My family has a British spy


Abdolhossein Teymourtash remains one of the most significant personalities in modern Iranian political history. His suspicious death in 1933 was a major event in a high-stakes game of Persian intrigue centred on oil and global power. Little has changed in the century since with the deathly proceedings in Iran and Iraq this week. When I was researching my book “Mr Fairley: The Oldest Banker in Glasgow”, I incredulously discovered that I had a personal family connection to Teymourtash’s murder. It’s a tale of revolution, spies and espionage worthy of the best Ian Fleming novel. In fact, parts of it inspired the novelist; I still struggle to believe it myself.

My father’s family lore dubiously says that we are descended from an Assyrian princess, and recent DNA evidence and a corresponding gap in the family tree leaves some room for truth. A little to the west and a couple of hundred years later, my family was still in the region, this time it was my uncle’s cousin who was playing an integral role in Persia which was centred in modern Iran.

William Cunningham Fairley Fairley 1877-1954 - eBay sales

William Cunningham Fairley Fairley (yes, that’s not a typo) (pictured) was born into a banking family in England in 1877. William entered the family business and lived in opulent Berkshire. However, upon the death of his first wife, William crossed into a world of intrigue in which his life became either a series of incredible co-incidences, or he was a British spy.

In 1916 during the First World War, William travelled to Moscow, Russia, to work with a small British export-import firm William Higgs & Co. The Russian Revolution came in 1917 which at first saw the Intelligentsia in power, before a counter-revolution put Vladimir Lenin in charge. The British were desperate to see the end of Lenin, and the subsequent assassination plot directly implicated William Fairley. It was William’s place of work where the real-life Sidney Reilly ‘Ace of Spies’ collected the money to pay his network of informants. William’s boss was arrested, Reilly made his escape, as did William and his second wife who smuggled jewellery and money sewn inside her clothing. Being an export-import agent gave perfect cover to monitor shipping and transport movements, and to transfer money, but there was still reason enough for William’s house and personal papers to be burned before he fled back to London. Reilly later became the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s “James Bond”.

William was again at the forefront when he travelled to Iran in the 1920s as the Tehran representative of the British government-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company. The company still exists today as British Petroleum or BP. Persia was then, as it is now, a hotbed of intrigue as oil concessions were furiously being negotiated by the competing British and Russian interests. It was widely believed, and correctly so it turned out, that the next war would be won with oil.

Abdolhossein Teymourtash 1883-1933 - Wikipedia Commons

Shortly after Reza Shah came to power in 1925, he told his cabinet that “Teymourtash’s word is my word”, and so it was Abdolhossein Teymourtash (pictured) who led the oil negotiations for Iran. When Teymourtash visited London in 1928, he enjoyed an audience with King George V and was hosted at innumerable lavish dinners, all the time accompanied by William Fairley. Negotiations were going badly for the British in 1933 when Teymourtash was suddenly arrested, supposedly on the orders of Reza Shah. He was tortured and then killed by a lethal injection of air. It was another of William’s bosses, Sir John Cadman, who was implicated. William and Sir John were close associates, having earlier been photographed together at William’s home in Tehran (main picture above, second from left and centre) and dining together with Teymourtash in London.

By the 1930s, William was in Paris as deputy-general manager of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company on the Continent. European affairs were being dominated by the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. In 1931, William travelled to Tangier, Morocco, which at the time was a safehouse of international spying activities of legendary proportions. William was the only man on the ship’s manifest who recorded his occupation as “none”.

William retired to a country house in Buckinghamshire and a sizeable inheritance. But if you think his life had been just a series of stunning political co-incidences, there’s more.

Harold Godfrey 1896-1967 - Jennie Parsons

When William escaped from Russia in 1917, one brother-in-law was arrested by the Bolsheviks and subjected to tortuous treatment from which he never recovered. A younger brother-in-law with the impressive name of Harold Guy Wilder Godfey (pictured) was in England and enlisted in the British artillery. Being fluent in Russian, Godfey was dispatched to Murmansk to fight behind the lines against the Bolsheviks. He was finally withdrawn in 1920 which was well after the official end of the war. Godfey then joined MI6 which was the British Secret Intelligence Service, and his address was given as the offices of another export-import business this time with operations in the Baltic states of the Soviet Union. Come the Second World War, Godfey worked at the famed British code-breaking office of Bletchley Park. He went on missions to Finland, India, North West Frontier (now Pakistan), and North Africa with the Political Warfare Intelligence Department.

My uncle’s cousin William Fairley had spent time in Russia, Persia, France, and Morocco, always at the forefront of world events and surrounded by espionage. Even if he was not a spy for the British Secret Intelligence Service, and the location and circumstances of his work were purely co-incidental, he was certainly well-placed to provide valuable insights for his MI6 brother-in-law. I couldn’t help recalling these amazing events with what’s happening in Iran at the moment.

You can read William’s full story and more in my book “Mr Fairley: The Oldest Banker in Glasgow” which is available by following this link and clicking here.

Fairley coverJPG

Photo credits:
William Fairley and Sir John Cadman in Tehran c1924 – BP Archives
William Fairley c1895 – eBay unattributed
Abdolhossein Teymourtash 1920s – Wikipedia Commons
Harold Godfrey c1918 – Jennie Parsons


  1. Great story

    On Fri, 10 Jan 2020 at 5:06 am, History Out There wrote:

    > History Out There posted: ” Abdolhossein Teymourtash remains one of the > most significant personalities in modern Iranian political history. His > suspicious death in 1933 was a major event in a high-stakes game of Persian > intrigue centred on oil and global power. Little has changed ” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating, Harold. You know of the connections between Mt. Morgan, Qld., Persia and the bottling-up of the German Fleet in WW1?


  3. Copied from another post of mine because I`m lazy.:-) ‘If you enjoyed the story of Broken Hill, try reading about Mount Morgan in Queensland. Initially ignored as a black mountain of ironstone, it produced some of the purest gold ever recovered, sitting on top of a huge copper orebody. The mountain became one of the biggest man-made holes in the ground. The story doesn`t end there. One of the directors (D`Arcy)retired to England with his fortune and started searching for oil in Iran. After spending his money in a fruitless search, he was about to pull out when he was reportedly approached by the British Government and secretly funded by them to continue. The British Navy wanted to convert their coal-burners to oil, but needed to find a reliable source. To cut a long story short, oil was found, ships were converted in time for WW1 and the economy of running enabled the Brits to bottle up the German Fleet. So maybe, in one sense, Mount Morgan saved the Empire.’


    • Ah yes the D’Arcy Concession… cause of all the troubles 🙂 Sidney Reilly was key to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company obtaining that ultimately controversial concession, which I think is why he and to a lesser extent William Fairley continued to exploit their Russian and Persian knowledge for so long. So in a way, Mt Morgan is responsible for the troubles around the Persian Gulf today 🤔


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