George Archer-Shee, a 13-year-old cadet at the Isle of Wight's Osbourne Naval College, was accused of stealing a five shilling postal note from the locker of a fellow cadet in 1908. The college asserted that George signed his name to a postal order and cashed it, and despite the young boy's claims of innocence, he was expelled from the College. The father, Martin Archer-Shee, a Liverpool bank manager believed his son, and tried unsuccessfully to get satisfaction, first from the Commander of the College, and then from the Admiralty. Archer-Shee couldn't file suit directly against the College, as it and the Admiralty were part of the King's domain and therefore immune from such actions. The King could do no wrong.
Many people in England at the time felt that George, as a Catholic, was a victim of bias. It was widely reported that several cadets were suspected of the crime, while only Archer-Shee was expelled and charged.
Archer-Shee asked Edward Carson, who achieved recognition earlier in his life as the man who prosecuted Oscar Wilde (during Wilde's libel suit against the Marquis of Queensberry), to serve as the family's barrister. In order to argue the case, Carson made use of a Petition of Right which if accepted by the Home Office and the Attorney General, could be given to the King. The King could then, if he desired, grant the Petition and the case could go to court. In May of 1909, King Edward VII received the Petition and signed it "Let Right be Done," allowing the prosecutor to proceed. The admiralty challenged the petition and won, but that ruling was subsequently overturned on appeal by Carson.
On July 26th, 1910 the trial began, with Sir Rufus Isaacs chosen to represent the Admiralty. Four days into the trial, Isaacs announced that on behalf of the Admiralty and the crown, he accepted George's claim of innocence. It was reported that at the trial, members of the jury climbed over barriers just to congratulate the Archer-Shee family.
Later, the case became the subject of heated political debate. Many felt that the first Lord of the Admiralty, Reginald McKenna, tainted the image of British justice, by not paying damages to the Archer-Shee family. George's brother, who had just been elected a Conservative and Unionist Member of Parliament, brought the issue to his colleagues' attention. In June of that year, the family was finally paid £3,000 in addition to the costs of the trial.
While the financial matters were finally squared away, no formal letter of apology or a withdrawal of charges was ever sent to George Archer-Shee. George Archer-Shee served in the military in World War I and was killed in action in 1914 in Ypres when an order to withdraw did not reach his platoon in time.
Rattigan made numerous alterations as he created his play, simplifying the legal niceties and advancing the date from 1908 to 1912-1914, when the Admiralty had WW1 on its hands along with Ronnie Winslow. George's 36-year-old Tory MP brother, Martin Archer-Shee, became the playful Oxford undergrad Dickie Winslow and he changed the very conservative sister Catherine into a Suffragette. (When the play's pre-London tour came to Bristol, Rattigan met with the now-aged daughter and talked her into accepting his reworking of her life.) He removed the religious aspect to the family's struggle to keep his focus on their relentless quest for justice.
"The drama of injustice and of a little man's dedication to setting things right," Rattigan said, "seemed to have more pathos and validity just because it involved an inconsequential individual."