Empress Hotel, Victoria
If you live in British Columbia youve been
looking at the work of Francis Mawson Rattenbury all your life.
He was an architect, a supremely confident man in his youth, a hugely
successful man in his middle life but, finally, a pathetic victim
of a famous crime.
Rattenbury, called Ratz by his friends,
was born in Leeds, England in 1867. He is well known for his creation
of the provincial legislative buildings and the Empress Hotel, both
in Victoria. He did work in Vancouver, too, including a wing of
the now-vanished first Hotel Vancouver and, of course, the 1910
provincial courthousenow home to the Vancouver Art Gallery.
At age 18 Rattenbury began work with a prominent architectural
firm in Bradford, near Leeds. It was a sleepy little company, and
the tall young redhead was anxious to move on. In 1892 he decided
to come to Vancouver.
His timing was terrifically luckyin
the July 5, 1892 issue of the World was a Notice To Architects
announcing a competition to design the new legislative buildings
Rattenbury shamelessly exaggerated
his experience, which was modest, but came up with a design that
astonished and pleased the judges with its splendor. (In his terrific
book on early BC architects, Building the West, architectural
historian Donald Luxton says Rattenburys design has
come to be recognized as British Columbias finest example
There was more to come: drawings
had to be submitted under a nom de plume. Rattenbury, who was nobodys
fool, signed his drawings B.C. Architect. That may have
cinched it for him. He won easily over more than 60 other architects
and he did it singlehanded. It was March, 1893. He was 25.
That and later successes fed a great deal of bitterness from rival
architects toward Rattenbury.
For a detailed look at Ratzs career, read
the late Terry Rekstens excellent 1978 biography, Rattenbury.
(Further editions in 1998 and 2005.)
The decline in Rattenburys
fortunes is all the more poignant when one considers the heights
he had once reached. In June, 1898 he had married Florence Nunn
of Victoria, but by 1923 the marriage was a shambles. They lived
in the same house, but no longer spoke to one another, depending,
wrote Reksten, on their daughter Mary to carry messages between
Then, at a reception in the Empress,
Ratz met a young woman named Alma Pakenham. She was everything Florrie
Rattenbury was not. She had a lovely oval face, Reksten
writes, deep hauntingly sad eyes and full lips which easily
settled into a pout, at once fashionable and sensuous. She
was also adventurous and fun-loving.
And she would be the cause of Francis Rattenburys murder.
The two of them began an affair that shocked the Victoria uppercrust
among whom Rattenbury moved. Alma, whose first husband had been
killed in action in the First World War, had remarriedand
that made the scandal even more thrillingly offensive. Ratz moved
Alma into his house, living with her on the second floor while Florrie
of Oak Bay Photo
The Rattenburys divorced in 1925 and Ratz and Alma
(herself freshly divorced for a second time) married. But the hostility
of Victoria society, and a drying up of commissions, drove the erring
couple from the city. They left for Bournemouth, England, taking
with them a son, John, born in December 1928.
The new marriage didnt work out. By 1934 Rattenbury, then
aged 67, and with no new work coming in, had sunk into a desperate
depression, had begun drinking heavily, was impotent and talked
almost daily about killing himself.
In September of 1934 Alma, then 39, took a lover. He was a simple-minded
17-year-old named George Stoner, who worked for the family as a
chauffeur and who, as it turned out, had a violent streak.
One day in November 1934 George Stonerinfluenced, he said,
by opium (although thats disputed) and imagining that Alma
was cooling in her ardor for himtook a mallet he had brought
from his grandmothers home and smashed it down a number of
times on Rattenburys head. Rattenbury died in hospital soon
Writer James Agate covered the May-June 1935 trial. Heres
a portion of his account:
Wednesday, 29 May.
The Daily Express asked me to do an impression of the Rattenbury
Trial at the Old Bailey. The facts were very simple and hardly disputed.
Mrs Rattenbury, aged thirty-eight, wife of an architect aged sixty-seven,
had been the mistress of her eighteen-year-old chauffeur named Stoner.
Somebody had hit the husband over the head with a mallet, both of
them having at one time or another taken the blame on themselves.
It was all very like the three
French major novelists. The way in which the woman debauched the
boy so that he slept with her every night with her six-year-old
son in the room, and the husband who had his own bedroom remaining
cynically indifferentall this was pure Balzac. In the box
Mrs Rattenbury looked and talked exactly as I have always imagined
Emma Bovary looked and talked. Pure Flaubert. And last there was
that part of her evidence in which she described how, trying to
bring her husband round, she first accidentally trod on his false
teeth and then tried to put them back into his mouth so that he
could speak to her. This was pure Zola. The sordidness of the whole
thing was relieved by one thing and one thing only. This was when
Counsel asked Mrs Rattenbury what her first thought had been when
her lover got into bed that night and told her what he had done.
She replied, My first thought was to protect him. This
is the kind of thing which Balzac would have called sublime, and
it is odd that, so far as I saw, not a single newspaper reported
it . . .
Stoner was convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang. Alma was
found not guilty, but committed suicide a few days after her release,
stabbing herself in the heart. Public sentiment led to the commuting
of Stoners death sentence, and he was instead sentenced to
life imprisonment. He was released seven years later.
The murder caused a sensation, the
trial is still studied, and the events inspired playwright Terence
Rattigan to write the drama (1977) Cause Célèbre.
(At one of the performances, someone recognized George Stoner in
the audience. He would have been 61 at the time.)
Rattenbury is buried in the Wimbourne
Road Cemetery in Bournemouth. To foil the curiosity-seekers
who are attracted by the continuing interest in his murder,
Terry Reksten wrote, his grave remains unmarked.
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