Burly private investigator who took on the British justice system and counted the Kray twins and Lord Lucan among his clients.
George Devlin was often mistaken for a lawyer. He never qualified, but his mastery of legal detail was impeccable. As a private investigator he commanded large fees, often from divorcing aristocrats. In the days when evidence of adultery was needed to prove a divorce, Devlin and his associates collected that evidence. Working from offices in Baker Street, where he traded on the Sherlock Holmes connection, he drove a succession of smart cars.
Having grown up in the East End, Devlin came to the assistance of the Kray twins in 1965 when the pair were accused of demanding money with menaces. “He would cost as much as a top barrister, but Manny [Fryde, their legal adviser] guessed correctly that in a case like this he could be worth every penny,” wrote John Pearson in Notorious, an examination of the twins’ legacy.
J Paul Getty’s lawyers turned to Devlin when the industrialist’s grandson was kidnapped in 1973 and the following year he acted for Lord Lucan in divorce proceedings against his wife before Sandra Rivett, the family nanny, was murdered and Lucan disappeared.
Devlin also became involved in fraud cases. When the merchant banker Roger Seelig was charged in the 1980s Guinness case involving share-price manipulation, Devlin acted as his “McKenzie friend”, someone who accompanies litigants-in-person during court cases. They met each day at 8am to rehearse the questions that Seelig was to ask in cross-examination. When proceedings adjourned they worked until late at night on the following day’s scripts. By February 1992 Seelig’s health had collapsed and the trial was abandoned.
That was not the end of Devlin’s involvement in the Guinness saga. Billing himself as a “human rights consultant” he helped Ernest Saunders, another defendant, take his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that Saunders had been deprived of a fair trial by being forced to provide potentially self-incriminating evidence. A solicitor involved in the case said of Devlin: “He is the sort of person to whom you can give an in-depth problem and he will do it very well.”
George Devlin was born in Belfast in 1941, the second son of Harry, a joiner in the Harland & Wolff shipyard, and Jean, a seamstress. His mother went into labour during the Belfast Blitz and had to leave her shelter, but was unable to reach the hospital in time and knocked on the door of a stranger who allowed her in to give birth.
His parents divorced at the end of the war and mother and two sons moved to London, where Jean married Bill Coote, a maintenance man at Lloyds Bank. Young George was educated at Upton House secondary school in Hackney, but left at 15 with no qualifications. “I was not terribly academic,” he said. “I was a late developer.”
While on a family visit to Belfast at age 16 he met Sheila McMaster, who was six years his senior, and brought her to London where they were married. Their first child, Paul, was born a year later and is now retired. For the rest of his life Devlin always had a child aged 19 or under.
By this time he was a solicitor’s clerk in a City law firm. He was fascinated by the private investigators they employed, especially their large invoices. At the age of 20 he started a private investigation business from his basement flat in Hackney. He took elocution lessons to attract high-value clients. “People assumed he had been to public school,” said Paul.
The marriage was dissolved in 1963 and in 1969 he married Josephine Cope, with whom he had two sons, Hugo, a sales director and Simon, who leads a private life. By this time business was thriving, with a network of agents helping to find information about missing people, including those who did not want to be found.
Devlin enjoyed his success, commuting between his Marylebone flat and a large country house in Hertfordshire. The Jaguar was upgraded to a Bentley and in 1976 he was elected president of the Association of British Investigators. He told how he enjoyed “getting my teeth into a case, identifying the real issues and preparing a case for trial”.
In 1975 Elliott Bernerd, an estate agent, hired Devlin to assist in a property valuation. They became friends and business partners and in 1986 formed the property company Chelsfield, with Devlin as vice-chairman. In 1988 Chelsfield purchased Wentworth Golf Club for £17.7 million and a year later sold 40 per cent of it for £32 million. Chelsfield’s flotation in 1992 made Devlin a multimillionaire with homes in Jersey, France and Switzerland.
His second marriage had been dissolved in 1989 and from 1990 to 2008 he was married to Laura Pineles. They had five children: Natasha, a care assistant; Maximillian, a portfolio manager; Cyrus, a management consultant; Milo, a student; and Eamon, who is also a student. From another relationship he had a daughter, Ceinwen, who is a HR director and who was almost 30 when they first met. Devlin, who is survived by his nine children, liked to host family gatherings. “There are so many of us that we could fill a pub by ourselves,” one of his sons joked.
By the early 1990s Devlin had officially retired to Switzerland but was unable to resist helping his former associates caught up in the Guinness scandal. “It was more of a challenge to work on a legal case than to assess the likely capital growth of a property in High Holborn,” he said.
A burly figure who was often seen without a jacket or tie, Devlin was once described as “a street fighter, impatient with inequality”. He could be scathing of the British justice system, claiming that the government “broke all the rules [and] abused the human rights of the Guinness defendants”.
He helped to pay for surgery for a former police officer whose hip operation had left him with one leg longer than the other and on another occasion, horrified to learn that debtors’ prisons still existed, brought a challenge to the European courts on behalf of a man who had been incarcerated in Jersey for non-payment of child maintenance in the US.
His great passion was backgammon and in 1985 he won the intermediate world championship in Monte Carlo. He especially enjoyed playing against his great friend John Mathew, QC, (obituary, March 11, 2020) whom he had known since Mathew prosecuted the Kray twins in the mid-1960s.
As for what motivated him, Devlin admitted that it was in part his frustration at never becoming a lawyer. He also claimed that there was something more substantial, adding: “It is basically a sense of fairness.”
George Devlin, private investigator, was born on May 4, 1941. He died of Covid-19 on April 20, 2020, aged 78
Source: The Times