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Goronwy Rees (1909-1979)

Goronwy Rees, [n.d.]
Image courtesy of Media Wales

Journalist, writer and principal of Aberystwyth University


Famous for: His links with Soviet Union spies and for resigning from his post as Principal of Aberystwyth University following a scandal


Greatest Achievement: Writing articles for The People about Guy Burgess, a Soviet Union spy


Goronwy Rees was born on 29 November 1909 at Aberystwyth, the youngest son of Reverend Richard Jenkyn Rees and his wife Apphla Mary James.  He was educated at Cardiff High School for Boys, and in 1927, won three scholarships to New College Oxford, where he read History.  In 1931 he became a Fellow of All Saints’ College.


After leaving University he started writing for the Manchester Guardian and in 1936, was appointed assistant editor of The Spectator.  As part of his work he travelled to countries such as Germany, Russia, Spain and Czechoslovakia.


He became a radical thinker and found it difficult to believe that Hitler could deceive so many people.  Because of the War and because Russia had forged an agreement with Germany, he turned his back on communism, and on 20 April 1939, joined the Royal Artillery, later being promoted to Second Lieutenant in the Welsh Fusiliers.


Following his term in the army, he returned to work for The Spectator.  He then had a career change, working as an administrator for the Pontifax metal company.  Some believe that is was during this time that Rees started working for MI6.


In May 1953 he returned to the field of education, becoming the Principal of Aberystwyth University.  Whilst there, details emerged about his life in Oxford and it became apparent that a friendship had developed between Rees and a group at Cambridge, including Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.


In March 1956 a series of spiteful exposé articles were published in The People.  The articles were anonymous but the author described himself as a - Most intimate friend, a man in a high academic position”.  In five weekly articles, Guy Burgess was described as a corrupt man, a spy, a blackmailer, a homosexual and a drunk. Then on 29 March 1956, The Daily Telegraph revealed that Goronwy Rees was the author, and things went from bad to worse for him.


Aberystwyth University held an enquiry into the matter in 1956-57 under Lord Willink.  The students’ paper declared its support for the Principal and Aberystwyth students voted on 20 June 1956, stating - “that the student body...would view with extreme concern and alarm any action that would result in the dismissal or resignation of the Principal”.  But, despite the students’ support, there was opposition amongst University staff.  They believed that the articles were evidence that he was unworthy of his post.


But before the enquiry had concluded, Rees resigned.  His academic career came to an end, and many people believed that he had done the unforgivable by betraying a friend.  When the Willink Report was published, it was very critical of Goronwy Rees.


The family moved from Aberystwyth, and Rees returned to his writing, completing his autobiographies, A Bundle of Sensations (1960) and A Chapter of Accidents (1972), amongst other work.  He died of cancer on 12 December 1979 at Charing Cross Hospital in London.


In September 1999, the official papers of the KGB on Russian spies during the 30s were released by Vasili Mitrokhin, former member of the KGB.  These papers contained a file on Goronwy Rees.  He was recruited by Guy Burgess at Oxford University during the late 30s and according to Mitrokhin’s archive he had two code names – Fleet and Gross.


However, it is noted in his file that he did not pass on important information to Russia and that he left the post after three years because he disagreed with the Natzi-Soviet pact.  Mitrohkin also says that Guy Burgess tried to murder Goronwy Rees because he knew too much.

Related Images


  • J. Rees, Looking for Mr Nobody-The Secret Life of Goronwy Rees (London, 1994).
  • J. Harris, ‘Anyone there?’, Planet, Volume 110 (April-May 1995), pp.14-21.
  • E.L. Ellis, ‘Sgandal Ger y Lli’, Barn, 382 (November 1994), pp.18-21.
  • Aberystwyth University and Goronwy Rees Enquiry Papers, National Library of Wales, (1956-1958).