Rasputin, Revolution and Preston Manor

This year sees the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, a pair of political uprisings that would change the course of the 20th century. These momentous world-changing events were followed avidly by Ellen Thomas-Stanford at Preston Manor via correspondence with Colonel Harry Vere Benett and his young British intelligence associate, Oswald Rayner.

Postcard showing Preston Manor
Preston Manor, early 1900s
Portrait of Ellen Benett-Stanford, 1895

Ellen kept a scrapbook album of letters and paper ephemera relating to the wartime period 1914-1918 and these are immensely valuable as historical documents. The letters from Colonel Benett and Oswald Rayner stationed in Petrograd (now St Petersburg) are housed in the albums at Preston Manor.

However little you know about the Russian Revolution you will be familiar with two names: Rasputin and the Romanovs. Countless words have been written about the charismatic ‘Mad Monk,’ the man born an impoverished peasant in Siberia yet who climbed to the rank of trusted confidante inside the most inaccessible and secretive royal court in modern history, that of the Russian imperial family, the Romanovs. The enigma that was Rasputin continues to fascinate. Therefore opening Ellen’s album of letters I wondered if I would find references to this intriguing man.

I was not to be disappointed.

Intelligence agents abroad

Colonel Harry Vere Benett

Colonel Vere Benett, who went by the nickname Croppy, was the illegitimate son of Ellen’s first husband, Vere Fane Benett, and the burlesque actress Fanny Josephs. Aged 54 in 1917 Croppy was working in Russia representing Britain in the Franco-British military mission to Petrograd. The chatty letters to Ellen from both Croppy and Rayner tell a vivid first hand account of life in Russia that turbulent year.

A graduate of Oriel College, Oxford, and an expert linguist, 28 year old Oswald Rayner knew Ellen through Colonel Benett. ‘It was kind fate that brought us together,’ Rayner writes of Colonel Benett in a letter dated both 16 and 29 November 1916, ‘and followed up her favours by sending me to Preston.’

A letter by Rayner to Ellen dated 26 February / 11 March 1917 was written in cold Petrograd, and has him thinking fondly of the Preston Manor gardens:

‘I suppose it must be almost spring in Brighton by now. How lovely the gardens must be looking. Perhaps the daffodils and crocuses are in full bloom. This sort of picture makes one feel quite homesick!’

Rayner’s description holds true today as the gardens look just as he describes.

The way the letters are dated is worth noting. Prior to 1918 Russia was still using the Julian calendar as opposed to the Gregorian calendar adopted by Britain in 1752. This meant that Russia was 13 days behind the date back home, hence the two dates often showing on the men’s letters. Of interest, Oswald Rayner’s ‘kind fate’ letter to Ellen is dated exactly one month before Rasputin’s death on 16 /29 December 1916.

Signatures of Oswald Rayner and Harry Vere Benett from Preston Manor visitors' book, 1916
Signatures of Oswald Rayner and Harry Vere Benett from Preston Manor visitors’ book, 1916

Rayner’s name came to prominence back in 2004 when BBC Timewatch aired a documentary, Who Killed Rasputin?, following new evidence uncovered by intelligence historian, Andrew Cook.

Fascinatingly, the Timewatch team discovered that Oswald Rayner was an active British Secret Intelligence Service operative. Official SIS documentation codenamed Rasputin as ‘Dark Forces’ and considered him a real threat to the British war effort. There was concern should Rasputin persuade Tsar Nicholas II to broker peace between Russia and Germany. Such an exit from the war, it was feared, would cause the allies to be overwhelmed on the Western Front by 350,000 Germans freed from the need to fight the Russians in the east.

The death of Grigori Rasputin, the self styled holy man turned society figure, has entered popular legend and it is hard to separate fact from fiction. Conventional history names Prince Felix Yusupov and right-wing politician Vladimir Purishkevich as present on the night of Rasputin’s murder. They and other disaffected Russian aristocrats viewed Rasputin’s influence over the Tsarina a threat to the empire and so allegedly fed Rasputin cakes and wine laced with cyanide before variously bludgeoning, shooting and drowning him.

However, accounts of that night on 29 or possibly 30 December 1916 have been questioned, leading to re-examination of post-mortem photographs by modern forensic experts who studied the third bullet wound in the centre of Rasputin’s forehead, suggesting dispatch by a professional killer using a Webley revolver.

Richard Cullen, a retired Scotland Yard commander working with Andrew Cook and the 2004 Timewatch team concluded: ‘there is fair weight of evidence to show that Rayner was the man. We have conclusive proof that the previously accepted versions of events are fabrications.’

This is where the story gets exciting (and what a pity Timewatch never came to Preston Manor) because clues may be found in Croppy and Rayner’s letters to Ellen Thomas-Stanford. Of course neither would disclose British intelligence secrets to a genteel 69 year old grand lady in Brighton thrilling to tales of revolution — but were hints dropped?

Traces of Rasputin

Rasputin is periodically mentioned by Croppy in his letters.

On 16 January 1917 he writes:

‘I suppose the English papers referred to the assassination of the priest, Rasputin although probably England would hardly comprehend all it means, except those who know something of this country and its peculiar politics.’

Croppy felt able to write freely because of ‘this letter going through the bag not ordinary post,’. By this he meant the secure Foreign Office diplomatic bag.

‘I enclose a good photograph of a bad man,’ he writes on 7 April 1917, and duly pasted into Ellen’s scrapbook is the very photograph.

Photograph of Rasputin in Ellen Thomas-Stanford’s scrapbook

‘I always avoided, although I had the chance, of meeting Rasputin. Had I been here in a private capacity, I would have gone but then perhaps he would not have wanted to meet me. He was a curious personality, and I might say I think without exaggerating, that he is really the cause of the downfall of the Romanoffs (sic), the Revolution and what is to come, for we are no means through with it all.’

‘Did you get a letter from me dated 14th February,’ he writes, ‘giving you an account of Rasputin and the history of Usupof (sic) who is reported to have killed him.’

Prince Felix Felixovich Yusupov, to correct Croppy’s spelling, was one of the richest men in Russia, possibly richer than the Romanov family he married into in 1914. He studied fine arts from 1909 to 1913 at University College, Oxford, where he was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club and a very colourful character by all accounts, dressing in women’s clothing, smoking hashish and living flamboyantly. He later published various reports of the night of Rasputin’s murder, although his version of events is now questioned by historians. He was undoubtedly somewhere in the vicinity because the murder took place at his house, or rather, palace – but was Rayner also present, being a friend of Yusupov’s from university days?  Conjecture continues today as to Rayner’s part in the death of Rasputin, both for and against his being involved.

Croppy’s letter of 14 February 1917, which did arrive at Preston Manor, is a unique and riveting eight page slice of history told first hand from a man on the spot. Croppy packs the letter with unflattering descriptions of Rasputin gleaned from ‘men and women who met and knew him…he was uncouth and ill-mannered…he was only a peasant and a boorish peasant at that illiterate and hardly educated, got drunk and over eats…’

Rasputin’s infamous dealings with women are not left out, ‘… he has been photographed before now, coming out of Bath Houses (not quite what Bath Houses are to us) in the company of the most 5th rate and common women, and yet he had the most extraordinary power over the very smartest and aristocratic ladies in the country…’

Croppy goes on to describe the events of Rasputin’s death writing how ‘three men of royal blood, Boris, Dimitri and Yousonoff’ (Croppy struggles with the correct spelling of Russian names) used ‘two very smart ladies’ to lure Rasputin to ‘a very smart supper party’ after which they gave Rasputin a pistol and ‘told him to use it in the best way.’ After a scuffle the mysterious Boris ‘shot him as a dog, twice.’ However, after bundling Rasputin’s body into a car ‘they found he was not quite dead and that’s when the second shooting took place,’ causing that third and fatal bullet wound in the centre of Rasputin’s forehead.

Was Rayner the mysterious Boris or was he the man waiting outside in the car with a Webley revolver?

The BBC Timewatch programme told how modern forensics found the three bullet holes in Rasputin’s body to be of various sizes and the bullets fired from three different guns. Those first two shots fired ‘as at a dog’ were delivered inside the building. Photographs of the scene show a long, straight line of blood across the courtyard, ending in a pool of blood near the gate where the car was waiting. ‘The second shooting,’ as reported by Croppy, happened once Rasputin was ‘put into the car,’ – and delivered as an assassin’s efficient gun-to-the-forehead execution.

If Rayner was the British government’s approved assassin in the mode of James Bond he never disclosed, and he destroyed all his papers before his death in 1961. Yusupov and his wife, Irina, who was niece to Tsar Nicholas, fled Russia after the February Revolution, a series of fierce armed clashes that would lead to the abdication of the Tsar and the end of the three-hundred year old Romanov dynasty. Yusupov and Irina lived out their days in exile in Paris, Yusupov dying in 1967 aged 80.

Can we know the truth a century on?

Croppy’s 14 February letter to Ellen Thomas-Stanford contains some comments worth analysing in respect of both possible British intelligence involvement and Oswald Rayner’s part in the incident at the Yusupov palace.

Croppy tells Ellen; ‘…I do not care to write what I have heard (and believe to be true) was at the back of the affair but “it was the limit”…’

Is this remark and underlined emphasis evidence of Croppy’s repugnance at what he believes to be true and the limit i.e. his country’s participation in the killing of Rasputin who he puts in a good word for?

Had Rasputin been a ‘real Russian’ and ‘a patriot,’ he writes, and ‘used his influences in high places for the good of Russia…his name might have lived in history as a saviour of his country.’

Croppy goes on to make another and probably the most noteworthy statement of all.

‘…The night of the murder I was discussing it with a highly placed individual who said “well, well how slack these Russians are to be sure; it took an Englishman to do that for them” – because the history of the man, whose name is frequently mentioned, was at Oxford and a great tennis player, in fact about the best in the world until he hurt his arm…’

Frustratingly, I have not been able to discover if Oswald Rayner was a hot shot at tennis while at Oxford but if this fact comes out — and I have not yet read all of Rayner’s letters to Ellen Thomas-Stanford — then maybe a small piece of an enormous historical jigsaw will slot into place.

Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor