Category Archives: Roots

Leathers are not Lauders – the problems of genealogical scams

It’s been a while since I did a family history post so I thought it was about time I did one, so here you are.

Back in the 1980s a company called Halberts started up a business to exploit the then newly growing hobby of genealogy. They purported to be able to supply customers with accurate information about their family tree and to provide them with a coat of arms. In fact what they actually did was to supply customers with a book entitled the Book of XXX which was essentially a list of names and addresses of XXX culled from telephone directories around the world with a frontispiece claiming to give the history and origins of the name in question, together with a coat of arms.  More often than not, these were incorrect.  Their claim to respectability was that they had bought the right to use the name of Burke’s Peerage. What they actually did was cause a lot of confusion to fledgling family historians and to make it difficult for genuine family historians, in particular One-Name Studies to gain the trust of those who had fallen victim to the Halbert’s scam. Several articles have been written over the years about this scam and the company has been shut down several times but apparently has miraculous powers of regeneration and continues to pop back into existence. For an interesting read about this duplicitous company see for example: http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2004/08/my_least_favori.html

 

Scams aside, our surname Leather, appears to cause the editors of surname dictionaries particular difficulties. For example, in the several dictionaries of English or British Surnames, the name is usually described as being derived from workers or sellers of leather such as this shown below from The Internet Surname Index http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Leather#ixzz2gSAekBD2

This is an English surname. Recorded as Leather, Lether, Leither, and probably other others, it has two distinct origins. Firstly it may derive from the pre 7th Century male given name “hleothar”, meaning a sound or melody. Though not recorded independently, this personal name forms the first element in such placenames as Leatherhead in Surrey; Letheringham in Suffolk and Letheringsett, Norfolk. These are recorded respectively as Leodridan in the Saxon Chartulary, dated 880, as Letheringaham in the Domesday Book of 1086, and as Letheringsete in the Pipe Rolls of Norfolkin 1254. In his famous book “Patronymica Britannica”, Lower states that “One Lethar was a bishop in the days of Ethelbert” (860 – 865). The surname may also have originated as a metonymic occupational name for a leatherworker or seller of leather goods, from the Middle English and Olde English “lether”, leather. Although the surname itself does not appear until the early 16th Century (see below), the word was used in such occupational names as “Lether-dyer” in London in 1373, and one John Lethercarver was noted in a descriptive catalogue of Ancient Deeds for Northamptonshire, and dated 1404. The modern surname is now found chiefly in Lancashire and Yorkshire. The first recorded spelling of the family name may be that of Robert Lether. This was dated 1524 in the “Subsidy Tax Rolls of Suffolk”, during the reign of King Henry V111, known as “Bluff King Hal”, 1509 – 1547.

If the writers of articles like this actually did their homework, they would realise that their hypothesis of it being a metonymic occupational name was nonsense. If it was an occupational name it would be spread throughout the country instead of being, as even the authors of the above state, that the name in now “found chiefly in the Lancashire and Yorkshire” regions of England. A quick look at the map below derived from the 1881 census data shows this very clearly.

Leather 1881

Leather – 1881 per 100,000 people

 

A few years ago I decided, given the restricted distribution of our name, evidence seemed to suggest an origin near Winwick a town close to Warrington, that it would be very interesting to start a DNA surname study. Imagine my surprise to find that the name Leather was already registered, but as a derivative of the name Lauder!   [due entirely to the misinformation given by Halberts] I was incensed and decided that this needed to be corrected immediately. Using the same sources http://www.surnamedb.com/Surname/Lauder#ixzz2gSATbi7f I was able to easily demonstrate that Lauder is a Scottish name recorded in the spellings of Lauder and Lauderdale, this is a famous Scottish locational surname. As Lauder it originates from the village of Lauder in the county of Berwickshire, and as Lauderdale from a name for the western district of the same county of Berwickshire. The translation of the place name and hence the later surname is believed to be from the French-Breton pre 7th century word “laour”, meaning a trench or ditch. The surname is one of the first recorded in Scotland, and early examples taken from authentic rolls and registers of the medieval period include: William de Lawedre, the sheriff of Perthshire in the reign of King Alexander IIIrd of Scotland (1249 – 1286), Alan de Lawadyr, who witnessed a charter by Stephen Fleming, master of the hospital of Soltre in 1426, and Johannes Lathirdale, a notary public, in the city of Glasgow in 1472. Other recordings include Sir David Luthirdale, archdeacon of Dunkeld in 1477, whilst William Lauder, given as being a literary forger, died in 1771. The first recorded spelling of the family name is shown to be that of Sir Robert de Lauedre. This was dated 1250, in the register of the Abbey of Dryburgh and from the map 1881 census data (see below)

Lauder 1881

Lauder – 1881 per 100,000 people

 

it is pretty clear that the surnames Leather and Lauder are distinct and non-overlapping.

This story does have a happy ending. As a result of this analysis I was able to get Leather registered as a separate DNA-surname study, although sad to say the various surname dictionaries have not yet manged to change their entries, but I continue to live in hope 🙂

 

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Letters from School – Two school boys write home in the time of William IV

This week is a family history week (entomology next week I promise).  I am privileged to own copies of  a number of old letters from my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather and other relatives.  This joint letter was written by George Henry Leather (1815-1897)  (my great-great-great Uncle, aged 13, and his 18-year-old brother, John Wignall Leather (1810-1887) to their parents George and Sarah (Wignall) Leather.  It was posted on 25 May 1828 in Durham where George and his older brother John were at school.  [Comments in square brackets are mine.]

Letter from home1

Letter from home2

[This is not that easy to read in the original so I have transcribed it below.]

Durham, May 24th 1828

 My dear Parents

At your desire, I now sit down to write a few lines to you, and am happy to say, John and myself are both well.  Our journey to Sunderland was not so pleasant as I expected; the pleasantest day I spent was when John and I went about 4 miles along the sands and returned on the tops of the cliffs; that was the only time I was out of the town except once we went on the ocean, one of Mrs Hustler’s ships, about half a mile from the Pier; it was going to Miramichi in America [there is a Miramichi River in Canada], and the  wind  being  very favourable we did not go so far out as we otherwise should have done.  I liked the motion of the ship when she rose upon the waves, but when she went down again, it felt rather queer: we came back in a small boat, with oars.  One night from the pier, we could see not less than 63 ships.  I have got as far as simple Interest, [I remember doing simple and compound interest at school – how many of you do?] and am reading Ovid and Cornelius Nepos, all of which I like very well.  I am 4th in my class this week, I have got my Register [I guess that this was a school report] for last half-term, which (with the one for this) I will bring with me next Midsummer.

I am very much obliged to you for the 5s which you sent me before Easter.  I look forward with very great pleasure to the prospect of seeing you all so soon: Midsummer is now fast approaching: I expect to leave Durham in about 6 weeks or thereabouts, and I hope we shall find you all well.

Give my best love to Billy and Sam [his two younger brothers: Canadian readers may be interested to know that Billy, William Beaumont Leather (1820-1907) later emigrated to Canada and was the great-grandfather of that famous Canadian, Sir Edwin Hartley Cameron Leather (1919-2005) former Governor of Bermuda] and also to my Sisters Sarah Anna and little Bell; and accept the same yourselves from,

My dear Parents,

Your dutiful and affectionate Son,

 G H Leather

Certainly a better effort than the letters I used to have to write on a Sunday afternoon when at boarding school.  I have no picture of George as a schoolboy only the one below of him as a well-established factory owner in Bradford.

George Henry Leather

The letter below from John Wignall Leather, was written on and across the same letter form written by George Henry Leather above.  John Wignall Leather was 18 and in his last term at school.  The letter is addressed to Geo. Leather Esq, Park Terrace, Leeds and is endorsed by John Wignall Leather at a later date as being “from GH and self to our parents”.

Letter from home3 Letter from home4

My Dear Parents,

I think I cannot do better than attempt to fill up the space which George Henry has left blank – this from the slackness of news: tis very much to be doubted how far I may succeed.  We had a whole holiday on Thursday last, the 15th inst. it being Ascension day; and I, accompanied with William from Gateshead the boy with whom we both stayed at Easter, set off on Wednesday evening after school, and spent the night and next day at his house in Gateshead.  On the Thursday we visited everything which he thought worth shewing to me in Newcastle.  There are very few public buildings but the library is really grand; the roof and cornice of this and the adjoining room (the Museum, which we visited) are in a style far surpassing anything of the kind I ever saw – and near the top of the former is constructed a kind of terrace, or gallery (with bookcases as below) which has also a very splendid appearance – it is a fancy cast iron railing with a three brick top or bar; the museum is not as good (in my opinion) as that of Leeds [being from Yorkshire nothing can be as good of course], and the birds or most of them seem to be very badly presented.  They are decaying away.  Oh! Mother you did not say whether you had got the owl back or not from curing and how it looked did you return my moth book [I was very pleased to see that despite becoming a very eminent civil engineer in later life, that he had not only zoological interests, but entomological ones.  I would dearly love to know exactly what moth book he had].

The Mayor and Corporation go on procession (on Ascension Day every year) down to Preston, and up the river again past Newcastle as far as Lemmington in barges, with a band of music; and are accompanied by numbers of small boats in this day’s excursion.  I had the pleasure of watching their departure from the mansion house and a very enlivening sight it was, tho I understand it much fallen off from what it was; but my time even if my paper would, does not allow me to enter into detail at present.

Friday the 19th was our bespeak, and as I had the whole management and conduct of the affair to myself this time I was kept very closely employed – but was very much gratified to find the pains taken was not in vain for I fetched them the best houses they have had for many years, the whole of the regular boxes were taken long before hand, and part of the pit, which was railed off for that purpose.  The receipts amounted to 42£ 16s – and it would have been fifty, but for the system they have of admitting schools at ½ prices.

I return many thanks to my Dear Mother for her short, but very kind letter – and hope to hear from her again very soon, when she is more at leisure to write longer.  Pray what do they call the six young ladies; how long are they going to stay; you say Maria wants to know whether I shall be at home as soon as she; without mentioning the time her vacation commences: I expect to be with you in six weeks, from yesterday, or so – but cannot say for certain yet.  I should have written to London last week but I was so very busy that I had not time; have looked daily for a letter from my Dear Father and cousin John [both also eminent civil engineers; his cousin John Towlerton Leather was the contractor for many ambitious projects including the Spithead sea-forts and was High Sheriff of Northumberland and had a house in Carlton House Terrace close by the Royal Society], I hope they will both write me ere long.  I learnt from the Newspaper that you would be at home in a day or two, and was happy to hear of your success – there will be no want of practice in the office for some time to come – which I will trust be of advantage to me – I have spoken my sentiments on this head to my Mother, and now repeat that I hope these will not be too much like warmness (if I may call it such) which it so unhappily represented in an elder branch of our family, but that arrangements may be made for me to be considered (in the office) in the same light as any other clerk, if any difference is made, may it only be an extra earnestness in seeing me do my duty, in instructing me – and directing my studies.  I think I can promise most firmly that no exertion shall be wanting on my part – as my ambition shall be not only to become an engineer, but (if possible) an eminent one [which indeed he did become].   I anticipate very great pleasure from the prospect of seeing my dear friends so soon – and of spending my future time in their society; under the guidance (and I trust) the approbation of those Dear Parents, whom it shall be my constant care to cherish and obey; In the hope of hearing from you both very soon – and with kindest love and every endearing remembrance of affection to all of you, I remain

My Dearest Parents

Your dutiful and affectionate son

J W Leather

P.S. Tell John to write.  Pray what business is it that calls you back to London.

(in haste).  JWL

Note that to save postage, as letters at the time were charged by the number of pages, John has written both ways across the page; quite hard to read but apparently common practice. Again I do not have a picture of John Wignall Leather as a school boy but do possess a picture of him with the plans of one of his engineering achievements (the Crown Point Bridge Leeds) on the desk, plus a photograph of him in distinguished middle-age.

 John Wignall Leather portrait  John Wignall Leatherr

Crown Point Bridge

The Crown Point Bridge, Leeds

I realise that I am incredibly lucky to actually have something as personal as a letter from my great-great grandfather.  So many people don’t even have photographs of  their more distant ancestors.  Personal letters like these are almost as good as a time machine; you can almost hear them speaking and almost certainly with a Yorkshire accent!

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From Company Solicitor to Victorian Lunatic Asylum

ALEXANDER WILLIAM DOW LEATHER

 A BIT OF A BLACK SHEEP

1837-1890

One of the things that sticks in my mind from my youth is how relatives of my grandmother’s generation (those born in the 1870s and 1880s) who spoke of my great-great Uncle Alexander William Dow Leather, always in the following breath sighed and uttered the phrase “poor Pritchard”.  This of course made the subject of my great- great Uncle Alec (as he was apparently known) one of great interest to the budding family historian that I then was.

There was not a great deal known about my great-great uncle, at least in our branch of the family.  In fact I was to find out that there was surprisingly little known about him at all.  All we really knew was that he was the eldest son of my great-great grandfather John Wignall Leather (1810-1887).  My great-grandfather John Henry Leather was born in 1842 and was the youngest child of the family, preceded by Walter (1840-1869) and Florence Mary (1838-1886), so we knew that Alec must have been born in about 1836.

Some years later my first cousin once removed, Michael Leather of Knaresborough, supplied me with some additional information.  It transpired that Alec had been a solicitor and had led a somewhat riotous youth, drinking and womanising.  Once, whilst under the influence, he had fallen off his horse into a pond in Askham Richard.  Michael supplied the further information that he had been married twice, first to “poor Pritchard” whom he had deserted, leaving her and their two children in Herfeford where she had relatives.  These two children were Francis Holdsworth and Isabella Gertrude Leather.  Francis Holdsworth Leather became in time Michael’s godfather.  According to Michael, Alec had a second family – Percy, Mabel and Alan.   He also knew that Francis Holdsworth Leather had three children, one of them John Francis, died of influenza shortly after Michael was born in 1918.

The Yorkshire IGI informed me that Alexander William Dow Leather was christened in St Peter’s, Leeds on 24 May 1837.  His names puzzled me for some time, because they were so unfamilial; George, William, John and James were the normal first names at that time for our branch of the family.  I later found out that the family doctor was named Dow.  The 1860 Post Office Directory of the West Riding informed me that Alexander William Dow Leather was a solicitor at 4 Finsbury Park, Leeds.  The 1864 Woollen Districts Directory listed him at 1 Bond Street, Leeds, which was also the business address of his father John Wignall Leather.

I searched the St Catherine’s House Indexes assiduously and found that Alexander William Dow Leather had married Ellen Elizabeth Pritchard at Great Barfield Parish Church, Middlesex on 12 June 1860.  His wife was born in Hereford in 1839 and was described as the daughter of Thomas Pritchard, Gentleman of Park Gate, Essex.  At last I had found “poor Pritchard”, but where Alec had met her I still do not know.  Ellen died in Hereford in 1872, by which time Alec had disappeared from the Leeds Directories.  I continued searching through the indexes and found that his eldest son Francis Holdsworth was born in 1864 in Kensington, and his daughter Isabella in 1862 in Leeds.  She subsequnetly maried the Revd John Swire at Tupsley Parish Church, Hereford in 1882 and died in Wantage in 1891. The youngest child, Alexander Ernest, was born in 1866 and died the following year as a result of a scald, a surprisingly common form of death, even in middle-class families.

Some time later I obtained a copy of John Wignall Leather’s will (made in 1886) and this fuelled my interest in Alec to an even greater extent.  It told me that Alec’s second wife was called Jenny and that she and her children were living in Leeds.  Kelly’s Directory of Leeds 1888 confirmed this, indicating that she lived at 52 Samuel Street.  The Leeds Grammar School records show that her son Percy Alexander Leather attended Leeds Grammar School’s commercial division in the 1880s and that his tuition was paid for by his grandfather John Wignall Leather.  The two codicils to the will excited my interest greatly.  Here was John Wignall in his final illness (the last codicil is witnessed by his surgeon) and yet he took the time to alter his will to make sure that his eldest son Alec would not in any circumstances be allowed any of his money, particularly that left to his daughter-in-law Jenny.  What could Alexander have done or be doing, to have caused this much anxiety to his father?  I was hooked.  I had to find out more about Alec.

What about his second family?  I found his second marriage to Jane (Jenny) Potter, daughter of Edward Potter, Farmer, at the Parish Church of St Margaret West, Essex on 5 April 1873.  This confirmed that Alec was a bit of a gad-about and certainly not a full-time resident of Yorkshire.  At about this stage in my research, the Yorkshire Family Historian published an article I had written about my search for Yorkshire Leathers.  In this article I mentioned the infamous Alec and named his children as given to me by my cousin Michael.  I was pleasantly surprised to receive a letter from David Burnet of Guiseley who had had, my article drawn to his attention by an Australian cousin.  His great-grandfather had been the solicitor for my great great-great uncle George Henry Leather (1815-1897), and had been responsible for drawing up and administering the terms of his will.  As well as being George Henry’s solicitor he was also his brother-in-law.  David had in his possession a notebook that detailed all the beneficiaries of the will including their addresses up until 1907: a real treasure trove.  I found out that Alec’s youngest son was not called Alan but was in fact Cyril John Cadman Leather.  Armed with this fact I soon found his birth certificate.  He too was born in London, in Greenwich in 1879.  I also located the birth of certificates of more children of the marriage, Percy Alexander born in Camberwell in 1875, Mabel Caroline born in Peckham in 1877 and Violet Bertha born in Lewisham in 1888. Interestingly enough, Alex’s profession moves from being Company Solicitor of the family firm, George Leather & Sons Navigation, to solicitor’s clerk as his family grew and his dwellings moved down-market.   Then I came across Alec’s photograph in an old family album and was stunned to see that his nose was almost identical to mine – I had always thought that my nose was unique!  I was also struck by his resemblance to Del Boy (played by David Jason) in the BBC TV series Only Fools and Horses!

Alexander Wm Dow Leather

I scoured the St Catherine’s House Indexes of deaths and eventually located an entry for an Alexander William Leather in Barnet in 1890.  This seemed promising so I wrote to Somerset House to see if they had a copy of his will.  Wills are a great source of family history, if you are lucky enough to have a family who believed in writing them.  They give much more information about the individual and his family than the death certificate, and are only half the price.  As a solicitor I felt sure that Alec would have made a will, but to my surprise none was registered.  I sent off for the death certificate and found that Alec had died in Friern Barnet Lunatic Asylum, the causes of death being cystitis and disease of the kidneys.  This suggested that he had been an alcoholic and that the riotous living of his youth had caught up with him at last.  It also solved the problem of why his father had been so anxious to ensure that no money came his way.  Interestingly enough the death certificate, although listing him as a solicitor, had no known address for him.  His family had obviously cut all links with him or vice versa.  I wrote to the Greater London Record Office who hold the records for Colney Hatch (as Friern Barnet Lunatic Asylum is more popularly known), but unfortunately the casebooks for the period 1885-1890 are not yet available for public perusal.

Since that appeared to be as far as I could go with Alec I decided to search for his descendants.  I found that his eldest son Francis Holdsworth had married Ella Mary Smith of Weobley in Herefordshire in 1893.  They had three sons, John Francis (1894-1918), Geoffrey Clifford (1897-1901) and Godfrey Clifford (1902-1943).  Francis lived his whole life in Weobley apart from his service in the First World War.  He was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the RASC and was awarded the DSO.  Like his father he was a solicitor.  He died a year after his wife, in 1929.  His wife Ella is famous as the author of Folklore of Herefordshire http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Mary_Leather .  Their youngest son Geoffrey was also a solicitor and, although married, left no direct issue.  That line is thus extinct.  Isabella, the eldest daughter, married the Reverend John Swire in 1882.  They had three children, John (1884-1905), Mercy born 1886 and Nona born 1888.  Isabella died in 1891 and her husband in 1902.  I do not know what became of the daughters.

The second family has proved equally elusive.  I have found the marriages of Percy Alexander, Mabel Caroline, Cyril John Cadman and Violet Bertha.  Percy Alexander, at the time of his marriage to Emma Wilson in Leeds in 1896, is described as a salesman.  I know that in 1907 he was living in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada and later found that he died in Leslieville, Alberta in 1921.  I have also managed to contact his descendants who are now natives of Calgary.  Mabel Caroline married a widower, George Hampton in Knaresborough in 1898 and subsequently moved to Bath and married secondly, Augustus Davies, with whom she had four children.  She died in 1951.  Cyril John Cadman married in Rotherham in 1906 and died in 1931 in Rochford, with no offspring that I have been able to discover.  Violet Bertha married Herbert Colville in 1912 and died in 1957 leaving behind four children.  I know nothing further.  It is interesting to note that – of their marriages, neither Percy nor Mabel listed their father as deceased; presumably they were unaware of his death.

I am always hopeful that one day I will hear something more about this branch of the family and look forward to meeting any long-lost cousins who may turn up.

The great thing about family history is that you are never sure what you are going to find out or whereabouts in the world you have relatives.  This story is also an illustration of how the computerisation of paper records, which is all I had available when I began my research into Alex, has enabled me to add more detail to a story that was rather sparse almost twenty years ago when I first wrote about him in the Yorkshire Family Historian.

Leather, E.M.  (1912)  The Folklore of Herefordshire. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Folk-lore-Herefordshire-Collected-Printed-Sources/dp/0951858904/ref=la_B001KIXX3C_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362929648&sr=1-1

Leather, S.R. (1990)  The Leathers in Yorkshire.  Yorkshire Family Historian 16 (3), 69-72

Leather, S.R. (1994)  Alexander William Dow Leather – black sheep of the family?  Yorkshire Family Historian  20 (4), 99-101

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My Uncle and cousin were spies!

Actually it was my great-Uncle and my third cousin once removed but that doesn’t make for such a snappy title.  One of the joys of family history research is that every now and then you come across something really unexpected and the fact that I had two spies in my family was no exception.  The two in question are John Henry Leather (1893-1958), my grandfather’s youngest brother and Sir Desmond Falkiner Morton 1891-1971), my third cousin once-removed.  This post shows you how useful newspaper archives can be.

NPG x25675; Desmond John Falkiner Morton by Howard Coster

I knew of the existence of both of these characters from my family tree and that both had served in the army during World War 1.  What I hadn’t realised was how involved they were with the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS). As I got more involved with my family tree I first found out that Desmond Morton or Sir Desmond as he later became, had been Sir Winston Churchill’s personal spymaster, and I often used to get great pleasure of mentioning my relationship to him, whenever he was featured in a World War 2 film.  He, Sir Desmond that is, is often portrayed as being in the next room to Churchill in his secret bunker, ever ready to spring out and offer advice.  His life is well documented in a book by Gill Bennett,  (Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence Routledge, 2009).

Desmond Morton book cover

He was, by all accounts, and very appropriately, highly secretive, kept very much to himself and died a bachelor.  What I hadn’t realised until very recently however, was that he was Catholic and not only a Catholic, but Master of the London Branch of the Civil Service Catholic Guild.  Our family has been staunchly Church of England (at least those of us who are not humanists) for as long as we have existed in the Parish Records.  It appears from an article in the Catholic Herald of 23rd February 1951, that he was received into the Catholic Church after the Battle of the Somme, which like many of the other men involved in that bloodbath, obviously affected him greatly.  The following year, he was wounded very badly, and never fully recovered, despite living to a fairly respectable age.

Much, much more fun, was my great-uncle John, who unfortunately died before I was born.  I learnt of his exploits from my second cousin Chris Bennett (no relation to Gill Bennett) who sent me an article from the Cleckheaton Guardian describing his arrest and trial in Paris in 1926, where he had apparently been spying on our noble allies the French. He was a much more louche character as can be seen from this rather poor photograph.

John Henry Leather spy a

The case is rather nicely summarised by this excerpt from a book review by David Jones

http://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/perfidious-albion-an-introduction-to-the-secret-history-of-the-british-empire

Yet another example of British spying in France, this one in the wake of the First World War, provides a little comic relief. In December 1925, the Surete arrested three male British subjects and two French female accomplices on charges of espionage. All were convicted in subsequent proceedings. The leading figure in the case, Capt. John Henry Leather, and his two colleagues, Ernest Phillips and William Fischer, were employees of the Paris office of the Burndept Wireless Co. They also all had recent backgrounds in British military intelligence. As of 1925, in fact, Leather was still attached to MI2(b), the War Office outfit handling intelligence in Western Europe. The Foreign Office, Air Ministry and Admiralty ritually denied any connection to the men. Naturally, no one asked the “Agency That Didn’t Exist,” MI6. But there was no doubt about the guilt of Leather and his pals. Their undoing came about because he and Fischer had developed rival romantic interests in one of the French femmes, Marthe Moreuil, better known as “Mlle. Foxtrot,” whom they had used to coax information out of smitten French officers. For reasons never made clear, Moreuil tossed a packet of love letters out the window of a train, but managed to include a stash of compromising documents. These were retrieved by a curious farmer who dutifully turned them over to authorities. The main target of the Leather gang’s espionage was the French air force, then reckoned by London as the only air force that could pose a threat to Britain.

For more details of his career and life see Phil Tomaselli’s book Tracing Your Secret Service Ancestors published by Pen & Sword in  2009 and an article by Chris Bennett published in 2002  (see Leather Lives, ed. S R Leather, Leather Family History Society).  After he left the SIS he founded the Bromley Little Theatre which he managed and also acted as a Director for many of the productions, until his death in 1958.  After his death the theatre commissioned this rather handsome plaque.

John Henry Leather spy

Interestingly enough, my Uncle John (John Adams Leather 1916-1997), was also an actor and artist http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-john-leather-1281002.html. Their artistic talents have, however, not revealed themselves in me, unless you consider lecturing to be equivalent to an acting profession.  The spy gene, however, might have had its chance had I been less of a non-conformist in my youth.

Simon Finland 1981

After receiving my PhD in 1980, I was awarded a Royal Society Fellowship to work in Finland.  At the time, although Finland was a resolutely independent country, their history and proximity to what was then the USSR, meant that they had very close trade and diplomatic links with that state.  Shortly before I was due to depart from England I was approached by a certain department within Her Majesty’s Government and asked if I would be willing to discreetly sound out and observe Finnish attitudes to their neighbour.  I was totally outraged and told them where to put their proposal.  I was also somewhat shocked to think that they would think that I, a Private Eye subscriber at the time, would even contemplate doing such a thing.  Given what I know now about my family’s connection with the Intelligence Services, it possibly makes a little more sense.  Who knows, I certainly don’t.

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