“Random encounters with the unusual” is a repository for the oddities that me and Mrs J have encountered on our travels, which we find interesting or amusing in some way. Have a look, maybe you will find something interesting or amusing herein.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Hiding Secrets in the Bog

I would not normally post a picture of a public convenience on this blog, but this building bears an interesting plaque which describes the convenience’s part in the Cold War Portland Spy Ring. The plaque reads:

"Secret information hidden in this toilet was collected periodically by Harry Houghton. In 1961 he was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for his part in the Portland Spy Ring."

Its seems that during the Portland Spy Ring’s period of activity that the public toilets near New Alresford station were occasionally used as a dead drop location, with pilfered information being handed over between members of the spy ring.

The Portland Spy Ring was a Soviet spy ring that operated in England from the late 1950s until 1961. The spy ring was discovered in 1959 when the CIA received a tip that the Russians were being provided with information regarding UK research on underwater warfare. The source of the pilfered research was the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment and HMS Osprey, both in Portland, Dorset.

The key suspects for the leak were civil servant Harry Houghton, who seemed to be living a lifestyle that far exceeded his wages, and his mistress, Ethel Gee. Gee was a civil servant filing clerk, and was suspected of providing Houghton access to some of the classified material.

Both suspects were put under surveillance and they were observed taking frequent trips to London where they would meet a Canadian businessman, Gordon Lonsdale, and exchange packages with him. Lonsdale was also put under surveillance and he was seen regularly visiting the home of an antiquarian bookseller in Ruislip, Middlesex. The home belonged to a couple called Peter and Helen Kroger.

During a regular meeting in London on the 7th January 1961, Houghton, Gee and Lonsdale were arrested. Gee was found to be in possession of large amounts of classified material, including details of HMS Dreadnought, Britain's first nuclear submarine.

The Kroger’s house in Ruislip was raided next and was found to contain microdots (photographic reductions of documents), which Peter Kroger would hide in the print of his antique books to enable them to be smuggled to Russia. The Kroger’s house was also found to be full of spying paraphernalia, including large sums of money, photographic material, equipment for encoding messages and a long-range radio with a 74ft aerial so that they could communicate with Moscow. It is said that the radio equipment was so well hidden that it took authorities nine days of searching the property before they located it. Further to this, some of the Kroger’s radio equipment was not found until years later, when the property was renovated!

All five of the alleged spies were charged with espionage and found guilty. Houghton and Gee received a sentence of 15 years each, whilst the Kroger’s (who were identified as known spies Morris and Lona Cohen), were sentenced to 20 years. Lonsdale was deemed to be the mastermind behind the plot and he was given a sentence of 25 years. Lonsdale was also suspected of being a member of the KGB, and he was eventually identified as Konon Trofimovich Molody. Lonsdale was the first of the five to be released from jail, as in 1964 he was exchanged for a British spy who had been captured in Russia.

So if you ever use the public toilets in New Alresford, be careful as the person in the cubical next to you could be doing a dead-drop for the KGB.

The public toilets in New Alresford close to the railway station. A plague commemorates that occasionally classified documents obtained by members of the Portland Soviet Spy Ring were left here for collection.

Pictures: Hampshire (August 2015).

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