Harry Houghton

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Harry Frederick Houghton
Born(1905-06-07)7 June 1905
Died23 May 1985(1985-05-23) (aged 79)
OccupationSailor, civil servant, spy
Spouse(s)Ethel Gee (m. 1971)
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Navy
RankChief Petty Officer
Battles/warsSecond World War

Harry Frederick Houghton (7 June 1905 – 23 May 1985) was a British naval officer and a spy for the People's Republic of Poland and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. He was a member of the Portland Spy Ring.[1]

Early life[edit]

Houghton was born in Lincoln, England. He left school at 14 to become an errand boy and later joined the Royal Navy. By the end of World War II, he was a master-at-arms (chief petty officer).

After the war, he joined the civil service and in 1951 was attached to the staff of the naval attaché of the British embassy in Warsaw, Poland. Houghton dabbled in the black market, starting with coffee and moving on to medical drugs (in his memoirs, Houghton admits to the former but denies the latter). That made him money and acquaintances but also led him to heavy drinking and the attention of the Polish Secret Police.

Houghton's wife complained of domestic abuse, and there were concerns that he was mixing with the wrong people. In 1952, he was ordered home. Houghton and his wife separated in 1956 and later divorced.

Spying career[edit]

Meanwhile, he had become involved around 1955 with Ethel Gee, known as "Bunty", a filing clerk who also worked at the base.[2]

Houghton had his access to secret papers restricted around 1956 as he had taken secret papers out of the strong-room without the consent of his superiors.[2] By this time, Houghton was passing secrets to Polish spies, who sent them to the Soviets. He was appointed to the Admiralty Underwater Weapons Establishment at Portland, where the Royal Navy would test equipment for undersea warfare. He persuaded Gee, apparently telling her of his connection to the Russians, to assist him in gaining access to documents for which he did not have clearance.[2] Gee passed them to Houghton, and he would photograph them. On the first Saturday of each month, Houghton would go to London, sometimes with Gee, and exchange packages with a contact whom they knew as Gordon Lonsdale, in reality Konon Molody, a Posing as a Canadian businessman he was a non-official (illegal) KGB intelligence agent and the mastermind of the Portland Spy Ring

Houghton's drinking did not stop, and he was living far beyond his salary, which brought him under suspicion. MI5 placed him under surveillance and found other members of what was to be called the Portland Spy Ring.

In his book Spycatcher, Peter Wright claimed that Houghton first came to MI5's attention when a Polish mole, codenamed Sniper, reported he had information about a Russian spy in the British Navy. According to Wright, Sniper did not know the name of the spy but said that it sounded like Huiton. Sniper also obtained documents that had been sent by the spy, helping MI5 to determine who had access to the documents. The information from Sniper said the spy had been sent home from Warsaw for drunkenness, pointing to Houghton.[2]

Houghton and Gee were arrested with Lonsdale (his real identity was not yet known) by Special Branch officers on 7 January 1961 near the Old Vic theatre. The other Soviet spies, Morris and Lona Cohen (whose cover names were Peter and Helen Kroger) were also arrested.

Houghton claimed at his trial that he had been blackmailed by the Poles and the Russians into spying for them. In Poland, he had had an affair with a female black-marketeer and was told that she would go to prison if he did not provide secrets. Threats were also made against Gee and Houghton's former wife, and he claimed that he was twice attacked by thugs. Houghton claimed that the information that he gave was newspaper cuttings and matters that were already in the public domain.

Files released in September 2019 indicated that Houghton, and perhaps Gee, could have been arrested in 1957 but that MI5 ignored warnings from Houghton's spouse as the "outpourings of a disgruntled and jealous wife." Mrs. Houghton had advised the admiralty in 1956 that "her husband was divulging secret information to people who ought not to get it". The Security Service finally acted only after it received a tip from a CIA agent who was a mole in the Polish intelligence service.[3][4]

Later life[edit]

On 22 March 1961, Houghton and Gee were both sentenced to fifteen years in prison.[5] They were released early on 12 May 1970,[6] and they married in 1971.[7][8] Around this period, Houghton wrote Operation Portland: The Autobiography of a Spy, which was published in 1972 by Hart-Davis.[9] Houghton died in obscurity in Poole, Dorset in 1985, a year after Ethel.[10] He left an estate valued for probate at £114,071 (equivalent to £353,340 in 2020).[11][12]

In popular culture[edit]

A representation of Houghton and the Portland spy case was filmed in 1964, under the title Ring of Spies starring Bernard Lee as Houghton. The film used many of the actual locations of the case.


  1. ^ Berg, Sanchia (24 September 2019). "MI5 ignored spy tip-off over 'jealous wife' fears". BBC News. Retrieved 24 September 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d Barnes, Trevor (2 September 2020). "Ethel the spy: the enigmatic spinster who sold Britain's secrets to the USSR". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 September 2020.
  3. ^ "MI5 ignored Cold War spy tip-off over 'jealous wife' fears". BBC News. 24 September 2019. Retrieved 4 January 2021. when she asked Houghton about a "tiny camera" she had discovered hidden under the stairs, he became angry.
  4. ^ "Portland spy ring 'could have been stopped four years earlier', files say". The Guardian. 24 September 2019. Retrieved 4 January 2021. In March 1961, Martin Furnival Jones, who four years later would become the MI5 director general, wrote: "It is clear that we ought to have carried out some investigation in 1956.
  5. ^ "5 Sentenced As Spies By British Court". Meriden Journal. 22 March 1961 – via Google News Archive Search.
  6. ^ "Houghton drives out in a taxi". Evening Times. 12 May 1970 – via Google News Archive Search.
  7. ^ "Harry F Houghton - England & Wales Marriages 1837-2008 [1". Genes Reunited. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  8. ^ "Ethel Gee - England & Wales Marriages 1837-2008 [1". Genes Reunited. Retrieved 30 August 2015.
  9. ^ "The Spy Next Door".
  10. ^ "No. 50444". The London Gazette. 28 February 1986. p. 3015.
  11. ^ UK Retail Price Index inflation figures are based on data from Clark, Gregory (2017). "The Annual RPI and Average Earnings for Britain, 1209 to Present (New Series)". MeasuringWorth. Retrieved 2 December 2021.
  12. ^ "Houghton, Harry Frederick". probatesearchservice.gov. UK Government. 1985.

Further reading[edit]