Spying in Bexleyheath (featuring Melita Norwood)
Updated: Jun 20
My first post was about potholes so thought it only natural to begin this one with another council activity, road sweeping. I then move on laterally to my gran's friendship with a well known Soviet spy. And all this happened in Bexleyheath. In the early '80s, when a student, I worked as a road sweeper for Bexley Council during the summer. I was based out of the Bexley Council depot in Footscray Road, Sidcup (more on my experience working there coming up in a future post).
On one occasion I was tasked with sweeping an area opposite Bexleyheath bus garage in Erith Road. I set off with my barrow, broom, shovel and black bags along Bexleyheath Broadway excited by the challenge before me. I had to finish early as I had a dental appointment but I completed the task with zest and felt enormous pride as I stood back and admired the clean pavements and gutters plus the large quantity of rubbish filled black bags I'd generated. Wheeling my barrow back along the Broadway, however, the supervisor, Andy, pulled up beside me in his light blue council van: "Where have you been Mr Clayton?" he asked. "I've been working in that area you told me to clean this morning" "Well that's strange. I've been there and couldn't see you or what you've done" "Are you calling me a liar?" I retorted. I was uncomfortable with his sweeping statement. "Jump in" he said. "Let's go take a look" and off we went. I showed him the area I'd cleaned and the pile of black bags I'd filled ready to be collected. "Aha Mr Clayton!" he proclaimed "You've been cleaning in the north of the borough. We (as in the Footscray Road depot) are responsible for the south of the borough".
I asked him to show me exactly where the boundary was but he was uncertain. On the other hand he was absolutely certain that I'd cleaned the wrong part of the borough. How does one deal with such treachery? I was crestfallen and broken.
He dropped me back to my barrow left in the Broadway and departed with the inspiring refrain: "Got enough black bags? Queen and borough. Queen and country". Inspiring words but I'd missed my dental appointment. Andy liked to closely monitor the workforce under his control watching for unmanned barrows, extra time spent in cafes on breaks or, on one occasion, popping out of a hedge to check on a colleague while litter picking on a dual carriageway. He lived life in the fast lane and really was in the wrong job. He should have been a spy.
Now talking of spying. There was another spy (apart from Andy) who was living and operating in Bexleyheath. A real one - a Soviet/KGB spy.
My gran (Grandma as we called her) lived in Brunswick Road, Bexleyheath from 1962/63 until she died in August 1994. When she died my Dad wrote to all her friends notifying them. He received a reply from one of those friends - a Melita Norwood of Garden Avenue, Bexleyheath. Here's the letter to my Dad dated 4th September 1994:
Now, as you may have guessed, Melita Norwood is the Soviet/KGB spy I'm referring to. However, when my Dad received this letter in September 1994 he didn't know Melita Norwood was a spy and neither did many others. She was only outed as a Soviet/KGB spy 5 years later in 1999.
When The Times exposed her spying activities on 11th September 1999 the question suddenly came up - how did my gran come to know Melita Norwood?
The story of Melita Norwood as one of Russia's longest running spies is well documented.
There's a book 'The Spy who came in from the Co-Op: Melita Norwood and the ending of cold war espionage' written by David Burke'. There's also 'The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West' written by Christopher Andrew in collaboration with the dissident KGB archivist, Vasili Mitrokhin, who had escaped to Britain with a hoard of KGB material,
including notes on Melita Norwood's file. It was The Times serialisation of this book starting in the 11th September 1999 edition that finally exposed Melita Norwood's espionage activities to the world. There's also a film 'Red Joan' 2019 starring Judi Dench which is very loosely inspired by Melita Norwood's life. However, it seems that real spying is much less glamorous than portrayed in a movie and goes a long way to explaining why Melita Norwood was so successful at it. She was an active agent between 1934 to 1972 and was investigated on no fewer than 10 occasions between 1938 and 1995 but was only exposed in 1999. She'd avoided exposure for over 60 years and was never charged with any offence.
Melita Sirnis or Letty, as she was also known, married Hilary Norwood, a teacher, in 1935 (the same year she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain). Hilary was originally named Hilary Nussbaum but changed his name to Norwood before their wedding. They moved from Cheshunt to Bexleyheath in 1947. Her most well known spying years were during the '40s but she was still active until she retired in 1972. Her last KGB agent codename was HOLA but she also had the codename TINA in the '40s.
Despite there being several high profile spy cases like Gordon Lonsdale and John Vassall in the early '60s which resulted in long prison sentences Melita did not get exposed although there were suspicions about her. MI5 launched an 'extended' investigation into her in 1965. The Home Secretary at that time, Frank Soskice, was informed but decided not to pursue the investigation further and no action was taken. Meanwhile she continued working for the KGB and in 1967 recruited a civil servant known only by the codename HUNT (more on this later). My gran moved from Bexley to Brunswick Road, Bexleyheath in 1962/63. She started to work as a civil servant for the Ministry of Defence from about 1963/64. She had been positively vetted and worked as a secretary/PA handling documents and typing letters pertaining to matters of national security. At some point, unknown, she met Melita Norwood on the train as they commuted from Bexleyheath station to their offices in London (refer to her letter above). My gran retired from the civil service in 1974.
Here's a chronology of key dates in their relationship:
Melita Norwood and husband, Hilary, move to Garden Avenue, Bexleyheath
My gran moves from Bexley to Brunswick Road, Bexleyheath
My gran starts work at the Ministry of Defence as a secretary/PA
My gran befriends Melita Norwood on the train journey to their respective offices in London
MI5 launch extended investigation into Melita Norwood. Labour Home Secretary, Frank Soskice was informed of the investigation but decided not to pursue it further and no action was taken.
Melita Norwood recruits a civil servant to the KGB with codename HUNT.
Melita Norwood retires from spying
My gran retires from the civil service
11th Aug 1994
My gran dies aged 90
4th Sept 1994
Letter from Melita Norwood to my Dad (shown above)
11th Sept 1999
Melita Norwood outed as a spy in The Times
2nd June 2005
Melita Norwood dies aged 93
As mentioned previously, I, and other family members, have been wondering how my gran came to befriend Melita Norwood?
They both lived in Bexleyheath and both travelled from Bexleyheath station into London to their respective offices. They were both secretaries/PAs. Melita Norwood had carried out most of her espionage in the '40s when secretary to G.L Bailey who was Director of the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association where she was granted access to classified information on the Anglo-American atomic bomb project, codenamed Tube Alloys. My gran was positively vetted for her work in the Ministry of Defence and typed letters and handled documents pertaining to sensitive matters of national security.
It really does seem very strange that my gran was friends with Melita Norwood. My Mum wrote to The Times in September 1999 expressing our curiosity. My gran was very patriotic, a staunch Conservative and quite intolerant of those with opposing views. She had expressed her disgust at the Norwood's connection to Russia but was obviously unaware of Melita's rather deeper connection. It would have been so interesting if my gran had lived to see Melita Norwood exposed as a spy and what her reaction would have been. We also wonder what else my gran knew or observed during their friendship? Of course there may be nothing more to it than coincidence. Unfortunately we'll never know.
My gran, Edith Clayton 'Grandma'
One open question remains and I'm hoping to find this out and update in the future.
Who was the civil servant codenamed HUNT recruited to the KGB by Melita Norwood in 1967? The Mitrokhin Archive states HUNT was active for 14 years and a valuable KGB asset. There was an article in The Times on 14th Sept 1999 by Michael Evans: "Mystery KGB Agent in the Civil Service is still alive.": "The civil servant codenamed HUNT, who was recruited as a Russian spy by Melita Norwood, is still alive and his identity is known to MI5."
When pressed on HUNT's identity in 2002 Melita Norwood refused to comment apart from indicating it was a 'bloke' and not denying their existence.
As a child I can recall playing I Spy at my grans house in Bexleyeah. Imagine if we'd known then what we know now...
Spying in Bexleyheath (featuring Melita Norwood)