21 May 2012

Dorothy O'Grady, fantasist spy?

I thought I knew who was convicted of treason and  treachery during WWII ut and article in today's  Independent provides information of another who I had never head of before.

The majority of those convicted under the 1940 Treachery Act, were nationals of Germany or occupied territories who where captured as spies in the UK - including Josef Jakobs Job, the last man to be executed at the Tower of London. Four were British - Duncan Scott-Ford, George Armstrong, Theodore Schurch, and Oswald Job, while Jose Estelle Key was from Gibraltar. A Portuguese citizen was also sentenced to death but his sentence was commuted and he was deported after the war's end.

The Indy adds an new name to this list (for me anyway): Dorothy O'Grady

Dorothy O'Grady, part-proprietor of Osborne Villa, Sandown, Isle of Wight, who was arrested and charged under the Treachery Act with being a Nazi spy. She gave the appearance of beig  a harmless middle-aged woman whose greatest pleasure was walking her Labrador. The authorities took a different view, concluding that exercising Rob was her alibi for intelligence collecting forays into restricted military areas.

 She made detailed maps; cut military telephone wires, and wore, on the underside of her coat lapel, a small swastika badge. How she communicated information about radar stations and gun emplacements to controllers in Berlin was never made clear, but that did not stop her being tried and convicted at Winchester of betraying her country. The judge donned a black cap, she was sentenced to death, and might very well have been executed had not her lawyer successfully won an appeal for misdirection of the jury. Instead, the mild-looking, bespectacled landlady was sent to prison for 14 years.

But, this being a spy story, nothing is entirely what it seems; and the saga of Dorothy O'Grady refused to lie down, especially after her release in 1950. She, for her part insisted in repeated interviews that her "spying" activities were something done to bring a little excitement into her hum-drum existence; a lark, as she put it, which got out of hand. And this apparently was the general view - a harmles fantasist,until, in 1995, the release of secret papers showed that wartime prosecutors thought the information she collected would have been vital to an invading enemy.

Author Adrian Searl has just written a book, The Spy Beside the Sea, which gives a full account o her ife and seeks to put to rest whether she was a dangerous spy or a harmles nut.

From an early age it seems that O Grady was a "bad 'un". Born to parents unknown in 1897 and adopted by a British Museum official and his wife, she grew up in  Clapham, and had a comfortable childhood. However, this seems to have ended with the death of her adoptive mother died when she was 10 years old. Her, George Squire, then married his housekeeper, who apparently subjected Dorothy to various cruelties.

By the age of 13, she was in a home where young girls were trained for domestic service. Events in her late teens and early twenties are unknown, but in 1918, she was convicted for forging bank-notes, and she was sent to borstal and prison. By 1920, she was in service with a lady in Brighton, but was convicted of stealing clothes and she was given two years' hard labour. After her release she moved back to London, and began collecting a string of prostitution convictions.

At the age of 28  she married a London fireman, Vincent O'Grady.and spent a number of years living quietly until Vincent retired and they moved to the Isle of Wight in the Thirties – ultimately setting up a boarding house in Sandown. At the outbreak of war Vincent went back to London on fire-fighting duties, the guest house was closed for the duration, and Dorothy and her dog were left to their own devices on an island which was soon awash with soldiers and military installations.

To troops guarding restricted areas she and her dog were a regular nuisance, wandering where they shouldn't. Eventually, the army tired of her, took her in charge, whereupon – as if determined to arouse suspicion – she offered the arresting squaddie 10 shillings,. She was also found to be wearing under her lapel a small swastika. Booked to appear before the Ryde magistrates on relatively minor charges, she failed to show up, and when police arrived at Osborne Villa they found it locked and Dorothy gone.
She was found three weks later  in a boarding house in Totland Bay, on the west of the island, under the assumed name Pamela Arland. While in Totland Bay, she had busied herself making more maps, cutting phone wires, and, unusually for an undercover agent, offering schoolboys small bribes to tell her about army gun emplacements. Once detained, she was taken to the mainland, grilled by MI5, and charged. The trial, with Dorothy kept from the witness box by her counsel, reached its expected verdict.

She served nine years, and her behaviour after her release in 1950 was as illogical as everything else to do with her. She went direct to Fleet Street and gave her story to the Daily Express, then rather more a paper of record than it is now. Her tale in this, and subsequent interviews, was that "the whole thing was a joke", and that she "looked forward to the trial as an immense thrill.... The excitement of being tried for my life was intense .... It made me feel somebody instead of being an ordinary seaside landlady."

She expressed regret for the trouble she had caused, but at other times there was a relish at giving the authorities the runaround – ascribed to the resentment she felt at her jailing for prostitution, during which a treasured puppy died. She must have gone to her grave in 1985 content that this well-aired account was widely accepted.

A low-key campaign began for the release of prosecution papers which, it was thought, would support her case. When the papers were published 1995, they made plain just how serious a threat she constituted in 1940, saying that the maps she drew were "terrifyingly accurate", and "would be of very great importance to the enemy".

Some, like Adrian Searle, were sceptical about the official line and began digging into her past, coming to some sharp conclusions (she went on the run in 1940 because she was afraid her husband would learn, via the magistrates' court hearing, of her prostitution convictions), and a few years ago he uncovered the documents that, more than any other, supply the nearest we are ever likely to get to an explanation.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, he obtained the reports by the governor and psychologist at Aylesbury Prison where she served most of her sentence. Dorothy had sometimes, in interviews, wondered if she had a sort of "kink". What the reports made clear was that Dorothy was an intelligent (IQ: 140) but deeply troubled woman who regularly self-harmed, and had "attacks... in which she has to 'obey people' inside her who encourage her to do harmful acts to herself". She had enacted a pretend hanging by placing a chair on her cell bed, and sometimes slept naked under the bed. There was a palpable sexual dimension to her behaviour, which included tying herself in awkward positions for hours at a time. The prison medical officer Dr Violet Minster said Dorothy inserted an alarming collection of objects into her vagina: a light bulb, more than 50 pieces of broken glass, a small pot, and 100 pins.

This, then, was a disturbed woman with a long-held grudge against authority, who sought the limelight in an unusual, but effective, way. And, while there is no evidence she ever attempted to communicate her island gleanings to anyone in any way, it is not impossible that she was hedging her bets, calculating, perhaps, that if the Nazis invaded, she would be able to prove her loyalty to the new cause.

Well there you have it. I am surprised I had never heard of her before so I will be purchasing a copy of this book asap. Was she bad, or just crazy?It sounds like the latter is the case rather than the former.


beakerkin said...


Mentally ill people had zero difficulty infiltrating Al Queda.
We spend millions on the CIA and they couldn't infiltrate Al Queda. The mentally disturbed John Walker Lindh had zero difficulty getting into Al Queda.

This proves that mental patients are
more effective than graduates of our elite iuniversities. Mental illness could be an actual asset in the war on terror.

This woman may have been the model for the lady in the Eagle has Landed.

Steve Hayes said...

A friend of mine was spied on by a mental patient. I don't think it did either of them any good, and showed the depths that the police were prepared to sink to.

jams o donnell said...

Ach any fringe movement attracts the dispossessed and a contingent of people with serious mental health problems Beakerkin

The police got a mental patient to to spy on your fri
end?Jesus that is low, Steve

SnoopyTheGoon said...

Good story. The lady sounds bonkers, but who am I to judge?

jams o donnell said...

I suppose she was more mad than bad