The Bodmin Jail inmate and dad-of-11 who spied against the IRA

When we look back on our lives in retrospect, quite often we’ll look back on the things we did, the people we know and the places we went with fondness – before coming to the conclusion that life overall was quite eventful, with many stories to tell future generations.

But when you think of all the different things people do through life, if someone was to tell you they were a naval writer, journalist and soldier in their lifetime, chances are you’d think they’d really lived a life.

That’s before you add to the list career criminal, Bodmin Jail inmate, naval absconder, fraudster, petty thief, father of 11 children and a government spy. By now you’ll probably be wondering if that person was actually a bit of a fantasist.

However, for Devonport-born John Henry Gooding, also known as Frank Hall, A.G.Saville and Frank Digby Hardy, he was all those things.

The Early Years

Born on 5 April 1868 to a middle-class family in the famously naval part of Plymouth, Devonport, John Henry Gooding was the only son of Royal Navy employee John Rowcliffe Gooding and Elizabeth Ann Furzeland.

His early years of education were spent at the Royal Hospital School in Greenwich, London which was for all intents and purposes, a school for children of naval servicemen. It was from this school that Gooding was referred to the Royal Observatory in 1883 under the watchful eye of famed astronomer William Christie. He’d only last a year here until he resigned and returned to Devonport.

Life back in his birthplace started fairly steadily. In 1885 he married his first wife, Eliza Ann Willcocks and fathered four children with her while getting a job as a clerk in a store serving Devonport Dockyard. So far, so good.

Merely 12 months later and Gooding had clearly decided a quiet life wasn’t for him as 1886 was the start of the life of double-dealing, debauchery and crime that would define many of his years ahead.

One of the original cells in the Naval Wing.
(Image: Greg Martin / Cornwall Live)

He would find himself spending six weeks in prison for forgery committed while working at the Dockyard, with the sentence cut short after being granted leniency on account of having a young wife and child.

For the next two years, it would seem that Gooding tried to keep on the right track, joining the Royal Navy as a writer upon the recommendation of William Christie, his former employer. It’s said that he maintained an excellent service record until 5 July 1888 when he deserted the Navy after misappropriating ship funds. His punishment would take him across the Tamar, where he would spend 59 days in the notorious naval prison of Bodmin Jail.

Upon his release, he returned to Devonport. A failed application to join Plymouth’s Theatre Royal in 1890 would see Gooding return to familiar habits with a number of petty crimes before being sentenced to jail for the third time – this time Plymouth Prison – for the theft of a bicycle and neglecting his family.

Despite all that went on, one person still had faith in him. Proving it’s useful to have friends in high places, just like in 1886, William Christie once again provided a testimonial to his former protege to lessen the time spent in prison.

Leaving Devon and becoming Frank Hall

Dartmoor Prison, where Gooding would be incarcerated several times.

Release from prison would see Gooding disappear without a trace, abandoning his wife and children and leaving Devonport for the leafy climes of Surrey. It was upon arrival here that Gooding adopted the alias Frank Hall. Under this guise, he married a Miss Sarah Shires in 1891, in the process committing bigamy and over the rest of the decade would have 3 more children.

Citing his maternal grandmother Annie Furzeland as his next-of-kin, Gooding joined the Army Service Corps on 15 April 1891, and for the next 3 years, much like his time in the Navy, he was on best behaviour. Indeed in 1894, he became a Lance-Corporal.

Also, like his time in the Navy, the next bout of crime wasn’t long behind, although this particular stretch without committing a crime would last five years. In 1896, he was dismissed for the theft of money while working as an army clerk in Aldershot, for which he was given 12 months hard labour. The following year he was given another prison sentence, this time for 18 months, for fraudulently claiming funeral expenses from the non-existent life insurance of his very much alive wife.

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The Mystery Years

An 1831 edition of the Police Gazette, a newspaper that in 1899 would prove to be Gooding's unravelling.
An 1831 edition of the Police Gazette, a newspaper that in 1899 would prove to be Gooding’s unravelling.
(Image: Public Domain)

In 1899, the trail of deception and destruction left behind by Gooding would catch up with him. A picture of him put in the Police Gazette, a weekly newspaper produced by the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police service, would see him held to account for multiple signature forgeries.

Worse was yet to come for him when the trial and subsequent newspaper reports revealed the extent of Gooding’s past, right back to his bigamy, abandoning his first wife and family as well as numerous periods in prison. After a brief spell at Holloway Prison, he was sentenced to seven years back in Devon, this time at Dartmoor Prison for forgery and bigamy, including making false entries in the marriage register.

It’s said that upon his capture, two loaded revolvers were discovered upon his possessions, suggesting that he had anticipated his arrest.

Little is known of how long of the sentence Gooding served, and the period between 1901 and 1909 is shrouded in mystery save for his own account of events, which is considered unreliable.

Various claims were made by Gooding himself of what he did in these years. He claimed he was attached to the staff of the Duke of Connaught, travelling to Toronto where he became a high-profile editor of a news agency before being falsely accused of forgery before returning to Britain. It was a claim he would maintain until 1920, although no documentation to prove this exists.

Other accounts he gave include living in the United States and being in San Francisco at the time of the 1906 earthquake, a story often used by criminals to forget their past as the city’s records were destroyed in the disaster. He also claimed during this period to be a journalist at the Daily Mail and Daily Chronicle in addition to a job working at the Ministry of Munitions for two and a half years before being sacked when Scotland Yard discovered his criminal past.

In 1910, Gooding would again find himself in prison – receiving another seven years for fraud. This time, it was a simple confidence trick where he assured a fellow passenger on a train that he had money in America and could afford to repay a loan. Once invited into the woman’s home in Croydon, he located her chequebook and forged her signature while she was out of the room.

Tried under his latest alias of Hall Frankland, he found himself back at Dartmoor.

In 1918, now living under the name of Frank Digby Hardy, Gooding married again, this time in Wolverhampton to Annie Parker and fathered 4 children. She would accompany him to Ireland later that year, where under the names A G Saville and Frank Harling, he conducted numerous frauds and confidence tricks.

Once again, he was arrested and convicted, being sentenced to five years penal servitude, later reduced to three years at the start of 1919.

Infiltrating the IRA and meeting Arthur Griffith

Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffiths, who Gooding went to meet.
Sinn Fein leader Arthur Griffiths, who Gooding went to meet.
(Image: Public Domain)

Gooding would only serve eight months of his latest sentence after successfully petitioning Lord French to release him on licence. His ticket to leave allowed him to move freely as he wished but required him to report to a police station once a month. It’s said during this time he caused the police no trouble, with Gooding claiming he became the editor of several religious publications in London. One of these claims was proven, with documentation suggesting he was involved with the London Christian Herald, and that he unsuccessfully applied to join the staff of Westminster Abbey.

However by this time, across the Irish Sea, war had broken out. The Irish War of Independence pitted the British forces against the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the final escalation of the Irish revolutionary period, which would later lead to the formation of the Republic of Ireland.

His recent years in Ireland presented Gooding with an opportunity. Approaching the British Government with claims that he had important and detailed knowledge of the IRA arsenals in Dublin, he was one of 60 men enlisted with the assistance of Special Branch in London as a street agent to serve in Ireland, as part of a newly formed Combined Intelligence Service (CIS).

The Special Branch commander, Sir Basil Thomson, was likely to have known Gooding from his time as a British prison Governor, and it was through this connection he was recruited for the dangerous assignment.

From Ireland, Gooding and the other 59 agents sent intelligence reports back to London. However, there was a problem. The operatives of the IRA leader Michael Collins had intercepted his communications back to the UK and knew who he was, compiling a large file on his life, including his prison stays and crimes.

The Double Agent

IRA leader Michael Collins, who Gooding hoped to capture or kill for his share of a £40k reward.
IRA leader Michael Collins, who Gooding hoped to capture or kill for his share of a £40k reward.
(Image: Public Domain)

Through Michael Collins, a meeting between Gooding and Arthur Griffith, leader of Sinn Fein was arranged. The meeting started in the way the UK Government would have planned, for he was unaware that the IRA knew all about him. Gooding tried to gain information from Griffith about Collins and Robert Brennan with the intention of luring the IRA leader to his capture or death, an act that would gain him a share of the £40,000 reward for Collins’ capture.

However, it was a trap. For Griffith had filled the room with respected journalists from the English, Spanish, Italian, Irish, French and American newspapers, who on his instruction posed as the inner circle of Sinn Fein in an attempt to force Gooding to expose himself. The ruse was so detailed that only the Irish journalists in attendance were permitted to ask questions, for their accents would not betray them.

Gooding fell for the trap, giving a detailed and largely fictitious account of his life before trying to engage the room in open negotiations. He offered to betray Sir Thomson by revealing a location he would be located at in a few days from the meeting. In return, he asked the room to tell him the location of Collins so as to buy the trust of the intelligence service that had recruited him. He went as far as promising he’d withhold the information long enough that it was useless to the British but for a short enough time that it still portrayed him as useful and loyal to the Unionist cause.

Gooding also claimed the reason he was willing to betray Sir Thomson and the British was revenge for the harsh treatment he’d received during his spells in prison and the vagrancy he had endured for most of his life.

Upon this, Griffith revealed the ruse that the room was actually stuffed full of journalists who had witnessed Gooding’s true motives; before reading to the room an extract from a 1918 newspaper that detailed his criminal career, release from Maryborough Jail and allegiance to the British Government.

To add further insult to injury, the Sinn Fein leader then confronted Gooding with a confession signed in 1918 to numerous frauds across England, Wales and Ireland from 1916 to 1918, equating to £13,000 in today’s money and given an ultimatum. Leave Ireland and never return or stay and face the consequences. Gooding left at 9pm that night on a vessel recommended by Griffith.

Out of Time

Aerial view of Devonport- the place of Gooding’s birth. By the end of his life, he was a long way from home. (Credit: Pete Holdgate)

The blow of his cover to journalists by Griffith had left Gooding visibly shaken. Historians that have studied the incident, which once formed a CIA case study in 1969 on the importance of intelligence, that he had genuinely intended to betray the British but that Collins and Griffith had not believed him.

The journalists in the room are believed to have thought that Captain Thomson, the name Gooding offered as the name of his superior was fictitious and intended to deceive the IRA, when actually it was true, given his boss was Sir Basil Thomson. However, some also argue that Gooding had no history of Irish republican support or family history of such support.

After this incident, the many lives that Gooding had lived came crashing down on him. In the knowledge he was now a known face, he retreated into obscurity, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Gooding’s actions in one way preserved his life, for two months later a gang of British intelligence forces were murdered by the IRA’s twelve apostles on Bloody Sunday.

It’s perhaps ironic that his final years were spent as a clerk to a watchmaker, given by now he was very much out of time after the IRA incident. Gooding was said to be secretive in his final years about his past, even to his own family who knew little of his origins and story.

He died aged 62, on 28 October 1930, in Wolverhampton and was outlived by both his first and third wife by 29 and 50 years respectively.

Cornwall Live