The Doc Project·Personal Essay

My mother worked for Britain's spy agency in the 1960s. Can I get her to reveal her secrets?

Author Camilla Gibb has always known her mother worked for MI5 during the 1960s. But she's never known much more than that.

Camilla Gibb's mother says she was a secretary for MI5 — but why would a secretary know how to crack locks?

Sheila at the beach in Chaguaramas during her overseas posting in Trinidad from 1964-66. (Submitted by Camilla Gibb)

Originally published on January 6, 2020.

For most of the 1960s, my mother worked for MI5, the domestic wing of the British Intelligence Services. 

I've always known this. But I've never known much more than this. That's because my mother, Sheila, has never revealed anything in the way of detail.

She signed the Official Secrets Act, after all — a blanket ban on ever disclosing anything about one's work with the service.

But then one night in 2014, she let the curtain fall — at her book club, of all places. She was presenting Ian McEwan's novel Sweet Tooth, about a young woman recruited into MI5 in the early 1970s.

My mother talked as much about her own experience with MI5 that night. The dozen or so members of my mother's book club were stunned by this revelation. So was I. She had offered up more detail than she had ever shared with me. 

And I began to see this as my opening. Perhaps now, at the age of 80, she would finally tell me the whole story.

Or was my mother determined to take her secrets to the grave?

Sheila in London in 1962. She was one year into her career at MI5. (Submitted by Camilla Gibb)

The perfect operative?

My mother, Sheila, has always been something of a mystery to me. She is discreet and reserved about most things, including information and emotion. This is partly cultural — she is British, of a certain generation and class where a stiff upper lip gives little away. But there are also clues about her life that hint at a more mysterious past. 

MI5 is one of two branches of the British intelligence service — effectively, the country's spy agency. MI5 deals with domestic issues, which, at the time my mother worked there, included overseas colonial territories. 

For comparison's sake, James Bond would have worked at the other branch, MI6, referred to in Ian Fleming's books as Her Majesty's Secret Service. The operative word here is "secret." Somehow the existence of this vast espionage network was only publicly acknowledged in the 1990s.

Sheila says she was a secretary, but that is really all she has ever told me. In the absence of any more detail, I could only assume, as a child, that my mother had actually been a spy. I mean, I was a child of the seventies, I grew up on Pink Panther and James Bond movies and I could just picture my mother, who was both extraordinarily beautiful and circumspect to a fault, in a starring role. She would have made the perfect operative, a Bond Girl to rival any other.

Sheila in London in 1963. (Submitted by Camilla Gibb)

The mythology isn't entirely of my own making. When I was a kid, my mother would pick up a combination lock, hold it to her ear, and slowly start turning the dial clockwise, counter clockwise and clockwise again and then miraculously, she'd pull the lock open. Why would a secretary know how to do this? Whose locks might she have been cracking? 

I decided to interrogate my mother, but soon discovered that asking her for any detail is like throwing pebbles at a brick wall. For example:

Me: What was daily life like? What were your responsibilities? 

Sheila: I can't talk about that.

Me: Can you tell me who you worked for? 

Sheila: Oh no, I can't.

Clearly, my mother wasn't willing to talk, but perhaps an old friend of hers would spill the beans.

The old friend

In the mid-1960s, my mother went to Trinidad on a two-year posting with MI5. Again, I knew this much, though no details. 

Judy Stone, a writer and actress whose father was Trinidadian, was living in Port of Spain at the time my mother was there.  She and my mother have now been friends for almost 60 years.

Judy riding a donkey she bought on a trip to Tobago with Sheila in 1964. (Submitted by Camilla Gibb)

Judy later moved to Cheltenham, England, which is where my mother and I reach her by phone one summer afternoon. The two of them are soon reminiscing about the blur of socializing that seemed to occupy most of their time and energy. There were parties, Naval officer boyfriends, sno-cones on the beach, and yes, a donkey.

But... not a word about work. When I attempt to nudge Judy, she says, "No one was interested in anyone's work, this was a place to play."

Judy Stone looks at photos from her Trinidad days while at home in Cheltenham, England in 2019. (Sam Durham/CBC)

The intelligence expert

With Judy and Sheila skirting any discussion about work, I decide to pull in an expert. Calder Walton, a British intelligence historian, knows this terrain intimately. 

He's written a book called Empire of Secrets, all about what British intelligence was up to during the Cold War era. In short: Sniffing out communists was the No. 1 concern.

Calder Walton, a British intelligence historian, says the big concern within the nation's intelligence service during the 1960s was the presence of Soviet spies in their midst. (Rose Lincoln)

When I reach him at Harvard, where he teaches, he tells me that MI5's business in Trinidad didn't actually concern Trinidad itself, but rather, the nearby former territory of British Guyana.

Both MI5 and the CIA were concerned about Communist leanings within the country's emerging leadership. No one wanted Guyana going the way of Cuba.     

Speaking of Communist leanings, the big concern within the intelligence service back at home in England was the presence of Soviet spies in their midst. 

As Calder Walton tells me, "This is the age of Kim Philby and the five Cambridge Spies and mole hunts that were really tearing Britain's intelligence services apart from within in the search for missing Soviet agents." 

The existence of this spy ring slowly came to light beginning in the 1950s, but the extent of it has never been fully uncovered.   

A heady return

My mother returned to this den of intrigue in 1966, after two years of sun and fun in Trinidad, and was promptly promoted.

Sheila en route from England to Port of Spain in 1964. (Submitted by Camilla Gibb)

As she told her book club, "After four years toiling as a secretary, I was thrilled to be promoted to junior assistant officer and at the age of 26 had my own dingy office and a shared secretary to do the basic toiling."

But then, right as her career was in the ascendent, she promptly left. 

It's only when I do the math that I realize she was seven months pregnant with me when she walked out the door. 

Though Sheila won't say a word about it, it's highly probable that I ended her career — one that she never went back to.

A family portrait taken in Guildford, England in 1971. (Submitted by Camilla Gibb)

But when I ask her if she has any regrets, she doesn't mention her ultimately unhappy marriage to my father, and the years as a single parent to me and my brother.

Her one regret in leaving? "I did think, 'But now I won't know all the secrets.'"

It may well have been a great disappointment to give up that career. But I'll never be able to crack that particular lock.

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About the Producer

Camilla Gibb is an award-winning author of four novels and most recently, the RBC/Charles Taylor-nominated memoir This Is Happy

This documentary was co-produced by Jennifer Warren, with editing from Julia Pagel and Acey Rowe.

Thanks to the BBC's Sam Durham.