Wallis Simpson: new divorce details revealed in solicitor's notes
Robert Egerton recalled case as ‘a judicial farce’ in 47-page private memoir shown to the Guardian
Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent
Sun 22 Dec 2019 12.42 GMTLast modified on Sun 22 Dec 2019 17.50 GMT
Wallis Simpson’s controversial divorce, which freed her to marry Edward VIII, was initially defeated because the hotel chosen for the staged adultery was too exclusive, according to a private memoir.
Papers held by the family of Robert Egerton, a pioneering solicitor involved in the celebrated 1936 case, provide an extraordinary “below stairs” account of what he described as a “judicial farce” during the abdication crisis.
His 47-page portrait of the affair, seen by the Guardian, exposes how the high-society Hotel de Paris in Bray, Berkshire, sacked three of its staff for giving evidence about guests.
Egerton was experienced in what he called the “dirty business” of organising separations under the era’s restrictive divorce laws. By coincidence, his chronicle emerges as parliament is finally due to introduce no-fault divorce through the delayed divorce, dissolution and separation bill.
As a young lawyer, he trained after Cambridge University with the London law firm Theodore Goddard & Co, which represented the American socialite Mrs Simpson in her divorce from her second husband, Ernest Simpson.
Egerton, who later became a leading campaigner for the establishment of legal aid, wrote up his personal reminiscences of the “most famous romance of the century” towards the end of his life.
His involvement, he recalled, began one Friday when he was told to cancel any arrangements he had for the weekend and pack a bag for a “very good hotel”. Mr Simpson, he was told, had taken a room with the “‘woman named’ – the technical description of the woman with whom adultery was alleged in a divorce petition”.
Normally an “enquiry agent” would “call around with photographs, inspect the register and take a statement, which would eventually satisfy the court’s requirements for an unopposed decree nisi.”
In this case, Egerton explained, the “beautifully stage-managed production” at the hotel hit a snag when the staff “refused all cooperation” to the enquiry agent and he “came away defeated”.
The Thames-side Hotel de Paris was renowned for its exuberant cabaret and parties for “Bright Young Things”. As Egerton recorded: “This was one of those expensive hotels which was patronised by society and other wealthy people who did not want the public to know where they were to be found or who their companion was.”
There was, however, “tremendous pressure to get the divorce through without delay and before the self-imposed restraint of British newspapers was abandoned”.
The law firm’s managing clerk, Barron, was swiftly mobilised. When he arrived he met similar resistance from hotel management. Barron demanded to see the hotel register.
“‘We don’t keep a register’, said the manager. ‘You know that you are required by law to keep a register,’ replied Barron, ‘and if what you said is true, you will be convicted of deliberately flouting the law and for an obvious reason which will make an interesting report in the newspapers.’
“Once it had become obvious that publicity of one kind or another could not be avoided, the hotel gave Barron access to the staff and he came away with statements from the hotel porter, a waiter and the floor waiter who had served breakfast in bed to Mr Simpson and a woman who was not Mrs Simpson.”
Desperate to avoid “unsavoury publicity” the Hotel de Paris subsequently sacked the three men, leaving the law firm to pay for accommodation and support for their key witnesses.
Barron and Egerton were dispatched to the Hotel de Paris again “to warn the management … against trying to do anything which would impede the divorce and to impress everyone concerned with the lavish funds which were being generously dispensed to those who aided Mrs Simpson.”
Even then the divorce faced legal challenges. “To keep up the pretence that undefended divorces were not ‘put up’ jobs (which most of them were),” Egerton explained, “the court expected to be assured that the three Cs – connivance, collusion and condonation – were not involved in the case.”
She had to insist she had never misbehaved. “It will surprise many people that Mrs Simpson should have, in effect, denied that she had committed adultery with the King,” Egerton observed.
“… He was passionately in love with Mrs Simpson and, with reckless disregard of the consequences, had secured her company on a cruise and at Balmoral. Who could be blamed for assuming that there had been sexual intercourse?”
Divorce proceedings were fixed for 27 October 1936 at Ipswich assize court. Egerton and Barron collected the three sacked staff and took them to a hotel in Colchester. The night before the hearing, they had to search the town for one of the waiters, who wandered off to find more drink.
Early the next morning, a car collected them and they managed to slip into court unnoticed through a side door. “Theodore Goddard quietly shepherded Mrs Simpson to a seat near the witness box,” Egerton noted, before journalists arrived. The hotel staff gave their “perfectly adequate evidence”.
The judge, Mr Justice Hawke, awarded costs against Mr Simpson but he clearly, Egerton believed, “would have liked to find a way out of presiding over what was palpably a judicial farce.
“He had not liked what he saw of Mrs Simpson in the box, particularly, no doubt, her claim that the chance discovery of her husband’s infidelity had driven her to write [a] legally concocted letter expelling him from their home.”
Theodore Goddard was never knighted. Egerton suggested it was because he was “slightly tainted by the devious measures that had been taken in the course of the divorce”.
Mrs Simpson, he concluded, was “a hard woman”. As lawyers, he added, “we were well aware at the time of the humbug and sleaziness which inevitably result from divorce law.
“They tarnish the grandeur of the fact that a man renounced the world’s greatest privileges and duties for love of a woman but perhaps a great romance has to assume nobility of character which is seldom found in real life.”