Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook, by Matt Houlbrook

Stephen Halliday on a rogue whose smart manner helped him to profit in a deferential era

June 23, 2016
Detail of Netley Lucas mugshot (illustration)

Netley Lucas’ unusual first name was taken from a village on Southampton Water, where he was born in a small boat in 1903. He later described it as a grand yacht, a deception that set the pattern for a life that ended in a charred, smoke-filled room near Leatherhead in 1940. The many aliases that he employed in his 37 years would use all the words allowed for this account, so your reviewer simply observes that Lucas was often discriminating in his choice of false names: Cavendish, Churchill and Carrington were favoured. Early in his criminal career, he encountered a kind magistrate who sent him to the original Borstal reformatory in the Kent village of that name, but he was soon back before the bench, having reoffended. From that time, there was no stopping him. The variety of his methods of extracting money from his victims is impressive: beggar, employment agent, publisher and naval officer were among them. In the last capacity, he extracted a “loan” from the secretary of a London club after claiming that he had lost his possessions during the Battle of Jutland in 1916 (when he would have been 13). Harrods department store was another victim.

Much of his energy was devoted to literature, and he wrote under a variety of names. He had some success as a writer of detective stories and may have earned as much as £20,000 (a huge sum at the time), largely from a series of fanciful biographies of royalty, supposedly based on intimate connections in royal circles. They included Edward P., the Story of H. R. H. the Prince of Wales (1929), which earned qualified praise from The Manchester Guardian, although The Times Literary Supplement drew attention to “astonishing inaccuracies” in his book Albert of the Belgians. His biography of the Prince of Wales’ mother, Queen Mary, was written under the appropriately aristocratic name Charlotte Cavendish and drew from that formidable queen this comment: “I have annotated this book to show what a number of inventions are written about one.” These comments were confined to her own copy, now in the royal archives. Besides recognising that there was a market, then as now, for imaginative and anecdotal stories of royalty, Lucas counted on the fact that royal figures are reluctant to become involved in public discussion of their lives, even to challenge falsehoods.

How did Netley get away with it? He thrived in the 1920s, that frantic decade immortalised in Evelyn Waugh’s early novels about the “Bright Young People”, when a polished accent and confident manner (which Lucas cultivated) offered a route to trust, deference and unsecured loans. His talents, honestly deployed, would surely have earned him a comfortable living. In a number of sometimes tortuous conclusions to chapters, Matt Houlbrook places Lucas’ career in the context of his times. He draws attention to the contemporary comments of writers such as Harold Laski and George Orwell criticising the harmful effects of the deference that fostered not only the modest follies of Lucas but later the much greater crimes of Kim Philby and his associates. This is an intriguing account not only of a con man, but of the social milieu that enabled him to thrive.

Stephen Halliday is a senior member of Pembroke College, Cambridge.

Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook
By Matt Houlbrook
University of Chicago Press, 448pp, £28.00
ISBN 9780226133157 and 3294 (e-book)
Published 10 July 2016

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