In the great city of Moscow lies an ancient monastery-fortress, whose origins go back through time to the fourteenth century.
And in the tiny English village of Alresford lies a small set of public toilets.
And the two are inextricably linked.
Linked by a story of subterfuge, intelligence and counterintelligence, the two buildings each hold clues to the activities of a spy ring which, when it was unearthed, hit the headlines as one of the great tales of cold war intrigue.
Undersea warfare – the submarine and its capabilities – was a major part of the posturing which went on during the Cold War. Which made the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment, based at Portland on the English Dorset Coast, a desirable target indeed.
It was a mole who squeaked in 1959 to the CIA. The Russians were getting information from the base to which they should not be privy. And immediately surveillance began to root out the source of the sensitive information which was seeping out of the base.
They did not have to look far. Former sailor, and clerk at the base, Harry Houghton, lived it large. He owned his house. He drank like a fish and treated everyone to rounds at the pub, flashing his cash for all to see. And he had just, at the time of the beginning of the investigation, bought his fourth car.
Clerk’s incomes do not afford such a lifestyle.
And he had a mistress: Ethel Gee. She also worked at the establishment and had access to sensitive records.
As MI5 watched, the story unfolded before their eyes. They used to trip up to London to meet one Gordon Lonsdale, who purported to be a Canadian jukebox and bubble gum machine salesman. And they would exchange packages.
Not always, though. Into the frame came a small set public toilets in a sleepy Hampshire village, amongst the watercress beds which used to supply Covent Garden. Harry would leave packages there on occasion.
Lonsdale visited others in his daily life: especially an antiquarian bookseller called Peter Kroger and his charming wife, Helen.
On January 7, 1961, MI5 moved in. They asked Special Branch to arrest the sailor-clerk, the secretary and the bubble gum machine salesman. The secretary’s bag was stuffed with photographs and classified material.
And when they visited the bookseller’s wife, she too went straight for her handbag. But MI5 got there first. It was crammed with microdots– those tiny photographs they used to take of classified documents. Bookshops are such a convenient repository for such material.
And so the whole thing came out into the open.
Houghton and Gee were sentenced to 15 years in prison; and when they came out, they married.
The Krogers were sentenced to 20 years in prison, and were exchanged for a British spy in 1969.
And the bubble gum machine salesman?
His real name was found to be Konon Trofimovich Molody. In 1964, in Berlin, he was exchanged for a British spy. But his return to Mother Russia was not an entirely happy one.
He wrote an autobiography which was a clumsy tissue of deception, Claiming he was born in Canada. He was still cloaking himself in the identity of the dead man whose passport he had assumed all those years before. He was given a fairly minor post, and drank heavily.
The Russian doctors began injecting him with ‘blood pressure medication’ and he began to feel grim. The doctors told him it would feel worse before he felt better.
He died at 48 in mysterious circumstances on a mushroom-picking exhibition.
And they buried him next to another failed spymaster, Rudolf Abel, in the Donskoy Monastery, far from the public toilets which he used to serve his purposes in his glory days.
32 thoughts on “The Bubble Gum Spymaster”
An amazing tale – always thought spies meeting in toilets was only in the movies. You learn something new every day
You do. Funny what a walk through a little Hampshire village turns up!
the trail sounds just like a John le Carre book. He really had the whole system in his head
He did. Meticulous research backs his books, I feel sure, Sidey.
either that or he really was a spook
Spying was such a deeply unglamorous occupation. John le Carre was the first to reveal espionage in all it’s grey dullness. I still think James Bond made it more interesting – to watch at any rate:)
Fleming had such style, Roger.
They should have written the messages on tiolet paper so they could just wipe away the evidence.
Carl, you are a genius. And a funny one at that.
I still love a good spy novel and will buy them at the drop of a hat….or a Nook, now that I’ve gone paperless to a degree.
They are compulsive reading, aren’t they, Lou? Phil has a set of early paperback editions of the Bond series. They are beloved and so very well thumbed.
Oh dear.. very grim indeed .. c
Quite, Celi. They really were grey days.
Fascinating bits of history 🙂
Amazing where you find these leads, Tandy. There is a plaque on the wall of the public toilets commemorating their part in the story!
Excellent material here for a novel: The Bookseller’s Wife. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction!
It is! Compelling stuff.
One of my favorite shows growing up . . . I Spy! With Bill Cosby and Robert Culp.
The spy stories are gripping, aren’t they, Nancy! I had forgotten Cosby had these beginnings…I love his work.
Tangent: have you come across Little Bill? I was addicted for years…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3ttvMAFiYU
More truth which seems to transcend fiction. My attention was almost (but not really) diverted by how a mushroom picking exhibition would be run, and what the entrance fee would be? Ah, wait; it is now clear to me. He was employed to demonstrate what mushrooms not to select, and how you die if you go wrong! 🙂
One slip is all it takes, Col!!
His was a fatal error!
Harry Houghton sounds like a spy who trained with Monty Python.
He does. How not to se seen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ifmRgQX82O4
Isn’t it? 🙂
A real-life Tinker, Tailor… toilet? Spy? Honestly, the idiocy of Houghton… if you’re going to flash your questionable wealth about, at least wait until you’ve served your purpose and emigrate somewhere safer. He had to know he was going to get nabbed eventually.
His behaviour was a trifle self-destructive, Cameron…and as for his bird, well….
Oh my goodness! I love the spy stories. I am sure there are many we will never know, but I love this one. It was a potentially clever disguise to mask as a bubble gum machine supply salesman. Perhaps a more ordinary trade and staying away from those toilets and he would have been a better spy!
Quite. I expect the spy manual now recommends insurance salesmen and accountants as the best cover stories, Debra 😀
Intriguing. I loved your story. We tend to think of spies as fun, suave dangerous guys and miss the important undercover role they play that can be vital to our nation – or, harmful, depending on which side they’re on.
I think we have come to realise that these people sometimes do despicable things – but we are safer as a result. We prefer not to know who they are or what they are doing, but the secret war for our freedom is waged off the radar, just the same.