In late October 1979, an ambulance was called to the Kensington home of General Sir Richard Terry, then deputy Chief of Staff of the British Army. General Terry was pronounced dead on the scene from cyanide poisoning, with a short note in his own hand, which was verified by his wife, Lady Susan.
Because of his military rank, and the presence of poison, chief inspector Charles Hayes of the Metropolitan Police was assigned to the case to ensure it was “properly” (read discreetly) handled.
An inspection by Hays of General Terry’s medical history revealed that he had in fact recently been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour which was deemed inoperable, and his life expectancy was measured in a few short and painful months. Further inspection of the records by other specialists at Hays request confirmed this diagnosis.
Hays concluded that there were sufficient grounds for concluding that the general had indeed taken his own life.
However, one odd feature did attract Hays’s attention. On a table near General Terry’s body was an open metal box, roughly the same size and shape as a supermarket-sold box of tea bags. Within the box were moulded spaces for four tablets, of which three remained.
Hays had the box and its contents recorded and removed from the scene for analysis.
The following morning, it was revealed that the box was missing.
However, a young technician, curiosity piqued by the box, had stayed back late that evening to analyse the box and its contents. The tablets were revealed to be cyanide capsules, although flavoured to taste like chocolate, and with an added sedative to ensure a swift and painless death.
On X-raying the box, he also determined that it also contained a magnetic locking mechanism, a radio transmitter, and a vial of liquid, not unlike a dye pack carried in security carrier cases, which would trigger and destroy the contents of the box if opened incorrectly. The box also had a serial number stamped into its outer casing.
An inquiry by Hays to the Ministry of Defence proved fruitless, the serial number and box meaning nothing to his MOD liaison.
With the box missing, and there being no other evidence to suggest malign intent, Hays could have ruled the case closed.
Hays was, however, a career policeman, and decided to attempt an old police trick when the trail cools. He attempted to bring the trail to him. He informed his superior officer and the MOD liaison that he intended to publish, anonymously and without reference to General Terry, the notes and X-rays of the box in Popular Electronics magazine, to see if he could perhaps identify the source or purpose of the box.
Within an hour, Hays was invited for tea with the deputy head of the Security Service. He was picked up from New Scotland Yard, and driven to a location he believed to be outside London, a trip during which he was politely but firmly requested to wear a blindfold.
When the blindfold was removed, he found himself inside a warehouse, which Hays’s own notes have described as “probably military” where he was introduced to a man who identified himself as deputy head of MI5. On a table nearby was the box, or at least an exact facsimile of it.
The MI5 man offered Hays tea and a seat, and explained that after hearing of his plan to publish the X-rays of the box, which he applauded as a masterly “beating of game out of the bushes” he consulted his superiors in the police and had concluded that Hays was “sound”, and could be trusted. Not corrupt, he stressed, but able to see why discretion would be required, especially where no crime had been committed.
He gestured at the vast warehouse, and pointed out that there were actually millions of boxes like this in the warehouse, ready for distribution to every home in the country.
He then presented Hays with a top secret Cabinet Office file which he offered to let the policeman read, or he could summarise it for him?
Hays took the latter offer, while he skimmed the file. The Chief Scientific Advisor to the government, the MI5 man said, had concluded that in the event of a nuclear war, half the population of the United Kingdom would perish instantly. The other half would find themselves living in a shattered nation with no clean water, public services, electricity or food, with disease rampant and no recovery possible. Industrial and agricultural infrastructure, which provides the means for society to function would be irreparable. The CSA concluded that 95% of the survivors would die an agonising radiation-poisoned death in the three years after nuclear exchange, in horrific circumstances.
The former government concluded that no compassionate government could expect its people to suffer like that, and so the boxes were devised. Each home would be issued with one or more depending on family size. They were designed to prevent tampering for obvious reasons, but would all open on receipt of a specific signal transmitted at the same time of the emergency broadcast that Soviet missiles were incoming. It would then be up to families to decide what to do with them in the aftermath, but it offered a clean and painless escape from the horrors of a post-nuclear attack wasteland.
Hays wrote later about how shocked he had been at what he’d been told, but understood why discretion was needed. The new government, the MI5 man had said, had decided to suspend the plan pending further study. Mrs Thatcher apparently thinks it is defeatist, the MI5 man said with a roll of his eyes.
General Terry would have had access to the frequency required to open the box, and, the MI5 man suggested, it was a tidier way to go than a bottle of whiskey and his service sidearm.
Hays was returned to London, where he marked the file closed, no further action.
Final note: Charles Hays retired from the Metropolitan Police in 1990, and passed away in 1994, this event being apparently recorded in private notes found by his son.