Robert William Liversidge (11 June 1904 – 30 September 1994), formerly Jacob (Jack) Perlsweig, was a British Jewish businessman, whose activities sometimes attracted the attention of the police and intelligence services, a reputed spy, and subject of a cause célèbre as an internee in World War II Britain.
Liversidge's parents, Asher Perslweig, a rabbi, and Sarah, were Jewish immigrants to Britain from Russia. He was born Harringay, London, one of five brothers and three sisters. He left school at age 14 and drifted before becoming involved in financial services. In July 1928, two of his associates, David and Dore Baumgart, were tried at the Old Bailey in London for conspiracy to defraud over share dealing in which Liversidge was alleged to have been involved. An arrest warrant was issued for him but was never executed. Though he subsequently admitted that he had become involved with some dishonest people, Liversidge always denied being guilty of any wrongdoing.
Some time before 1931, he adopted the name Liversidge from the married name of his eldest sister and in that year, applied for a Canadian passport in that name, claiming to have been born in Toronto and misstating his date of birth. He eventually managed a Hollywood recording studio, meeting minor actress Wanda Stevenson and marrying her in 1936.
Liversidge returned to England in 1936 and became a wealthy and successful businessman, formally changing his name to Liversidge in September 1937. However, his return was brought to the attention of the police by an informer and, though the arrest warrant had been withdrawn in 1933, his Canadian passport was confiscated.
After his return to Britain, Liversidge's business activities brought him into contact both with some individuals involved in the intelligence services and some who held views sympathetic to fascism. Lord Verulam was associated with MI6. Cudbert Thornhill had been a military attaché in Petrograd from 1916 to 1918 and later worked in political intelligence in the Foreign Office during World War II. Norman Thwaites worked in intelligence in New York in World War I and recruited spy Sidney Reilly. Thwaites chaired meetings for the fascist January Club and was an associate of H. W. Luttman-Johnson. Compton Mackenzie was an intelligence officer in World War I and a prominent Scottish nationalist. William Stephenson was a Canadian spy of some subsequent notoriety. Van Lighten, a Dutchman, had tried to join MI5 and was viewed with suspicion by the intelligence services as a German agent. Liversidge himself provided secrets to the War Office.
World War II
There seems to be no reason to suspect that Liversidge shared the political views of his colleagues. He volunteered for the army at the time of the Munich Agreement and for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in September 1939. Having again used the false date and place of birth that he had used in his Canadian passport application he was commissioned Pilot Officer on 26 November. He served as an outstanding intelligence officer in Bomber Command at RAF Wyton and RAF Wattisham, then in Fighter Command at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Bentley Priory.
Defence Regulation 18B had authorised internment at the start of the war and, in early 1940, MI5 received intelligence that "three notorious Jew swindlers" were using "improper pressures brought to bear in High Places" to effect the release of internees from the camp at Seaton, Devon in return for payment of £500 (£17,700 at 2003 prices). Thwaites was implicated, Liversidge investigated and the false application revealed. Liversidge was arrested on 26 April and charged with making a false statement. His flat was searched and the names of other persons known to the intelligence services were discovered. When interviewed, it further came to light that Liversidge was Jack Perlsweig. Though Liversidge could have been prosecuted for his deception, it is unlikely that he would have received a severe sentence owing to his patriotic motives. However, the sensitive nature of his war work caused some alarm.
Though internment was initially suggested by MI5, it was realised that there was no real evidence of "hostile associations" nor "acts prejudicial" and that only an ordinary criminal charge for the deception looked reasonable. However, on 15 May the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, wrote to the Home Office calling for Liversidge's internment stating that "I am certain that you will agree that it is most undesirable that a man with the unsavoury and indeed dangerous associations of Perlsweig, who during recent months has had access to information of a most secret character, should be left at large either in the Service or in the Country."
The Reasons for Order finally served on Liversidge on 2 October alleged nothing that truly represented "hostile associations" other than count 7:
7. The said Liversidge was associated from time to time with Germans and with those associated with the German Secret Service.
Liversidge's lawyers demanded particulars of such associations but were refused. The more detailed Statement of Case asserted that Liversidge had "a very bad record" and referred to the Baumgart case and the Canadian passport. It then alleged, solely on the word of the 1937 informant, that Liversidge had used the alias John Stone and had been involved in a fraud in New York. Though this had been communicated to the New York police, they had shown no interest in pursuing the matter through extradition. Though it was not pleaded that Liversidge had been involved in any conspiracy at Seaton, the Statement did claim that he was an "associate" of Van Lighton. Further, he was alleged to be involved with a Leon Nussbaum and already interned German national Richard Markus in dubious dealings in industrial diamonds.
The Statement concluded:
... he is completely unscrupulous and it may be that he has been recently concerned in acts prejudicial to public safety although we have no direct evidence of this ... we submit that in view of the valuable information which he possesses it is essential in the interests of security that his detention should be continued.
Liversidge appealed his detention before the Advisory Committee headed by Norman Birkett on 10 October, where he admitted the passport and the alias John Stone but denied any fraud or association with Van Lighten. There were testimonials as to his good character and an appearance by Liversidge's actress fiancée Clare McCririck. She and Aneurin Bevan, a personal friend of Liversidge, had protested to the Home Office about the delay in the hearing.
The committee reported on 15 October and were clearly troubled by the facts but deferred to the imperatives of a Fighter Command fully stretched by the Battle of Britain. They recommended detention with review on 4 December 1941. Herbert Morrison finally endorsed the decision on 11 December, probably having been canvassed by Bevan. Simpson has alleged anti-semitism as an influence on the decision.
Liversidge sued for false imprisonment and the Crown filed a defence that he was lawfully detained under an 18B order. Liversidge then filed an application that the Crown disclose the grounds upon which the order was made, pleading that the Reasons for Order were insufficient. The application was dismissed by the High Court, as was an appeal to the Court of Appeal, and the case was brought to the House of Lords, joined with an appeal from another internee Ben Greene. Ultimately, the Law Lords deferred to ministerial discretion on matters of national security in wartime. The application for disclosure was refused and Liversidge's internment confirmed.
Release and later life
On 9 November 1941, six days after the House of Lords ruling, it was decided that there were no longer compelling reasons for his detention. Liversidge was finally released, after further bureaucratic delay, on 31 December. He would probably have been released earlier had his detention not been necessary to establish a legal point in the House of Lords though the RAF were still insisting on his detention in July.
On release, Liversidge joined the Fire Service and, after the War, became hugely wealthy in his continued business dealings. As a friend of John Belcher, in 1947 he was called before the Lynskey tribunal but was exonerated of all misconduct. He never received any compensation or apology for his detention and, until his death, remained bitter.
- Date of death per Ancestry.ca
- Simpson (1992) pp333-334
- Simpson (1992) p.334
- Wanda Stevenson at the Internet Movie Database
- Simpson (1992) pp334-336
- Simpson (1992) p.340
- Simpson (1992) pp335-336
- O‘Donoghue, J. et al. (2004). "Consumer Price Inflation since 1750". Economic Trends 604: 38–46, March.
- Simpson (1992) p.336
- Simpson (1992) p.337-338
- Simpson (1992) p.339
- Simpson (1992) p.340-341
- Simpson (1992) p.355-356
- Simpson (1992) pp365
- Simpson (1992) pp365-366