Features / Sea Mills

Bristol diary unlocks wartime double agent’s secret

By Mary Milton, Tuesday Jun 7, 2022

A wartime diary, treasured and kept safe by a family in Sea Mills, has been used to unearth the story of a Second World War spy.

Debra Britton brought the diary, written by Irene Thornton, to a reminiscence event for the Sea Mills Mills 100 project in 2018.

Debra’s grandmother, Florence Gearing, had worked as Thornton’s housekeeper. She was entrusted with the diary which was then passed down to her family.

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“I remember my dad showing it to me when he was reminiscing about the war and him telling me to look after it as it was local and family history.” says Debra. “It remained in the family home until my parents passed away.”

Written in a mixture of English and French, the diary records details of Irene’s life living in Coombe Dingle near the Blaise Estate during the Second World War.

On January 2, 1940, Irene wrote: “It snowed. Coombe Dingle is marvellous under its white coat. This morning, 6am – alert followed by all clear. Then 7am, new alert and all clear at 8am… 6.50pm air raid warning, spent the evening in our shelter. A quantity of Jerrys passing above us and some serious rounds of gunfire.”

Irene, who was originally from Belgium, moved to Coombe Dingle with her English-born husband, Eric, to escape the Nazis early in the war. Eric died in 1945, but Irene, who was 22 years his junior, re-married and lived until 1981.

Eric ran a shipping business in Bristol – E Thornton and Son Ltd – Ship Brokers – with offices in Baldwin Street and Avonmouth.

When extracts of Irene’s diary were published online as part of the Sea Mills 100 project’s website to mark VE Day, they caught the interest of independent researcher Andrew Drake.

Deb holds up Irene's diary

Left – Debra shows a page from Irene Thornton’s diary. Right – Deb’s grandmother (centre, with child) who kept the diary safe – photo: Debra Britton

Andrew had found released MI-5 files at the National Archives in Kew, which detailed the activities of three agents code-named Mullet, Puppet and Hamlet.

Having read about the diary on the Sea Mills 100 website, Andrew had become convinced that Mullet was in fact Eric Thornton’s son, Frank.

Mullet assisted Puppet and Hamlet to pass disinformation about British invasion plans back to the Nazis.

They were all “double cross” agents – the Nazis believed that they were loyal to them but actually they were working for the British.

The MI-5 files are heavily redacted making finding the real people behind the code names quite a challenge.

In them, Mullet is described as “a British subject born [redacted] in Belgium, of a [redacted] father and a [redacted] mother.

“He was educated in Belgium and in Paris, and has been in business (principally [redacted]) in Belgium most of his life.

“He is in many ways more Belgium than English and his wife, [redacted] is a member of a well known Belgium family.”

Andrew hoped Irene’s diary would include mentions of Eric’s children and by cross referencing dates and other information from the MI-5 files it would help confirm the identity of Agent Mullet.

The researcher was initially disappointed when a passage in the diary placing Frank and his wife Georgette in London in December 1940 conflicted with MI-5 files, which placed Mullett in unoccupied France at that time.

Disappointing as this was, it was the catalyst for Andrew looking for other family members whose movements matched those of Mullet. His attention turned now to Eric’s nephew, Ronald.

Andrew traced Ronald’s grandson Alan Thornton, now living in London who confirmed Ronald’s wartime movements matched Mullet.

Alan said: “[The family] spent 18 months making their way to Lisbon, where Ronald made the connections detailed in the files. When he managed to get flights and the family back to Bristol, he reported the connections he had made in Lisbon and was quickly taken on by MI-5.”

The Thornton family

Making their way through France in 1940/1: Ronald Thornton, the true Agent Mullet (right) with his children Norman and Eric. Photo courtesy of Alan Thornton

The interest and intrigue around the diary has made its custodian, Debra, think of her own family.

“My thoughts were of how excited my dad would have been about [the discovery] and of sadness that he was no longer here to see this,” she said.

For Alan, the research done by Andrew has helped him fill some gaps in his family history.

He said: “It was nice to finally pin down Ronald’s code name and to learn that all the second hand information my father and uncle received turned out to be backed up by the files.

“It was nice to see that this [European] background helped him to play his role in the liberation of Europe.”

Ronald could not return to Belgium after the war. Alan adds: “Some of his colleagues had been killed by the Belgian resistance on their return, as they were seen as collaborators

“We know Ronald was seen by people he knew in Brussels during the war, when he was supposed to be in England.”

Alan also confirmed that Eric had used his shipping business to assist the Allies by operating boats out of Antwerp in Belgium to support the resistance.

Eric and Irene did return to Belgium after the war but Irene’s diary, having been left with the Thornton’s housekeeper, Debra Britton’s grandmother, has played a role in revealing the identity of Agent Mullet.

Mary Milton is reporting on Sea Mills as part of Bristol24/7’s community reporter scheme, a project which aims to tell stories from areas of Bristol traditionally under-served by the mainstream media

Main photo of Irene and Eric Thornton: Debra Britton

Read more: The gaol ferry that was here before Gaol Ferry Bridge

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