First Met police spy operation involved sex with Vietnam activist, inquiry told

Undercover officers allegedly had sex with their surveillance targets as long ago as 1968

Undercover officer Helen Crampton posing with fellow police spy Joan Hillier (her face obscured by her codename).
Undercover officer Helen Crampton posing with fellow police spy Joan Hillier (her face obscured by her codename).

Scotland Yard’s very first operation to spy on leftwing campaigners began in the 1960s with an undercover police officer who is now accused of having an intimate relationship with an activist, a public inquiry has heard.

The undercover officer, whose real name was Helen Crampton, is now dead. It is alleged that she had a relationship in 1968 with George Cochrane, a prominent campaigner against the Vietnam war.

If the allegation proves to be true, it would mean that undercover officers had sexual relationships with activists they were tasked with monitoring for nearly half a century – with the most recent known case occurring in 2015.

Crampton, who was a member of the Metropolitan police’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS), is only the second female undercover police officer alleged to have had a sexual relationship with an activist during a covert deployment.

The other, who used the alias Lynn Watson, spied on anti-war protesters in Leeds and environmentalists between 2002 and 2008, and had a brief fling in a tent with an activist at a climate protest.

The officer known as Lynn Watson, dressed up as a clown.
The officer known as Lynn Watson, dressed and face-painted as a clown. Photograph: UCPI/PA

Watson, who worked for the National Public Order Intelligence Unit, which replaced the SDS, is perhaps best-known for dressing as a clown to take part in anti-war street theatre. A video captured Watson with a colander on her head declaring: “What this country needs is more clowns.”

More than 20 undercover officers are known to have deceived activists into sexual relationships using their fake identities. Some of the relationships lasted for years.

Nearly all of those officers were men – and many campaigners believe institutional sexism accounts for the widespread use of the tactic. At least three of the police spies even fathered children with women they met while undercover.

The allegation concerning Crampton was aired in a surprising intervention on Friday at the inquiry by Rajiv Menon, a QC representing campaigners. Menon said that if true, it would be the “very first example of an officer of the SDS engaging in some form of intimate relationship with a member of a target organisation”.

He said that he was privy to information about a possible relationship from another source which had only emerged “as a result of developments in the last few days”. The much-delayed inquiry started taking evidence from witnesses on Wednesday. Menon said he did not know whether Cochrane was still alive.

Do you have information about this story? Email [email protected], or (using a non-work phone) use Signal or WhatsApp to message +44 7584 640566.

Sir John Mitting, the retired judge leading the inquiry, permitted Menon to ask questions about the possible relationship only as “an exceptional course” as Cochrane was unlikely to be able to give evidence. He did not allow Menon to ask his other proposed questions.

The exchange highlighted a growing frustration victims of the surveillance have with Mitting, who is barring their barristers from asking witnesses questions. On Thursday, Mitting did not allow Menon to put all his questions to another undercover officer who was giving evidence, threatening to “silence him” if he persisted.

In 1968, Crampton and another SDS officer, whose real name is Joan Hillier (pdf), had spied on the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), which opposed the US-led war. They had attended meetings of the VSC in Notting Hill in west London to gather information about the protesters.

Menon asked Hillier, who was giving evidence, about Cochrane, who was described as the chairman of the VSC’s Notting Hill branch. Cochrane’s name featured in reports of the meetings written by Crampton and others.

Menon asked Hillier: “To the best of your knowledge or belief, did your former colleague Helen Crampton have some kind of intimate relationship or go out with a member of the Notting Hill Vietnam Solidarity Campaign?”

Hillier, now in her 80s, replied: “I don’t know the – of course I don’t know for certain, but I would say I doubt it very much.”

Menon then asked: “Did she never at any stage whilst you were both colleagues in the SDS indicate to you that [she had] any kind of social or intimate relationship with anybody in the Notting Hill VSC.” Hillier replied: “No, never.”

The inquiry has published a photograph of Crampton standing next to Hillier in 1968, her face concealed by her codename. Hillier’s face has been concealed by the inquiry even though she did not ask for her real name to be kept secret.

The inquiry is looking at how at least 139 undercover officers spied on more than 1,000 political groups since 1968.

On Monday it heard that in 2015, Rob Harrison, an SDS officer who infiltrated pro-Palestinian campaigners, rekindled a relationship with a woman seven years after his deployment ended, only to suddenly disappear again without explanation.