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Wartime spy’s widow Noreen Orange ends life with cyanide saved for 70 years

Inquest told 85-year-old did not want to be a burden to anyone

The 85-year-old widow of a Second World War British secret agent killed herself with cyanide poison because her ill health meant she “did not want to be a burden to anyone”, an inquest heard.

Noreen Orange died after drinking the poison at the seaside home she shared for 60 years with her late husband John, who had used the chemical both in his clock-making business and as an amateur photographer.

She had left a suicide note beside a small bottle containing the brown liquid poison - often used by the Nazis as a genocidal agent – describing her suffering from skin cancer and apologising for her actions. The poison, possibly dating to the 1940s, had been stored at the couple’s home in Budleigh Salterton, east Devon.

The inquest in Exeter heard that Mr Orange was unable to fulfil his dreams of becoming a doctor as his medicine studies at the University of Cambridge were interrupted when war broke out in September 1939. He joined the army and went to Sandhurst, the elite military college in Surrey, spoke fluent German and worked on “the intelligence side” for Allied forces. Christies and Sotheby’s later used Mr Orange’s clock-making expertise to carry out repairs.

Witnesses said Mr Orange was a “very, very private person” who never discussed his wartime exploits as an intelligence officer, which included being show twice in the arm and calf. The inquest heard how the “possessive” former spy would often wait at the gate of their home constantly looking at his watch if his wife went out alone.

Family and friends were able to describe some details of his life with some mistakenly telling the inquest Mr Orange had spied for the Russians. Mr Orange had revealed to neighbours that he was in the Army in the war and had been in Austria where he spent six months hiding from the Germans in a loft in Vienna, according to statements read by the coroner. He died in 2008, aged 92.

His niece, Sarah Richards, discovered the body when she and her husband called round at the house last February. She said after the hearing on Wednesday: “John was a very, very private person. He did not talk about what he got up to. I am sure he was not a spy for the Russians because he was definitely a patriot. He was involved in British intelligence. I didn’t become aware he was involved in that level until I found some old military maps when we were clearing out the house.”

Mrs Noreen suffered a number of family bereavements following her husband’s death and she started to suffer ill health. The coroner was told she was an intelligent woman who had carefully organised her suicide but was sorry for the distress it would cause.

The emergency crews who were called to the house last February needed to wear special chemical suits and breathing gear because of the risk from the poisonous fumes from the deadly cyanide. It was considered too dangerous to perform a post-mortem and her house was locked-down for three weeks.

The inquest heard Mrs Orange, who did not have children and worked as a journalist, was suffering with back pain and sciatica in the days before she killed herself but she had told friends that she would not see another Spring.

Mrs Richards told the inquest that if her aunt was terminally ill she would take her own life. She said: “She was a very intelligent lady who would think about things very carefully and her decision would not have been taken lightly. She had no enemies. But she would not have wanted to be a burden and had reached the point of no return.”

Chris Sampson, a friend for more than four decades, said Mrs Orange was a “proud and independent” woman who was in a lot of pain and who told him ‘thank you for everything you have done for me’ hours before she swallowed the poison.

Detective Constable Peter Chalmers said: “It soon became apparent that the property and its contents were contaminated and extremely hazardous to those in contact.”

He said specially trained firefighters wore chemical suits to recover her body. The Greater Devon coroner Dr Elizabeth Earland said she was satisfied that Mrs Orange had died from cyanide poisoning after 3pm on 1 February last year. She also warned of the dangers facing 999 crews to respond to such situations where cyanide had been used in such a public domain.

She said: “John was absolutely devoted to Noreen and he was possessive because he found it difficult to socialise. He taught her German and they enjoyed socialising together.”

A suicide verdict was recorded on Mrs Orange, who was born in India and studied at Bristol University before meeting her future husband when they both worked at a newspaper.