THE current controversy over the Not Proven verdict which is unique to the Scottish criminal justice system has rarely been placed in its historical context. That cannot be done in just one column, but I will attempt to do so over the next three weeks during which I will return to a particular case which continues to fascinate me – that of Madeleine Smith who I have now concluded got away with murder when the jury found the charge of poisoning her French lover not proven.

That case in 1857 is usually claimed as the biggest not proven controversy of them all, but today and next week I am going to write about the most infamous case of the latter years of the 19th century that featured a contentious not proven verdict, namely the Ardlamont Murder of 1893, which is more properly known as the Ardlamont Mystery because the jury decided that the accused, Alfred John Monson, was not proven to have murdered Lieutenant Cecil Hambrough in a shooting incident. It was the most sensational murder case in Scotland for many years with more than 100 “gentlemen of the press” in attendance at the trial to provide accounts that enthralled their readers – and not just in Scotland, as this was the biggest international criminal intrigue of the decade.

I have always believed that history should inform our present and help us to make decisions both as individuals and as a society as a whole. The more we know about the mistakes of the past, the more we can avoid them in the present and the future – at least that’s the theory, though I sometimes do despair of the vast ignorance of our political classes in particular. For instance, how can Boris Johnson and his Tory ministers preach about saving the Union when they don’t appear to have a clue about how that Union was formed and maintained?

Returning to the Not Proven verdict and the debate which is rightly ongoing – the Ardlamont Mystery is a case in point. Many people argue that it shows the worth of the Not Proven verdict which as we all know is the jury saying we think you did it but the Crown hasn’t proved the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. It is an acquittal, but never a satisfactory one simply because of the way ordinary people have traditionally viewed not proven verdicts.

Not just ordinary people. In 1906, the distinguished lawyer Alexander Moncrieff, later judge Lord Moncrieff, wrote in Blackwood’s Magazine: “When, therefore, the verdict ‘Not Guilty’ being available, a jury contents itself with finding the modified verdict ‘Not Proven’, the verdict reflects, and is intended to reflect, unfavourably upon the character of the person acquitted.”

The National:

Moncrieff was undoubtedly thinking of Ardlamont when he wrote that. Having reviewed all the evidence thoroughly, I am going to suggest that the Ardlamont Mystery is a lesson from history we should take heed of, because the accused person was probably guilty as sin, but the Crown could not prove it – and they even had testimony on their side by Dr Joseph Bell, on whom Arthur Conan Doyle famously based Sherlock Holmes. It’s not very well known that another Edinburgh doctor, Henry Littlejohn, also inspired Holmes as he was a brilliant pioneering medical forensic expert – and he, too, testified for the Crown against Manson.

As we shall see, the trial and the verdict turned on a dispute between expert witnesses and apart from the sensational nature of the case, was this a case of evil or just a horrible accident? The trial received such intense attention because the two principals were upper class with vague connections to the aristocracy.

The victim was 20-year-old Windsor Dudley Cecil Hambrough, scion of the supposedly monied and well-connected Hambrough family of Pipewell Hall in Northamptonshire and Steephill on the Isle of Wight. Always known as Cecil, it was his misfortune to have Major Dudley Albert Hambrough as his father. The Hambroughs had been wealthy, Cecil’s grandfather having paid for the construction of St Catherine’s Church at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight, but Major Dudley was something of a wastrel, as was his son. By the time of Cecil’s death, the family was effectively broke but still lived the life of the gentry on borrowed money.

ALFRED John Monson’s mother was the Hon Caroline Isabella Monckton, daughter of the 5th Viscount Galway. She had married the Rev Thomas John Monson. Alfred was one of 12 children born to the couple. Monson must have been something of a disappointment to his cleric father, despite graduating from Oxford University and making what was seen as a good marriage to Agnes Maude Day in 1881.

Major Hambrough realised that his son was going to need an army career in order to instil some discipline in him, the major being quite incapable of doing that himself. A commission was bought for Cecil, but he appeared not to have taken his military role too seriously.

Monson by this time was embroiled in all sorts of financial skulduggery, but his charm and Oxford background impressed Major Hambrough who employed him as a tutor to Cecil. If only the major had known that Monson had a history of insurance fraud – a school he had once owned had gone up in flames – and he and his wife were serial absconders whenever their creditors arrived. Monson had installed his wife and three young children in Risley Hall in Yorkshire and Cecil joined them for his education which largely seemed to have been about learning to drink and dine at other people’s expense. Evidence later emerged that Cecil Hambrough and Agnes Monson began an affair – Alfred Monson would later gain a divorce on grounds of her adultery, but none of that was known at the time of the murder trial, or else the result might have been different.

Monson was burning through his money, however, and also involving Major Hambrough in his scams. The whole focus of Monson was to keep his influence over Cecil until he reached the age of 21 when he would inherit the colossal sum of £200,000 from the family’s investments – it had been put in a trust until he reached his majority precisely so the cash would not be spent.

An issue which became incredibly important in the trial was that Arthur Sebright, a mortgage and insurance broker in London, advised Monson and Cecil Hambrough on how to protect Cecil’s money. Most previous accounts of the trial dismiss Sebright’s evidence but at the time it made a huge impression on the jurors and observers in court.

TAKEN from the trial transcript, Sebright testified: “Mr Monson was introduced to me in the early part of this year by Captain King, the representative of the Royal Insurance Company. In January there was a meeting in my house, at which Monson and Cecil Hambrough were present. Both of them joined in making a proposition to me.

“It is not my business to enter into transactions with minors on the chance of getting a good thing out of them when they come of age. I told Mr Hambrough and Mr Monson that I would not go into any transaction with Cecil Hambrough unless he was separately advised.

“There were two propositions. One was that I should buy from the Eagle Insurance Company the life interest of Major Hambrough, and that I should execute a deed of trust and hold it on behalf of young Cecil Hambrough. There were two objects in that. One was that when Cecil Hambrough came of age, he should join his father in cutting off the entail, and the provision out of the money so obtained should be given to Hambrough, senior, the rest, of course, going to Cecil Hambrough. In the event of Hambrough, senior, not agreeing to this, the terms not being arranged, it would have this effect, that it would give Cecil Hambrough an income to live upon when he came of age, whereas without that he would have had none whatever.

“Being a minor, Cecil could not purchase, but I was to purchase on his behalf the life interest of the father, and new policies were to be issued on Cecil’s life for £50,000. It was an absolutely necessary part of the scheme that Cecil’s life should be insured. I discovered from what passed in connection with that that Monson was well aware that a minor could not assign a policy; I should say that he was as well aware of it as any man in England. The question was referred to frequently. The policy was to be taken out by Monson.”

Longer term, Sebright would take Cecil on as a partner with Monson investing £10,000 and Cecil putting up £100,000 into the company. That never came to pass.

The point about Cecil being a minor was important because when Monson suggested relocating to Scotland for the shooting season, Cecil was just 20.

Monson took a lease on the Ardlamont Estate near Kames in Argyll. He spent the summer there before Cecil Hambrough came to stay in early August. They were joined by an acquaintance of Monson, a mysterious figure named Scott who purported to be a boating engineer. Scott was actually an underworld figure also known as Edward Sweeney and the bookmaker Ted Davis.

The National:

The undisputed facts are that on the night of August 9, 1893, Monson and Hambrough went out in a boat to do splash-net fishing. The boat sank, though whether this was by fair means or foul was never perfectly established. Someone had cut a hole in the bottom of the boat and installed a cork plug but whether this was removed accidentally or deliberately was never decided. It was the case, however, that Hambrough could not swim and had to be rescued by Monson.

THE following day, Monson, Scott and Hambrough went shooting. Only Scott did not have a gun, the other two having a 12-bore and 20-bore shotguns. The latter had usually been Hambrough’s weapon of choice but on this occasion, he chose the 12-bore. Scott’s role was to gather any game that they shot.

At some point during their ramble through the woods, a shot rang out and Cecil Hambrough was killed instantly. Monson and Scott were next seen by workers on the estate, who testified they had been running back to Ardlamont House both carrying guns that they proceeded to clean in full view of staff.

Monson and Scott both said that they had not been nearby when Hambrough fell while climbing over a wall, the shotgun accidentally discharging its load into his head.

The estate workers carried the body back to the house, and the local GP, Doctor John MacMillan, was sent for. He detected a distinct smell of whisky from Hambrough and found a small entry wound suggesting the muzzle of the gun had been near to the dead man’s head, and after viewing the locus he told Monson he concurred with the view that it had been a terrible accident.

Interestingly, several witnesses testified that Monson had been shocked and upset by the death of the young lieutenant, though whether that was a piece of acting – had he just killed the man who had been having an affair with his wife – or genuine grief for the loss of his meal ticket was never fully known.

What happened next is baffling. The police and local procurator fiscal’s office carried out a perfunctory examination of the scene while the body was taken south and buried in the graveyard of the Hambrough-built St Catherine’s Church. Nobody at that time had carried out even a basic post-mortem.

Find out next week what happened when they did.