On 3 September 1939 the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announced on the radio that Britain was now at war with Germany. People expected air raids, but nothing happened until the Blitz began in September 1940. This was the period that came to be known as the ‘phoney war’, but while Britain waited there was considerable public concern and rumours about German spies.
A German Spy Ring
On the 30 Sept 1939, 27 year old Wilfred Ronald Ward who lived with his parents at 187 Heathfield Road, Handsworth, appeared at the Birmingham Police Court. He was charged with demanding £500 from a man, never named but referred to as ‘Mr X’ throughout the proceedings. Unless the money was paid, Wilfred had threatened to expose Mr X as a German spy. Mr X had received a letter on 5 September signed by ‘Jim Rickards’ and had gone to the police. They had listened in when Ward, using the name Rickards, telephoned and repeated the threat but Mr X had lost his temper and the call was ended.
Three days later on the 8 September the Chief Constable was sent an anonymous letter which named Mr X and four other people as spies. The police spoke to Ward who admitted writing the letters. He said he just wanted to frighten Mr X. He explained that for the past few months, both he and Mr X had been seeing a woman with the wonderful name of Treasure Muffett. It was Treasure who had told Ward that she and the other people were part of a German spy ring. The police investigated and decided Mr X and the others were definitely not spies. Ward said: ‘Blimey, I did it all in the interests of the country. I became infatuated with her and believed every word she told me to be true’. He was held on remand pending trial.
On 26 October Ward re-appeared in court on a charge of demanding money with menaces. The letter he sent to the Chief Constable had contained a drawing of a badge with the letters S.H.V.K. which he said was the emblem of the spy group. Ward alleged Mr X had entered factories at night and copied aircraft plans. Other people named in the letter as German spies were Miss B, Mr C, Dr A, and Mr D, who all strenuously denied the allegations.
Giving evidence 31 year old Mr X said the only time he met Ward was when he had introduced him to Mrs Treasure Muffett at her flat in Acocks Green Birmingham on 26 August. Mr X had formed a liaison with Treasure Muffett who was a very attractive brunette with a vivid personality. She told him she was a German married to an Englishman. But he now realised that she was leading a fantasy life of make-believe.
Treasure Muffett was then called to give evidence. Her real name was far less glamorous, Mabel Nellie Muffett. She said she and her friend Mair Williams were nurses and lived at 34 Alexandra Road in Kilburn. Far from being German, Treasure’s parents were English and she’d never been out of the country. But she admitted she sometimes pretended to be German and spoke broken English as a joke.
In fact, neither Marie nor Treasure had finished their medical training. They met in July when working at a nursing home in Birmingham and shared the flat in Acocks Green, loaned to them by a patient in the home, for three weeks. They had held all-night parties there and then left for London the day before War was declared.
When the defence barrister pointed out that Ward had said the S.H.V.K. drawing was an emblem of the German spy ring, Treasure said this was tripe. She explained that the letters stood for ‘Sacred Heart, Virtuous Knowledge’, which was the badge of her old school, the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Harrow on the Hill. She admitted to having affairs with both Ward and Mr X. When asked if she was something of a liar, she said, ‘Yes I am. I have told thousands of lies to the prisoner and Mr X’.
The case was remanded for a week.
Suicide in Alexandra Road
On Wednesday 1 November, landlady Lily Abbott and other tenants heard the noise of constant running water coming from the upstairs flat at 34 Alexandra Road. When she looked through the glass door she was horrified to see 25 years old Treasure Muffett and 22 years old Mair Williams were lying motionless on the floor. When the police forced their way into the flat they found that the girls had died from gas poisoning sometime over the weekend. They were both due to give further evidence in Birmingham on Thursday 2 November.
The trial went ahead and it was agreed that the dispositions which the girls had signed could be used as evidence.
In court Mrs Abbott said the girls had rented the Alexandra Road flat for about five weeks. They told her they’d had come down from Birmingham ‘to get away from a man’, and paid their first two weeks rent but nothing further. Mrs Abbott said she lent them money and even got shoes for them. They had signed up for work with a nursing agency in Kings Cross but were desperately short of money and only had six pence halfpenny between them when they died.
Mrs Abbott said when they had returned from the trial in Birmingham on Thursday night they were very depressed because so much of Treasure’s past had been brought up in court. An aunt had advised Mair that she should go home to Treforest in South Wales, but she had said to Mrs Abbott, ‘What kind of pal should I be to leave Treasure on her own now. I could not do it.’
One of the witnesses, Mr D said he had first known Treasure in 1935 when she worked as a nurse in the County Mental Hospital in Gloucester. She was then known as Treasure Street.
At the St Pancras inquest on 3 November, Treasure’s husband, Alan John Muffett of Grant Avenue Bournemouth, said he married Treasure Mabel Street on 12 July 1938, but she left him after 11 weeks. He had not seen her since and the only contact had been a letter she sent last Christmas containing a pawn ticket for a ring she had pledged to recover.
Treasure’s mother Mrs Gertrude Street, said the girls had visited her in Wimborne, Dorset for one day in early in October. She’d ignored a letter from the police asking her to send money to her daughter as the girls hadn’t eaten for three days. Mrs Street said, ‘I took no notice of that. I had helped her so much in the past’. She told the court that when they visited her she’d loaned them coats.
Mrs Winifred Pugh said she had not seen her daughter Mair Williams for over a year. She had no idea she’d gone to London until she had a letter saying she was there. Mair had told her mother she was planning to go to France with Treasure, to work as a nurse. Mrs Pugh had sent her daughter £3 in September.
Detective Inspector Culliss of the Birmingham police said the girls had nothing to fear from them. When the Metropolitan police saw the girls on 3 October they were staving and the policeman sent out for some food for them and lent them a pound. The famous pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury who conducted the autopsies, said Treasure and Mair had died from gas poisoning and that Miss Williams showed signs of early pregnancy.
The coroner concluded that the girls had returned from the trial very upset, depressed and virtually penniless. They couldn’t bear the thought of returning to Birmingham to face further questioning and decided to commit suicide. They had left notes saying they were going to die. The jury brought in a verdict that they had taken their lives while of unsound mind.
Wilfred Ronald Ward
On 8 November 1939 at Manchester Assizes, Wilfred Ronald Ward was sentenced to three years in prison. After serving his sentence he married Jillian Shirlaw in Bromsgrove in 1947. He died in Birmingham in 1973 aged 61. Jillian died in 2002.