The historian and the trickster

In the anxious Britain of the interwar period, a con man came to unsettle the world with his prolific storytelling. Matt Houlbrook goes in search of the mysterious Netley Lucas

Tankaut 15_51Detail of Netley Lucas mugshot from “Supplement A: Expert and Travelling Criminals,” Police Gazette, 18 July 1924

Over the spring and summer of 1920 a young gentleman made a name for himself in London’s West End, Brighton and the leafy towns of Buckinghamshire. That is not quite right: he made several names for himself. He told stories of his wealth, education and family, of his war record and work in the service of Empire. Free-spending and generous, he charmed women and cultivated men. Those who met this gentlemanly stranger did not know he had lived on his wits since escaping from Training Ship Cornwall, a floating reformatory school, in August 1919. Nor did they know he had other names. Sometimes known as Netley Lucas, in the space of a few years he would also call himself Armstrong Mackenzie, Robert Bernard Belfour Clarke, Bernard Churchill, Basil Vaughan, Bernard Carrington, Lord Lucas, Lieutenant Francis Deligny and Sub-Lieutenant J.P. Whittaker. Each was carefully chosen, carrying a patrician aura reinforced in his personal style and clipped accent. Prefaced with a title or rank, accompanied by plausible stories and elaborate personal cards, names brought trust, credit and endless opportunities for leisure and pleasure.

The “lordly days” of 1920 were just one episode in the post-war picaresque lives of Netley Lucas. At John Edgington and Co., Colonial Outfitters, in an austere panelled showroom filled with tents and tropical helmets, his assured performance of gentility secured a salesman’s confidence and property worth £15,000 today. Courtroom stories of his audacious claims, flamboyant swank and smart lemon gloves gripped the readers of the News of the World and landed the young man in prison. Taking up his pen, Lucas sold sensational first-hand accounts of crime and the underworld to newspapers and publishers – serialised as “Exploits of a Public Schoolboy turned Crook” and elaborated as the 1925 bestseller Autobiography of a Crook. Yet the ex-crook’s burgeoning literary career was, apparently, little more than an elaborate confidence trick. Ghostwritten books, fake news and bogus biographies were the precarious foundations of a spiral of success and scandal, hedonism and prison. Lucas lived as a gentleman crook and confidence trickster, crime writer and criminologist, and noted royal biographer. He died aged 37, a washed-up alcoholic, in a fire of his own making.

The tall tales of this prolific storyteller had the power to unsettle the world in which he told them and to evoke it now. Lucas’s stories offer a guide to Britain in the 1920s and 1930s – unreliable, yet more revealing for that – and a world undergoing far-reaching change. His storytelling was woven into the fabric of the world in which it took shape. To become a successful crook, Lucas had to be an acute observer of the conventions of social interaction, an accomplished mimic of the minute codes of accent and manner that shaped how his contemporaries understood social class. Persuasive stories could be parsed into profit because of the cultures of deference and credit that governed upscale consumerism in London’s West End, and modern tailoring techniques that made the Savile Row look available on the cheap.

The stories of a silken-tongued stranger might be seen as an allegory for the possibilities for self-fashioning and the claims to social distinction contained in the most ordinary forms of mass culture. In his headlong pursuit of advancement, Lucas showed the possibilities of being plausible. At a time when many commentators thought established elites were under threat, the revelation that an ersatz gentleman was as good as the real thing exposed the fragility of social hierarchies. Lucas embodied a broader awareness of the deceptive surfaces of everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s. In what contemporary historians Robert Graves and Alan Hodge called the “age of disguise”, synthetic materials, fashionable interior design, and “painting plaster to look like pickled oak” meant “nothing was what it seemed”. Where Lucas found opportunities, others worried society was a game, and newspapers and politics a racket. Railing against the “imitations and substitutes” of a “very shoddy age”, the moralising columnist Harold Begbie thundered, “Fakes and make-believe, falseness and hypocrisy, are eating the heart of the British nation.” After the upheaval of war and as the pace of peacetime change quickened, the question of who or what to trust became both mundane and freighted. The confidence trickster was an exemplary figure for topsy-turvy times.

It is difficult to tell plausible stories about Netley Lucas, for the Prince of Tricksters is elusive and hard to find. He moved between lives, changing stories depending on when and where he recounted them. Different versions of his autobiographies accreted one upon the other. How can you trust a calculating storyteller, a man prone to deceive?

Aliases were to the trickster what pseudonyms were to the freelance writer. A simple change of name can temporarily elude detectives; it certainly frustrates the historian pursuing his subject through archives and libraries. There are different names on Lucas’s birth certificate, two marriage certificates and death certificate. A decade after Netley Evelyn’s birth was registered, Netley Lucas entered the official record through a clerk’s handwritten annotation to a typed birth certificate. Leslie Graham remembered his wedding to Elsie Liggins, held at a fashionable Westminster church, as a “red letter day in my life”. Their marriage certificate was the public record of an intimate moment of joy, but also strangely uncertain. A year later Leslie and Elsie returned to see the curate. Afterwards he added a marginal annotation to the certificate: “for ‘Leslie Evelyn Graham’ read ‘Netley Lucas’ otherwise ‘Leslie Evelyn Graham’.” While the identity documents through which the modern state tracked citizens from birth to death created the illusion of ordered knowledge, Lucas and others frustrated that process by changing names and telling stories to civil servants. If even the official “truth” of registers and forms is a precarious fiction, then our knowledge of the past has shaky foundations.

Storytelling was the substance of Lucas’s lives, not something he hid behind. His names and stories were carefully chosen depending on when and where he asked others to consider the demands on their confidence. Rather than trying to reveal his “deceptions”, we might instead focus on the conditions of Lucas’s storytelling, the resonances of his stories, the social or psychological work they might have done. Scrutinising the competing accounts created by or about a compulsive storyteller brings its own pleasures, but doing so in search of biographical “truth” shuts down rather than opens productive lines of enquiry. Instead of a mask, Lucas’s storytelling made mirrors in which we might see reflected the worlds through which he moved.

An impossible historical subject like Lucas confronts us with the limits of what we can know. Facing subjects given to tall tales, historians and biographers have often likened themselves to detectives, their painstaking research removing the “masks” concealing the “truth”. I have looked for Netley Lucas for over 10 years and with each year have become less sure of my abilities. Faced with proliferating stories and uncertain sources, the moment we embark on the task of finding the “real” individual we are doomed to failure. Rather than pursue certainty, I have learned to embrace a sort of not-knowing about the past. Lucas’s stories demand a way of writing history that is readier to admit its limits, deliberately less confident.

In following the Honourable Basil Vaughan and Lieutenant Francis Deligny, I have tried to accept that the subject of my account of the 1920s and 1930s is strange and changeable. Making this effort suggests the limits of what we can know about the past. It gives us a way to think through the historian Alun Munslow’s injunction that history itself is a “form of narrative making – a fictive undertaking” with its own disciplinary conventions. The past becomes history through stories we tell, and decisions we make about how to order those stories. So like Lucas, I try out different ways of telling stories. Caution has often got the better of me, but I have sought to explore how other kinds of narrative nonfiction might convey meaning. Sometimes I reach for the rhythms of melodrama or romantic fiction to suggest the timbre of Lucas’s lives. Frayed edges and shifting voices invite you to scrutinise the expediencies of writing history, and the places where interpretation and speculation elide.

Moving across a post-war landscape often characterised as shaken or rootless, the chameleon-like trickster was an unnerving reminder that no one was necessarily what they seemed. Today he draws attention to the shaky foundations upon which all historians work. I have found myself occupying the same terrain as the sociologist Erving Goffman’s account of the confidence trick. I can offer little more than a gambit, plausible histories and effects of verisimilitude, and something approaching a reveal. The work of a storytelling historian might also be unsettling for readers. Can I trust his word? What weight can the sources bear? Sometimes I tell stories rather than set out arguments, present plausible alternatives and invite you to make up your mind. My writing echoes the uncertainties of Lucas’s lives. Perhaps I have never gone so far as to fabricate sources, but my stories often play with the boundaries between “fact” and “fiction” in pursuit of my impossible subject. The historian as trickster – a charlatan, of a certain kind, hiding among the masks and mirrors of proper scholarship. §

Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook will be published in 2016.


Sarah Charlesworth, Goat, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1985. Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone Gallery, New York

  • Matt Houlbrook
  • Matt Houlbrook