Cold War ‘superspies’ Leeds link

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A skip on a Leeds factory site hid evidence of a dramatic Cold War espionage alliance. Aisha Iqbal looks at the evidence.

COLD war superspies Greville Wynne and Oleg Penkovsky are pictured together, walking and chatting near the site of the Leeds engineering firm which they used as a cover for their anti-Russian plotting.

The photo was taken near Turner’s in Stanningley Road, Bramley in 1961, a year before the pair were arrested and two years before Penkovsky was executed by his Russian countrymen for treason.

The rare snap was among a haul of photos recovered from the factory before it closed down in 1981.

Many of the photos - chronicling the history of the firm which had started out as a family-run railway foundry in 1860 - had been thrown into a skip by the American parent company when the factory closed down. But they were rescued by a loyal employee.

Wynne and Penkovsky - for whom the Brit worked as an intermediary - were arrested by the Russians in 1962, and found to be at the centre of a Cold War plot to trigger World War III by bombing the heart of the Soviet military machine, as well as stealing its nuclear secrets.

Wynne’s cover had been that of salesman. He had been asked to spy for MI6 because he made regular business trips to Russia . Among his products were the Bramley firm’s leather making machinery. He made regular visits to the Leeds site. It was thought to be Penkovsky’s only visit to the Leeds factory.

Bramley’s superspy links form one part of a ‘final chapter’ history of Turner’s - full name Turner Machinery Ltd - which former employee Peter Waterhouse is writing. He and his Turner Machinery Ltd Reunion Committe are also organising a reunion of former workers to mark the 30th anniversary of the end of the iconic Leeds factory.

Mr Waterhouse, 86, worked at the site from 1955 until its closure and as its works director, was one of the last people to leave.

“The company had been winding down over a few months and staff were gradually laid off,” Mr Waterhouse recalled.

“I was one of the last people on the site and one of the things I had to do was organise the disposal of the machinery at an auction.

“A lot of photos were being thrown away in skips. The Americans were not particularly interested in the history of the company - they were part of a big parent company with 30,000 employees. So I recycled some of the photos from the skip.”

Recalling the firm and its staff, Mr Waterhouse, who lives in Tingley, said there had always been an “excellent camaraderie”.

“Turner’s was something very close to my heart. The people that worked there worked so hard. I have never known a better company really.

“There were families who had a grandfather, father and sons all working there and they were mostly from the local Bramley area.

“This reunion will be extra special because of the 30th anniversary of the closure. “The number of ex-employees is dwindling as the years pass by, but we are hopeful we may get a good turnout.”

When Mr Waterhouse started out as an assistant works manager, his boss was railway engineer Louis Rigg, father of actress Diana Rigg, who had worked for an Indian prince during the Raj before moving to Leeds.

Mr Waterhouse recalls the actress made regular visits to the plant while studying at nearby Fulneck School.

Speaking of the final days of the company, he recalled a “difficult” period when the workers realised that a possible closure - and mass redundancies - were on the cards.

“It had been a very profitable organisation, and had secured a £2.25 million contract just a few years before. That would be hundreds of millions by today’s standards.

“There wasn’t anything needed in the tanning industry that we could not provide. But with foreign competition and strikes and loss of electricity, we had a loss of production.”

The parent firm also had a factory in Germany, he explained, and when the Americans were running into trouble themselves, they decided to look at the industries they were serving - and concluded that either the German or British company had to close.

“It was said that we were going to remain open,” Mr Waterhouse said. “We even went to Germany to pick up some knowledge of their machines. But then there was a complete reversal by the Americans and we were closed instead, That was a complete shock.”

The firm officially closed its doors on December 31, 1981. The German factory only lasted two years after that. The iconic Bramley site has since been redeveloped.

Turner’s had originally been established in 1860 as Thos. Haley and Co by Thomas Haley and his three sons.

It was eventually sold in 1920 to an American firm - and became Turner Tanning Machinery. The company was recognised as one of the world’s leading makers of leather machinery and even received a royal seal of approval for exports.

* The Turner’s 30th Anniversary Reunion will be at the Bramley Band Club on Wednesday, April 6 at 7.30pm. Call Mr Waterhouse on 0113 2532027 for details.

If you or a family member worked at Turner’s, or you recognise yourself or them in any of our photos, call 0113 2388122.

Stephen Ewen, 62, of Cookridge, who died of sepsis in 2017.

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