Lancashire war-time traitor handed over bomb factory plans to Germany

Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at the case of a man who passed on secret documents to the Germans.

Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 10:37 am
Updated Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 11:41 am
Munition workers were put at risk by Kelly

The area we now know as Buckshaw Village was once at the centre of the vast Royal Ordnance Factory (ROF), Chorley, and was crucial for munitions during the Second World War.

Amongst those employed on the Euxton construction site was Joseph P Kelly, a 31-year-old married bricklayer of Rigby Street, in Bolton, who earned £5 per week and had three children to support.

Kelly was arrested in mid-April 1939 and appeared before Chorley magistrates accused under the Official Secrets Act of being in touch with the German Secret Service, and with the help of the German Consul in Liverpool of selling information and material. The court heard he had obtained a site plan and a progress plan of the ROF by breaking into the offices and prior to that had got a passport and visa to enable his trip abroad.

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Letters between Kelly and the German authorities were submitted and evidence of him leaving England for Holland in mid-March, where a German agent assisted his passage through the frontier. The pair then travelled to Cologne where Kelly received instructions and was paid the sum of £30 (£1,810 in today’s money).

On his return to Manchester, five days later, Kelly was apprehended by police officers from Bolton. As he was being bundled into a car he was seen to put a piece of paper in his mouth that he chewed vigorously before spitting it out. The paper was picked up by a police officer and the remains of it showed a code and a contact in Germany.

A search of his home found one of the stolen plans, but the other, which was a highly confidential and secret document was missing. Kelly was committed for trial at the next Manchester Assizes, pleading not guilty.

At the trial in mid-May 1939, before Mr Justice Stables, the accused pleaded guilty on five counts relating to the stolen plans.

Mr Hartley Shawcross, KC, who was leading the prosecution, stated that the offences were of very great gravity, they being of immense value to an enemy planning an air raid. Whilst the bank notes found in his possession had been part of a batch sent to Germany in early March.

He then stated that Kelly had drinking and gambling problems and those had led him to the desperate behaviour. Periodically during the hearing, the court was cleared for certain evidence under the Official Secrets Act to be given.

When answering to the charge Kelly had stated “I plead guilty under provocation and incitement”, and Mr Lambert, representing him, asked Justice Stables to consider the mitigation included in a statement written by the accused.

After a brief interval Mr Justice Stables told the court he had considered all the submissions and told Kelly: “You put yourself into communication with the agents of a foreign power. You received your reward and had no consideration for the people you worked with or their well being.

“The Act of Parliament enables me to send you to Penal Servitude for 14 years and I notice that in another country two men who committed a similar act were executed.”

His Lordship then informed Kelly he would be sent to penal servitude for 10 years on each of three offences and three years on two offences with the sentences to run concurrently.

One consequence of the trial was that the German Consul in Liverpool returned to his home country within weeks. Joseph Kelly, who had been sent to Pankhurst Gaol after sentencing, was vilified by the national newspapers who regarded him as a traitor.

Fortunately, ROF Chorley played a vital part during the conflict. In late 1939, more than 1,000 were employed there and by the following June over 15,000 were working on the production lines and that figure almost doubled at peak production. Included in their munition work was the filling of the bouncing bomb designed by Barnes Wallis and so vital in the famed Dambuster raids.

After the war concrete posts, railway sleepers, concrete panels and pre -fabricated homes all came off the site’s production lines.