Guy Burgess woke at around 9.30 on the morning of Friday, 25 May 1951 in his untidy musty-smelling bedroom. Next to his bed was an overflowing ashtray and lying on the floor was a half-read Jane Austen novel. He had got in the habit of rising relatively late since his return from America three weeks previously where he had been second secretary at the British embassy in Washington.
Burgess had left in disgrace, and at the British Ambassador’s behest, after several embarrassing incidents which included being caught speeding at 80 mph three times in just one hour, strangely pouring a plate of prawns into his jacket pocket and leaving them there for a week and, perhaps more importantly as far as his job was concerned, being rather too casual with confidential papers. He was drunk nearly continuously and thoroughly disliked by most of the people with whom he came in contact.
Now back in London Burgess was living in a small three-roomed flat in Mayfair situated at Clifford Chambers, 10 New Bond Street and opposite Asprey the famous jewellers. It was (and is of course) a salubrious part of London, if not the salubrious part of London.
In 1951, if for some reason you had been looking for an area in the world that was visually and politically diametrically opposed to anywhere in the Soviet Union, Bond Street would have been pretty high up on your list. Burgess, the infamous Eton and Cambridge-educated Soviet spy, coped with the irony surprisingly easily until this Friday morning in May when his world suddenly turned upside down.
Burgess had been brought a cup of tea that morning by his flatmate, and erstwhile lover, Jack Hewit known to his friends as ‘Jacky’. He had once been a ballet and chorus dancer but now was a slightly over-weight office clerk but Hewit was a close and faithful friend to Burgess and they had been sharing various flats in and around Mayfair for fourteen years. Hewit later wrote of that morning:
“Guy lay back, reading a book and smoking, and he seemed normal and unworried. When I left the flat to go to my office, Guy said ‘See you later, Mop’ – that was his pet name for me. We intended to have a drink together that evening.”
At 9.30 on that same morning Donald Duart Maclean would have already caught his usual train from Sevenoaks some two hours previously and would have been sitting at his desk in Whitehall. He was head of the American department at the Foreign Office in King Charles Street.
The job sounds important but care was already being made that it was of no operational importance as, for some time, Maclean had been under suspicion, along with four others, for leaking atomic secrets to the Soviet Union. In the last few days, however, the four suspects had now become just one.
Two years younger than Burgess, Maclean was exactly 38 years old for it was his birthday and he had asked if he could take the next morning as leave (Saturday mornings were still worked by many civil-servants after the war) so he could celebrate with family friends at home in Surrey.
Maclean was the son of one of the most illustrious Liberal families in the country. His father, Sir Donald Maclean, had first entered Parliament as the Liberal member for Bath in 1906 and was President of the Board of Education in the cabinet when he died in 1932.
At around 10-10.30 am a senior MI5 officer and the head of Foreign Office security were received by Mr Herbert Morrison, who had recently become Foreign Secretary, in his large office in Whitehall. After reading a few papers Morrison signed one of them and this gave MI5 permission to bring Donald Maclean in for questioning.
A few days previously Maclean and Burgess had met for lunch, ostensibly about a memorandum that Burgess had prepared while in America about American policy in the Far East and the threat of McCarthyism. They met at the Reform club but according to Burgess the dining room was full and they walked to the Royal Automobile Club along Pall Mall. On the way Maclean said: “I’m in frightful trouble. I’m being followed by the dicks.”
He pointed to two men by the corner of the Carlton Club and said, “Those are the people who are following me.” Burgess described the two men “there they were, jingling their coins in a policeman-like manner and looking embarrassed at having to follow a member of the upper classes.”
At around the same time as the Herbert Morrison meeting in Whitehall, Burgess urgently left his flat in New Bond Street. He had just received a telephone call from Western Union relaying a telegraph from Kim Philby in Washington, seemingly about a car he had left in Washington, but in reality a coded message that Maclean would be interrogated after the weekend.
Burgess first went to the Green Park Hotel on Half Moon Street (a former town house in a terrace built in 1730 – the hotel is still there and now known as the Hilton Green Park Hotel) just off Piccadilly and about ten minutes walk away. Here he met a young American student called Bernard Miller whom he had befriended on his journey back from the US on the Queen Mary. Burgess later described as – “an intelligent progressive sort of chap” .
They had a coffee in the hotel’s comfortably luxurious lounge before going for a walk in nearby Green Park. They had planned a few days away in France and Burgess had already booked two tickets for a boat that sailed at midnight to France later that night. After a few minutes Burgess stopped and said to his surprised American friend who had been animatedly chatting away about their trip:
“Sorry Bernard,” he said, “I haven’t been listening, really. You see, a young friend at the Foreign Office is in serious trouble, and I have to help him out of it, somehow.”
Burgess assured the shocked Miller that he would do everything he could so that they could make their midnight crossing but he would not be able to say anything definite until later on in the day.
By now it was just before midday and the American went back to his hotel and Burgess went to the Reform Club for a large whisky and a think about what was lying a head. After half an hour he asked the Porter to call Welbeck 3991 and he spoke to Welbeck Motors and hired a car for ten days.
While Burgess was slumped in a large corner armchair at his club Maclean left his office and walked up Whitehall and across Trafalgar Square to meet a couple of friends, a married couple, for lunch in Old Compton Street. They walked through a door which was part of a green facade with the heading ‘Oysters/WHEELER’s & Co./Merchants’ written along the top.
In the early fifties Wheeler’s restaurant was a Soho institution. The owner was Bernard Walsh who started Wheeler’s in Soho in 1929 as a small retail oyster shop. After seeing how popular his oysters were in London’s top restaurants he bought a few tables and chairs and started serving them himself. By 1951, when Maclean and his friends visited for lunch, the restaurant featured a long counter on the left-hand side, where a waiter or Walsh himself opened oysters at frightening speed.
There was a large menu which had thirty-two ways of serving sole and lobster but no vegetables save a few boiled potatoes. During post-war austerity when English food was at its dreariest and some of it still rationed, Wheeler’s seemed a luxury.
The restaurant was very crowded on that Friday lunchtime and after sharing a dozen oysters and some chablis Maclean and his friends decided to eat the rest of their lunch elsewhere. Maclean seemed unconcerned and almost nonchalant as he and his friends walked up Greek Street and through Soho Square to Charlotte Street where they had two further courses at a German restaurant called Schmidt’s situated at numbers 35-37.
This area of London was still known to most people at the time as North Soho. The name Fitzrovia was coined relatively recently and named after the Fitzroy Tavern. Coincidentally ‘Fitzrovia’ was recorded in print for the first time by Tom Driberg, the independent and later Labour MP – a close friend of Guy Burgess.
Most of the staff at Schmidt’s had been interned during the second world war which maybe explained why the waiters were infamously known as the rudest in the world. The restaurant still served food using an old European restaurant custom where the waiters brought meals from the kitchen and only then sold them to the customers.
After his relatively long lunch Maclean said goodbye to his friends and gratefully accepted an offer that he could stay with them while his wife was having her baby – she was only two weeks from having their third child. He said he’d call them in the following week to arrange the details.
While Maclean was having lunch Burgess called on Welbeck Motors at 7-9 Crawford Street half a mile or so north of Marble Arch to pick up his hire-car – an Austin A70 that was due to be returned on June 4th, ten days later. For this he paid £25 cash in advance – £15 for the hire of the car and £10 deposit.
Welbeck Motors became famous throughout the country ten years later when they created the first major fleet of mini-cabs. The fleet cost £560,000 and consisted of 800 Renault Dauphine cars that were being built in Acton at the time. Michael Gotla, the man behind the skillful publicity of Welbeck Motors, argued that the 1869 Carriage Act only applied to cabs that “plied for hire” on the street and that their mini-cabs only responded to calls phoned to the main office the number of which was WELBECK 0561.
The fares were only one shilling per mile – a lot cheaper than the traditional Austin black cabs and much to the chagrin of the traditional cabbies. The fleet of Renault Dauphines, the first to feature third-party advertisements on their bodywork, were a huge success, particularly to people who lived outside central London. Although passengers were advised not to concentrate too much on the Spanish “widow-maker” nick-name for the Renaults so named due to their very unsafe cornering.
Burgess drove the Austin down to Mayfair again where he dropped into Gieve’s the tailors at number 27 Old Bond Street at around 3 pm. The two hundred year old company had only been at the premises for about ten years because the original flagship store a few doors down at number 21 had been destroyed by a German bomb in 1940.
Incidentally, Gieves and Hawkes, now maybe the most famous bespoke tailoring name in the world, only merged in 1974 when Gieve’s Ltd bought out Hawkes enabling it to also acquire the valuable freehold of No. 1 Savile Row. The acquisition was good timing because Gieve’s flagship store in Old Bond Street was again destroyed by high-explosive not long after the merger, this time courtesy of the IRA. From then on, number 1 Savile Row became Gieve’s and Hawkes as it is today.
At Gieve’s Burgess bought a ‘fibre’ suitcase and a white mackintosh and then went to meet Miller again. After a couple of drinks he dropped the young American back at his hotel telling him: “I’ll call for you at half-past seven.” Burgess didn’t, and Miller never saw him again.
After his relatively long lunch Maclean took a taxi down to the Traveller’s Club – the West End club that had long been associated with the Foreign Office. He had two drinks at the bar and cashed a cheque for five pounds which he did most weekends so it wouldn’t have seemed unusual. There wasn’t anyone at the club he knew and he returned to his office just after three.
Burgess drove back to the flat where he met Hewit who had returned from his office. According to Hewit the phone rang and Burgess answered soon making it clear to his flatmate that he was talking to Maclean. Burgess was visibly upset and left the flat almost immediately. He was never to see Hewit again. Before he left he grabbed £300 in cash some saving certificates and quickly thew some clothes and his treasured copy of Jane Austen’s collected novels. He also asked to borrow Hewit’s overcoat.
He was next seen at the Reform Club in Pall Mall where he asked for a road map of the North of England presumably to lay a false trail and from the club he drove to Maclean’s home at Tatsfield in Surrey.
Maclean left the Foreign Office at exactly 4.45 and walked up Whitehall to Charing Cross Station joining the hurrying commuter crowd. He was followed as usual by the two Mi5 ‘dicks’ and they carefully made sure he entered the station and went through the barrier to catch his usual 5.19 train to Sevenoaks.
Burgess and Maclean arrived within half an hour of each other at the Maclean’s house. According to Maclean’s wife Melinda, Burgess was introduced to her as Mr Roger Stiles, in a business colleague. They all sat down for a birthday dinner at seven for which Melinda had cooked a special ham for the occasion. Eventually Maclean put a few things into a briefcase including a silk dressing gown and casually told his wife that he and ‘Stiles’ would have to go out on business but would not be away for more than a day.
With Burgess at the wheel of the hired cream-coloured Austin A70 they set off for Southampton at around 9 pm. Their destination was Southampton docks 100 miles away to catch the cross-channel ferry Falaise which was due to leave for St Malo at midnight. They made it with just minutes to spare and abandoning the Austin on the quayside they ran up the gangway almost as it was being raised. A dock worker called at them: “What about your car?” Burgess shouted: “Back on Monday.”
He wasn’t of course and Burgess and Maclean never set foot in Britain again. It wasn’t until five years later that the Krushchev admitted that the two traitors were now living in the Soviet Union. Burgess, who rather unsurprisingly didn’t really enjoy the Soviet lifestyle and still preferred to order his suits from Savile Row. He died of chronic liver failure due to alcoholism in 1963.
Maclean found it far easier than his spying partner to assimilate into the Soviet system and became a respected citizen. He died of a heart attack in 1983.
Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel was written in 1952, the year after Burgess and Maclean’s defection. In it, James Bond has a crisis of confidence perhaps for the first and last time:
This country-right-or-wrong business is getting a little out-of-date,” he says, “Today we are fighting Communism. Okay. If I’d been alive fifty years ago, the brand of Conservatism we have today would have been damn near called Communism and we should have been told to go and fight that. History is moving pretty quickly these days and heroes and villains keep on changing parts.
The ‘Third Man’ Kim Philby at a press conference in 1955 after he had been accused of being an associate of Burgess and Maclean in parliament. He shows the confidence and extraordinary charm that enabled to keep undercover for so long. He defected to Russia from Beirut in 1963 and died in 1988 of heart failure. While in the Soviet Union he had an affair with Melinda Maclean.
The ‘Fourth Man’ Anthony Blunt being interviewed by Richard Dimbleby as the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures. Blunt was one of the first people to search Burgess’s flat after he had absconded enabling him to remove any incriminatory material.