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William Henry Laurie Was Almost Charged with Treachery and Shot

William 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 were based.

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.

Laurie’s 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.

The Stipendiary 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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