The double life of Anne Neill only goes to prove you never know who is watching who? Churchgoing, Anne Neill, a middle-aged widow from the suburbs of Adelaide, was also a secret agent, for the newly-formed Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, or Secret Police.
Soft Spoken Grandmother
Anne was a charming 50-year-old grandmother. Her white hair was short and curled. She was well-dressed in floral dresses and beaded necklaces.
This soft-spoken, widowed, and neatly dressed woman was the first ASIO agent to enter the USSR. Her ASIO handler referred to her as a ‘fluttery old lady’, who lived a double life.
ABC Radio National would eventually report the Adelaide widow as one of ASIO’s most effective penetrative agents, known as ‘Sparrow’.
The Impeccable Housewife
The term ‘housewife’ was used of a woman who managed her household affairs. But did you know it also referred to a small case for needles, thread, and other small sewing items? Anne played the role of an impeccable housewife in the 1950s, keeping all areas of her life in immaculate order, and separate from each other.
She had a deep Christian faith, loved cooking and community gatherings. Anne was known for being hard-working, talented, and dedicated. Anne believed in the British Empire and world peace. This was strengthened after her husband, Roy, died prematurely from the gas poisoning during the World War I. Anne was also firmly anti-communist.
Red Under the Bed
With the end of World War II fear of communism in Australia reached obsessive levels with the scaremongering of the Cold War. USSR was the bogeyman. Communists, or ‘reds’, lurked everywhere, so Australian citizens needed to be vigilant, as did many Western nations.
In the 1950s Australians had extra cause for concern. The country’s proximity to Asia created fear of the domino effect where Asian countries would fall to communism, eventually reaching and taking over Australia.
Anne’s Road to Stardom
Anne was a member of South Australia’s Liberal Party from 1936. In 1950, Anne joined the Women’s Peace Council. However, she was shocked to find the Council was involved in what she regarded as being communist propaganda and infiltration.
Being a woman of action, Anne complained to the chief secretary of the South Australia Liberal Government, Lyell McEwin. He took Anne to see Rod Allanson, who was the agent runner for ASIO’s Adelaide office. They found Anne’s complaints and information intriguing and saw the potential to use her to uncover more information about communist activity in Australia.
Recruited into a Double Life
In June 1950 this suburban woman was recruited as an ASIO agent. Her brief was to penetrate the South Australian Peace Council and the Communist Party Association, CPA. She took to spying like a duck takes to water. Without giving it a second thought she had found her true vocation.
Anne joined as many communist organisations as she could, including the New Theatre, the Eureka Youth League and the Union of Australian Women. She also did volunteer work as a typist for Elliott Johnston, the secretary of the South Australian Peace Council and a member of the CPA. By 1951 Anne was invited to join the CPA, while all the time secretly reporting back to ASIO.
Anne had ‘her finger in every pie’. She sewed costumes for the New Theatre and typed notes. She made marmalade for fundraising fetes and attended meetings. Anne Neill was an indispensable comrade.
She spent her days helping at all the communist organisations, but her nights were spent writing hundreds of reports about their activities. Every piece of information she gathered was diligently passed on to her handler.
For her efforts, ASIO paid Anne five pounds 10 shillings a week and two pounds for expenses. A typists average weekly wage in the 1950s was five pounds four shillings.
Though her health suffered, Anne was dedicated to her work. ASIO tried to get her to take a break but she refused, “Communists don’t take breaks.”
Beryl Mille, a communist of 70 years recollected Anne as “I suppose if you were so inclined, you would have found Anne Neill to be very motherly and soft-spoken. She never raised her voice and many held her in high regard.” Mille was 94-years old when she made this statement. Women still had a lot of limitations, even in the 1950s but even diehard communists had some grudging respect for this Adelaide housewife.
In 1952, Anne was selected as a delegate of the Communist Party to attend the Third World Peace Congress in Vienna, followed by a trip to Moscow. This was a huge bonus for ASIO. Anne was the first of their secret agents to visit behind the Iron Curtain, ‘enemy territory’. Anne concealed ASIO paying her travel expenses, by claiming she had an insurance payout.
Anne attended the Soviet National Day celebrations at the embassy in Canberra in 1953. She had a private meeting with the KGB spy, Vladimir Petrov. He defected only months later to Australia.
This aroused suspicion among the senior members of the CPA. Anne was taken behind closed doors and interrogated for many hours.
She held her nerve and convinced the CPA of her unflinching loyalty. Anne emerged from what must have been an extremely stressful situation unscathed and with her cover still intact.
More Double Life
Until 1958, Anne Neill continued her double life, spying on the communists. A mother of a committee member grew suspicious that Anne was working undercover. However, the person to whom this mother confided was also an ASIO agent.
ASIO decided it was time for Anne to call it quits in the spying game. She told the various communist organisations she was leaving because she needed to devote more time to her religious beliefs.
In 1962, Anne went public as an ASIO agent. She wrote a series of articles for the Sunday Mail and the Herald about her life as a secret service housewife’. Anne wanted the world to know she had spent years in the Communist Party, in order to help protect Australia from the red menace.
The then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, publicly praised Anne’s work saying she had performed a ‘good service’ for Australia. Anne had alerted ASIO and the public about innocent-looking communist ‘front’ organisations.
Always a Spy
ln her later years, Anne fell into the far-right world of anti-Semitic conspiracies. It seems once a spy, always a spy.
Some said she was obsessed, a busy-body and her later interested revealed a bigoted woman. There are always critics, no matter what you do, as many believe Anne became a spy out of idealism. It certainly wasn’t for the money, ambition, or the thrill of adventure.
Anne was no James Bond. Professor Derry says, “Anne’s self-sacrifice, commitment and dedication knew almost no bounds.” Was it a moral issue for Anne Neill? She passed away in 1986.
Who is Spying?
You have to wonder just who the spies are today and what is their motivation. Philip K. Dick is reported as saying, “There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me’.” Or it’s our television if you go along with ‘persecutory delusions’ or scopophilia?
All you have to do is check the Internet and you get to know everything about anyone, be it true or false. There is no place to hide.
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