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Sir Percy Sillitoe of MI5 and his African descendants

Thirty years ago W. H. Allen & Co. published a biography Sir Percy Sillitoe (1898-1962), of the one-time Director-General of MI5 under the Atlee government and keeper of the nation's secrets. While Guy Burgess, Donald McLean, Kim Philby and other Soviet moles were siphoning off the nation's secrets, Sir Percy Sillitoe was harbouring a secret of his own. So effectively did he succeed that he carried it to his grave. As a result, and for more than forty years, the existence of Sillitoe's African family has remained with him in his eternity box. Only recently did the existence of his African family and descendants come to light.
Sillitoe published his autobiography Cloak without Dagger soon after he left MI5. Reportedly, he wrote this work with the help of MI5 while still in office. This is not true. He wrote the book without help from the department. He was, however, obliged to submit the finished manuscript to MI5 for vetting. The screening was not to his liking, for the censor struck a blue pencil through what Sillitoe later described as the most bland and innocuous passages. As reported by his son, Richard Sillitoe, MI5 completely emasculated the work before it went to the printer.
     Had the Security Service had its way it might have ripped through the manuscript of Sir Percy Sillitoe. As it was, this author, living in Canada at the time and having legal counsel in a lawyer (now a judge in the Province of Ontario) familiar with the Official Secrets Act, it was possible to decline MI5's kind invitation. The inconvenience of having a telephone tap on the line for the next six months arranged, one suspects, by MI5's RCMP contacts, was a small price to pay for exercising complete freedom of speech. More than thirty years passed before an e-mail enquiry came from Sillitoe's grandson, Nicholas Sillitoe, living in Norway. He sought what else might be known of his grandfather, but omitted, perhaps, from the biography. Some snippets that didn't make it into print, not all of a personal nature, night interest a grandson. Much had happened since the book was published in 1973. The writer Chapman Pincher had much to say. In particular, writer Peter Wright (1916-1995), scientist and a former intelligence officer, published Spycatcher, which became an international best seller. Among other revelations, Wright charged Sir Roger Hollis (1905-1973), Head of MI5 from 1956 to 1965, with being a Soviet mole. Wright's accusation was not without foundation. Two incidents occurred when Sillitoe headed MI5 that would seem to corroborate Wright's allegation.
Sir Percy Sillitoe
      First, and according to Sillitoe's son Richard, Hollis was the unnamed assistant mentioned in the biography who sent Sillitoe, then newly-appointed head of MI5, to his first meeting with Prime Minister Clement Atlee with the wrong files. In Sillitoe's opinion, this was inexcusable and highly suspicious, but not for reasons of security. He put the incident down to the bloody-mindedness on the part of his underlings who resented having a mere plod appointed to head the Department. At worst, it was meant to undermine his confidence. Sillitoe was furious and never forgot the incident.
     Also, there was the case of Hollis's inexplicable trip to Canada to interview Igor Gouzenko (1919-1982), the cypher clerk who defected to the west from the Soviet Embassy, Ottawa, with numerous documents dealing with Soviet espionage. In conversation with Mrs Svetlana Gouzenko in 1985, at the Royal Canadian Military Institute, Toronto, (which she insisted on leaving for more neutral territory out of fear of being bugged), she mentioned her husband's meeting with Hollis at Camp X. This was the secret place to which the Gouzenko family had been moved for safety. [Sir William Stephenson (1897-1989) set up Camp X during the Second World War near Oshawa, east of Toronto, to train espionage agents.]
     Mrs Gouzenko was dismissive of MI5 in volunteering the surprising information that Hollis had visited Camp X to take MI5's turn interviewing her husband. According to her, the meeting with Hollis lasted no more than ten minutes. Hollis asked how the family was being treated and were they comfortable. He talked about the weather and their quarters, but asked nothing about the cypher clerk's work, his associates or of the many Canadians identified in the papers removed from the Soviet Embassy. Satisfied, or apparently so, Hollis took his leave, returned to London and the Gouzenko's heard no more from British Security. Admittedly, this hearsay evidence is slight, but Mrs Gouzenko volunteered it without prompting. This instance together with reports of Hollis's questionable behaviour in other areas does not strike one of intelligence efficiency. To the contrary, they lend credibility to Wright's charges.
     Some time following the exchange of messages with Nicholas Sillitoe, a retired Chief Supt. of the Hong Kong Police made contact. Mr Ron Clibborn-Dyer had also once served in the Northern Rhodesia Police. Having read the correspondence with Nicholas Sillitoe posted on the internet, he was curious to know if anything was known of Sir Percy Sillitoe's African descendants. He Claimed that an African Sillitoe line did exist because he had known them. At his request, Sir Percy Sillitoe's second African grandson, Harry Sillitoe, confirmed the news. His family was directly related to the English Sillitoe line. So began an investigation into his famous Grandfather's African adventures.
     Percy Joseph Sillitoe enlisted in the British South African Police in 1908 in the rank of constable and by 1911 had been transferred as an officer in the Northern Rhodesia Police (Northern Rhodesia now Zambia) where he was serving as an escort to the Anglo-Belgian Boundary Commission at Bancroft in 1911 and at Abercorn in 1913. These were the only times and places during which he would have had the opportunity to meet Mary Museba (c1900-1951) anywhere near her home village. Mary Museba of the Bemba tribe of Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) was born about 1900 in a village in the Abercorn District, She was therefore thirteen years of age, perhaps younger, when she first met Sillitoe, who was then 23. A relationship, however, must have blossomed in a short time because, by August 1914, the First World War had begun and, as related in his biography, Sillitoe was caught up in the events of the war in German East Africa. Even though he was involved in a long trek to bring a black powder screw gun into action he must have maintained contact with Mary.
     In 1917, by then a commissioned officer, Sillitoe was appointed temporary Assistant Political Officer in the remote Village of Ilunde in German East Africa (Tanganyika, later Tanzania). Sillitoe was the only white man in Ilunde. Ex-Chief Superintendent of Police Clibborn-Dyer, who is familiar with the area, speculates that Mary Museba must have been with him as his consort during this period. She was certainly far from her home in the District of Abercorn, Northern Rhodesia as the territory was then.
Before WWI, Ilunde was in the District of Tabora of which Tabora was the capital. The district boundaries might have changed since then. Because there were other white people in the district ex-Chief Supt. of Police Ron Clibborn-Dyer speculates that Mary Museba posed as the partner or wife of Sillitoe's Ugandan servant Prosper. He also makes the point, corroborated by others, that African maidens matured early as compared with European teenages. Mary probably conceived when at Ilunde. As was then the practice, women returned to their home villages to give birth. Hence, Mary made the long journey to her village for the birthing of her son John Sillitoe. After a few weeks taking care of her son, Mary left him in the care of his African grandmother and returned to Ilunde and Captain Sillitoe.
Ilunde in the District of Tabora,
Tanganika, (present-day Tanzania)
John Alexander Sillitoe (1918-2000)
John Sillitoe in later life following award
of the Distinguished Service Order by
Dr Kenneth Kaunda, first President of Zambia
News of Sillitoe's African family will be a revelation to anyone familiar with the life and work of one of the UK's most successful policemen who built his reputation on new ideas in policing: police boxes, the black and white chequered police hat (the Sillitoe tartan), Z-cars and the use of finger-printing in criminal investigation. His main feat was putting the gangs of Sheffield and Glasgow out of business in the 1930s and '40s, not always by methods in accord with the law of the land. For instance, on more than one occasion he had some gangsters committed for observation to a mental institution where they remained confined beyond the terms of their prison sentences. They were released under threat of being permanently certified should they be for any reason given another gaol sentence. This was a highly illegal practice on Sillitoe's part and one for which he has been criticised. On such tatics did the one-time member of the Northern Rhodesia Police build his reputation while his life and relationships in Africa remained his own very private affair.
     As to Sir Percy's relationship with Mary, one is reminded of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, and his alleged long affair with Sally Hemmings, an African slave at Monticello. Reported to the press in 1802, although the union has been in contention since it was first reported. In 1998, DNA testing confirmed a strong link between the Jefferson line and Sally Hemming's descendants, a link still challenged by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. Contact once made between the African and English Sillitoes there follows an the exchange of correspondence, which becomes interesting.
    Given news of the connection by his white cousin, granddaughter Sue (whose mother was Sillitoe's
Grandchildren of Sir Percy, Sue and Percy
meet and enjoy afternoon tea
daughter Audrey), Nicholas Sillitoes asks for DNA proof of the blood relationship. He also advises that the news should be kept in the family and not shared with 'outsiders'. However, when African grandson Percy Sillitoe visits the United Kingdom to attend a wedding in 2006, he meets his white cousin Sue for afternoon tea and strikes and immediate rapport. As a result the meeting is a boundless success. She finds the likeness to her grandfather Sir Percy so striking that she declares a DNA test to be unnecessary. The afternoon ends with affectionate hugs and kisses. Returning to Africa, grandson Percy describes his white cousin as 'gracious, charming and cordial'. This is in contrast with the experience of others with like connections. Many a member of white families getting word of mixed-race relatives would prefer to sweep the unwelcome news under the carpet. To her credit, cousin Sue proves to be the exception that tests the rule.

Sir Percy standing with Mr Watson on left, son Anthony on right next to person unknown. Seated son Richard, daughter Audrey and wife Dolly

John Alexander and Molly Sillitoe with their sons Daniel standing left and Ronald on the right
     It is not generally known that throughout the central region of Africa including Zambia, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya and Zimbabwe, a large community of mixed-race descendants thrives. Their forebears were the European colonisers, administrators, policemen and soldiers. They are fully integrated in their societies, educated, successful in business and government. [Two African Sillitoe descendants are surgeons practising in British Columbia.] Furthermore, unlike the off-spring of mixed unions of white western societies, they are unfazed with their state and content to refer to themselves as coloureds.
     Other white forebears of mixed-race Africans include Chirupula Stephenson, Frank Rumsey and District Commissioner Howe (the same PC Howe who was with Sillitoe during the East Africa Campaign). The descendants of white administrators, adventurers and policemen in Zambia accept their lot with poise and pride. Some may well have a chip on their shoulder and view the their heritage in a harsh light, but there is no evidence that mixed-race African descendents of white forebears harbour strong feelings of ill-will. The African Sillitoes and others have melded seamlessly into the fabric of Zambian society.
     The exception to this phlegmatic outlook is the view expressed by Ms Milner-Thornton of Brisbane, Australia, whose forebear, Spencer Bloomfield, a nineteenth-century adventurer of some notoriety, left a large family and fled to Australia. Ms Milner-Thornton, last reported working on her doctorate in some field of social studies, wrote of the 'forced removal of so-called half-cast children' as having been a common practice in the British Empire. This opinion, however, particularly as regards mixed-race descendents in Zambia might be concerned, is not shared by the large coloured community with whom Harry Sillitoe is in close and frequent contact.
     Writing of his father's childhood, Harry Sillitoe records that on instructions from District Commissioner D.C. Thomson from Abercorn boma, John Sillitoe was escorted by government messengers to Kawimbe Mission run by the Church of Scotland. Commissioner Thomson acted on the instructions of then Captain Percy Sillitoe to trace his son and send him to school. From Kawimbe, John Sillitoe was taken to the Livingstonia Mission in Nyasaland (now Malawi) to complete his education. Captain Sillitoe met the cost of his son's education through Commissioner Thomson. Other than receiving a bicycle from his father while he was at the Livinstonia Mission, and during that period of his life, John had no direct contact with his father in person or by mail.
     Further links between father and some were through Provincial Commissioner Howe of Kasama, who visited the U.K. and met with Percy Sillitoe and, by report, discussed John Sillitoe and his progress. Harry Sillitoe received an account of Howe's meeting with Sillitoe from his mother, Molly (née Goddard), following a visit to the family on his return from the UK. He advised John to correspond with Sir Percy via his office, a channel of communication to be followed on account of Sir Percy's status. John and Molly were married in July 1943 in the Registrar's Office, Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia as it was then. In 1943, Sillitoe was the Chief Constable of Glasgow. It is thought likely that the Howe-Sillitoe meeting took place after the Second World War when Sillitoe had been appointed Head of MI5.
     Following Captain Sillitoe's departure from Africa, John Sillitoe's Mother, Mary Museba, married Sillitoe's Ugandan servant Prosper and raised a family of which John Sillitoe was not a part. Instead, John followed his own life. In 1939, a strapping six foot, 18 year old, John Sillitoe enlisted in the Northern Rhodesia Army Service Corps. His attestation papers recorded 'Captain Sillito' (sic) as his father. Of equal interest is that the marriage certificate issued by the Lusaka Registrar's Office records 'Sir Percy Sillitoe, Chief Constable of Glasgow' as 'father of the groom'. Molly Goddard's father, incidentally, John Goddard, was another white man of some consequence in the days of colonial Northern Rhodesia (killed by a lion before the wedding took place). Witnesses to the wedding were William Inkster McLaughlan and Marjory Kathleen Brickhill, who were either white residents or, like John and Molly, mixed-race Africans. [As noted, Captain Sillitoe is named on John Sillitoe's attestation papers for the Northern Rhodesia Army in 1939.]
#jsmedal_175.jog      John Sillitoe did well in the Northern Rhodesia Army Service Corps. He was promoted within four weeks of enlisting and, taking his discharge at the end of his war service, he held the rank of sergeant. He distinguished himself in the service of Zambia under the presidency of Dr Kenneth Kaunda, the first President of the country known as the Gandhi of Africa. In recognition of John's exemplary service, he was awarded the Order of Distinguished Service, First Division, a no small achievement of which his father would have been proud.
     All those who share Sir Percy's genes have done well. They are educated, successful and accomplished professionals. Grandson Percy Sillitoe is retired; Harry runs a thriving safari business in Zambia; Molly Sillitoe and her daughters are comfortably settled in England with their families, and two of Harry Sillitoe's nephews are practising medicine in British Columbia, Canada; not inconsiderable achievements for the mixed-race children of the colonials.
Order of Distinguished Service (First Division)
     The full story of Sillitoe's life in Africa, his relationship with Molly Museba and the interaction of other white colonialists - administrators, policemen and, yes, missionaries - with their consorts and companions has yet to be told. There is no doubt that within the fabric of society of the day such relationships were not to be discussed in white society, yet the men and women clearly cared deeply for one another. Despite the unsubstantiated charge of Ms Milner-Thornton, that 'the forced removal of so-called half-caste' children was a common practice throughout the empire, the off-spring of white-black unions appear to have thrived. Their children and their children's children are a proud mix of genes of their black and white forebears as shown in this 1955 wedding of Stokes, Goddard and Sillitoe descendants. In this regard, this particular wedding is of considerable significance in Zambian history, for all those in attendance were known to carry white and black genes in their blood, a blending of races that has produced handsome, energetic and noble lines of European-African descendants. The world may expect to hear more of this interesting mix of the races.
L-R M. Kinghorn, J.B. Jolly, Jim Stokes [the groom] Emelda Goddard [the bride, Molly Sillitoe's sister] F. Price, John Sillitoe, Molly Sillitoe, Marjory Goddard [the bride's and Molly Sillitoe's sister]. Flower girls, sister Florence Sillitoe seated below John Sillitoe and cousins of the Sillitoe's Margaret and Edwin Findlay.

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