I never knew my paternal great uncle, Ernest Holloway Oldham. He was born in 1894, and took his own life in 1933. As a result, he was barely spoken about by my father’s generation, who were too young to remember him; even the manner of his death was hushed up.
The reason became clear a few years ago, when an intelligence file was released about Oldham. It stated that he’d been dismissed from his job as a cipher clerk at the Foreign Office for drinking, but his departure in 1932 revealed a dark secret – he’d been living a double life selling secrets to Soviet agents for several years. Security agents were swiftly dispatched to monitor Oldham’s activities but as his life unravelled, he committed suicide.
Along with phone intercept transcripts and photographs, the file contained psychological analyses that revealed Oldham had always been of a ‘nervous disposition’, but had become even more ‘unpredictable’ towards the end, with a British agent noting that he was ‘heading for a breakdown’ just days prior to his suicide.
The file creates a general impression that Oldham was a weak man, motivated by greed to fund a lavish fantasy lifestyle of fast cars and private members’ clubs, who ended up out of his depth – pressurised by his Soviet handlers who were aware of his mental state yet continued to squeeze as much information out of him as they could, and living in constant fear of discovery by the British.