16 Aug 2006

The 3rd Lord Kilbracken (John Raymond Godley, D.S.C.), 1920-2006


The Telegraph reports:

The 3rd Lord Kilbracken, who died yesterday aged 85, hit the headlines in 1957 when he succeeded in gatecrashing the Great Red Square parade in Moscow on the 40th anniversary of the October uprising, wearing a pink Leander tie and with his trousers turned inside out.

During the war Kilbracken had served in the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm as a Swordfish pilot, and had gone on to win a DSC in 1945 while commanding a Wildcat squadron. In 1972, however, he returned his medal and announced that he was renouncing British citizenship in protest at the shooting of 13 demonstrators during the so-called Bloody Sunday massacres in Londonderry…

At Eton he distinguished himself by rowing in the first VIII, taking flying lessons and setting himself up as the school bookie, thus inaugurating a life-long love of gambling of all kinds. The position earned him a certain amount of kudos with his peers, but was not appreciated by the beaks – or by his parents, who cut off funds for his flying lessons as a punishment.

He decided that the only way out of ignominy and poverty was to win the school’s Hervey verse prize, which came with a handsome cheque for £16. He duly did so with a poem about a storm which he described as “a masterpiece of 116 lines and a high moral tone”. The prize was presented to him by the same master who had given him a thrashing for his bookmaking activities, though John Godley knew from “a certain look in his eye” that the crime had not been forgotten.

He had already made up his mind that he wanted to be a writer, possibly a poet, though his father disapproved, suggesting that if he really wanted to be a Milton, he would be better off as a “mute, inglorious” one. Nonetheless, after going up to Balliol College, Oxford, he published a small volume of verse, Even for an Hour, and wrote for Isis and the Oxford Magazine.

War interrupted his studies, but when the conflict ended he returned to Balliol courtesy of the ex-servicemen’s grant scheme and rowed bow in the University’s second boat, Isis.

He had continued to take flying lessons at school, saving the money and defying his parents’ ban. When war broke out, he joined the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and for the first two years flew at every opportunity, “perfectly convinced of my own immortality, despite a number of exciting prangs, a ditching in the Firth of Forth and quite a bit of tracer”.

In 1943-44 he served on convoy escort duty on merchant aircraft carriers in the North Atlantic, flying single-engined Fairey Swordfish biplanes, machines which “seemed to have been left in the war by mistake” and were affectionately known as “stringbags”. On one sortie his engine failed completely, and he had to ditch into the freezing waters of the Atlantic. All bar one of the aircraft’s dinghies failed to inflate, and, after several hours in the water, he and his crew were rescued in the nick of time by a Canadian fishing vessel.

Later Godley was posted lieutenant-commander in charge of 835 Squadron (then equipped with Wildcat fighters) on an escort carrier, Nairana; the squadron protected some of the last convoys to Russia, and also conducted night strikes on enemy shipping off the Norwegian coast. He was awarded his DSC for one of these attacks, on the night of January 29 1945.

By this time, though, he had begun to have serious doubts about his immortality. Just before VJ day a fault developed in the hydraulic system of his Fairey Barracuda, and he found himself being liberally sprayed with highly anaesthetic hydraulic fluid. Fortunately, he was almost directly over an airfield, and he managed to land the aircraft before passing out. That was the last time he flew as a pilot. Later he would write a vivid memoir of his time with the Fleet Air Arm, Bring Back my Stringbag: Swordfish Pilot at War 1940-45 (1979).

On coming down from Oxford, Godley joined the Daily Mirror and wrote human interest stories. On one assignment he met the daughter of Hans van Meergeren, the Dutch painter who made a fortune by forging Vermeers. Later he wrote van Meergeren’s biography.

After joining the Sunday Express in 1949, Godley embarked on an overland trip to New Zealand to join the celebrations marking the centenary of the founding of Christchurch by an ancestor, John Robert Godley. While he was there his father died, and the new Lord Kilbracken made his way back to England by sea.

His father had not lived on the family estate in Ireland for many years, and at the time of his death it was under offer to a man who intended to demolish the house and exploit the land for forestry. Although he knew he could not afford to maintain the house (he had inherited rather less than £1,000 from his father), Kilbracken could not bear to sell, and withdrew it from the market in the hope that he could somehow keep it in the family.

The house was damp and dilapidated and the estate neglected, its sole stock consisting of one aged cow. His best course, he decided, was to divide his time equally between Killegar and the rest of the world, trying to make a go of developing the estate while supporting the endeavour from his earnings as a writer.

He launched himself into a range of unsuccessful enterprises: growing Christmas trees, making cream cheese and selling square yards of Irish bog to Americans for a nickel apiece. He failed to make any money out of this last venture, since the cost of sending a receipt for each nickel was two nickels.

Meanwhile the Sunday Express had given Kilbracken the “Ephraim Hardcastle” column, of which the perquisites included cocktail parties, first nights, free dinners and a large expense account. But a few weeks into the job, while travelling to Fleet Street on his customary bus from Chelsea, he decided on a whim to get off at Victoria Station and board the boat train.

After a few weeks wandering around the Mediterranean, he fetched up in a dirty waterfront hotel at Ajaccio, Corsica, where he became fascinated by the mystery of Rommel’s treasure which had supposedly been dumped somewhere in the sea off Bastia. He returned to Corsica after a short spell in America, where he tried to restore his ailing finances by joining the books of a lecture agency. He never did find Rommel’s treasure.

Back in Ireland in 1953 Kilbracken met the film director John Huston, who invited him to do a screen test for the part of Ishmael for his forthcoming production of Moby Dick. Initially, Huston seemed highly impressed by his performance, so Kilbracken was surprised – and disappointed – to receive a letter a few days later informing him that “various other factors have finally persuaded me that you were not quite right for this particular part”. His hopes of getting a smaller part in the film, as Pequod sailor number 29 (whose only solo contribution involved walking up the gang plank carrying a live pig), also came to nothing. Huston eventually gave him a job as a supplementary script writer, for which he got no screen credit.

One day in 1957 the telephone rang and a suave American voice asked whether Kilbracken would like to spend the next four days in London with the Hollywood film actress Jayne Mansfield, who was there to attend the premiere of her new film Oh for a Man! The fee would be 100 guineas – enough to buy him “a couple of cows”. He knew little about Jayne Mansfield, other than that “her dimensions were apparently very unusual”, and found to his relief that his duties were mainly formal.

During her visit, he received a call from the Daily Express inviting him to write on “My Four Days with Jayne Mansfield”, for a fee of “two more cows”. A few weeks later, hoping to add to his herd, Kilbracken suggested to Charles Wintour, the Express’s editor, that he might go to Moscow to cover the 40th anniversary celebrations of the October 1917 revolution.

Travelling on a tourist visa, since it was not possible to gain a visa as a journalist, Kilbracken set himself two goals: to see the Great Red Square Parade and to interview Khrushchev. Unfortunately, though, there were no seats left for the parade, and as a “tourist” it would be impossible to arrange an interview with Khruschchev through official channels. Subterfuge was the only solution.

On the day of the parade Kilbracken rose early and dressed with particular care, hoping to slip out of the hotel and avoid his official minder, and then to pass himself off as a member of the Russian proletariat. With his trousers on inside out under his overcoat, wearing a pink Leander tie and a fur hat pulled down over his ears, he launched himself on to the Moscow streets.

By degrees he managed to work his way to the steps of the Moscow Hotel on Red Square, where he had a front row view of the military parade; later he insinuated himself into the civilian parade, marching past the rostrum with the other “comrades”.

That evening he received a telegram from Wintour which read: “Hail Hail Hail Ace Newsman stop Congratulations on wonderful story leading Daily Express tonight.” In the Irish edition the story was headlined “Only Irish peer in Moscow watches Biggest Military Show”. As Kilbracken wryly observed, he had been the only peer of any sort in Moscow, or anywhere else behind the Iron Curtain.

Kilbracken achieved his second goal by posing as a photographer and gatecrashing a reception at the Egyptian embassy which Khrushchev was attending. He managed to engage Khrushchev in conversation for nearly half an hour, and the crowd around them became so great at one point that they ended up crushed together, belly to belly.

With the money from Jayne Mansfield and Moscow, Kilbracken was able to buy several more cows. The best milker he christened Jayne.

Kilbracken had taken his seat in the House of Lords in 1952, but at first rarely attended debates. He joined the Liberal Party in 1960, but in 1966 switched his allegiance to Labour, arguing that he wanted to take “more positive responsibility” than the Liberals could provide. As the Troubles erupted in Northern Ireland, he found his loyalties coming under strain. He had long been opposed to partition, and, though not himself a Catholic, felt strongly about the discrimination endured by the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland.

In the wave of hysteria that followed the Bloody Sunday shootings in January 1972, Kilbracken announced that he was returning his six war medals in protest, that he was renouncing British citizenship and had become a citizen of the Irish Republic.

His announcement did not compromise his right to sit as a member of the upper House, of which he became an increasingly active member. Wildly bearded and vigorous, Kilbracken continued to appear, campaigning for, among other things, the rights of Kurds in Iraq and an end to partition in Ireland.

In 1988, as a member of a parliamentary group investigating Aids, he condemned government claims that people could catch Aids through normal heterosexual relations as “nonsense”, and called its publicity campaign “alarmist, wasteful and insane”.

Kilbracken continued to work as a freelance journalist, and, during the 1980s, wrote a series of guides to identifying plant and animal species. His first such guide, The Easy Way to Bird Recognition (1982) won the Times Educational Supplement book award and sold out at its first printing.

Kilbracken had got the idea for the book on a visit to a rebel Kurdish area of northern Iraq, where he had been frustrated by his inability to identify local birds. Other books in the series included guides to trees and wild flowers.

Lord Kilbracken married first, in 1943 (dissolved 1949), Penelope Reyne; they had two sons, one of whom predeceased him. He married secondly, in 1981 (dissolved 1989), Susan Heazlewood; they had a son. His eldest son, Christopher John Godley, who was born in 1945, succeeds to the peerage.

London Times

5 Feedbacks on "The 3rd Lord Kilbracken (John Raymond Godley, D.S.C.), 1920-2006"

John Robert Godley

Wonderful information. I wished that I could say that I belonged to this man’s family. Who knows, maybe arround the time of the famine when many went to the mainland.


Hi from New York And thanks for the web site. It was just the thing I had been looking for. It has helped me no end. Thanks again


My wife and I visited Lord Kilbracken on the 11th of May 2001. I had read his book, “Bring Back my Stringbag” and had served in Canada’s Naval Air Branch and was involved with the Shearwater Aviation Museum in Nova Scotia which has one of only 4 airworthy Swordfish Biplanes left. I had called John Godley and asked if we could visit him to which he agreed. We had tea with him in the Kitchen of the manor at Kilygar and a tour of the Manor. He signed my copy of his book, which is now in the library of the Shearwater Aviation Museum, and I presented him with a T Shirt with a picture of a Swordfish on the front. We invited him to dinner but he declined saying ” I’m not in good form today”. No doubt he was worn out from entertaining we “colonials”. He was a wonderful man and we thoroughly enjoyed meeting him. We shall not see another of his ilk soon. I am sorry to read of his passing but he lived a long on exciting life. He lived respected and died regretted, what more can any man ask?

John Robert Godley

I wished that I had met the fellow whose name we shared.
I was walking down Whitehall minding my own business when I was overcome with a strong feeling to cross the road and read an inscription on a wall. Something that seldom happens to me.
I was knocked out when I saw my name and that the person who shared my name founded Canturbury Province in New Zealand.
Obviously we are related but I would like to know how many generations back.
Probably five or six.
Funny though, I was a bookmaker, love art, and write the odd poem. i hate beards however, but would love to spend time in Lords going “Here, Here”.

Gary A Godley

I am proud to say that I am a Family member of Lord Kilbracken and sorry that I never met him. My Uncle Slade Godley had corresponded with him (50-60 years ago) and established the family relationship. I was sad to learn of his passing as I hoped one day that I would be able to meet him. He was quite a “colorful” man and I am now proud that I have an Irish relative, and not completely English as I thought!


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