Phoebe Pool

Phoebe Pool, the daughter of Gordon Desmond Pool and Agatha Eleanor Burrows, was born in London in 1913. According to her biographer she "was diagnosed with depression" at an early age and was "often incapacitated her for months and would affect her education and output". (1)

In 1931 Pool won a scholarship to Sommerville College, to study history. She became part of a "radical set" that included Jenifer Hart, Goronwy Rees, Bernard Floud, Douglas Jay and Iris Murdoch. In 1933 she joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. (2)

Phoebe Pool - Soviet Spy

In January 1934 Arnold Deutsch, one of NKVD's agents, was sent to London. As a cover for his spying activities he did post-graduate work at London University. Over the next few years he recruited several spies linked to Cambridge University. This included Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross and Michael Straight.

Deutsch reported to Moscow: "Given that the Communist movement in these universities is on a mass scale and that there is a constant turnover of students, it follows that individual Communists whom we pluck out of the Party will pass unnoticed, both by the Party itself and by the outside world. People forget about them. And if at some time they do remember that they were once Communists, this will be put down to a passing fancy of youth, especially as those concerned are scions of the bourgeoisie. It is up to us to give the individual recruit a new (non-Communist) political personality." (3)

Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher (1987) claims that Arnold Deutsch established a spy network based around Oxford University. This included Phoebe Pool, Jenifer Hart, Bernard Floud and Goronwy Rees and Phoebe Pool. Hart told Wright that "Otto (Deutsch) instructed her to go underground, and she used to meet him clandestinely at Kew Gardens." (4)

Art History

Phoebe Pool was awarded the Deakin History Essay Prize in 1934, but her mental illness prevented her from taking her degree. After leaving university she lectured for the Workers' Educational Association (WEA). Pool also wrote reviews for The Spectator. During the Second World War she worked for Air Raid Precautions. In 1945 Pool published a poetry anthology, Poems of Death. (5)

In 1954, Phoebe Pool studied art history as an external student at the University of London. She received a B.A. in 1957 with first class honors. Two years later she obtained her Ph.D. Her thesis was on the literary and philosophical background to the early work of Pablo Picasso. Her supervisor was Anthony Blunt. Together they wrote a book, Picasso: The Formative Years: a Study of his Sources (1962). (6)

Over the next few years Phoebe Pool established herself as an important art historian: "Pool began an art publishing career, mostly smaller books on nineteenth-century masters, the first of which was Degas in 1963. In 1964 with her second book, Constable, she also began lecturing at the University of Reading, part-time. In 1967 her book on Impressionism became a popular success. Written in her direct and unpretentious style, it nevertheless address the intellectual concepts of the movement.... She published another small monograph on Delacroix in 1969. Pool used the library of the Courtauld Institute for most of her research and became a fixture there, except when her depression would keep her away, sometimes for months." (7)

Anthony Blunt

On 4th June 1963, Michael Straight was offered the post of the chairmanship of the Advisory Council on the Arts by President John F. Kennedy. Aware that he would be vetted - and his background investigated - he approached Arthur Schlesinger, one of Kennedy's advisers, and told him that Anthony Blunt had recruited him as a spy while an undergraduate at Trinity College. Schlesinger suggested that he told his story to the FBI. He spent the next couple of days being interviewed by William Sullivan. (8)

Straight's information was passed on to MI5 and Arthur Martin, the intelligence agency's principal molehunter, went to America to interview him. Michael Straight confirmed the story, and agreed to testify in a British court if necessary. Christopher Andrew, the author of The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) has argued that Straight's information was "the decisive breakthrough in MI5's investigation of Anthony Blunt". (9)

Peter Wright, who took part in the meetings about Anthony Blunt, argues in his book, Spycatcher (1987) that Roger Hollis decided to give Blunt immunity from prosecution because of his hostility towards the Labour Party and the damage it would do to the Conservative Party: "Hollis and many of his senior staff were acutely aware of the damage any public revelation of Blunt's activities might do themselves, to MI5, and to the incumbent Conservative Government. Harold Macmillan had finally resigned after a succession of security scandals, culminating in the Profumo affair. Hollis made little secret of his hostility to the Labour Party, then riding high in public opinion, and realized only too well that a scandal on the scale that would be provoked by Blunt's prosecution would surely bring the tottering Government down." (10)

Blunt was interviewed by Arthur Martin at the Courtauld Institute on 23rd April 1964. Martin later wrote that when he mentioned Straight's name he "noticed that by this time Blunt's right cheek was twitching a good deal". Martin offered Blunt "an absolute assurance that no action would be taken against him if he now told the truth". Martin recalled: "He went out of the room, got himself a drink, came back and stood at the tall window looking out on Portman Square. I gave him several minutes of silence and then appealed to him to get it off his chest. He came back to his chair and confessed." He admitted being a Soviet agent and named twelve other associates as spies including Phoebe Pool, Jenifer Hart, Michael Straight, John Cairncross, Bernard Floud, Leo Long and Peter Ashby. (11)

Blunt told Martin that Phoebe Pool had worked as his courier in the 1930s. MI5 arranged for Anita Brookner, another member of the Courtauld staff to interview Pool, who confirmed Blunt's story and said that she had acted as a go-between with Hart and Floud. As John Costello, the author of Mask of Treachery (1988), has pointed out: "This suggested that the Cambridge ring had spread its tentacles to Oxford." (12)

Phoebe Pool committed suicide in December 1971 by throwing herself under a train. (13)

Primary Sources

(1) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987)

Ironically, Jenifer Fisher Williams was married to a former wartime time MI5 officer, Herbert Hart, by the time her name emerged, so I visited her husband at Oxford, where he was pursuing a distinguished academic career as Professor of Jurisprudence, and asked him if he would approach his wife on my behalf. He rang her up there and then, assured her there was no threat to her position, and she agreed to meet me.

Jenifer Hart was a fussy, middle-class woman, too old, I thought, for the fashionably short skirt and white net stockings she was wearing. She told her story quite straightforwardly, but had a condescending, disapproving manner, as if she equated my interest in the left-wing politics of the 1930s with looking up ladies' skirts. To her, it was rather vulgar and ungentlemanly.

She said she was an open Party member in the 1930s, and was approached by a Russian, who from her description was definitely Otto. Otto instructed her to go underground, and she used to meet him clandestinely at Kew Gardens. She told us that she was merely part of the Party underground, and that she gave up meeting Otto when she joined the Home Office in 1938, where she worked in a highly sensitive department which processed applications for telephone intercepts. She told us, too, that she had never passed on any secret information.

She had two other contacts, she said. One was Bernard Floud, who recruited her, and the other man who controlled her for a short time she identified from a photograph as Arthur Wynn, a close friend of Edith Tudor Hart and her husband, who was active in trade union circles before joining the Civil Service.

There was no doubt in my mind, listening to Jennifer Hart, that this was a separate Ring based exclusively at Oxford University, but investigating it proved enormously difficult. Almost at once, Sir Andrew Cohen (who was at Cambridge and became a diplomat) died from a heart attack, so he was crossed off the list. Peter Floud was already dead, but his brother looked more hopeful when the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, named him to a junior ministerial post in the Labor Government. MIS were asked to provide him with security clearance. We objected and requested permission to interrogate Floud about Jennifer Hart's allegation. Wilson had, at the time, a standing ban on any inquiries relating to MPs, but when he read the MI5 brief, he gave clearance for the interview.

Floud's attitude, when I began the interview, was extraordinary. He treated the matter as of little importance, and when I pressed him on Jennifer Hart's story he refused to either confirm or deny that he had recruited her.

"How can I deny it, if I can't remember anything about it?" he said repeatedly.

I was tough with him. I knew that his wife, an agoraphobic depressive, had recently committed suicide, but Floud was eager to conclude the interview, presumably lured by the scent of office. I explained to him in unmistakable terms that, since it was my responsibility to advise on his security clearance, I could not possibly clear him until he gave a satisfactory explanation for the Hart story. Still he fell back lamely on his lack of memory. The session ended inconclusively, and I asked for him to attend a further interview the following day. I did not make any progress with him, he maintaining that he had no recollection of recruiting Jennifer.

The next morning I got a message that Floud had committed suicide, apparently with a gas poker and a blanket. Not long after, Blunt telephoned me with more bad news.

"Phoebe's dead," he said.

"Good God, how?" I gasped.

"She threw herself under a tube..."

Three deaths, two of which were suicides, in such a small group of people, at a time when we were actively investigating them, seemed far more than bad luck. MI5 was terrified that it would be linked publicly with the deaths, and all further work was suspended. Newspapers were already vigorously pursuing the story of Philby's role as the Third Man, and had discovered for the first time the seniority of his position in MI6. Rumors of Blunt's involvement were also beginning to surface in Fleet Street. The entire scandalous tapestry was in danger of unraveling. That still left the problem of Arthur Wynn, who, by coincidence, was also due for promotion to the Deputy Secretary's job at the Board of Trade, which also required security clearance.

"What shall we do?" asked Martin Furnival Jones nervously.

"We should tell him we'll give him his clearance, if he tells the truth about the Ring. Otherwise no clearance ..."

"But that's blackmail," he said, doing his best to sound shocked I saw nothing unfair about my offer, but then, as I told Martin Furnival Jones, I was never destined to be a diplomat or a politician.

"All these suicides," he said, "they'll ruin our image. We're just not that sort of Service."


(1) Lee Sorensen, Dictionary of Art History (November, 2000)

(2) The Daily Telegraph (9th April, 2005)

(3) Mitrokhin Archive (Volume 7, Chapter 10)

(4) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987) page 265

(5) Lee Sorensen, Dictionary of Art History (November, 2000)

(6) John Costello, Mask of Treachery (1988) page 593

(8) Roland Perry, Last of the Cold War Spies (2005) page 291

(9) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) page 436

(10) Peter Wright, Spycatcher (1987) page 214

(11) Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (2009) page 437

(12) John Costello, Mask of Treachery (1988) page 593

(13) The Times (28th December, 1971)