By Duncan Bowie
Wilfred Vernon was MP for Dulwich between 1945 and 1951- the first Labour candidate to be elected for the constituency. He was also a Soviet agent, in that he provided confidential documents to the Soviets, though he was never publicly exposed. As far as I am aware there has only been one published reference to the story, a paragraph in a recent academic study of the Attlee government and the security services by Dan Lomas : Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments 1945-51. In searching for information on Vernon, who gets only passing mentions in books on the post-war Labour Party, I discovered that four volumes of MI5 files on Vernon were publicly available.
Vernon, who was born in October 1882 and was educated at the Stationers’ Company Foundation School in Hornsey and then at the City and Guilds Technical College in City Road, London, had worked in electrical and mechanical engineering before the First World War. With the outbreak of war, he joined the Royal Naval Air Force as an engineering officer and was apparently involved in the development of flying boats. He was promoted to the rank of squadron commander and was demobilised in 1919 with the rank of Major, a title he used for the rest of his life. He worked for a private aircraft company before joining the inspection department of the Air Ministry in 1924, then transferring to the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough in 1925 as a technical officer until 1937.
Vernon appears to have been politically active from 1921 and was a member of the League of Nations Union. In 1931 he set up an informal political study circle in Farnborough and joined the local Labour Party and Co-operative Society. The circle was known colloquially as the ABC club - ‘Anarchists, Bolsheviks and Communists’. Vernon later became a member of the Socialist League, an organisation of left-wing Labour Party members initiated by Stafford Cripps in 1932. He was also involved in founding self-help groups for the unemployed in the Farnham area and wrote a self-published pamphlet on ‘the transition to socialism’. His activity clearly generated opposition from right-wingers and on 22nd August 1937, his house was burgled, and papers as well as money and various household items were stolen. The stolen papers included a pamphlet on ‘Foreign Affairs in Parliament’, published by the Union for Democratic Control of Foreign Policy, known as the ‘UDC’ and a pamphlet on ‘the Communist Party’. Vernon claimed that the burglars were fascists, and apparently the burglars had a Fascist flag on their car windscreen. The burglars claimed that their intention was to expose Vernon as a ‘prominent Communist worker’. One of the defendants, Ford, who was a soldier, alleged that Vernon had recruited him to distribute Communist propaganda among the troops in Aldershot, that he had been paid for this, and that Vernon had encouraged him to desert. The head of the Royal Aircraft Establishment however considered that the documents revealed in court showed that Vernon ‘had acted prejudicial to the service’ and he was suspended from his job.
When the burglary case came to trial, the alleged burglars were represented by Mr Lawton, who was a parliamentary candidate for Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF). Although Vernon was the victim of the burglary, Lawton was able to cross-question Vernon on his politics and reading material. Vernon admitted to being active in the Farnham Labour Party but denied being a Communist. His reading material included a number of Left Book Club volumes. Ford claimed that the purpose of the burglary was to seize Vernon’s ‘Bolshevist literature’ and take it to the police station at Scotland Yard. Ford and his three co-defendants were found to be guilty of theft.
The stolen papers included some notes relating to Vernon’s work at the Royal Aircraft Establishment including a note on the vulnerability of cities to air attack, notes on aircraft type and engines, the accuracy of bomb dropping from a 1934 exercise and notes on different types of bomb sights. Vernon was then prosecuted by the Air Ministry under the Official Secrets Act for ‘retaining information’ and not taking proper care of information’. He was defended by D N Pritt, the left-wing lawyer and Labour MP for Hammersmith North, whose earlier legal achievements included the defence of Vietnamese communist, Ho Chi Minh, from extradition by the French from Hong Kong.
It was not until 1948 that MI5 was able to confirm that Vernon’s storing of technical material at his home was not just a lapse of procedure. A former soviet agent, a naturalised German and released wartime internee called Ernest David Weiss, informed the security services that, using the pseudonym Walter Lock, he had in 1936 and 1937 collaborated with Vernon, and a Farnborough colleague, Frederick Stephen Meredith, to provide this information to a Soviet agent known as Harry II. Weiss had photographed the documents before returning them to Vernon and Meredith. MI5 files also refer to another intermediary in the espionage, known as ‘Pauline’, but identified as Germaine Schneider, who is recorded in MI5 files as a courier for the ‘Rote Kapelle’ (Red Orchestra) German anti-Nazi communist group.. The meetings and the copying of material apparently happened on a regular basis from May 1936 until shortly after the burglary. The documents copied include blueprints of the Avro-Anson aircraft and notes on its performance. On being interviewed in 1952 by MI5’s top interrogator, Jim Skardon, (who had interrogated atom spy Klaus Fuchs and the Cambridge spy ring members, Philby, Blunt and Cairncross), Vernon admitted to having spied for Soviet Russia in 1936 and 1937, having been recruited by Meredith arguing that while he was not a Communist, he had many friends who were and that at the time of the Popular Front ( the campaign that left wingers should collaborate with communists) he felt entitled to take the action he did as the then Government was acting ‘ in a way inimical to the country’s interests’
In March 1939, Vernon was secretary of the Eastern Counties Food Ship for Spain campaign, based in Cambridge, and giving lectures to Left Book Clubs around the country. In January 1940, MI5 recorded that he was having lunch in Kensington with Ivan Popov, the second secretary of the Russian embassy. It was noted that he spoke Russian. A warrant to intercept his post was obtained - at the time he was living at Crouch End. In March 1940, Lewisham police passed to special branch a report by Inspector Taylor on communists in Brixton and East Dulwich, naming Vernon as organiser of communist meetings in Brixton. Vernon was recorded as living at Pembroke Villas, Pembroke Square, SW8. His colleagues, both from Brixton were G Henderson and L Peck, both of whom worked for the East Dulwich branch of the London and Manchester Assurance Company at 4 Melbourne Grove, East Dulwich. Len Peck was a member of the London Trades Council and a playwright, having written plays on the Means Test and the Chartist movement.
With the start of war, Vernon had attempted to rejoin the RAF, but this was blocked given his previous conviction. However in July 1940, Vernon joined the ‘unofficial’ Home Guard school at Osterley Park, where he was a colleague of Tom Wintringham, former leading Communist and later a co-leader of the Christian socialist Common Wealth Party. Hugh Purcell’s biography of Wintringham, The Last English Revolutionary, refers to Vernon as a ‘mixer of Molotov cocktails, inventor of new bombs and rather mad’. Vernon’s group apparently involved a group of ‘Basque bombers’.
The Osterley Park school was closed in Spring 1941. Vernon then apparently moved with Wintringham to the Home Guard school in Dorking, where he taught aircraft recognition, and the use of warfare explosions and grenades. By 1944, Vernon was living in Southsea, where he was a tutor for the Workers Education Association and the regional committee for Adult Education in the Armed Forces. His subjects covered a diverse range and included the sciences, aeroplane design; particularly flying boats, current affairs, India, China, the Versailles treaty but his lecturing in army education was cancelled, however, on security grounds. Vernon appealed to the Labour MP, Leslie Haden Guest, but without success.
He was still in Southsea when he was contacted by Bertha Clark from Dulwich, who may have been an electoral agent, inviting Vernon to be the Labour parliamentary candidate for Dulwich. In the election of 1945, Vernon defeated the sitting Conservative MP, Sir Bracewell Smith, with a narrow majority of 211. Labour had not previously won the seat and it is likely that Vernon had not actually expected to be elected.
Vernon appears to have had a fairly low profile in Parliament. Hansard has very few references to any substantial interventions. Vernon’s maiden speech on 25th November 1945 was on world government and support for the United Nations, though he also argued the case for more aerodromes and retraining bombers and fighters to join a world police force, as with world government there would be no need for bombers and fighters.
He also suggested that to protect industry and population from attack, both people and industry should be dispersed as widely as possible, suggesting they should be located underground beneath concrete shelters - He went on to suggest that “ Not only must we think of moving this House to some other part of England—that is not good enough—but we have to consider the headquarters of our Empire being moved to some place as safe as it possibly can be. I should think of Northern Rhodesia or Tanganyika, or Arctic Canada, as sensible and suitable places for the centre of the British Empire.” This must have been one of the most curious maiden speeches ever given.
Vernon also made a speech on defence policy which appears to have opposed increased British defence expenditure while supporting a UN army, so long as that was supported by all the Great Powers. On one occasion he spoke up to support Mao Tse Tung, who was fighting a civil war with Chiang Kai Shek’s nationalists, apparently the only MP to do so. Vernon claimed that "the Chinese government are running one of the most ruthless and cruel police states in existence," and called for Britain to adopt "a policy of friendship and trade with the liberated areas" under Communist control. The MI5 files have records of his contacts with Jack Chen and Raymond Wong, who were Chinese communists based in London at the New China News Agency. Vernon was a member of the Parliamentary Far East committee.
Vernon was a member of the group of left-wing MPs who opposed Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy. He came to public attention in April 1948 when he signed the Nenni telegram, supporting the Italian socialist Nenni who collaborated with the Italian communists. A number of the members of the group, including John Platts Mills, were expelled from the Labour Party, though Vernon was not, which implies that he signed the required undertaking to desist from such conduct in the future. The Dulwich Labour Party supported Vernon, the chairman C L Allen commenting that “we will back Major Vernon in whatever course of action he takes. We know he holds strong left-wing views”. Vernon was also a member of the Anglo-Russian Parliamentary Committee. He had apparently visited Russia in 1935, though he claimed also to have attended the Berlin Olympics in 1936. In 1947, he was noted by MI5 to be giving support to the Camberwell branch of the Communist Party, having agreed with the Communist Party’s criticism of the Labour government’s position on the Greek civil war, where Bevin was supporting the royalists against the communists. Vernon was also recorded as opposing the security components of the Atomic Energy Bill in August 1946. Vernon had also voted against the government on the issue of conscription in November 1946. MI5 was clearly closely following Vernon’s political activity, both within and outside parliament.
The released MI5 files on Vernon start in 1938. However, the first released file is marked as Volume 9. The 4 volumes released include over 400 pages of documents, with the last entry being in 1952. That the files refer to earlier material suggests that there remains significant unreleased material. Presumably much of this relates to the 1937 burglary and Official Secrets Act trial and it appears that MI5 had been following Vernon since as early as 1934. Much of the content in the released files refers to Vernon as having committed espionage which implies that the security services were aware of his keeping confidential documents at home and was more than just a procedural breach. One later file notes that he had been known to be involved in communist meetings and subversion as early as 1934. This makes it all the more curious that the security services did not actually interrogate Vernon until after the information received from Weiss in 1948.
In October 1948, Attlee as Prime Minister was informed of Vernon’s espionage activity. Attlee was reported as being surprised and shocked. He however decided that action should not be taken against Vernon, and that he should not be interrogated, given he was a sitting member of parliament. Vernon was therefore not interviewed by MI5 until 1952, when this restriction no longer applied. MI5 continued to monitor Vernon after he lost his parliamentary seat in the October 1951 general election. Vernon continued to be politically active after losing his parliamentary seat. He was a member of Camberwell Borough Council and in 1952 was elected as member for Dulwich on the London County Council, serving until 1955.
In one of MI5’s debriefs of interrogation of Vernon, the officer recorded that:
“ I gained the impression that VERNON is a straightforward and upright person according to the dictates of his own conscience. I think it is unlikely that he would be guilty of any petty meanness, and there is a simplicity about him which may have led MEREDITH to describe him as ‘Christlike’. He is, I should say, a man of moderate education and not particularly intelligent. He has probably been a pretty honest though not very brilliant Member of Parliament. “
It was however decided by MI5 that Vernon should not be exposed. Vernon was viewed as being a sincere supporter of the Labour Party, and presumably no longer a threat to national security. It was therefore decided t ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.The last time the file was read was March 1975, at which point the file was closed and franked as historical;.
Vernon died in Bristol in 1975 at the age of 93.
The Very Strange case of Major Vernon - MP and Spy
By Duncan Bowie