By Mike Shaw
We all love a mystery especially when the principal character is a high-profile person.
One of the best-known and most intriguing case is that of Lord Lucan, the gambling aristocrat who disappeared in 1974 after killing the family’s nanny. Sightings have been reported across the globe but none have been confirmed.
But there is a century-old case much closer to home – in the Colne Valley.
Former Labour MP for the Colne Valley Victor Grayson vanished 100 years ago. Speculation has been fuelled, again by people who claimed to have seen him in this country and abroad. As with Lord Lucan the mystery remains unsolved.
Grayson shot to fame at the age of 26 when he sensationally won a Parliamentary by-election for Labour in July 1907.
The result was totally unexpected but Grayson ran a rousing campaign backed by the suffragettes and several local clergymen.
On one occasion he spoke from the back of a wagon outside the Co-op in Marsden and whipped his audience into a frenzy. “It was infectious,” recalled a young boy who was there. “People just went haywire. They went mad at his meetings.”
Historian Kenneth Owen Morgan, now The Lord Morgan, described Grayson as “a spell-binding orator, with a kind of film-star charisma, a supreme rebel propelled from nowhere to smash down the crumbling edifice of British capitalism.”
What shocked people was that it happened in the Colne Valley where workers in the cotton and woollen mills were comparatively well-housed and well-paid at the time.
In Parliament Grayson soon ran into controversy and was banned after protesting about the failure of the House to discuss the plight of the poor while debating the salary of a high-profile government figure. Other speeches put him firmly against the Establishment.
But, behind the scenes, things were not going well for the handsome young man who became known as ‘Britain’s Finest Mob Orator.’
He lapsed into heavy drinking and became unreliable in fulfilling his speaking tours. When the 1910 General Election arrived, Grayson found support his diminished and he was beaten into third place by the Liberal and Conservative candidates.
Although living in dire circumstances, he married in 1912 a beautiful young actress, Ruth Nightingale. Under severe stress in trying to keep their heads above water, Grayson’s health gave way. Ruth gave birth to a daughter, Elaine, in April 1914.
While visiting New Zealand with his new wife, Grayson decided to enlist into the Army and was shipped back to England and into France, where he served on the frontline.
After being wounded by shrapnel he survived surgery and was medically discharged. Meanwhile, Ruth and Elaine returned to England.
Ruth became pregnant again but tragically died in February 1918 four days after giving birth to another daughter. Sadly, baby Elise did not survive and died soon after being born.
It was a terrible blow to Grayson. He spoke at meetings in Liverpool, where he had been brought up by a working class couple before giving up speaking in favour of writing spasmodic articles. He eventually withdrew completely from public life.
In the latter months of 1918 Grayson moved into a luxury flat near St James’s Palace. How he managed to pay for his stay there is unknown but he left quite suddenly in September 1920 to spark a century-old mystery.
It was in 1927 that the Yorkshire Post reported Grayson’s elderly mother as saying she had given up her son as dead.
The paper recorded that he had been missing for seven years and posed the question whether he was still alive.
Investigations by Scotland Yard and his sister came to nothing and a host of so-called sightings were unconfirmed.
There are more bizarre twists in the Grayson story. First, letters written by him to William Plant, a Socialist in Sale on the outskirts of Manchester, and now in the possession of the Labour Party, indicate Grayson was probably a bi-sexual.
Second, speculation about his real identity had cropped up from time to time during his political career.
In the late 19th century it was not unknown for people in high places to find someone to rear an unwanted child as their own.
A few years before her death, I spoke to Elaine Grayson (then Mrs Elaine Watkins), who was living in Hove, Sussex, on this subject.
She was adamant that Victor was the son of an aristocrat. However, despite strenuous attempts on my part, she refused to say which family was his real one.
This was another mystery on top of all the others. Even today researchers and authors are seeking to discover what really happened to Victor Grayson.
- This article was written by respected and fondly-remembered local journalist MIKE SHAW, a former editor of the Colne Valley Guardian. Mike, a reporter and feature writer at the Huddersfield Examiner for 44 years, died in December 2020. He wrote this article a few months before his death.