Tag Archives: Battle of the Somme

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


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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