Stitched up in a surgical corset

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The Independent Online
AT ONE point after our lunch in a Southwold hotel I asked directions to the ladies'. 'Be very careful,' said Anthony Gilbey. He is, understandably, wary these days of using public conveniences. Three and a half years ago he used one in Beccles and ended up being arrested and charged with murder. It was the start of an ordeal that ended in the High Court only this week, when Mr Gilbey received pounds 85,000 in damages and costs from Suffolk's police force and an unreserved apology.

'Have you read much Kafka?' he asked. 'I can tell you, at the time Kafka seemed quite mild compared to what was happening to me.'

The beginning of this grotesque tale of ordinary police folk was deceptively mundane. Mr Gilbey visited a lavatory in the small Suffolk town a few miles from his home. What he did not know was that perched a few yards above him in the rafters were two police officers with a full view of the gentlemen's cubicles - not to mention the ladies'. A while later there was a hammering on the cubicle door. 'At first I thought it was Rag Week,' said Mr Gilbey. 'They were wearing the sort of shoes one's grandchildren wear.' ('Trainers,' interjected his wife, Lady Penelope Gilbey.) 'There were lots of plain clothes policemen there who obviously thought it was a most tremendous lark.'

An astonished Mr Gilbey was arrested, accused of gross indecency and conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. He was taken to the police station at nearby Halesworth, and left for some hours in a cell to contemplate events and a single line of graffiti: 'Want some dope? Plant a policeman.'

Unfortunately for Mr Gilbey, he has had two operations for cancer of the bladder, which meant he spent rather longer in Beccles public lavatory than the average man. He also wears - and this is what had caught the attention of the Suffolk constabulary - surgical stockings because of thrombosis in his legs. He had found the best way to keep them up was a corset with shoulder straps. This had been no secret: indeed, says Mr Gilbey, it had spent much of its time revealed to the village on the washing line, 'where my wife was very keen to explain it wasn't hers'.

Surgical stockings were, however, far beyond the usual horizons of the Suffolk police. After a while Mr Gilbey was brought to the charge room 'with a mass of policemen - a policeman said, 'Do you mind dropping your trousers?' - I did. Everyone thought that was very entertaining'. He was taken back to his cell, and then to an interview room, where he was interviewed by two policemen who asked him to sign a statement admitting to various indecent acts which, it was claimed, had been observed by the two policemen high above him in the Beccles lavatory.

He refused to sign. He asked to talk to a solicitor. The only firm he could remember had carried out his conveyancing. A solicitor there asked if he had committed the crime. 'I said, of course not,' said Mr Gilbey. 'I said, shouldn't you come round? He said, 'No, I don't think so - just tell the police the truth and you'll be all right'.'

Alone, Mr Gilbey was questioned further. 'After a while I thought - for I am nothing if not current in my vernacular - 'I'm being fitted up here',' he said. 'And I refused to say any more.' He was put back in the cell, where his faith in the system of law and order reasserted itself. 'I thought, this can't go on much longer. Someone's going to come along in a minute and say - 'I'm most awfully sorry - understandable mistake - there you were, rigged out like Mae West - but you go with our apologies'.'

When a new police officer came into the cell Mr Gilbey thought that would be his message. 'He had a suit three sizes too tight, but I wasn't in a position to make sartorial judgements. Then he said: 'I'm arresting you on suspicion of murdering Jeanette Kempton'.'

Mr Gilbey paused. 'Everything else had been awful, but credible. At that point it moved from reality into fantasy. To be locked up, not able to see out - it's a relief to see other human beings, no matter how disagreeable, even in an interview room. You don't want to be put back in that black hole. And they play on it. I always used to think that people who'd confessed and withdrawn their confessions were suspect. Don't you? Well, I've had a leper's squint into that kind of thing. You do want to tell them what they want to hear.'

But he did not confess. So at 1am, both shaken and stirred, he was let go on police bail with a note saying he had been charged with gross indecency, conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace, and murder. The body of Jeanette Kempton, from Brixton, had been dumped not far from his home in the preceeding weeks. Not one shred of evidence linked him to her death. Lady Penelope, a local churchwarden, when questioned by the police, volunteered the fact that her husband wore surgical stockings and a corset. A call to his doctor would have confirmed the reasons.

Yet, though the murder charge was dropped, the prosecution for the other two offences went ahead. Months went by in which the Gilbeys felt hardly able to show their heads in the village shop. At Ipswich Crown Court in 1990 the prosecution case fell apart after the trial judge instructed the jury that the police evidence was unreliable. Still Mr Gilbey felt under a shadow of rumour and gossip: no smoke without fire, that sort of thing. Then fate brought James Gilbey, his second cousin once removed, under media attention over the 'Squidgy' tapes, and a press anxious for family background seized, with relish, upon Anthony Gilbey's corset.

Both men are descended from the founders of the Gilbey gin business. 'But you can knock the gin heir story on the head,' said Mr Gilbey, who runs a business making mementoes. 'The money went down a different line.' It was a bequest from his mother that allowed him to fund the legal fight against the police. 'I can't tell you how my wife has stood up to them and stood by me. One of the things you need in this situation is your family by your side. And to be self-employed. And a bit of money.'

Now that his name has been cleared, Mr Gilbey would like to see the methods of Britain's police forces substantially reformed. He has no doubt why the accusation of murder was made. 'I know what they do to Rastas. They give them a bloody good kicking. What happens to middle-class people is they bring two people over from the murder squad and arrest you for murder. And it frightens the bloody life out of you.'

(Photograph omitted)