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The Penitent of Toynbee Hall

John Profumo could be a model for those publicly disgraced in our own age, who ought to seek redemption.

Photograph of Toynbee Hall from the World Today Magazine, April 1902. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

You could say that John Profumo was cancelled.

He began like so many others in the 20th century British aristocracy. The son of a London insurance magnate, Profumo attended the prestigious Harrow School as a boy before enrolling at the University of Oxford as a law student. When his father died in 1940, Profumo inherited his fortune and entered British politics, serving variously in the nation’s Parliament and Cabinet in the succeeding 20 years.

In 1961, his fortunes changed. Profumo and the British osteopath Stephen Ward visited the estate of William Astor, a viscount and conservative M.P. from Wycombe. Astor took Profumo and Ward to the viscount’s Buckinghamshire estate in July along with Yevgeny Ivanov, a supposed employee of the Soviet embassy. When they arrived, they met Christine Keeler, a showgirl from Wraysbury invited to the estate by fellow enchantress Mandy Rice-Davis. Keeler was swimming nude when she met Profumo, at the time a married man of almost seven years. The two began a dalliance that would mar Profumo’s name and take down the conservative government in turn.

Profumo’s affair with Keeler lasted between a few weeks and several months. All that is known for certain is that it ended before 1962. The M.P.’s troubles were worsened by the fact of Keeler’s contemporaneous affair with Ivanov, later confirmed to be a Soviet spy.

A Labor politician learned of the Profumo affair and the connection between Keeler and the Soviet Ivanov. In March 1963, Profumo was called before the House of Commons and testified that there was “no impropriety in [his] acquaintanceship” with Keeler, threatening to press libel charges against anyone who repeated such allegations against him.

Eventually, Ward and Keeler disclosed facts to the press that undermined Profumo’s claim to a non-sexual relationship with the Wraysbury showgirl. In June 1963, after it was obvious that he had lied to Parliament, Profumo resigned in disgrace.

Profumo is notable not for his transgressions—there are sitting members of U.S. Congress who make Profumo look like a Boy Scout—but rather for his heroic attempt at repentance. It is a story all the more striking in contrast to the “rehabilitations” of disgraced men today, such as CNN’s Jeffrey Toobin.

In March 1964, Profumo called Walter Birmingham, the warden of Toynbee Hall, a welfare institution in the slums of London, asking if he might come and serve the facility and its poor residents.

Like Profumo, Toynbee Hall was a throwback to a bygone era. Set apart from narrow streets of London’s East End by a humble frontage, Toynbee’s discolored brick façade betrayed the institution’s age and Victorian provenance. Built in 1884, Toynbee Hall was one in a group of social institutions—almshouses, work farms, inebriate asylums—that served the British underclass at the end of the 19th century. It was built on the “settlement” model, where the wealthy would live among the poor to model bourgeois values and befriend the lowly and downtrodden.

In 1964, the institution, like its newest volunteer, found itself in crisis. Toynbee was built by Victorians and operated on Victorian assumptions. By the middle of the 20th century, reformers were rebelling against the perceived paternalism of the Victorian model and embracing “scientific” solutions to poverty that threatened to render voluntary institutions like Toynbee Hall obsolete.

Profumo quickly ascended the Toynbee ranks, becoming its chief fundraiser and ultimately its chairman. He spent time with poor children and widows, directing them to housing supports, legal services, and educational opportunities. He refused press interviews; according to a contemporary London newspaper, “Profumo has sought no personal publicity for his volunteer work.”

For the rest of his life, in silence and with stoicism, Profumo repented the affair for which he is now famous, giving himself wholly to the poor and the cause of voluntarism in Britain.

In 1983, Profumo addressed the Royal Society of Arts about the importance of the institution to which he had given the past 20 years of his life:

At the end of World War II with the introduction of the “Welfare State”, the role of the voluntary bodies was in serious question. It looked as if the age of dedicated voluntary social workers was over. Not only was their amateur status called into question, the whole idea of “charity” was considered demeaning…. The State simply can not stretch out its hands to reach all corners of deprivation…. As a result, the demands on the voluntary bodies, instead of withering away, are increasing…. We in the voluntary sector have got to keep abreast of the times using modern methods and new projects wherever needed. We must plug gaps, build bridges and blaze trails, but I am convinced that the voluntary bodies are now an integral part of our social order.

Profumo labored in relative silence until his death in 2006. When he died, British Cabinet official Bill Deedes said that Profumo’s life had been marked by a “very long stint of social work for the poor of east London, and if that isn’t considered to be sufficient atonement for the mistake he made, then there is no such thing as forgiveness.”

Every element of Profumo’s redemption belonged to a world that no longer exists. His stoic silence was a vestige of a world before the therapeutic revolution. Toynbee Hall is an artifact of Victorian Britain whose founders would be today accused of paternalism. The notion that a man can be forgiven for even the gravest of sins is bound up in a Christian worldview our culture is eager to forget.

The poet Jane Hirshfield wrote, “For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame.” For the cancelled, a lesson in humility, from John Profumo.

about the author

John Hirschauer is assistant editor of The American Conservative. He was previously a William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at National Review and a staff writer at RealClear.

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