If you watched Tom Dalton’s Agatha Christie and the Truth of Murder whodunit on Channel 5 over Christmas, or have read Rosemary Cook’s The Nightingale Shore Murder then you’ll know the story already. On January 12th 1920, the goddaughter and second cousin of Lady of the Lamp, Florence Nightingale enters the carriage of a London-to-Brighton South East Express train and is found beaten and left for dead in the same, sealed compartment as the train enters Bexhill-on-Sea. There are no signs of a violent struggle, and the lady’s dressing case is found as originally placed. On her lap is an open book (Edinburgh Evening News 13 January 1920, p.5). A young man was said to have followed her into the compartment as the train left Victoria Station. An amethyst pendant originally reported missing was subsequently found and other jewelry was in a dressing case (Daily Herald 16 January 1920 p.1).
Her murderer and his motive remains unknown to this day.
One of the most famous suspects in the case was Percy Toplis, but what many people won’t have been told until now, is that the first man arrested by Police was Ernest C. Brown, a former Captain in the RAF and branch division President of the Comrades of the Great War in Glasgow (Train Outrage Mystery, Aberdeen Press and Journal 19 January 1920, p.5). Until now, little about him was known, but an interview he provides to the American press in 1926, casts new light on the mystery, as Ernest admits to having been a suspect a further two unsolved mysteries in a period spanning four years. In each case, the scope and potential for espionage is substantial, to say the least. His secondment to the Allied Commission in Constantinople in 1922 is particularly intriguing as this was a critical period politically and economically, for Britain, Turkey and Russia. The fact that the brother of Florence Nightingale Shore had served as Military Attache in Russia during the the 1918-1920 Civil War, only adds to the layers of intrigue that started with Brown’s arrest as a possible spy in a Faslane story in 19181 (Train Outrage, Daily Herald 15 January 1920, p.1)
His full story can be read below:
In relation to Toplis and the Etaples Mutiny, the fact that Ernest C. Brown was a Branch President of the Comrades of the Great War in Glasgow is another intriguing detail.
Harry Fallows — the only man to place Toplis at the scene of the crime — talks about showing his Comrades of the Great War membership card in his formal Police statement, despite only having completed a few months active service (Harry Fallows Statement to Sergeant White, Hampshire Constabulary). Secondly, the real Etaples Mutineer, James Cullen (also from Glasgow) had his demobilization case taken up by Comrades of the Great War and discussed in Parliament by Churchill. The man discussing Cullen’s case with Churchill was the organization’s founder — the ultra Conservative MP Wilfrid Ashley. As a member of the Anti-Socialist Union and the People’s League party, Ashley was very closely aligned with a mysterious early intelligence figure called Sir George Makgill (who created what some refer to as D Section of Mi6). D Section were fiercely anti-Bolshevik and Makgill’s intelligence methods were described as brutal and extreme even by those who used his services (Churchill’s intelligence man, Desmond Morton, head of Section V at Mi6, was among them).
Makgill keeps cropping up in all the various threads I’ve been following and its worth noting that at the time of Florence’s death there were significant events taking place in Russia, where Florence’s brother, Brigadier General Offley Shore had been serving as British Attaché to the Russian Forces in Tiflis (modern day Georgia). Shore had remained at his headquarters as part of the Imperial network of spies and embassy staff until he was replaced by Colonel Pike in spring 1918. A number of ministers within the Foreign Office had been concerned at Shore’s refusal to share intelligence with anyone other than the War Office. None was more concerned than Senior British diplomat, Sir Charles Marling who seemed determined to have Shore removed. A renewed Turkish offensive had threatened Allied efforts to guard the Baltic territories of Transcaucasia against Bolshevik advances. Allied defences were being shored-up by Armenian and Georgian forces who requested the immediate release of British-held funds controlled by Brigadier Shore to secure additional weaponry. Despite being ordered to release them by Marling, Shore, still head of the mission, refused to do so (The British Military Involvement in Transcaucasia, 1917-1919, p.32).
As a response, Captain Edward Noel, a respected and perhaps more tractable member of the British Secret Service, was brought in by Marling. According to Timothy C. Winegard, professor of history at Colorado Mesa University, Noel ’s job was to monitor communications and ensure that all intelligence and funds were shared immediately with whoever necessity demanded and whatever the cost politically (The First World Oil War, Timothy C. Winegard, p.159-160). Protecting British and American interests in the Baku oilfields became priority number one (read: Michael Tillotson’s 2018 Times article).
Marling had already incurred the wrath of the Bolsheviks by backing first cousin to the Tsar, Dmitri Pavlovich as ‘British candidate’ for the Russian throne. Pavlovich, who had been exiled by the Tsar over the murder of Romanov confidant, Grigori Rasputin in 1916, had struck-up a close personal bond with Marling and both men regarded Shore as an obstacle in attempts to restore a Tsarist regime. Shore and the War Cabinet’s refusal to recognize the urgency of arming the Armenians and Geog had considerably undermined the allied efforts and Churchill’s ‘secret war with Lenin’.
At time of Florence Shore’s murder in January 1920, General Kolchak, the White Russian leader we’d been supporting against Lenin’s government, was handed over to the Bolsheviks and brutally murdered. The withdrawal of British and American troops had left Kolkchak and his troops exposed, and the General had been forced to surrender. The exit route we’d promised him had been removed too. His hopes of escaping across the border to the British Mission had been scuppered.
The man that Makgill and his people had been preparing as the Tsar’s replacement in Russia was Marling’s friend, ally and member of the Tiflis dynasty, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. Pavlovich was in exile in London at this time and its possible that the attack on Florence could have been a revenge attack by Tsarist loyalists (or their supporters) in London. During these same months, Dmitri Pavlovich was just receiving word of the violent death of his stepbrother and other members of the Tsar’s extended family. Like Florence, they had been bludgeoned to death — possibly by the butts of guns. The White Russian exiles in London certainly felt betrayed by the allies (as did Churchill who had done his level best to support the Whites).
Was Ernest C. Brown the regular man of mystery he makes out to be in the interview? Well despite some of the things he mentions being a little too hard to verify at this time, the story of Brown’s time with the Allied Mission in Turkey and being arrested for the murder of a Turkish Officer in Galata (November 1921) certainly chimes with real events — and is also directly linked to further real or imagined Bolshevik plots.
The relative obscurity of the event, also lessens the probability of outright invention.
Brown’s third arrest seems to coincide with something called the ‘Harington Plot’ in Turkey in July/September 1921. The world press were at this time reporting on Russian plots assassinate General Harington. The plots, which proved to be unfounded, had been ‘unearthed’ by British Intelligence, or, as I think is far more likely, the men working for Sir George Makgill’s utterly unmanageable and unaccountable, Section D. It seems that central to the plot was a scheme to spark a mutiny among Moslem troops serving as part of the British Imperial forces (Arrests Constantinople, The Scotsman 22 September 1921).
Curiously, the man leading questions about the plot in the British House of Commons was Comrades of the Great War founder (and George Makgill ally), Colonel Wilfrid Ashley. 2
Reports of the time hint at various reprisals and agent provocateurs and a good number of arrests were made by Turkish police. Was Ernest C. Brown one of those arrested? And was he part of an unauthorized plot launched by Makgill’s men to derail ongoing trade negotiations between Britain, Turkey and Russia? 3
The final irony is that it was the Reading Room at the British Library that proved so central to Ernest Brown’s alibi. The room’s status in all manner of spy capers is legendary.
1 I think the man that Ernest C Brown refers to as his friend at the Faslane naval base, Lieutenant Commander Rowe was Lieutenant Commander George Moore Allender Rowe, RN who died in a motor-cycle accident in April 1920, just months after Brown’s arrest.
2 Boris Johnson’s grandfather, Ali Kemal Bey was hung as result of the tensions and counter-plots that arose from the events in 1922.
3 Brown provided his interview to the Canton Daily News just a few months prior to Makgill’s sudden death in October 1926. It is also interesting that Brown made his way from Scotland to England on Boxing Day, 1919 – the very day that Toplis is alleged to have deserted Bulford Camp.
Imperial Spies Invade Russia: The British Intelligence Interventions, 1918,
A. J. Plotke, Greenwood Press, 1993
The British Military Involvement in Transcaucasia, 1917-1919, Artin Hagop Arslanian, 1974
The First World Oil War, Timothy C. Winegard, University of Toronto Press, 2016
Foreign Policy of the Republic of Azerbaijan, Jamil Hasanli, Routledge, 2015
The Nightingale Shore Murder: Death of a World War 1 Heroine, Rosemary Cook
Latest Theories Concerning Percy Toplis, Sunday Post 13 June 1920, p.16
Train Outrage Mystery, Brown Aberdeen Press and Journal 19 January 1920
Scotland Yard Assist in Tracking Assailant, Nottingham Evening Post 17 January 1920, p.3