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Henry Laurie Was Almost Charged with Treachery and Shot
Henry Laurie age 57 had been the Curator at the Birmingham Museum of Geoloogy
since 1920. He and his wife lived at 48 Weoley Hill, Selley Oak. He was a man of
great scientific curiosity, an academic, and had served his country in the Great
War in the army. He seemed to have
plenty of time on his hands. From his room at Birmingham University and from his
home he could see the barrage balloons flying over the city. He was intrigued
with the sight of these and realised that with the help of some of his
scientific collection and the application of mathematics he could plot exactly
where these balloons were based. Over a period of months, he had taken various
measurements and had drawn up a series of drawings showing where the balloons
On July 3rd,
1940 it was reported to Professor Wills at the geology department at the
University of Birmingham that a strange document had been left lying on
Laurie’s desk. Professor Will searched through some of Laurie’s papers and
found a document that he described as “a card bearing lines of radiation and a
street plan of Birmingham. This was marked with a pinhole and if the one was put
on top of the other the position of every balloon could be found by anyone
without a great deal of intelligence”.
Professor Wills was
most alarmed and informed the police. As a result, there was a thorough search
of the office and home. This resulted in the discovery of a number of peculiar
scientific instruments along with some German dictionaries and some papers on
which were written German words.
None of this looked
normal and Laurie was promptly arrested and appeared in court on Saturday 6th
of July. Evidence to support an application for a remand was taken in camera and
Laurie was remanded in custody charged with having in his position a document
containing information about defence measures. Things looked bleak for the shy
academic. The news spread fast that he had been remanded and as he was a
well-known member of a host of scientific clubs and organisations the case
became a sensation overnight.
He appeared in
court on 10th July charged with having in his possession a document
containing information regarding measures for the defence and fortification of a
certain area. He pleaded guilty. In a solemn voice the prosecuting counsel
pointed out that this was a very grave and disquieting case. To prove guilt, he
only needed to prove that Laurie had possession of a document. Laurie had
pleaded guilty and the charge was proved. He was unable to prove that Laurie had
any sinister intent. If it could be proved that Laurie had intended to, or had
actually passed, the document he had constructed to provide information to the
enemy, then the correct charge would be under the Treachery Act. There was only
one penalty for that and that was - death.
It mattered not
whether the man who did these things was wicked or a nitwit. If he was a nitwit
then he should be put in a place where he could not be of any danger. If he was
wicked, then the seriousness of the offence was greatly increased.
The court was then
cleared, and evidence was given in camera by a defence expert on the potential
impact of the document that Laurie had prepared.
His duties at the
University were looking after the Fossil Section and preparing maps of
geological interest. Being of a scientific mind he had always been interested in
trigonometry, surveying, aeronautics, physics and so forth. He was interested in
the science of the buoyancy of the balloons and had tried to calculate the
lifting power of the balloons.
In his defence
Laurie explained that he had two interests in life, geology and astronomy and
what he had done with regard to the balloons was in personal furtherance of
general science. He had been intrigued with angle and drift of the balloon
cables. He explained that he could see that if his plans had fallen into enemy
hands they would have been of use to the enemy and he deeply regretted that. He
appreciated that it had been a very foolish thing to have done. He told the
police:” These are the positions of the balloons I have sighted from my house.
I made the markings some time ago and had forgotten all about them.”
He tried to explain
to the police that he had German diaries that he used as aids to translating
geology journals and papers printed in German. He had a list of German words
written down that he used as references He had been in Bonn, Germany during the
Army of Occupation in 1918 and had learnt some German. While there he had met a
German family called Nagel but he had not corresponded with them for over 20
years. He was demobilised in 1919.
He added that he
was prepared to give an undertaking never to act in the same way again by taking
sightings and measurements of military defences.
solicitor told the court that Laurie was a man carried away by the research. He
did not make the chart with any ulterior motive but had acted foolishly.
Professor Bolton of Birmingham University said Laurie was a keen observer and
scientifically curious. Other witnesses spoke highly of Laurie’s character and
his intense preoccupation with scientific subjects.
commented that while he was satisfied there was no sinister motive, it was
serious that he had left the document lying about. The court agreed with the
guilty verdict and fined Laurie £20 or failing payment, 31 days imprisonment.
In February 1943 he
died, age 57, following a nervous breakdown. It was said that he never got over
the case that had been made against him. It clear that he came close to being
considered as having committed treason and was very lucky to have been tried on
a lesser charge. Of course, almost anyone could have walked around Birmingham
and found the exact locations of the barrage balloon sites but the offence was
to record it in a document.
Peter Garwood December 2020
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