Newly resurfaced abuse and murder allegations put Dolphin Square, a hulking and slightly nefarious presence for nearly 70 years, at the center of a possible child sex ring.
There’s a bleak certainty in British public life that whenever the words “sex scandal,” “M.P.s,” “establishment,” and “cover-up” appear in pretty much any order, the name of a vast central London apartment block, Dolphin Square, follows soon afterwards. And so it is with what London’s Metropolitan police are calling “credible” allegations that Conservative Members of Parliament belonged to a pedophile ring that operated there between 1975 and 1984 and was responsible for the murder of at least one young boy.
The allegations have been circulating for three decades, but they surfaced with renewed vigor in recent months, following the discovery that the late BBC television presenter Jimmy Savile and several other British “TV personalities,” all now in jail, were serial sexual abusers. The Metropolitan police are taking seriously the evidence from an anonymous witness, known as “Nick,” who says he was abused from age seven to 16. He implicates a Conservative M.P. and a cabinet minister in the murder, and now the police have appealed for help from anyone who lived or worked in Dolphin Square during the 70s and 80s.
The story is nightmarish, with hints of terrible depravity. The police may get somewhere after all these years, but, like the square itself, the affair seems impenetrable. There are the usual rumors of an establishment cover-up—this is Britain, after all—of destroyed dossiers, missing government files, and aborted investigations. The identities of the supposed perpetrators, still less the victims, are not known, though names of public figures are murmured and there now seems to be a genuine attempt to connect the murdered boys with the names of the missing. Only one of the alleged abusers has been named: the late Sir Peter Hayman, a diplomat and former director of MI6 who was named by M.P. Geoffrey Dickens, during his lifetime, as a subscriber to the Pedophile Information Exchange, and investigated for possessing images of child abuse.
It’s easy to imagine the terror of a child smuggled into the square at the dead of night, knowing he was going to be abused by powerful men—an experience “Nick” says he endured on eight or nine occasions. Huge and inscrutable, Dolphin Square is unlike any other building in London. It is a prize example of what Fred F. French, the American developer who conceived the block, called “dense urban suburbia,” a phrase he used to describe the Tudor City and Knickerbocker Village complexes he built in New York. It is a world of its own, with an atmosphere that lies somewhere between menacing and melancholy—a place as distinct, in its own way, as the Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the Bramford Building in Rosemary’s Baby. Dolphin Square is such an attractive name, yet the vibes are anything but.
At the 1997 inquest into the death—from acute alcoholic poisoning—of the Conservative M.P. Iain Mills, it was said that no one noticed his absence for two days. People spoke of the solitary and reclusive lives of residents, of the silent corridors that have no daylight: of the hush. The tabloid headlines deploy the words “V.I.P.” and “luxury” in the descriptions of the square, but the truth is that life can be rather grim in some of the cabin-size apartments that I saw advertised in the lobby for between $480 and $1,170 a week.
A product of 1930s authoritarian gigantism—which may explain why the leader of the Britain’s Black shirts, Sir Oswald Mosley, made his home there before being interned during the war—Dolphin Square is built on the scale of an ocean liner. An illustration from the 1936 brochure shows residents dressed in evening wear looking down on the Thames from a balcony, as if their ship had just docked in a foreign port.
The British company Costain, which completed French’s plan, successfully marketed the square to the working members of the Establishment as a convenient and fashionable pied a terre, and today many of the 1,229 rented apartments are still leased to a transient population of politicians and civil servants. But writers (Angus Wilson), actors (Peter Finch, Jill Bennett), royalty (Princess Anne), prostitutes, and spies have also taken advantage of the square’s gift of anonymity. It is close to Parliament and Whitehall, as well as to MI5 and MI6, which are just a few minutes’ walk away, although that would not necessarily have been an advantage to the late Labour M.P. Raymond Fletcher, who was busy passing secrets to the Russians while a resident.
In his 1963 Cold War classic, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, John le Carré described his hero Alec Leamas’s meeting with a Communist agent called Ashe. “Ashe had a flat in Dolphin Square. It was just what Leamas had expected—small and anonymous with a few hastily assembled curios from Germany.” This was not Ashe’s home, of course—merely a discreet venue for a rendezvous.
Anonymity and transience are sometimes precursors of transgression. The building is home to many single men, and men whose wives are safely tucked up in bed in their constituency homes. The place lends itself to infidelity and experiment. In 1971, it emerged that, in addition to the swimming pool, restaurant, bars, and shopping arcade, Dolphin Square possessed its own de facto sadomasochistic, run by a woman named Sybil Benson, who on a good week claimed to make the then incredible sum of £1,260, even though she limited herself to six clients a day. In the late 80s, another Conservative M.P., Sir Anthony Meyer, was revealed to enjoy some light punishment, received and administered by a model and singer named Simone Washington, a story that suggested the dream headline—at any rate for the Sunday Mirror—“I bathed my spanking M.P. in champagne.”
In the early 60s, the place became notorious during the two overlapping scandals involving the War Minister John Profumo and a gay civil servant at the Admiralty named John Vassal, who after living at the square for four years was arrested in 1962 for passing secrets to the Russians. Profumo did little more than deny his affair with a young woman named Christine Keeler, who may or may not have been simultaneously knocking off the Soviet naval attaché Yevgney Ivanov. She lived in the Dolphin Square apartment rented by an equally spirited young woman named Mandy Rice Davies, who was connected to a shady London landlord named Peter Rachman.
I got to know Mandy in the 70s, and it is sad to learn that a few hours after I was walking around Dolphin Square, thinking about her and how she loathed the place and was convinced that it had some kind of bad karma, she died of cancer last week, aged 70. She was really intelligent and the best possible company, being both funny and curious—qualities that allowed her to survive Profumo and her short stay in Dolphin Square.
The entanglements of the two scandals have provided decades of pleasure to the prurient British, but actually the affair she got caught up in amounted to just a little illicit sex, a little lying, and a country house or two. It all seems rather harmless compared to the allegations of murder. What was amusingly scandalous, or simply sad, about Dolphin Square has been replaced by something much darker and more terrifying. No one believed the enormous catalogue of Jimmy Savile’s abuse until after his death, when a pileup of evidence banished all hopes of denial, so it now seems at least possible that Nick’s appalling story may also be proved true.