Obituary: Juanita Carberry, aristocrat, ship steward and animal inspector
Juanita Carberry as a teenager played a role in one of the most notorious murders of the last century. In 1941 Josslyn Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll, a farmer in Kenya and a well-known ladies’ man, was shot outside Nairobi after returning late at night with his lover, Diana Delves Broughton.
He was a central figure in the “fast” crowd who inhabited the Happy Valley and she was married to Sir Jock Delves Broughton – older and not as glamorous as the debonair Scottish aristocrat. The scandalous affair resulted in the best-selling book White Mischief and the movie of the same name. The latter starred Charles Dance and Greta Scacchi.
Carberry is thought to be the last surviving witness of all those directly or indirectly involved in the murder. It had all the ingredients of an upper-class hedonistic scandal: drugs, drink and louche behaviour were manifest and news of the murder broke while Britain was at war.
The Earl of Erroll was one of the most ancient and significant titles in the Scottish peerage. Created in 1453, the family holds other titles and the office of Hereditary High Constable of Scotland.
Carberry published her own account of the affair in Child of Happy Valley (1991) and wrote openly of the debauched lifestyle into which she had been born.
“Had the fates decided I was going to grow up a slut or a monster,” she wrote, “they could not have found a more fertile nursery than Seremai, my childhood home in the White Highlands of Kenya.”
For even the parentage of Juanita Virginia Sistare Carberry was in doubt.
Her mother was married to an Irish peer who had tried to have her aborted as he was not physically able to father children. Her real father was thought to have been a nearby coffee farmer, Maxwell Trench. Her mother was killed in an air crash when she was three and Carberry was brought up by her sadistic “father” and a stepmother she assumed was her mother.
It was while still in her teens that Carberry was sucked into the Erroll affair. Josh Erroll was a handsome member of the Nairobi set who had come to Kenya in order to re-establish the family’s finances.
He had carried on an affair with Diana Delves Broughton and in January 1941 Erroll’s body was found slumped in the front of his car outside Nairobi. He had been shot through the head by someone in the rear of the car. The next day Carberry and her stepmother lunched at the Broughtons.
In the stable yard Carberry noticed that some gym shoes were burning on a bonfire. The police had found traces of gym shoe cleaner at the scene of the crime and Carberry claimed Broughton confessed to the murder there and then. She decided to say nothing to the police about the bonfire or Broughton’s confession – indeed, she was deemed an unreliable witness.
At his trial Sir Jock was acquitted, but he committed suicide in The Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool a year later. In 1971 Carberry was interviewed by Cyril Connolly and James Fox but withheld any mention of Broughton’s confession.
In the 1980s, when James Fox was researching his book, White Mischief, he reinterviewed Carberry and she stated that Broughton had confessed to her the day after the murder that he had killed Erroll. “There is no mystery. He [Broughton] did it” Carberry told Fox. “I can tell you that now. He told me himself the following day.
The truth remains a mystery as there are differing accounts of the events and many of the facts just do not tally. Carberry was left harbouring her recollections of an unhappy and disrupted childhood.
Carberry attended various schools in Kenya and South Africa before joining, at 17, the Nursing Yeomanry in Nairobi. She was then attached to the Royal Corps of Signals and became a dispatch rider.
In 1951 she joined the Merchant Navy and for the next 17 years acted as a steward on cargo ships such as the Langley Scot and Langley Clyde and some Norwegian vessels.
In the 1970s Carberry settled in Mombasa, working for the Missions to Seamen as an inspector of livestock for the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Throughout her life Carberry had maintained a great love of wild animals and the sea.
Carberry retained her independent mind and lifestyle to the end. For the last 20 years of her life she lived in a flat in Chelsea overlooking the Thames from which she proudly flew the Red Ensign. On Remembrance Sunday she marched in the Cenotaph parade.
Juanita Carberry was twice married. There were no children.