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An intimate tale of an epic event

There is something inexplicably mysterious about a story lost
that is subsequently found. The time capsule, the buried treasure,
the search for lost truth – all are the stuff of epic humanity.

The Human’s in the Telling has grown out of detailed research into the private papers of David Maxwell Fyfe over the last twenty years. Here his grandson Tom Blackmore remembers the moment the cache first came to light.

There is something inexplicably mysterious about a story lost that is subsequently found. The time capsule, the buried treasure, the search for lost truth – all are the stuff of epic humanity.

The rediscovery of the Maxwell Fyfe letters hardly falls into the same category – albeit that they were indeed stored in the vaults of the City solicitors Allen and Overy. The contact was mundane, a brief letter describing boxes of material left by David Maxwell Fyfe. A surprisingly large number of boxes as I discovered as I stacked them into the London cab.

Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe
The Viscountess Kilmuir, D.B.E
by Anna Zinkeisen 1901 – 1976

As a family we had known of these letters for some time. Without my having any real knowledge of the subject, the failure to find them had registered as a disappointment when my grandmother died in 1992. The assumption was that she might have thrown them away. For a woman who had spent her life close to public office, she seemed to have little desire to record for posterity. Or perhaps this was because she had spent her life close to public office.

Dying as she did when I was in my early thirties I had known her well, loved and admired her deeply. When I was nine years old she had collected me after my first sports day at preparatory boarding school, and had raced another family down the M1, and had won.

David Patrick Maxwell Fyfe
Earl of Kilmuir
Painted in his Lord Chancellor robes
by Harold Knight
1874 – 1961

This race was run only a couple of years after Maxwell Fyfe had died, so I hardly knew him at all, and have no coherent memories. Throughout my life I only knew that he had achieved greatly, and that, as his oldest grandson, I inherited not just the paraphernalia of his office, but also an unspoken and little understood responsibility to follow. He seemed stern, and gazed sternly down from his portrait by Harold Knight, bedecked in his Lord Chancellors robes, garters and all.

The traffic was grim as the taxi edged its way across London from the City; it took a couple of hours to make the journey. There was time enough to open boxes and glance at their contents. And I shook.

The letters were there, and within them was a story of a time, a place and two lovers separated for a year, discovering a purpose, fame and a moment of definition. I knew little enough about Nuremberg (the Oxford history degree of 1982 saw the post war period as current affairs), but the names of Goering, Ribbentrop and Doenitz were familiar, and here they were discussed in familiar terms.

It seemed to me at once that here was the discovery of something extraordinary, a little mysterious and if not an epic tale then an intimate tale of an epic event.

Actually, there were two things I did know about Nuremberg, over and above the fact that it was a trial held of the major war criminals after the Second World War. First, I knew that Maxwell Fyfe had conducted a successful cross-examination of Goering, and the second was that Albert Speer used to give my grandmother the eye when she visited the tribunal.

Envelope addressed to David Maxwell Fyfe

Maxwell Fyfe had started the task of sorting the letters out and had had the first two letters (those he later used in his autobiography) typed up on House of Lords headed paper. However, the sorting was only half done, and only his letters had been touched. Sylvia’s exchanges of letters were thrown into boxes in their envelopes. A brief glance at the letters revealed obstacles of handwriting, a lack of dating (many of the letters are identified only by the day
of the week), and the uncertainty of postal delivery. This last problem meant that replies to points raised in letters could not be dealt with until some weeks later. Other problems to the chronology were caused by Maxwell Fyfe’s three visits home and Sylvia’s two visits to Nuremberg, as well as their occasional telephone calls that became more regular as time went on. The whole story is not in the letters and this can be frustrating. However, their year is described in some detail.

Before embarking at all on the sorting of the letters I read Ann and John Tusas’ excellent general history – The Nuremberg Trial. This provided a sufficient description of events to create a framework in which to try and place them. As time went on, I read transcripts of the tribunal as well as other histories. Early on Maxwell Fyfe was quite meticulous in his descriptions, as though aware of the gravity of his mission. However, the pressures of daily obligations and
events prevented his letters from being a perfect record, and as the trial extended from its originally anticipated three months to ten, his exasperation flows into the letters, which become all the richer for their spontaneity.

Letters at Churchill Archives

During the ten months Maxwell Fyfe was separated from his family and alone, while Sylvia continued to manage the house and much more. He sometimes had
time to write at length, although this time diminished when he was busy. The key period of the crossexaminations of Goering and Ribbentrop is only lightly
covered, whilst Sylvia was present for his crossexamination of von Papen.

After sorting and typing the letters of Maxwell Fyfe, I turned to Sylvia’s exchange. These letters are more spontaneous, reflective and compelling. Not only did Sylvia run the house (with a lodger, Melford Stevenson, a barrister and judge advocate general for the armed forces) but the constituency in Liverpool, acting for the MP, and remaining in touch with Conservative Party leaders like Rab Butler. Later she was to become the first woman vice-chair of the Conservative Party, and clearly much of that groundwork was laid over this year.

The jigsaw of the letters began to form a picture of a year of loneliness and yearning on both sides, matched by drive and determination to do something important. But above all they painted a picture of two people very much in love well into their forties, and for their grandson that was marvellous. In the boxes, alongside the letters were other records of Nuremberg: Maxwell Fyfe’s speech concluding for the prosecution in the case against the Nazi organisations, other speeches and notes for speeches given about the tribunal on his return, articles covering the progress of the trial, and a Christmas supplement to the Liverpool
Evening Post, which included chapters of a children’s story he had written for his daughter Miranda.

This story, The Wishing Doll, figured quite prominently in the letters, as it was being written, read and giving delight. Also, it caught the attention of the press quite early on, and its existence was widely reported. Taken all together, an archive of strange merit had been bequeathed to our family.

WATCH, READ, LISTEN to the story at

The personal papers of David Maxwell Fyfe are now permanently held at the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. Find out more at


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