MEMORY LANE: How MP exposed Soviet spy in ‘79

The Mail back in 1979
The Mail back in 1979

ONE of the biggest stories of the decade was first reported in the Hartlepool Mail on November 15, 1979, as a “substantial statement in the Commons later this afternoon” by the new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

The statement concerned the case of Soviet agents Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, and was in response to a “priority question” from the MP for Hartlepool at the time, Ted Leadbitter.

When it came, sadly too late for that day’s Mail, the statement was dynamite, revealing that Sir Anthony Blunt, a former Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, was the “fourth man” in the so called Cambridge spy ring alongside Burgess, Maclean and Kim Philby – and was responsible for recruiting the trio for the Communist cause.

The following day the story was front page news in the Mail, with the paper calling Mr Leadbitter “spycatcher” and reporting his intention of “flushing out the men who masteminded the 15-year cover-up”.

The story continued: “Today, in a blistering attack on the ‘old boy’ network, which he claims swept the Blunt affair under the Whitehall carpet, Mr Leadbitter calls for a full public inquiry into the whole scandal.”

Mr Leadbitter told the Mail: “After 15 years of an establishment cover-up, the truth of Anthony Blunt’s treachery has been revealed.

“I pinned my questions squarely on the subject of national security and informed the Prime Minister’s office I would be expecting a full considered reply.

“The answer from the Prime Minister makes Mr Blunt a man who betrayed his country.”

Mr Leadbitter was particularly annoyed that Blunt – who had been stripped off his knighthood overnight – had confessed way back in 1964 but had been granted immunity from proescution in return for denouncing other spies.

The art expert continued in his role as Surveyor of The Queen’s Pictures, though The Queen was advised of his treachery.

Mr Leadbitter told the Mail: “Where many have been tried and punished Blunt was given his freedom, apparently in circumstances where his guilt was known but held in some tight circle.”.

But Blunt was defended by his friend, the art critic Brian Sewell, who said it was a witch hunt: “They are just using him as a political brickbat.”

Mr Leadbitter’s role as “spycatcher” followed the publication of The Climate of Treason, by Andrew Boyle, which referred to a fourth man called Maurice, revealed as Blunt following Mr Leadbitter’s parliamentary question, and a fifth man, called Basil, whose identity is still debated.

Also in the news in 1979...

THERE was concern over scavengers descending on Hartlepool’s rubbish tip, at Coronation Drive, Seaton Carew, once workmen left for the night.

“Hartlepool’s human hyenas are taking anything left on the dump,” reported the Mail.

One resident said: “I was throwing a a sack full of rubbish into a skip when up popped a small boy.

“I couldn’t believe it. If the sack had been full of old building bricks the child could have been killed.”

• BRITAIN’S inflation rate was heading for 20 per cent, warned the Mail, with the previous month’s 17.2 per cent the highest since July 1977. However, unemployment was down in Hartlepool with the number of jobless youngsters falling from a peak of 1,247 in July to 425 in October.

• BBC Radio Cleveland launched a search to find the area’s fastest knitter.

Each entrant would be expected to make a six-inch square, which the station planned to make-up into shawls, cot covers and blankets to be sent to refugees in the Far East by Oxfam.

Organiser Ann Davies, a BBC producer, admitted she once took five years to knit a hot-water bottle cover.

• TV viewers had just the three channels to choose from, with prime-time comedy staples on BBC1 including Are You Being Served? and Sykes, and ITV offering 3-2-1 followed by Cannon and Ball, whereas BBC2 had In The Country followed by Benson and Hedges Championships tennis. Film fans could see The Bermuda Triangle at Hartlepool’s Fair World Cinema.

• BINNS in Hartlepool had begun its Christmas advertising campaign, with suggested gifts including a Philishave electric shaver for £29.95, a 20 inch Murphy TV for £315, or a Teleton Hi-Fi Centre for £429.

• FOOTBALL manager Tommy Docherty, then in charge of QPR, spoke out at the size of transfer fees: “I don’t think any player is worth £1m,” insisted the former Manchester United and Scotland boss.

Contact Andrew Levett by emailing andrew.levett@jpress.co.uk or write to him at Hartlepool Mail, New Clarence House, Wesley Square, Hartlepool, TS24 8BX.