Ethel Elizabeth Gee, known as ‘Bunty’, was an unassuming spinster who lived in a Portland red brick terraced house in Hambro Road with her elderly relatives. A blacksmith’s daughter, she worked as a filing clerk in the Admiralty’s top underwater establishment at Portland. Despite this lowly status, she still handled top secret papers on Britain’s submarines and underwater detection capabilities. Indeed, much of the development work for Britain’s first nuclear submarine, HMS Dreadnought had been undertaken at Portland.
Born in Portland in May 1914, ‘Bunty’ has been described as ‘plain’ and an ‘awful cook’. Yet for a period in the 1950s, as a member of the Portland Spy Ring, she was one of Russia’s most valuable spies. Around 1955, she met fellow civil servant, Harry Houghton, who lived in Weymouth, a former sailor who was spying for both Poland and Russia. He was a heavy drinking divorcee who enjoyed a lifestyle far beyond his civil service income. He had bought a four bedroom cottage in Weymouth and was said to have four cars. Ethel Gee started passing confidential information to Houghton. Posing as a married couple they would regularly travel up to London at weekends and stay in hotels such as the Cumberland at Marble Arch. While in the capital, Houghton would pass this information onto his Russian Security Services contact. Frequently, they would take in a London show with the Crazy Gang comics being a particular favourite. Their Russian contact had a cover as a bubble gum and juke box salesman!
The couple regularly met up and engaged in heavy drinking sessions at the Elm Tree Inn at Langton Herring. They would receive telephone calls there from Russian agents as this phone was unlikely to be bugged by the British Security Services. Houghton would frequently buy rounds of drinks for people he had only just met.
Houghton’s former wife had tipped off the British Security Services about his spying activities in 1957. However the authorities had not taken any action believing the ex-spouse was just disgruntled. British Security Services finally acted after an American tip-off which led to Gee and Houghton being arrested in Waterloo Road, London in January 1961. Upon her arrest, Gee was found to be in possession of four confidential files and over 300 undeveloped photographs relating to HMS Dreadnought. Her Portland home was searched and revealed plenty of evidence of her guilt. Also arrested at the same time were Helen and Peter Kroger, two other members of the Portland Spy Ring. Ethel Gee and Harry Houghton were found guilty at their trials and both sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. They served only nine years of their sentences and after their release they married at Poole Register Office. The couple then opened a guest house in Branksome. Portland’s unassuming spy, Ethel Elizabeth ‘Bunty’ Gee died in Poole in 1984.
A Security file commented on the Dorset born female spy who had been given the code name ‘Trellis’ by Special Branch:
‘Plain in appearance and speaking with a strong Dorset accent, it would be hard to find someone further removed from the popular conception of a female spy as Miss Bunty Gee.’ She had been given the code name ‘Asya’ by the Russians.
After his prison release Harry Houghton produced an autobiography, ‘Operation Portland - Autobiography of a Spy.’ He claimed that he had met Russian agents who were landed in both Lulworth Cove and at Portland. He had previously worked in the British Embassy in Poland. It is reckoned he had been spying from 1951 until his arrest.
(Illustration: Ethel Elizabeth 'Bunty' Gee)
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