In March 1981 Margaret Thatcher went to the hospital bedside of Maurice Oldfield, the former head of the Secret Intelligence Service, who was dying of stomach cancer. She found him surrounded by his brothers and sisters, whom she gently asked to leave as she needed to ‘speak privately with Sir Maurice’. When they trooped back after her departure, they found their brother, hitherto calm and resigned about his illness, distraught and weeping. It was the first time any of them had seen him in tears. In answer to their question what was wrong, he answered: ‘Mrs Thatcher asked if I was homosexual. I had to tell her.’ It was the first time any of his siblings had heard any remark about his sexuality.
One can imagine the combination of stilted sympathy and condescending curiosity with which the Prime Minister had quizzed the old man about his sex life and the recent withdrawal of his positive vetting certificate. He was humiliated by her questions and by his exposure in front of his siblings; his
condition deteriorated and he died a few days later.
Such vivid episodes abound in Martin Pearce’s compelling and authoritative biography of the strange man who served for 40 years in SIS and was for five years its chief. Oldfield was born on a kitchen table in Derbyshire’s Peak District in 1915. He was the eldest of 11 children of a tenant farmer in the remote village of Over Haddon. As a boy he lived in a two-up, two-down cottage, and laboured on the family farm.
He won a scholarship to Manchester University, where he graduated with a first-class degree and was elected to a history fellowship. In Manchester he had a love affair with a fellow student, Jimmy Crompton. Pearce shows that Oldfield was drawn into secret work as early as 1937–38 — probably on the recommendation of the Manchester historian Sir Lewis Namier.