Suffolk's secret spy-mania shame

Angela Lawrence knew a good story when she heard a whisper of one. So she beavered away and uncovered a shameful tale of spy-mania and a Suffolk community losing its head at a time of great stress.

Steven Russell

Angela Lawrence knew a good story when she heard a whisper of one. So she beavered away and uncovered a shameful tale of spy-mania and a Suffolk community losing its head at a time of great stress. Steven Russell finds out more

EAST Anglia, left to its own devices, is pretty laid-back and accepting. Thankfully, we haven't experienced the extreme internecine terror that has scarred places like Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda, where once-peaceable neighbours have turned against each other. But dig a little and you'll find rural Suffolk has buried a few shameful episodes it was desperate to forget. One came as the world went to war and anyone who was slightly different was subjected to sideways glances and whispered gossip. In 1914 it ended in tragedy . . .

The true story is evocatively told in Angela Lawrence's book Rumour, where the tension builds like a brewing thunderstorm. At the eye is William Smith, schoolmaster for Henham and Wangford - a respected and proud man who is not a native of the county and who has German friends. When war rocks Europe, a man once trusted to educate the local children and care for their welfare finds himself under suspicion - ordered to leave Suffolk and tell the police where he goes.

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Few folk - even those living in the villages where this drama played out - know the slightest thing about it nowadays.

The book draws its power from the way the elements align against him. The 1914 summer heatwave turns productive pasture into “a desiccated, buff-coloured desert”. The heat, and the losing battle against the dust, exhausts country folk. The outbreak of war sets nerves jangling. The arrival in East Anglia of the first casualties, badly hurt, pushes the conflict into the faces of people not used to such horror. And when a police chief starts shouting about the threat of spies and the need to be wary of strangers, paranoia grows rampant.

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There are echoes of Arthur Miller's claustrophobic play The Crucible, where the population of a 17th Century New England town is whipped up by witch-hunting frenzy and loses its sense of proportion.

“Yes!” agrees Angela, a former journalist who was in at the launch of Radio Suffolk in 1990. “The chief constable of East Suffolk Constabulary, Captain Jasper Mayne, turns out to be rather the villain of the piece, because he was rather obsessive about spies.

“Any stranger, to him, was a potential spy. When the refugees from Antwerp came in the fishing boats to Lowestoft and Southwold, his first reaction was 'Get them out of here! I don't want them in Suffolk' - because there could be spies amongst those refugees.”

There is also uncomfortable resonance with the UK today. Most chilling is the text of the notice, signed by Jasper Mayne, that was sent to William Smith in the autumn of 1914. Under the Defence of the Realm Act, where the behaviour of anyone giving “reasonable grounds for suspecting that he has acted or is acting or is about to act in a manner prejudicial to the public safety or the safety of the realm”, people could be ordered to move away.

The schoolmaster, wife Alma and family were “hereby requited to cease to reside in the county of Suffolk . . . and to report your departure to the police before you leave and your arrival to the police at the place to which you go”.

And all based on conjecture, Chinese whispers and fear . . .

“The 42-day detention idea, and that kind of thing, is exactly like that. The government of the time becomes absolutely paranoid, out of all proportion,” argues Angela.

“As I was finishing it, I thought this was a novel that had reverberations for today, because with anyone who's strange or different-looking there's immediately a fear that 'This person might do me harm', however irrational that feeling is.

“This is the barrier William Smith found himself up against. He was a Devonian; he was almost Mediterranean in appearance. He spoke differently. And his German connections . . . he'd had two little German students to stay. Everyone referred to them as The Little Frauleins.

“You just feel the whole country went into lockdown; and there are echoes of that today, in the curtailment of freedom.”

It wouldn't be fair to betray the ending, though no-one reading the book will be able to escape the mounting sense it can't end happily. And it doesn't.

What were her feelings when she realised what had happened, and why?

“I was shocked and very angry. I've always been a campaigning journalist and in a way I felt it was my duty to clear his name, however many years later, because I don't think it was ever cleared at the time.”

Rumour, her self-published tome, is the fruit of five years of research, thinking and writing - though the germ of the tale had been niggling away in Angela's mind for more than two decades.

“I first came across the story back in about 1978/79. My husband at the time had a collection of little books, written in 1914 and 1915 by an author with a pseudonym: Alpha of the Plough. (Essex-born journalist AG Gardiner, who became editor of The Daily News.) Inside was an article about spy-mania and there was a brief mention of the tragic case of William Smith, the headmaster of Henham school.

“This intrigued us both and we came up from Sussex, where we were living, to try to get some more information. It was obviously a cause celebre of its day.”

Some time after the couple divorced, Angela moved permanently to East Anglia, linking up with Ivan Howlett - an old friend from Radio Sussex days - as BBC Radio Suffolk opened. “And, of course, the story was right on my doorstep!”

In 1994 she made recordings with some folk in Wangford who could tell her about the happenings eight decades earlier, “but I never gathered enough information to make a half-hour documentary, so those tapes went in a drawer and were forgotten about”.

About five years ago, having retired from her subsequent job in public relations, Angela felt it was time to investigate fully. The archives at Ipswich Record Office were invaluable, with the august columns of the East Anglian Daily Times the primary source.

“I have to say the EADT of 1914 is a riveting read! The editor, Frederick Wilson, demanded his reporters make verbatim reports, so you get these long, detailed accounts of what was going on. The East Anglian Daily Times unlocked it and made me realise why what happened actually happened - the cause and effect.

“I realised this story was far, far bigger than the very brief outline I'd known about. It was a big story about spy-mania in Suffolk and how it affected people - not just William and Alma Smith, although they were the most tragically affected, but a lot more people besides.”

The editor is a real person, as is accomplished reporter Ernest Hart. Guided by information she found, Angela has fictionalised their lives and those of other characters. But the key incidents and events are true, with many chapters of her book containing extracts from news reports of the day.

She got a good steer about Sir Frederick Wilson's character from his obituaries. (He died in 1924.) “He fought the Fenians at Chester” - they wanted an independent Irish republic - “and had been a rifleman when they tried to blow up Chester Castle. There was also his service as an MP; and the fact he'd taken a group of journalists to Germany to interview the Kaiser back in about 1906/7. It was for his work in journalism that he was awarded his knighthood.

“The obits also pointed to the fact he liked his reporters to call him 'Chief', which is a wonderful steer on a character. So the dialogue in the book is 'Yes, Chief!' He wasn't 'Sir Frederick' or 'the editor'.”

In an era well before the kind of TV coverage we take for granted today, Hart is lauded for his colourful and poetic reports, mixing information with description, that caught the mood of the time - contrasting the pastoral serenity of everyday Suffolk with the horrors of war that couldn't be ignored.

The first casualties of the conflict came ashore at Shotley barracks and Harwich. HMS Amphion was sunk by a mine on August 6, 1914. The following month, the cruisers HMS Aboukir, HMS Hogue and HMS Cressy were sunk by torpedoes from a German submarine in the North Sea.

“So the people of Suffolk read Ernest Hart's exclusive verbatim reports that nobody else in the country could easily see, because we didn't have mass media. I think that explains why recruitment was so high-profile here. They could see the casualties and were suddenly in the front line in this obscure war that had started in the middle of Europe and was very quickly brought home to them.”

Now the book is printed, how does Angela reflect on the episode?

“I feel it's a story that should be read in Suffolk and feel a sense of shame that it happened here. It is a very Suffolk-based book and a very Suffolk-based story. How could people who are so phlegmatic be so stirred to take this really cruel step?”

A pen portrait

Angela Lawrence worked on newspapers in Kent and Sussex

She taught at a primary school in Brighton for nine years when her daughter was little

At Radio Sussex, became the country's first bi-media correspondent, working on radio and TV

She worked on schools radio in London, producing a programme for 8-12-year-olds

Then came Radio Devon, and TV in Plymouth

Worked at the new BBC Radio Suffolk until 1998

Worked in public relations for energy firm TXU at Wherstead until 2002

Then started own PR company

Lives near the Suffolk coast, between Orford and Bawdsey

Rumour, Angela Lawrence's book, is being sold at Browsers in Woodbridge, Orwell Books at Southwold and Wangford Village Stores - and Magpie Bookshop in Felixstowe. It costs �12.99. It can also be obtained via Sandlings Press, The Shipway, Mallard Way, Hollesley, Woodbridge, IP12 3QJ. Email:

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