Stalin’s Hertfordshire spy: Guy Burgess
PUBLISHED: 11:00 25 February 2016
Guy Burgess is notorious for being part of Russia’s most successful spying operation, which penetrated the heart of British power. What are less well known are his strong links to Hertfordshire, where he was schooled, worked as a double agent and came to party. Andrew Lownie, author of an award-winning new biography of Burgess, explores the connections
The abiding image of Guy Burgess, part of the infamous Cambridge Spy Ring, is from Alan Bennett’s play An Englishman Abroad – depicting him as a tragi-comic figure living in exile in Moscow. Few people realise he had strong connections with Hertfordshire, ranging from his schooldays at Lockers Park School near Hemel Hempstead to working at Brickendonbury Manor near Hertford during the Second World War and spending regular weekends in Flaunden in the period 1945-1951.
Burgess was recruited at Cambridge University in the 1930s, along with fellow communist sympathisers Kim Philby, Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt, by the Russians as a long-term ‘sleeper’ to infiltrate the corridors of British power. After university, Burgess worked as a BBC radio producer before moving to the Foreign Office, most notably the private office of Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. From here, he was able to pass thousands of documents to his Soviet controllers.
His close friend Kim Philby, who worked in secret counter-espionage during the war in a unit based at Glenalmond, an imposing house off King Harry Lane in St Albans, would rise almost to the top of MI6, while Donald Maclean knew all the national atomic energy secrets. Anthony Blunt served in MI5 and then the Royal Household. The Cambridge Ring is generally regarded to have been the most successful of all Russian spying operations.
Burgess started at Lockers Park, then the most expensive and fashionable prep school in Britain (a recent pupil had been Louis Mountbatten), in September 1920, aged nine, and remained there until he left for Eton at the end of 1923. He was a clever boy, consistently at the top of his class, musical and sporty (he was a member of the 1st X1 football team). Each school house was assigned a colour and appropriately enough he was a ‘Red’.
His connections with Hertfordshire resumed in 1940 when he and Kim Philby became instructors at Brickendonbury, a school for training British agents and saboteurs to be sent into occupied Europe, which he jokingly christened Guy Fawkes College. RTB Cowan, another instructor, later wrote, ‘Of all the instructors, the strangest were Kim Philby and Guy Burgess. What they did I don’t know, but it was probably instruction in political incitement. Philby seemed to be quite respectable but Burgess was of scruffy appearance and rather fond of the bottle.’
Another Brickendonbury colleague, J McCaffery, remembered a football match between staff and trainees where he was ‘confronted with one of the most polished pairs of full-backs I had ever played against. On and off the field, these two men were complementary because they were so different. One very controlled, clear-headed, elegant, the other aggressive, almost wild in a cheerful sort of way, the sort who could not drive a car without flattening the accelerator on to the floor. I realise how ridiculous this is but to this day it is their brilliant football which for me makes their treason seem so hard to accept. Their names were Kim Philby and Guy Burgess.’
Burgess was sacked from Brickendonbury for drunken driving but Philby continued within MI6 and was posted to Praewood House, also in Hertfordshire, where one of his agents was the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. After the Second World War, Philby returned to live in the county.
The final Hertfordshire-Burgess connection is with Flaunden. Burgess’ long-term boyfriend, Peter Pollock, had bought a farm in the village at the end of the Second World War. Sharlowes was a large medieval open-hall house with cross wings dating from 1500 and here Pollock took up pig farming, greyhound breeding and, in the lazy summer afternoons, idling through the leafy Hertfordshire lanes in his vintage Rolls. Frustrated by his lack of creative achievement and with a passion for the arts and the company of artists, Pollock provided open house for painters, writers, actors and actresses on Sundays.
Burgess would come down to Flaunden on alternate weekends and would often drink at the 17th-century Green Dragon pub – a haunt during the 1930s of Joachim von Ribbentrop, later foreign minister of Nazi Germany, who had a weekend home nearby. It was run by Bob Burgess (no relation) where Mrs Green, the landlord’s daughter, remembers Burgess as ‘an interesting man and very good-looking’.
The actress Fanny Carby, a friend of the Pollock sisters, was one of those who attended the weekend gatherings. ‘He loved coming down. He liked to be cosy,’ she said. ‘Though he led a decadent life, he loved to sit around the fire at the farm. He liked people making cups of tea and pie crusts. He was terribly likeable. He had a charisma, a sort of fatal fascination. It wasn’t just charm. You were always so glad to see it was Guy.’
Burgess continued to visit Pollock at Flaunden until his highly-publicised flight to Russia with Donald Maclean in May 1951. He died in Moscow of liver failure in August 1963 aged 52. His final wish to return to Britain was granted when his ashes were buried that October in the family plot in West Meon, Hampshire.