By Eloise Moss
Trigger Warning: This article contains references to sexual assault and rape. To respect the dignity of historical victims of sexual violence, the names of the survivors in this article have been anonymised
As a historian of crime, I have spent years working with criminal investigation files created by London’s Metropolitan Police (‘MEPO’ files), held at the U.K. National Archives. They have a familiar pattern. Witness reports and material evidence are compiled, trial outcomes recorded. It would be a mistake to regard them as an unfiltered collection of facts and experiences; like all historical records, criminal case files offer a carefully curated narrative, in which the testimony and photographic evidence of police, as well as their comments and marginalia, frames the ‘story’ of the crime in a particular way — often, reinforcing the power, rigour, and authority of the police.
Last summer, however, when conducting research for my latest book (a history of hotels as spaces of modern slavery and inequality in Britain), I came across marginalia on the opening pages of one file, MEPO 3/397, that told a different story:
‘A.C.C. [Acting Chief Constable] It is a thousand pities that we cannot obtain evidence of these individuals attempts to defeat the ends of justice. Sincerely trust that the Counsel for the prosecution, will do all he can to put the seriousness of the crime forward. 27.4.26’
What was this cryptic note about?
As I investigated further, what I came across was a case of serial sexual assault by a prominent Canadian business man, covered up and hidden by his peers and associates. In this essay, and one to follow next week, I will lay out the case for you and why it is important that you know the deeds of Mervyn Brown, mayor of Medicine Hat during the First World War.
On 12th October 1926, Alice*, a chambermaid, was vacuuming the corridor of the Regent’s Palace Hotel in London’s fashionable West End.
Noticing that a ‘gentleman’ was following her, she assumed he was a guest and paused to exchange pleasantries. “I see you are going to be busy,” the man commented as he drew near, and she replied, “Yes sir.” Without warning, the man grabbed her from behind and forced his arm around her neck.
Kissing Alice and wrestling her to the floor, the brutal assault was only interrupted when Florence, the relief chambermaid, arrived and rushed towards them to help her friend. Behaving as though nothing had occurred, the man got up and walked away. Chillingly, as Florence recalled in her statement to police, ‘As he passed me he smiled at me, but did not speak.’ Alice, by contrast, was left in a state of distress: “if you had not come along perhaps he would have strangled me,” she told her friend.
Worse, when she reported the incident to the head Housekeeper, it transpired that she was not the only hotel maid who had been assaulted that day. In Room 293, another chambermaid, Susan* had been locked in with the same man and subjected to a prolonged attempted rape. In this instance, having fought with him and screamed out, Susan succeeded in defending herself until a valet was heard approaching. The man, described as a well-dressed Canadian in his early forties, unbolted the door and ran away.
Five days later, the hotel was targeted again. Three more chambermaids were attacked by the same man, with increasing levels of sexual violence. By turns, he told his victims he was a doctor and they “would be all right,” or mocked a threat to tell his wife, responding “You will have a job, as my wife is in Toronto.” This time, however, he was unable to escape. Porters detained him as he tried to leave the building, handing him over to police. Initially giving his name as ‘Mr. Edwards,’ he then changed that to ‘Martin Brown.’ Yet officers noted that ‘cheque books and correspondence found in his possession, are in the name of Mervyn Brown.’
This was the first indication that the file was the record of a cover-up.
After arrest, Brown had sent for three friends. Lieutenant Colonel Walter Grant Morden was the Canadian-born Member of Parliament (M.P.) for the London borough of Brentford and Chiswick. A prominent newspaper proprietor, Morden had acquired controlling stakes in the Odham’s Press in 1922, overseeing national publications including John Bull and The People.
Morden came to Marlborough Police Station accompanied by Lieut. Colonel Duncan Maybury Stewart. An American, Maybury Stewart was granted British citizenship in 1925, at which point he was listed in the London Gazette as a ‘Financier, Chairman and Director of Public Companies’ living in the wealthy resort of Knightsbridge. For police officers, an early sign of the trouble to come was when Maybury Stewart ‘mentioned that he was a friend of G.H. Edwards, Esq. New Scotland Yard’ — Secretary to the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police.
Brown’s third friend, who joined Brown’s defence for the trial, was Sir Henry Forde. An aristocrat, Forde was a Justice of the Peace and head of the grain trade in Ireland, who ‘called and stated that the accused had been a family friend for years, but that he, (BROWN), was addicted to taking too much alcohol. He was, however, prepared to take the accused back to Ireland.’
Brown’s friends acted swiftly to try to suppress the case.
Over the following weeks, they applied pressure on the Directors of the Regent Palace Hotel to drop the prosecution. The Directors were only persuaded to proceed when Divisional Detective Inspector Bradley paid them a personal visit, impressing upon them the seriousness of the assaults that had taken place.
Further, in a strikingly feminist remark (that appears even more unique in a historical context where only a minority of women had been recently granted the right to vote), Bradley opined ‘that the matter appeared to be one for the maids to decide.’
During the trial, however, the institutional discrimination faced by working-class women in the criminal justice system was writ large. Under the influence of Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, the celebrity criminal lawyer recruited to Brown’s defence, the maids’ testimony was carefully organised to disrupt the narrative of Brown’s guilt.
Two maids who had suffered the most severe assaults, including Susan, were called to give evidence separately from the others and, in a process of discreditation that remains depressingly familiar today, were cross-examined in open court over the intimate forms of violation they had experienced. Though a married woman, Susan was so embarrassed by the questions that she was unable to speak; the lengthy statement she had previously given, and the evidence of her torn knickers, were insufficient to convict. Jane*, the other maid, was subject to similarly crass interrogation. Criticising Jane’s claim that she had screamed out during the attack, Curtis-Bennett suggested that the porousness of the hotel’s architecture, with its warren of connecting rooms and thin walls, meant that such a sound must have carried. Therefore, the fact that no-one instantly came to help her supplied ‘evidence’ that her account was faulty.
Brown agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge of having committed five ‘common assaults’ rather than ‘indecent assault’.
Examined by the eminent physician Sir Bruce Bruce-Porter (also employed by the defence), Brown was characterized as having acted from mental illness rather than malice, and fined £100; this outcome, the first of its kind, is likely the reason this file was preserved in the archive for posterity.
Sent to live with Forde in Ireland — with an agreement that he would soon be returned to Canada, which Brown failed to honour — he received one final, perhaps most crucial, act of deference: newspaper reports on the case used the alias ‘Martin Brown’ rather than his real name, and did not mention his nationality. Consequently, the attacks eluded the notice of international journalists, so that there was no transatlantic press coverage of this incident.
Criminal aliases are par-for-the-course for crime historians. Matt Houlbrook’s brilliant book The Prince of Tricksters has shown how one interwar conman, Netley Lucas, adopted false identities on an industrial scale, challenging historians to unravel the many ‘lives’ and identities inhabited by one individual in the past. Yet it is relatively rare to encounter a case such as this, in which not only the criminal, but senior political figures and public institutions on both sides of the Atlantic colluded successfully to bury the identity of a convicted sexual predator. Indeed, Brown not only managed to escape wider public censure, his career after 1926 positively flourished.
In next week’s essay, I detail how Brown lived in England for another fourteen years, fashioning a prominent transatlantic business network dealing in imperial land settlement schemes and coal power, and ultimately, playing a vital role in transforming Canada’s economic relationship with the world after the Second World War. I also explore the process of historical and genealogical research that was required to unravel the identity of Mervyn Abraham Brown.
The case offers an important, if disturbing, precedent for understanding just how entrenched have been the practices of protecting powerful men from the consequences of misogynistic and abusive behaviour historically. Hotels have long been spaces in which women’s labour, often menial, has been confused with their sexual availability; this case demonstrates the legitimisation of sexual violence towards impoverished and vulnerable women in those spaces. Orchestrated at the highest levels of government, this cover-up provides an important lesson in the history of modern political celebrity, and acts as a register for the strength of the imperial and economic relationship between Britain and Canada during the late 1920s.
Dr Eloise Moss is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at the University of Manchester, U.K. She is currently working on a British Academy-funded project entitled Hotelympus: A History of Power and Prejudice in Modern Britain.
 ‘Future of “The People”,’ Daily Telegraph (18 September 1922), p.10; ‘Odham’s Press, Limited,’ The Times (15 May 1925), p.24; ‘Lieutenant Colonel Grant Morden,’ The Times (27 June 1932), p. 19.
 See for example Assaults in Hotel,’ Lincolnshire Echo (19 November 1926), p.4; ‘Molesting the Maids,’ The Scotsman (19 November 1926), p. 5; ‘Protecting Hotel Maids,’ Reynolds’s Newspaper (21 November 1926), p. 13; ‘Judge on “One Law”,’ Daily Mirror (19 November 1926), p. 22.