Jessie Jordan

The story of Jessie Jordan has been told many times, in books and newspaper articles, but few know of her Perth connections and her complicated life. What was the reason for doing what she did by turning traitor against the country of her birth? Perhaps the story of her life may put some light on her betrayal of her own people.

Jessie had a hard life; she was unlucky in love and perhaps this made her into a toughened-by-life survivor. Jessie’s father was William Ferguson who abandoned her and Jessie’s mother when he left for Canada. Jessie’ mother was Elizabeth Wallace, a domestic servant from the village of Calder near Coatbridge. Jessie’s birth certificate states that she was born illegitimate on 23 December 1887 at 1.50am in a Maternity Hospital in Glasgow and was domiciled at Dixon’s Rows, Calder. Dixon’s Rows (or Raws) were small miner’s houses consisting of 8 streets totalling 340 houses. Construction of the houses was stated in 1872 and they were privately owned by a local businessman, who was connected to the owners of the mining collieries in Blantyre, the Dixon family.

These houses were essentially hovels, not really fit for a family to live in. They were built of brick and had wooden shutters to close over the windows at night. Some houses may have had earthen floors, but most it is thought had a floor of flagstones. Cooking was done over an open fire, there was no sink or plumbing of any kind and some of the houses only had one room. Water was supplied from September of 1984, but only from a shared standpipe outside.

Following a miner’s strike in April and May of 1874, Dixon’s evicted its tenants from Dixon Rows and about 500 people ended up looking for shelter. Worse was to come in 1877 when the Blantyre Mining Disaster at Dixon’s Collieries took the lives of over 200 men and boys. The community was effectively wiped out and the colliery owners Dixon’s, again famously evicted all the widows and families from the houses as they were all tied to the deceased employees.

Jessie was taken straight from the maternity hospital to live with her grandmother. Jessie’s own account states that she was an unwanted child but comfortable and happy with her granny.

Jessie’s life must have improved somewhat you would think when her mother married John Haddow from Lanark. John Haddow was a widower with two sons. John Haddow was 30 years senior to Jessie’s mother and had been married twice before. The family moved through to Perth, Jessie who was by that time about four or five years old. They stayed at 23 Friar Street in the Craigie district of Perth. By the time of the 1901 census, the family had grown, four sons and two daughters were listed. John Haddow was recorded as a Railway Engine Driver, and an elder son was shown employed as a Vanman.

Jessie’s mother, according to Jessie, scared of John Haddow. Jessie recalled that her life was by now “sheer hell on earth”, one of much unhappiness and that she was the recipient of many thrashings. She rarely went to school as her mother always had other things for her to do. She was only good at sewing and knitting; a teacher taught her dressmaking. She was proud that her work was shown at the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901. Travelling incognito, the exhibition was visited by the King of Siam and Empress Eugenia, the wife of Napoleon III (granddaughter of William Kilpatrick of Malaga and Conheath. The Kilpatrick’s of Dumfriesshire had settled in Spain as merchants in the 1730’s. William was the U.S. Consul in Malaga (1800 – 1817).

Jessie attended The Western District School just along the street from where she lived. The Western District later became Craigie Primary School. It my guess that Jessie left school at 14 or 15. She decided she had had enough of her home life and left home. Her first position was as a house maid in a big house at the top of Kinnoull Hill

After about a year Jessie left this position and went to live with her grandmother in Motherwell. She grew tired of living with her relatives and wanted to move on, an opportunity arose to work for a Russian family who had a big house on the shores of the Gare Loch. Next, she was off to the Isle of Man to work the holiday season and then she was offered help in finding a job in Manchester by an elderly man staying at the hotel where she worked. Reality next dawned on the young, inexperienced, and naive Jessie of what scheming men really wanted and she decided her only option was to return to domestic service. She did have one more go at having a go as a dressmaker but another man that was staying at her digs offered her friendship but wanted her to go on the streets to make money for him. She cleared out and found a job as a maid in the Queen’s Hotel in Manchester.

It was a good job but after a time her bad luck caught up with her. She fell down some stairs onto her head and sustained concussion. Three months were spent in hospital where she could not remember anything, she had lost her memory. On discharge from hospital, the doctors ordered her to take a holiday which she paid for with her compensation money. Jessie decided to go to Edinburgh and seeing that dressmaking was not for her she paid for a course of private lessons in hairdressing from a school in Princess Street. When this finished, she went to work for an Edinburgh lady as a maid.

After a few months had passed, Jessie decided to go and visit her mother. At this time, she thought her mother was now living in Falkirk with her husband, but they had been transferred to Dundee. In Dundee, Jessie found the love of her life. One day as she was going for something to eat at the Royal Hotel in Union Street, she met a young man coming down the stairs, crying. The young man was Frederick Jordan who was working as a waiter at the hotel and had just been informed that his brother had died in an accident in England.

Frederick knew little English, but Jessie found out that he wanted to go to the station. Jessie offered to take him there and, on the way, he asked for her name and address in order that he could write to her, to thank her for her kindness. Much to Jessie’s surprise and delight she received a letter from him, just as he had promised. Jessie had returned to her job as a maid in Edinburgh. This was the start of a correspondence that lasted six months until the day Frederick intimated that he was coming to see her.

Frederick’s parents, when he got back to Germany were against him returning to Britain. They had already lost one son and did not want another. Within a month or two he won them over and he could send for Jessie to come and stay with them in Hanover for a holiday. That holiday ended up lasting a year, by which time Jessie spoke German like a native.

Jessie met English ladies there and went out a lot. One English lady she met, lived permanently in Germany, was rich and had many influential friends. Jessie was to be surprised much later when the first World War broke out, that she was thought to be a British spy. Frederick had gone to work in France and Italy and after about a year, Jessie decided she would like another change. This lady, the supposed spy found her a position as a companion to a young lady who was being sent to East Africa. The young lady was pregnant and unmarried, it was to avoid a scandal.

After a year, Jessie returned to Germany, but Frederick was still away. She was recommended to a position with an American lady whose husband, a major in the German Army was away with the army. They transferred to Metz, but the place, Jessie described, was cold and dirty and it made her ill. Jessie continued to work, first taking a year off to recover from an illness. Then she took up another position as a companion to a lady in Hanover. She stayed with them a year and then had a holiday with them in Paris and Rouen.

During all this time Jessie had been in constant correspondence with Frederick. Jessie thought it was time to announce their engagement and this thought had occurred to his parents as well. Frederick was earning big money, so much it was thought he could retire in about ten years.

Jessie could have continued working, she was in fact asked to return to East Africa, but Frederick persuaded her not to go. They were married in Hamburg on 20 August 1912. A civil marriage first and then a religious ceremony in the Michaelis Church, the biggest in Hamburg at the time. They took up house in Hamburg and planned beautiful things for their life together – houses, cars, dresses, and travel.

A daughter was born, Marga on 18 May 1914. Her full name was Margaretta Frieda Wilhelmina, the last name being given as a token of loyalty to Kaiser Wilhelm, the last German Emperor. Three months later war broke out and Frederick was called up for military duty in one of their infantry regiments on 4 August 1914. Jessie shut up her house in Hamburg and with Marga moved in with Fredericks parents in Hannover.

Fredericks visits whilst on leave were joyous times for Jessie, but a double blow was about to strike. The war ended and Jessie got word that Frederick was returning home. Then two days later a second telegram arrived saying at what time he was coming. The next morning, another telegram came to say he was ill, and another the same night another to say that he was dead. The blow was so terrific that she recalled that she became lame, and that lasted for 6 months. When Frederick died is not known, there is a report that he succumbed to pneumonia after all the years in the trenches.

Jessie and her daughter returned to their home in Hamburg and three months later, Fredericks personal belongings arrived from the army. Then she recalled in her own words, the worst blow of her life fell. In the personal belongings were love letters to another woman that Frederick had been writing to, that he had met during training. This was a terrible blow, in secret she said that she cried and cried until she nearly made herself ill again.

The English lady, Jessie had a past friendship with, helped by giving her introductions to people and Jessie was soon in business visiting her clients giving beauty treatments. From then until 1919 Jessie had a lucrative business and was doing quite well, however it was a trying time for her socially and it was getting worse. She was British born and had become a German national by marriage, those who knew this seemed to go out of their way to be nasty to her. She was easily spotted as a foreigner as her speaking of German was not that of a natural born speaker. At a doctor’s clinic she was jostled away from getting her child attended to. Her landlord wanted her out simply because she was British. He was persistent, so she took him to court to plead her case. Someone in the court shouted “Don’t believe her! She’s British and the British don’t tell the truth.” They were predisposed against all Britons, and they even suspected that she might be a British spy.

During the war, her faithless husband had met a Scotsman who forwarded a letter to Jessie’s mother, who was now back living in Perth, saying that she was well. Jessie had not communicated with her mother in all the time she was in Germany. Jessie’s mother wrote to Jessie in 1919 and asked her to return to her homeland. With no real plans for her future, she gave up her business and set sail with Marga for Leith.

Jessie thought that she might now stay in Scotland for good. It was not to be, her mother, husband and grandmother were all staying in Perth, but something was wrong. Her mother who she had not seen for twelve years left the house the minute Jessie arrived and did not come back for hours. She had a lover; a man Jessie had known from when she stayed in Perth before. When visiting, Jessie let slip something unintentionally. She did not know what she had said wrong, but it caused a terrible row.

Whilst staying in Perth, Jessie received a telegram from her mother-in-law saying that Herr Jordan, who she was very fond of, had died. Another awful blow as she said, that played havoc with her life. Jessie burst out crying which her mother, who was there at the time had never seen her do.

Something Jessie hated about her mother was the way that she was always watching her, just like she was back in Germany where they though she was a spy. Jessie stayed in Perth all the time she was there, her mother knew every move she made, everyone she visited and everything she did. Jessie could stand it no longer and overturned her decision to make Scotland her permanent home. At least she got love and attention from Frau Jordan, if from few others.

But how to get back, “that was the rub” she said. Jessie had no money and could not think of a way and then she remembered the present of a brooch from her husband. So, she parted with the brooch and used the money to book passage back to Germany for herself and Marga. Before leaving Jessie wrote to Frau Jordan telling her of her intention and to meet her at the docks in Hamburg. They lived together in Hamburg for the next six months. Shortly after returning she learned that her mother and the man who was her lover, had left Perth for Canada.

In 1920 Jessie married Baur Baumgarten, a wealthy Jewish merchant. It did not work out; he had an eye for other women. Jessie eventually divorced him in 1937 additionally caused by other factors coming into play. A significant number of her customers at her hairdressing and massage parlour in Germany were Jewish. The growth of Nazi-driven antisemitism in 1930’s Germany contributed to a decline in Jessie’s fortunes. Jessie was asked by the Nazi regime to prove that she and her daughter were ‘Aryan’ descent. The only way she had of proving that was by returning to Scotland and obtaining the necessary birth certificates and documents.

Just before leaving Hamburg, in February 1937, Jessie was approached by the German Abwehr secret police and invited to verify some information for them. Jessie later said they she bore no ill-will to Britain or had become pro-German. She just wanted to oblige German friends and because it would afford some excitement.

Arriving back in Perth, Jessie helped her stepbrother William who had recently lost his wife. William stayed at 16 Breadalbane Terrace, Friarton and it was from her that Jessie would start her new career as a spy.

Jessie’s first espionage mission was to make drawings of the Royal Armament Depot at Rosyth dockyard. Taking along her nephew with her, they took the train from Perth to Dunfermline and then took a bus to the village of Charlestown, which overlooks the dockyard. Finding a suitable spot, Jessie started drawing. But Jessie’s drawing skills were not very good, her handlers found that her drawings were of little use.

Jessie and her nephew next travelled down to North Wales where she left him in the care of an aunt, whilst she went off on another spying mission. This time with a camera she had purchased, she travelled down to Southampton and took pictures of the docks. On the way back to Wales she managed to wander about unchallenged at Aldershot Barracks taking more pictures.

Living in Perth was she felt, was too far away from the coast where most of her spying activities would take place. She needed to be closer to the places she would report on, so she bought a hairdressing shop at 1 Kinloch Street in Dundee. The shop was located near the top of the Hilltown and from here she would have a panoramic view of the comings and goings at the mouth of the River Tay and the docks in Dundee.

Once settled, Jessie resumed her espionage activities on the pretext of taking her nieces and nephews on seaside excursions, she visited all the coastal towns from Montrose down to Berwick, recording all the defence installations.

The German Abwehr decided that she would have another role, that of intermediary for correspondence between their agents in the US and Germany. The British Secret Service had by now been suspicious and were monitoring her mail. One letter she received that was intercepted was about a US Spy Ring, MI5 forwarded the information to the FBI. As a result, a plot to steal a defence map of the US East coast was averted and many German spies were arrested. Hollywood made a movie about this event in 1939 staring Edward G. Robinson, the Confessions of a Nazi Spy. The opening scene is of a Scottish town with the postie delivering mail to a Mrs McLaughlin (aka Jessie Jordan) in Cathcart Road, Argyll, Scotland.

Jessie was eventually arrested and spent time awaiting trial in Perth Prison and Edinburgh’s Saughton Prison. Jessie was found guilty of espionage, sentenced to four years penal servitude. One last tragedy for Jessie occurred whilst in prison, this was the loss of her daughter, still in Germany, in 1938, perhaps it is thought in a German hospital or perhaps while imprisoned there.

Jessie’s good behaviour led her to being released early in 1941. Her freedom would not last long, she was immediately arrested and interned as an enemy alien.

Jessie remained interned for the rest of the war before returning to Germany when the war ended. Jessie died in Hamburg in 1954.

Research by Ken Bruce


The Jessie Jordan Perth connection started when I first noticed an envelope with a Breadalbane Terrace address in The National Archives, Kew documents that were released for public viewing on 26 August 2011. The Kew archive description was – Mrs Jessie JORDAN, alias WALLACE: German. Based in Perth, she acted as a recipient of intelligence for forwarding to the Abwehr. Correspondence with US Attaché arising from the American side of the case

So, two things got my attention, a Perth address on an envelope and why did they say she was based in Perth, and why on earth would she spy for the Germans. I decided to look at her earlier life to see where she came from and who were here parents.

Jessie was notorious at the time, and she was caught before WWII commenced. Was she foolish or manipulated, given that quite several British citizens were sympathetic to the German cause, she was perhaps not alone in being guilty? Jessie had a hard life, was unlucky in love, perhaps she was a toughened-by-life-survivor. Perhaps she felt unloved and unwanted, sought attention and found fulfilment by spying for the Nazi’s in the lead up to WW2.

Research by Ken Bruce

Postie delivering mail to a Mrs McLaughlin (aka Jessie Jordan, Confessions of a Nazi Spy
Breadalbane Terrace