The Spy Next Door

Fifty years after the trial and conviction of the Portland Spy Ring, Hannah Baker rediscovers that a family friend was something other than you imagined

Fifty years after the trial and conviction of the Portland Spy Ring, Hannah Baker rediscovers that a family friend was something other than you imagined

On 9 January 1961, the arrest of five individuals accused of spying dominated the front pages of the press. Two of the accused lived in Dorset and worked at the high-security Underwater Detection Establishment (UDE) on Portland. Henry Frederick Houghton and Ethel Elizabeth Gee were both civil servants who had met and started a relationship while working on Portland. The Cold War was at its height and newspapers were full of stories about British, American and Russian relations, and shady individuals who tried to sell secrets to the other side. This was the stuff of James Bond movies, but no one expected it to be happening on their doorstep. The residents of Portland were in for a big shock.

On the day of the arrests, the main story reported in the Dorset Evening Echo was followed by a small piece entitled ‘Little-known woman of Hambro Road’. The article said that Ethel’s neighbours knew little about her and that she had few friends. The facts available to reporters were that Ethel, known as ‘Bunty’, lived with her elderly mother, aunt and uncle. She worked in offices at the UDE and had met divorcee Harry Houghton at work. They had become romantically involved and Harry often gave her a lift home in his ‘small grey car’.

For my family, Bunty really was ‘the girl next door’ and this is how, as a genealogist, my interest in her life began. The Portland of the 1960s was a small, close-knit community. Bunty lived at 23 Hambro Road, and my family lived on the nearby High Street. My great aunt was a similar age to Bunty and both were spinsters; soon they became friends and Bunty was welcomed into the family home. Some of my living relatives remember her joining in with family sing-songs around the piano. Other family members worked alongside her at UDE and described her as efficient and reliable. This made her arrest all the more shocking for my family, and is why the events of 1961 have become a part of our family legend.

This was the stuff of James Bond movies, but no one expected it to be happening on their doorstep. The residents of Portland were in for a big shock

In March 1961, Bunty and Harold were tried at the Old Bailey. The prosecution was lead by the Attorney General, Sir Reginald Manningham Buller QC (his daughter, Elizabeth, later became Britain’s top spy hunter as head of MI5), and the trial was presided over by the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker.

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Bunty protested her innocence, claiming a remarkable degree of naivety. Harry Houghton had been the long-awaited love who swept her off her feet. They enjoyed trips to London together and nights out at local public houses, where their spending was noted by police. She claimed that meetings with strangers on London station platforms, and the passing of packages containing items such as cameras, did not make her feel in anyway uneasy. When asked about the pamphlets she had obtained from work to give to Houghton, she said: “At the time, I did not feel that I was doing wrong. I see now it was very wrong.”

Bunty’s defence hinged on the idea that she gained and supplied information purely to satisfy the curiosity of her boyfriend and his acquaintances. The Attorney-General stated: “You may wonder how this established civil servant could engage in this and betray the trust in her, as she admits she did.” He dismisses a belief in Communism or her love for Houghton as a motive and suggests she acted for financial gain. Examination of Gee’s bank accounts revealed uncharacteristically large amount of money had passed through them.. She was also believed to be successful in dealing with stocks and shares. In his summing up, the Lord Chief Justice said of Bunty: “A lot depends on what you thought of Miss Gee. Do you think she is quite as dim-witted as she and her counsel would have you believe?” The residents of Portland, including members of my family, certainly didn’t recognise this 47 year old local woman as a calculating traitor who was quietly accruing a small fortune for herself. Houghton and Gee were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. On 23 March 1961 the Dorset Evening Echo did not shout about a guilty verdict but ran with the headline: ‘The Men Who Unmasked Houghton’, and concentrated on the heroism of Sgt Leonard Burt, credited with conducting the initial investigation; the fate of Harry and Bunty is almost given as an aside. Better to celebrate successful local policing than the shame of local spies!

During her time in prison Bunty was repeatedly refused parole and privileges (including a radio). In December 1969, Evelyn King, MP for Dorset South, made representations on her behalf in the House of Commons, asking for an early release due to her previous good record, commendable behaviour whilst in custody, and that she should not be left to bear punishment for “a crime which clearly she had not planned or initiated.” All of this fell on deaf ears.

In his autobiography, Operation Portland, published in 1972, Harry Houghton quite clearly makes a case for the naivety of Bunty. He repeatedly suggests that she was just enjoying a good lifestyle and was not aware of the true implications of the tasks he was asking her to complete on his behalf. Gee was eventually released in 1970 having served nine years of her sentence. Houghton and Gee married and lived their lives out in relative obscurity.

I believe my great aunt never saw her friend again after her arrest and remained puzzled about the woman she thought she knew so well. Her involvement certainly makes for an interesting story in my family’s recollections, and remains part of Portland’s history and the role it played in Britain’s Cold War defence. 

Do you have an interesting ancestor or family legend you have discovered while researching your family history? We’d love to hear from you if you have. Contact the editor


The story of the Portland Spy Ring, as it became known, and in particular Peter and Helen Kroger, a quiet couple living in Ruislip who transmitted the stolen classified material to Moscow, forms the basis for Hugh Whitemore’s award-winning play Pack of Lies. The Wimborne Drama production at the Tivoli Theatre, directed by Phyllis Spencer, stars Penny Pearson and Colin Pile as Barbara and Bob Jackson, neighbours and friends of Peter and Helen Kroger. “The Cold War may seem a long time ago,” says Phyllis Spencer, “but with Russian spies in the news again, the themes explored are as relevant today as they were in 1961.”10-12 February at Tivoli Theatre, Wimborne. Tickets: 01202 885566