Spy Fever - Edgar Frederick Newton
When war broke out in 1914, there was a great suspicion of spies in Britain. Shetland participated. There’s a Procurator Fiscal precognition in Shetland Archives taken at the request of Edgar Frederick Newton, a sea angler. He’d had a short interview with a naval officer and a man in plain clothes about his activities in the islands.
He’d been to Shetland before, and returned in July 1914 with a young companion Frank Davidson, an orderly to Baden Powell in the Boy Scout headquarters. Edgar Newton hired the boat Traveller (LK 359) from Robert Duthie in Lerwick, and settled down with James Shearer, Bellsbrae, Whalsay. He hired a Whalsay crew and proceeded about sea angling.
He kept to himself, had a habit of keeping his blinds down in daylight. His comings and goings among Shetland’s voes could seem a bit mysterious. Frank Davidson had a camera. Some rumours began, and no doubt much humour. One of his crew joked as they went off that they were going to lay mines. In a short time the ears of the authorities twitched. The naval commander in Lerwick, Lieutenant Colonel H.C. Evans wasn’t gifted at counter-espionage, and later locked up the town’s Post Office staff en masse over a missing mail bag.
The precognition comes in two parts, one handwritten, the other a typed fair copy. Interestingly, the clerk probably gets E.F. Newton’s home address wrong, giving it as 43 Lime Street, London. Scored out in the handwriting is his description of his occupation as "gentleman". An upper middle class family called Newton stayed in 43 Lowndes Street, Chelsea for some decades. In 1881 the head of the family was General William S. Newton. By 1901 there was a widow, with a son Edgar F., a "land estate agent".
Edgar F. didn’t seem to come to any great public notice, but an Edgar Newton wrote about sewage pollution in the sea for the Royal Society for the Promotion of Public Health’s journal in 1910. At that time he was on the Committee of the British Sea Anglers Society.
The Society had some serious connections with the upper strata of British Society. Edgar Newton clearly had some of his own. In the precognition he states –
I wrote the letter of complaint to F. J. Tennant, Under Secretary of State for War, who is a personal friend of mine.
The last part of the precognition is from Gifford Gray, Superintendent of the Zetland County Police. After a dialogue with Colonel Evans, he’d sent a constable to observe the Traveller. The constable came to the unsurprising conclusion that Edgar Newton was trout fishing. Shetlanders seem to have become generally suspicious of strangers at the time. Superintendent Gray said that government land valuers working in Shetland at the time had had to ask for bona fides from him.
There’s no evidence from the precognition that Edgar Newton got what he wanted from the process – to find out who had informed on him. It seems that nothing much happened in the end.