Felix Cowgill: A Life in Letters
Rachel is currently involved in a project which involves 80 years of letters left behind by her husband’s grandfather, Felix Cowgill.
Since Felix’s death, over 1000 of his letters have lain dormant in several boxes and it was the discovery of a video by the BBC in the East German Stasi (Secret Police) archives last year that was the catalyst for Rachel to open up these boxes. In the video, double agent Kim Philby, the traitor who defected to Russia in the 1960s, was giving a lecture to the East German Stasi on how he had managed to infiltate MI6 undetected for so long. Philby also revealed to the Stasi how he had been ordered by the KGB to ‘get rid of’ his boss, Felix Cowgill. Thus began my journey of discovery into the intriguing life of Felix Cowgill.
It soon became clear that the amount of input and resources required to make any sense of the letters was overwhelming – not only the sheer volume but also the complexity in the historical and social interpretation. This needed to be in place before, as a writer and audio producer, Rachel could interpret them creatively and produce work of any worth.
Working with the University of Sunderland including Steve Watts, the Head of Culture, the History department and Library Services, Rachel is now part of a working party set up with the aim of bringing the letters into the University’s Special Collections. History lecturer Dr Andre Keil considers the letters to be of ‘national significance’ and it will be the role of the working party to seek funding and ensure that the letters can be preserved, catalogued, digitised and researched.
During Summer 2017, Rachel was fortunate to have an internee, Katrina Perkins, attached to her creative business. Katrina, a history student at The University of Sunderland had the experience of handling the primary sources of The Cowgill Letters. She was also intrumental in continuing the unpacking, scanning and cataloguing of the letters started by Rachel and has produced an overview for the working party.
Through reviewing a selection of the letters so far, they have gleaned an insight into a man whose life reflects the British Empire in the 20th Century – the son of a poor clergyman who attended boarding school, serving in The Indian Police and then Indian Intelligence, Head of MI6 counterespionage section during WW2, part of the British Liberation Army at the end of WW2 then liaison officer during the British Army occupation of Germany 1940s to 1960s. Even retirement did not bring rest for Felix as, after Kim Philby’s defection and publication of defamatory newspaper articles, came threats of litigation.
Rachel is currently looking forward to developing The Cowgill Letters project with the University of Sunderland. Together they will look at ways to unlock their content, place the life of Felix Cowgill in social and historical context, provide research opportunities for students and bring any findings into the public domain in an engaging and creative way.
As part of The Sunderland Literature Festival, Rachel Cochrane will be giving a talk on the process, progress and discoveries made so far on The Cowgill Letters project. All welcome.
The Cowgill Letters talk
Date: Tuesday 24th October 2017
Time: 10.30 – 11.30am
Venue: City Library @ The Museum and Winter Gardens, Burdon Road, Sunderland SR1 1SE (5 mins walk from Sunderland Railway Station)
Booking: No booking required
Cost: Suggested donation £2
To find out about all the events in The Sunderland Literature Festival CLICK HERE to download the brochure.
(See page 11 for further info on The Cowgill Letters talk)