The Winslow Boy

researched and read by Eamon Kiely

The events dramatised by Terence Rattigan in his play “The Winslow Boy” are based on the true story of the ordeal of a 13 year-old boy had to endure after he was falsely accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order from a schoolmate. It happened in 1908 at Osborne Naval College on the Isle of Wight, and pitted an innocent schoolboy of Irish origin against the might and majesty of the British Admiralty and establishment. It became a cause celebre that transfixed and outraged Edwardian society when it appeared that a terrible injustice was about to be done in a classic David and Goliath confrontation’. So wrote Michael Finlan in the Irish Times .

As it turned out, the triumphant slingshot was wielded with mortal accuracy by a surprising knight in judicial armour who shortly afterwards stamped an indelible mark on Irish History .

The real ‘Winslow boy ‘was George Archer Shee, The youngest son of a well-to-do Bank of England agent in Bristol whose family came from Kilkenny. Historians and genealogists will note the union of two of our merchant families of ten forming his ancestry. An antecedent from Dublin was Sir Martin Archer- Shee, a noted portrait painter who at one time was president of the Royal Academy. Young George was in his first year at naval college when he was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order from the locker of a classmate. On the same day he had been in the local post office and later the postmistress would claim that he cashed a five shilling order there. After a cursory investigation, he was expelled and sent home in disgrace. But his father, Martin Archer- Shee, who had never known his son to tell a lie, believed him when he protested his innocence, and set out to seek justice for the boy .

One of England’s outstanding legal advocates was persuaded to get involved in the case. Having spent three hours alone with the boy testing his truthfulness by trying to browbeat him into a confession, the advocate declared with certainty ‘The boy is innocent’. He immediately set about proving it .

The first hurdle he had to overcome was the immunity from prosecution that protected both the Crown and the Admiralty. A petition of right had to be used to bring the case before the courts, the process dragging on for almost two years before ending up at an appeal hearing that lasted only four days. The brilliant advocate easily discredited the identification evidence of the postmistress and won over the court with a devastating defence of the boy’s innocence. Council for the Admiralty quickly capitulated and conceded that the boy was totally blameless .

After the trial, the brilliant counsel who had defended the young cadet was so emotionally overcome that he left the courtroom with tears in his eyes. He told friends that no case in which he had ever been involved had touched him so deeply and he had never been more overjoyed at a verdict. This surprised those who remembered a far more famous case in which he had triumphed 15 years earlier. At that trial he had electrified the court when he turned to the man in the witness box and asked him if he had ever kissed a particular boy. ‘No,because he was too ugly’, came the reply from the witness – who too late, realised he was condemning himself out of his own mouth. On the stand was Oscar Wilde and the Dublin- born advocate subjecting him to a blistering cross-examination was his former fellow-student at Trinity, Edward Carson. Carson’s unmasking of Wilde’s homosexuality demolished the great writer’s libel suit against the Marquess of Queensbury and eventually led to his incarceration in Reading Gaol .

A few years after his defence of George Archer-Shee, Carson went on to claim his enduring place in history as the ‘uncrowned king of Ulster’. Today the statue of Carson flailing the air above Stormont memorialises his rousing appeal for the Protestants of Ulster as he led them in the fight against Home Rule, by force if necessary. Carson is not loved by Catholics of Ulster, many of whom would see him as an unregenerate bigot .

Yet he did not like to see injustice inflicted on vulnerable individuals, and it was this instinct that impelled him to champion the cause of George Archer-Shee in what looked like an unwinnable case. He did so in the full knowledge that the young cadet came from a devout Catholic family at a time when there was still distrust in the English establishment about the works and pomps of Papists. There had been reports that the head of the naval school expressed no surprise when Archer-Shee was accused of theft, suggesting that this was only to be expected from a Roman Catholic.