EIGHTY years ago, a murder in Bournemouth captured national attention in the way few crimes could.

The Rattenbury case, or the ‘Murder at the Villa Madeira’, as it came to be known, had the ingredients that would guarantee newspaper attention.

The victim was an eminent architect, with a glamorous wife 30 years his junior. The man convicted was a live-in chauffeur-handyman having an affair with the wife – and the affair ended in a suicide and surprising public sympathy for the convicted killer.

Francis Rattenbury was a British-born architect who had achieved huge success in Canada, designing its parliament building. He had been shunned by society after an affair with Alma Pakenham, a divorcee half his age, which resulted in the end of his marriage.

Alma, a glamorous, Canadian born singer and songwriter, had been widowed once and divorced once. She married Rattenbury in 1925, at the age of 29, and the pair moved to the Villa Madeira in Manor Road, on Bournemouth’s East Cliff, with Alma’s son Christopher and their own son John.

There, Francis Rattenbury became increasingly reclusive and dependent on drink, while Alma continued performing successfully and became member of Bournemouth’s Little Theatre Club.

Eighteen-year-old George Stoner entered the Rattenburys’ lives after they advertised a vacancy in the Daily Echo in September 1934 for a "Daily willing lad, 14-18, for house-work; Scout-trained preferred."

George Stoner, a shy loner who had grown up in Redhill and Ensbury Park, moved into the house in November – and before long was having an affair with Alma Rattenbury.

In March 1935, Stoner and Alma took a trip to London, where she bought him clothes in Harrods.

They returned to find Francis depressed and Alma attempted to cheer him by arranging for the couple to visit a friend in Bridport the following week.

Stoner, increasingly angry and possessive, borrowed a wooden mallet from his grandparents in Ensbury Park on March 24. That night, Francis was discovered bleeding from a head wound. When he was examined properly in hospital, the doctors called the police.

The police arrived at Manor Road in the early hours of Monday morning and found Alma, under the influence of drink or drugs, babbling about having “done him in”.

She was arrested for attempted murder. Two days later, Stoner confessed to housekeeper Irene Riggs that he had struck the blows to Francis Rattenbury, and he too was arrested.

Francis Rattenbury died of his injuries that Thursday and the two lovers were charged with murder.

Despite their earlier admissions, both pleaded not guilty at court and they were tried together at the Old Bailey in May.

Stoner said nothing during the trial, while Alma put up a strong defence.

Stoner was found guilty and sentenced to death. Alma was acquitted – yet she had somehow become the villain in the public's mind. The judge said she had an “abnormal sexual appetite and no moral conscience” and she was booed as she left the Old Bailey.

Several days later, Alma travelled by train from London to Christchurch. There, by the Three Arches railway bridge, she wrote several notes and walked down to the riverbank, plunging a knife into her heart.

Alma was buried at Wimborne Road cemetery in Bournemouth, a short distance from her husband. The police had to hold back the 3,000 people who came to jeer. Meanwhile the Manor Road home was targeted by ghoulish souvenir hunters.

Alma had fully expected Stoner to hang, but a petition of 320,000 signatures was sent to the home secretary urging mercy.

Stoner’s sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Just seven years later, he was released to join the Army. He took part in the D-Day invasion and was described as behaving like a hero.

After the war, he returned to the house at Redhill where he grew up, and he later married.

The story’s hold on the public imagination continued, though, and in 1975, Terence Rattigan dramatised it for a radio play, Cause Celebre, starring Diana Dors.

The play reached the stage in 1977, with Glynis Johns in the lead. The playwright, who died shortly afterwards, recalled the experience of following the trial when he was 24.

“It was the first double trial in legal history where the defendants tried to exonerate each other and take all the blame on to themselves,” he said.

“The defence lawyers hadn't understood that they were in love and got terribly confused by the whole thing."

The play came to ITV in 1987, with Helen Mirren in the lead, and the production prompted George Stoner and his wife Christine to break their silence – but not to clear up the mystery of the case.

“It was so long ago and there was no other person to witness the actual event,” Stoner told the Echo then.

“The whole crime was committed on an emotional basis. Both I and the lady involved were in a highly emotional state. Our emotions were completely out of control.”

He said he had been accepted in Bournemouth. “I have lived here all my life and no one has ever said they were disgusted. They have always sympathised and I have admitted I made a mistake.”

In 1988, solicitor Sir David Napley wrote a book about the case in which he argued that Alma Rattenbury committed the murder after taking cocaine.

In 1990, Stoner acquired a new criminal conviction when he indecently assaulted a 12-year-old boy in a public toilet in Bournemouth and was put on probation.

He died in 2000, aged 83, on the 65th anniversary of the murder.

Cause Celebre was revived at the Old Vic in 2011, with Anne-Marie Duff widely acclaimed for her performance as Alma Rattenbury.

Francis Rattenbury’s grave at Wimborne Road remained unmarked until 2007, when a Canadian architect finally paid for a headstone to commemorate the great state buildings he had designed in British Columbia.