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14 February 2020

Ernest Marples (1907 – 1978) Minister of Transport, businessman

​Ernest Marples was raised in Manchester by parents active in the Labour Party. In 1941 he was commissioned into the Royal Artillery and rose to the rank of Captain, before being medically discharged in 1944.

He joined the Conservative Party and was elected Member of Parliament for Wallasey in the 1945 election – despite the winning Labour Party surge. Around the same time he became a director in a construction firm. In 1948, with civil engineer Reginald Ridgway he founded Marples Ridgway and Partners which went on to build roads, dams and power stations.

He was appointed Postmaster General in 1957 by Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, and then Minister of Transport in 1959, where he stayed until the transfer of power to Labour in 1964. MacMillan remarked that Marples was one of only two in his cabinet who was self-made.

Mr & Mrs Marples
Marples had resigned as a director of Marples Ridgway in 1951 when he became a junior minister, but continued to hold 80% of the company’s shares. He still held them in early 1960 when Marple Ridgway won a tender to build the Hammersmith Flyover despite not being the lower bidder. After a kerfuffle in the press, he attempted to sell his shares to his former partner, Ridgway, but the Attorney-General rejected this as he would be able to buy them back. But he was allowed to sell them to his wife instead. Marples Ridgeway, although not the direct contractor, was involved in the building of the M1, Britain’s first motorway.

In 1962 Marples oversaw the Transport Act which simplified the closure of railways, and appointed Richard Beeching to recommend such closures which amounted to 55% of stations and 30% of track.

It was an open secret that Marples engaged prostitutes, however he was not involved in the Profumo Scandal of 1963 wherein the Secretary of State for War was found to be sharing a mistress with a Soviet naval attaché. A senior judge, Tom Denning was appointed to report on the scandal, and also investigated rumours about other ministers.

His investigation was close to its conclusion when on 9 July a woman using the name Mrs Ann Bailey, but sometimes Mrs Smith, came forward. She explained that she was a full-time prostitute and had for a long time been paid by Marples. She described how he bought women’s clothes and wore them when he met her. She described his further tastes of which, she said, ‘whipping was the least sickening’.  Their meetings often took place at Marples' home at 33 Eccleston Square, (map) previously inhabited by Winston Churchill and close to Victoria Station, and Mrs Bailey was able to give a detailed description of the interior of the house. She further testified that even after their relationship ended, a series of ‘annoying, obscene and filthy’ letters signed by the Minister with the initial E were sent to her, describing services and practices he still required.

It was felt that this very much exposed Marples to a risk of blackmail. It was also felt that Bailey had been encouraged to approach the Denning inquiry by a national newspaper so that once her evidence was authenticated and published in Denning’s report, the newspaper would be clear to pay her and publish the story. Denning arranged a meeting in his office of Marples and Bailey. He acknowledged that he knew her, and they shook hands.

On 14 August there was a crisis meeting of Denning with Prime Minister Macmillan - but they did not mention the Marples situation.  Macmillan hinted at a curious compromise, suggesting to Denning that it might be ‘appropriate at a later stage to write confidentially to the Prime Minister drawing his attention to suspicions of discreditable conduct on the part of Ministers in their private lives’.

The slightly expurgated Denning Report was published in September 1963, and very unusually for a judicial report was a best seller.  A few weeks later Macmillan was hospitalised with prostate cancer, and he used this as an excuse to resign.  He was replaced by Alec Douglas Hume who took the Conservative Party to defeat in the election of October 1964.

Marples was not a minister in the next Conservative Government, that of Edward Heath, 1970-4, and he retired at the 1974 general election. Later that year he became a life peer as Baron Marples of Wallesey.

However his business activities were catching up with him. The tenants of a block of flats he owned in Putney were demanding that he repair serious structural faults; he was being sued for £145,000 by the Bankers Trust merchant bank; Inland Revenue was demanding that he pay nearly 30 years of back taxes on his residence in Eccleston Square; and that he pay capital gains tax on other properties.

In early 1975 he fled to Monte Carlo, and the Treasury froze his assets in Britain. In November 1977 he made a payment of £7,600 to the British government and was able to return.  He spent his final years in France, and died in hospital in Monte Carlo in July 1978 age 70.

In 1994 as per standard practice the official archives relating to the Macmillan government were released, but without the archives relating to the Denning Report.  The then Prime Minister John Major questioned this and was invited to read them.  He then agreed that they remain closed to the public until 2048.

In 2020 Denis Bedoya/Tom Mangold obtained access to the diaries of Thomas Critchley, Denning’s secretary. On this basis they were able to reveal the evidence of Mrs Bailey.  They conclude that she was paid off with an amount equal to what she could expect from a major newspaper for the story.
 “Such a deal would have involved taxpayers’ money buying off a prostitute to keep her quiet to save the government of the day. I calculate that the amount would have been equivalent today to about £250,000. Now that really would have been a scandal.”

  • Richard Davenport-Hines. An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo. William Collins, 2013: 20-2, 328-9.
  • Martin Rosenbaum. “Profumo scandal evidence still secret in 'cover-up' “. BBC News, 1 february 2020. Online.
  • Tom Mangold. “How the official report into the Christine Keeler affair covered up a FAR more sensational sex scandal... and Tory Minister Ernest Marples' kinky antics made Profumo look like a choirboy!”. The Daily Mail, 25 January 2020. Online.
  • Denis Bedoya. “How report into the Christine Keeler affair covered up a FAR more sensational sex scandal”. Infosurhoy, January 25, 2020. Online.

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The reports by Mangold and Bedoya are word-for-word identical including the use of the first person.

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