction of Medfield Street and Roehampton Lane, a young policeman engaged on mundane traffic duty was suddenly roused by the shouts of a panic-stricken woman running towards him. ‘Come quickly,’ she cried, ‘Something terrible has happened’. A few minutes later PC Thomas Whitwell was gazing at two lifeless bodies in a pool of blood on a bedroom floor. One, apparently the lady of the house, had been shot through the neck at close range; the other, her husband, had died from a single bullet to the temple. He still clasped in his hand a tiny revolver.
PC Whitwell immediately sealed off the bedroom and from the house telephone contacted his superiors at Wandsworth police station. Detectives were on the scene within half an hour and though no-one had heard shots or an argument, detectives quickly came to the conclusion it was a straightforward ‘domestic’. The man had murdered his wife and then shot himself.
What the police did not appreciate was they had on their hands a national sensation. On the following morning, Thursday November 4, 1926, the Roehampton deaths were briefly reported on the wireless, but it was the London evening newspapers who brought home the first detailed account of the unexplained demise of wealthy industrialist Roscoe Brunner and his Irish authoress wife, Ethel. The public was electrified and, as the story began to unfold, the question on everybody’s lips was Why? Why had Roscoe and Ethel Brunner, affluent and successful beyond the dreams of ordinary mortals, died in such violent circumstances? Were they not the perfect couple blessed with everything to live for? They socialised in the highest circles, employed a staff of servants, a chauffeur to drive their limousine, and they had recently taken possession of a grand London mansion. Moreover they were parents to two fine sons approaching manhood and their daughter was married into European royalty. In short, the sun appeared to perpetually shine on the Brunners.
Tagged by the newspapers as the ‘Roehampton Mystery’ reports were soon flashing across the globe for publication in newspapers from Buenos Aires to Bombay, Singapore to Sydney, New York to Hong Kong. Little was left to the imagination and by the weekend all of Fleet Street was of one steadfast opinion, that Roscoe Brunner, a sick man, had been driven to murder by his wife’s interference in business affairs connected with his failure to secure a seat on the inaugural board of directors of Imperial Chemical Industries (I.C.I.), a vast company in the process of being established at lightning speed.
The Daily Mail reported: ‘Although Mr Brunner felt the change in his fortunes, his wife took it even more to heart. She felt the alteration in her husband’s commercial eminence so much that it obsessed her. He tried to pacify her, but apparently without success, and then came the formation of Imperial Chemical Industries, but there is to be no place for Roscoe Brunner on the new board of directors. He has been snubbed and his wife was known to be furious. She said he had not been treated fairly and, letting her anger get the better of her discretion, she made a round of visits to influential people with the object of trying to get her husband’s grievances redressed. She visited people at their private houses, and at one, it is alleged, an unpleasant scene ensued. She went to newspaper offices and tried to arouse interest in her case, evidently moved by a deep-seated sense of grievance that in the constitution of the new board of directors no place had been found for her husband.’
The wildest excesses of the Press were brought into play and one newspaper summing up the Brunners’ marriage, declared the couple’s former happy relations had snapped and ‘...there was continual bickering regarding Mrs Brunner’s extravagance in the matter of entertainments, dress and other amusements’.
Others, not least the Daily Express, described Ethel Brunner as a ‘highly-strung, temperamental woman’ who had tried to dominate her husband. Another, perhaps delivering the coup de grâce in an avalanche of salacious gossip, revealed that six months earlier a celebrated West End clairvoyant had warned her ‘good friend’ Mrs Brunner she had seen in crystal that she was destined to meet a violent death. It was compulsive reading, no matter from what dubious sources the reports emanated.
‘Terrible tragedy in London’, ‘Secret of shot millionaire’, ‘Tragic quarrel over combine’, ‘A misguided wife’, ‘Secrets of mansion tragedy’, ‘A wife’s indiscretions’, ‘Impulsive Lady Bountiful’, ‘Drama of high finance’, ‘...the apparent eclipse of a magnate from his former eminent position’.
The Press coverage knew no bounds and at the inquest, five days later, this was to prove critical. Determined to lance a further frenzy of speculation and innuendo, an incensed coroner chose not to call vital witnesses, or reveal the slightest shred of new evidence beyond that already published in the 1920s’ version of the modern tabloids. He complained that the Press coverage, ‘misguided and inappropriate’, had gone beyond the pale of public decency and if legislation was not forthcoming to neuter the miscreants in their reporting of domestic tragedies, he would, no doubt, have demanded all editors be hanged at Tyburn.
The verdicts – ‘murder’ of Ethel Brunner and ‘suicide whilst of unsound mind’ in the case of Roscoe Brunner – were as merciful as the family could have hoped. The justice system ran its course and, amidst almost paranoid security on the day following the inquest, the two bodies were cremated, committed to the archives, to be buried and forgotten for a hundred years if some had their way.
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