Features Walthamstow

The sordid story of Walthamstow’s spy cops

“They wrote in lots of the reports that the meetings were very tedious and boring but then why were they bothering?”
By Victoria Munro

A young Julia Poynter with spy cop
A young Julia Poynter with spy cop “Phil Cooper” (credit: UCPI)

Until recently, Julia Poynter remembered the cop who spied on her for three years in the late 1970s as “one of the loveliest people [she’d] ever met”.

In 1977, the Leytonstone 65-year-old was a young woman chasing Nazis out of the East End when she met “Vince Miller”, a new member of the Walthamstow branch of the Socialist Workers Party.

Vince was immediately popular in the small group of 20 to 30 activists, which met regularly in Ye Olde Rose & Crown pub, and was eventually elected treasurer, giving him access to members’ bank details.

None of the activists he befriended – least of all a woman identified only as “Madeleine”, who he dated for months – suspected for a second he was reporting back to a highly secretive unit within the Met Police, tasked by the Home Office with infiltrating “subversive” groups.

As revealed by the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which concluded its latest round of hearings on 20th May, he and later another undercover officer, “Phil Cooper”, spent years reporting on the meetings and personal lives of the borough’s left-wing activists.

“Vince Miller” (credit: UCPI)

Speaking to the Echo, Julia said: “I’m not ‘subversive’ at all, I’ve never been arrested. When you think how much it cost the taxpayer for them to spy on us, it’s just pathetic.

“It was a really cushy job, spying on a group of nice people. They didn’t go to spy on the [fascist group] National Front, did they?

“They wrote in lots of the reports that the meetings were very tedious and boring but then why were they bothering? They had 62 reports on me and I was not a leading light or anything, I was very shy back then.

“It needs to come out in the open and the Met needs to be exposed for what they have been doing for decades. We were in a legitimate protest movement and we were spied on.”

So far the inquiry, which began in 2015 and is not expected to finish until 2026, has heard undercover officers infiltrated at least 1,000 mainly left-wing groups since 1968, including environmental campaigners and the families of murder victims such as Stephen Lawrence.

Numerous female activists, including Madeleine, have given evidence about being seduced by spy cops, including some who lived with or even had children with these officers.

Madeleine previously told the inquiry she now views her months-long relationship with Vince, which started shortly after the break-down of her abusive marriage, as rape and that she felt “physically sick” after learning his real name.

Vince was really Vincent James Harvey, who went on to become director of the National Criminal Intelligence Service (NCIS). Last year, he admitted having one-night stands with at least four women while undercover, although Julia remembers his relationship with Madeleine as far more serious.

In her statement to the inquiry, Julia wrote: “It was clearly not a one-night stand. I recall ‘Madeleine’ telling me how disappointed she was when Vince ended the relationship after a few months.

“I knew she had grown fond of him and she seemed very sad following the break-up. It was clear to me at the time that it had been a significant relationship for her.”

Phil, meanwhile, insisted he never slept with any women while spying, although Julia finds this doubtful and hopes press attention may encourage any former partners to come forward.

This story is published by Waltham Forest Echo, Waltham Forest's free monthly newspaper and free news website. We are a not-for-profit publication, published by a small social enterprise. We have no rich backers and rely on the support of our readers. Donate or become a supporter.

She says Phil clearly “went off the rails” while infiltrating the group, given his reputation at the time for drinking and smoking weed, which he has since justified by insisting he “needed to live a ‘full alternative lifestyle’ in all aspects”.

Julia added: “[Through the inquiry, we learned that] the officers used to spend months in the back office growing out their hair and beards. They called the men ‘hairies’ and the women ‘wearies’, although some were quite happy to sleep with these women they found so tiring.

“I never had any suspicions about either of them. The only thing Madeleine picked up on was that Vince always seemed to wear a white shirt when most other people were in t-shirts.

“All of our meetings were open to the public and a few times we did have some shifty bloke come along and think he was probably [an officer]. And there’s bloody Vincent sitting in the middle of us and we didn’t have a clue.

“He was lovely, kind, considerate and easy to talk to… but really there was no such person. I felt quite upset when I found out, I thought he had been a real good friend. We even had a leaving party for him at my house when we thought he was going to America [when his mission ended] but of course he didn’t really go anywhere.”

In her witness statement to the inquiry, Julia also recalls noticing Vince could always afford full pints at the pub when most other members bought half-pints to save money and that he didn’t share their taste in music, something she recalls he was teased for at the time.

Part of Phil’s cover identity was that he worked for a company delivering marble and she remembers he once gifted her a slab of marble, which she still has in her garden today.

“I’ve got no idea why,” she told the Echo, “Maybe I had a conversation with him and let it be known I liked marble.”

Despite the anger, hurt and betrayal of discovering two of her friends from this period were lying and informing on her, Julia insists her memories of her youthful activism have not been soured.

Through her involvement in the SWP, she got involved in the Anti-Nazi League, formed in response to a fascist campaign of terror against Black and Asian communities in the East End.

Julia’s membership card from the 1970s

In 1981, she recalls, criminals poured petrol through the letterbox of an Asian family in Walthamstow’s Priory Court estate, killing Parveen Khan and her three children, including her two-year-old Imran.

Julia told the Echo: “We were doing what we believed in and we made a difference. We got the National Front off the streets and I’m really proud of that. I still really believe in all this stuff.”

“The National Front would go up and down Brick Lane smashing shop fronts. I found my diary from 1979 and nearly every night we were out doing something in East London because they were so active.

“If they had meetings we would protest outside, we would leaflet with anti-racist messaging and we used to go out painting out their slogans on walls.

“It was really scary, a lot of them were used to having a fight. I did get thumped coming back from a Rock Against Racism gig in Islington, a group surrounded us and started punching and kicking us.”

Like many involved in the Undercover Policing Inquiry, which is shaping up to be the longest ever public inquiry in the UK and will not sit again for two years, she is frustrated by how long it is taking and fears the end result will be a “whitewash”.

She also has no doubt police are still infiltrating left-wing groups to this day, particularly environmental campaigns.

She added: “Now it’s probably a lot easier, the police can just hack your phone to track you, they don’t have to move in and live with you.”

No news is bad news 

Independent news outlets like ours – reporting for the community without rich backers – are under threat of closure, turning British towns into news deserts. 

The audiences they serve know less, understand less, and can do less. 

If our coverage has helped you understand our community a little bit better, please consider supporting us with a monthly, yearly or one-off donation. 

Choose the news. Don’t lose the news.

Monthly direct debit 

Annual direct debit

£5 per month supporters get a digital copy of each month’s paper before anyone else, £10 per month supporters get a digital copy of each month’s paper before anyone else and a print copy posted to them each month.  £50 annual supporters get a digital copy of each month's paper before anyone else.

Donate now with Pay Pal

More information on supporting us monthly or annually 

More Information about donations