The story of how the post office staff were locked up
Spy Fever: The Post Office Affair by Margaret Flaws. Published by The Shetland Times at £14.99. It’s very seldom that an editorial in The Shetland Times has any influence on national events, but a story in the paper of September 1904 certainly did, by way of a scathing commentary on a show-the-flag visit by only four British warships in response to an earlier visit by a fleet of 32 German ones. This was read at the Admiralty – and led to lingering doubt in some quarters as to the loyalty of Shetlanders to the British crown.
This doubt surfaced in 1914, when somebody at the Royal Navy’s headquarters in Scapa Flow suspected that confidential mail from the cruiser base in Busta Voe had been tampered with. An Admiral immediately ordered that the staff of Lerwick Post Office be “detained” for questioning.
On Sunday 1st November the entire postal staff were called to the Post Office, before being marched up to the prison at the County Buildings under an escort of RNR men with fixed bayonets. The astonished warder at the prison was required to cram a total of 40 men into 12 small cells.
It took some time for all hell to break loose. Only the postmaster was told why they had been arrested, and the men were never questioned. Eight were released after a day or two, but it took six days of protest before the remaining 32 were freed on 7th November, on receipt of a grudging order from Scapa Flow, for in fact there had been no postal crime. In the meantime chaos ruled in the Post Office with mails and telegraphic communications at a virtual standstill.
The man responsible for this over-reaction was Horace Carlyon Evans – neurotic, excitable, authoritarian and incompetent – a lieutenant-colonel in His Majesty’s Royal Marine Light Infantry and officer-in-command of the Royal Naval Reserve in Shetland. Evans’ command only lasted another year before he was sacked for flogging one man and causing the death of another by negligence. The local heroes of this sorry episode were John Morrison, the prison warder; James McMaster, the postmaster, who insisted on going to jail with his men; provost Robert Stout, who had two sons detained; and Sheriff Menzies.
Their combined efforts acquainted the Prison Commissioners, the Lord Advocate, the GPO and the Secretary of State for Scotland. The story hit headlines in the national press on 6th November, and the men’s release came before Shetland MP Cathcart Wason could ask awkward questions in the House of Commons. The aftermath of this wrongful imprisonment rumbled on for years.
Many of those involved told their tales in later years so the local perspective of the affair has been fairly well publicised. Now, the grand-daughter of one of them, Margaret Flaws from Wyre in Orkney, has uncovered the full story for the first time in a fascinating book entitled Spy Fever: The Post Office Affair. Margaret scoured official archives to investigate and understand events leading up to the “spy fever”, and find out what went on behind the scenes before, during and after the imprisonment.
She has chosen – very effectively – to present the story in a form akin to the script of a play or film, beginning with the naval visits of 1904 and tracing the early lives of the main characters before relating the almost incredible events of that traumatic November week in 1914.
The six days of imprisonment have a chapter each; so well does the author build the suspense that I found it impossible to stop reading until the men were freed. The story doesn’t end there, for although officialdom eventually produced a grudging apology and an insulting offer of compensation, there was a long fight to have the men’s names expunged from the criminal record. Margaret Flaws is to be congratulated; besides casting full light on an unsavoury episode in Shetland history, her book also give us a valuable evocation of Shetland life almost a century ago and highlights the ignorance, indifference and ineptitude of government and officialdom. This is in marked contrast to our cosier life today and yet, as John Manson says in his introduction: “Such a travesty of justice could not happen in the UK [today] . . . or could it?”