Skip to main content

'Letty' Norwood : Spying Great-Granny

She baked pies, wore slippers, loved gardening and was particularly fond of her roses in the front garden. Melita ‘Letty’ Norwood was the most unlikely of spies  and it has been jokily said she ’took her cocoa shaken, not stirred!’ She was born Melita Sirnis in March 1912 at 402 Christchurch Road in Pokesdown, East Bournemouth. Her father, Sacha was a Latvian political activist who produced a newspaper, the Southern Worker from their Bournemouth home. In Russia he had worked for literary giant Leon Tolstoy - author of War and Peace. Sadly, Sirnis died the day after Armistice Day suffering from TB. Her mother, Gertrude was a suffragette. ‘Letty’ spent her childhood in Bournemouth among a group of dedicated revolutionaries exiled from Russia who must have surely greatly influenced her.

Yet this apparently kindly, but slightly dotty lady was recognised in Moscow as the KGB’s most important female agent and became the longest serving Soviet spy in Britain. In 1979, she was awarded the Order of the Red Banner in the Soviet capital. Melita Norwood was known to her Soviet spying contacts as ‘Hola’. She had joined the Communist Party in 1936 and worked as a secretary at the British Non-Ferrous Metal Research Company whose true role included the development of atomic weaponry. She was able to pass on a large number of scientific and technical documents that were practically applied in Soviet industry. As a result of information she supplied, it is reckoned that the Russians tested an atomic bomb some four years earlier than otherwise would have been the case. She refused to take money for her spying services reckoning, through her secrecy leaks, a balance in weapons would be maintained reducing the likelihood of nuclear war. She leaked key secrets for more than 40 years and only stopped when she retired in 1972. She was granted a lifetime pension from Moscow of £20 per month in recognition of her ‘many years of excellent work.’ Her husband, Hilary Nussbaum, who had changed his name to Norwood, was a school teacher and committed communist. They moved to south east London, near the Royal Woolwich Arsenal. Here was a vital arms factory that made heavy naval guns and artillery equipment for the British Army.

Melita Norwood was not unmasked as a spy until September 1999 when as an 87 year old she was considered too frail to be prosecuted.  As a local newspaper wrote, Home Secretary Jack Straw decided to let ‘spy gones be bygones.’ This was a decision that upset Shadow Home Secretary, Ann Widdecombe. At this time, Melita Norwood was living in an ordinary three bedroom semi-detached property in Garden Avenue, Bexleyheath, south east London. While her neighbours and her daughter were aware of her left wing sympathies, they were astonished to find out about her spying activities. As a pensioner, she had a paper round when she delivered copies of the Communist Party newspaper, Morning Star locally. While she drank her Co-op tea from a Che Guevara mug. Describing her exposure as a ‘kerfuffle’ and shaking her head she remarked ‘I thought I’d got away with it!

Melita Norwood died in June 2005 at the age of 93 years. In 2018 a film, Red Joan starring Judi Dench was released loosely based on Bournemouth born Melita ‘Letty’ Norwood’s life.

(Images: Melita Norwood & credit below The Chaser newspaper, New South Wales.)


Popular posts from this blog

True Lovers Knot - a Tragic Tale

True Lovers Knot public house describes itself as a traditional  inn set in a picturesque Dorset valley in Tarrant Keynston. Yet, this historical hostelry is said to have gained its name from a particularly tragic tale and still to be haunted by a distressed former publican. This publican’s son met and fell in love with the daughter of the local squire. Because the young lad was not from the gentry they decided to keep their relationship secret from her father. Unfortunately, a stable hand saw the two young lovers together and told her father. Set firmly against this friendship the squire made plans to send his daughter away from the district. Not able to face up to life without her boyfriend, the young girl decided to commit suicide and hanged herself from a tree in the village. So upset was the publican’s son of hearing of his girlfriend’s death he too hanged himself from the same tree. The Tarrant Keynston publican had, himself lost his wife at child birth and now losing his son b

Tarrant Rushton's Nuclear Secret

Tarrant Rushton was a large RAF base used for glider operations during World War II. It was then taken over by Flight Refuelling for the conversion of aircraft for the development of aircraft in-flight refuelling. However, between 1958 & 1965, the Tarrant Rushton airfield had a much more secretive and less publicised role. This was in support of the nation’s nuclear bomber deterrent, as Tarrant Rushton airfield became a QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) dispersal unit.   During 1958, contractors Costain reinforced the main runway and carried out other work to ensure the giant bomber aircraft could be accommodated. At times just a few miles from Blandford, there would have been up to four RAF Vickers Valiant bombers at Tarrant Rushton ready to become airborne in minutes charged with nuclear weapons. The bombers were from 148 Squadron at RAF Marham in Norfolk. As there was no suitable accommodation at the airfield, an old US Air Force Hospital building at Martin was used. At the time, the

Chimney Sweep Tragedy

Crown Hotel, Blandford is reckoned to be one of Dorset’s oldest hostelries. Yet its most tragic day, during a long history, must surely be when a young chimney sweep lost his life. The chimney sweep, who was just a child, suffocated and was burnt to death in a Crown Hotel chimney which had been alight a little while before. ‘His cries were dreadful and no-one could give assistance. Part of the chimney was taken down before he was got out.’ (Salisbury & Winchester Gazette 27th March 1780) The lad had gone up one chimney and attempting to go down another had become stuck. At the time children were used to climb up chimneys to clean out soot deposits. With hands and knees, they would shimmy up narrow dark flue spaces packed thick with soot and debris. After the 1731 Great Fire of Blandford it was realised that it was important to sweep chimneys regularly while many rebuilt houses had narrower ones. Smaller chimneys and complicated flues were a potential death trap for children. The sw