Obituary: Petre Crowder

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PETRE CROWDER was a distinguished barrister and junior political figure, but he is probably most remembered for his successful defence of the East End gangsters the Kray twins against a charge of demanding money with menaces, and of Ron Kray when he was charged with the murder of Frank Mitchell. He went on to become Recorder of Colchester between 1967 and 1991.

He was born in 1919, the son of Sir John Ellenborough Crowder. He had a privileged childhood and youth, and was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. He evinced an early interest in the law, but in 1939 volunteered to join the Coldstream Guards. He had an active war in North Africa, Italy and Burma; in this last theatre, serving under Field Marshal Sir William Slim, he attained the rank of Major.

As with so many others who served in the conflict, his civilian peacetime career was cruelly interrupted and he was not called to the Bar until 1948. Thereafter his career progressed steadily rather than spectacularly: he became a QC only in 1964, and in 1971 was appointed Master of the Bench of the Inner Temple.

In January 1964 Reg and Ron Kray, along with another man, Edward Smith, were arrested and charged with demanding money with menaces. The magistrate hearing the case took the steps of refusing bail for the brothers and concealing the names of witnesses against them, for fear of retribution. Crowder appeared for the Kray twins; the defence argued strenuously that they should be allowed bail, on the grounds that

these two young men had been deprived of their liberty since January, and it was unlikely that the case would be heard this side of March; they would have served, in effect, a sentence of two months' imprisonment for something of which they might well be acquitted.

The Krays were found not guilty in April that year.

At Bow Street Magistrates' Court in 1968, the Krays, with Frank Foreman, were accused of helping in the escape of Frank "Mad Axeman" Mitchell from Dartmoor prison, and then of murdering him. Albert Donoghue, the Krays' former henchman, said: "Foreman described how Mitchell's heart was ripped and burst and said it was surprising how small his brain was for a big man like that. He said Mitchell finally `went into the pot', which I understood was an incinerator or something." Crowder appeared for Ron Kray; both Krays were acquitted.

Like many lawyers, Crowder was interested in politics, and his background gave him a Tory disposition. In the traditional manner, he was blooded at a by-election in North Tottenham just after the 1945 general election. This was a hopeless seat, but, also in the traditional way, he was rewarded by being selected to stand as a candidate in the safe constituency of Ruislip-Northwood in the general election of 1950. Later, when changes made by the Boundary Commission altered the constituency to Hillingdon and Ruislip-Northwood in 1974, he held the new seat even through the two Conservative general election defeats of that year. He was not to retire from the House of Commons until 1979.

By that year Crowder's political career was over: any hopes he had ever entertained of ministerial office had long been dashed, despite the patronage of Reginald Manningham-Buller, who appointed him to serve as his Parliamentary Private Secretary from 1952 to 1964, during which time Manningham-Buller was first Solicitor-General and then Attorney-General.

Being a Parliamentary Private Secretary is both arduous and unpaid, but the job is usually undertaken by ambitious politicians in the hope that loyal service will be rewarded by ministerial preferment. However, as Manningham-Buller's star faded, so did that of Crowder. Until he left politics, therefore, his main preoccupation was with his legal career.

Crowder's life and work serves as a paradigm of the careers of many lawyer politicians. He had every advantage of background, education, and wartime service to his country, and enjoyed at least some ministerial patronage, but he never managed to attract prime ministerial favour. It could perhaps be said that he was unfortunate in being taken under the wing of Manningham-Buller, a man who, whatever his skills as a barrister, his colleagues found difficult, if not impossible, to like.

Although, at 79, Crowder could look back on a long and successful career in his main profession, here again he never quite reached the front rank. But a parliamentary system as sophisticated and demanding as that of the United Kingdom depends to a very large extent on the long and unstinting service of men (and women) such as Petre Crowder.

Frederick Petre Crowder, politician and barrister: born 18 July 1919; called to the Bar, Inner Temple 1948, Master of the Bench 1971, Reader 1990, Treasurer 1991; MP (Conservative) for Ruislip-Northwood 1950-74, for Hillingdon, Ruislip-Northwood 1974-79; PPS to the Solicitor- General 1952-54, to the Attorney-General 1954-62; Deputy Chairman, Hertfordshire Quarter Sessions 1959-63, Chairman 1963-71; Recorder of Graves-end 1960- 67, of Colchester 1967-91; QC 1964; married 1948 The Hon Patricia Stourton (two sons); died 16 February 1999.