AS the son of Southampton’s sixth female mayor, John Stonehouse grew up with an interest in politics.

But there were no signs of the extraordinary life he would lead during those early days.

Stonehouse joined the Labour Party as a Taunton’s schoolboy, when he was also a member of a youth group called Citizens of Tomorrow.

It was run by Jack Candy, a future Southampton mayor.

“John was a pleasant, popular chap and we enjoyed his company,” recalls Jack, 88, who lives in Bassett.

“We met in Cranbury Terrace and would go on hikes and interview people like the Southampton MP William Craven-Ellis.”

Stonehouse went on to study at the London School of Economics before spending three years as a manager of African co-operative societies in Uganda during the 1950s.

But becoming Prime Minister was his ultimate ambition. By the age of 32, he was MP for Walsall, and he was Secretary to Minister of Aviation before he was 40.

It was during this time, the 1960s, that the Cambridge historian Professor Christopher Andrew claims Stonehouse worked as an agent for the Czech StB intelligence agency.

He would certainly have had access to sensitive information.

By 1967 he was Minister of Technology before being switched to the “poisoned chalice” position of Postmaster General.

The fact he was also made a Privy Councillor at this time suggests MI5 were not suspicious.

But in 1969, the first allegations that Stonehouse was a Czech agent emerged for the first time.

They were successfully defended, but when Harold Wilson’s Labour lost the 1970 general election, Stonehouse found there was no place for him in the Shadow Cabinet.

This could have been for any number of reasons.

Was it simply because he was unpopular with his former Cabinet colleagues? Did Wilson just believe he was not up to the job? Or did MI5 finally have evidence that he was a spy?

Stonehouse’s fellow Labour MP Will Owen is also named as an agent for the Czech StB, and Professor Andrew even reveals that MI5 held a file on Wilson himself.

Conspiracy theories abound as it was at this time that Stonehouse’s spectacular fall began.

“I never thought he [Stonehouse] was a spy, but I always thought he was a crook,” Wilson once said.

Sure enough, Stonehouse’s hitherto successful life began to unravel with a succession of failed business ventures during the early 1970s.

Investigations by the Department of Trade and Industry prompted his dramatic disappearance.

A literary man (he wrote three novels and an autobiography, Diary of an Idealist), Stonehouse’s next act was inspired by the film Day of the Jackal.

He obtained two fake passports, left his clothes on a Miami beach and fled to Australia via Hawaii, leaving his wife in shock and three children believing their dad was dead.

His mistress and former secretary Sheila Buckley was in on the secret, but rarely visited him for fear of giving him away.

Stonehouse did that himself. His financial transactions soon attracted the suspicions of the Melbourne police, who believed the distinguished Englishman was Lord Lucan.

He was arrested on Christmas Eve 1974 and after the longest fraud trial in British history he was sentenced to seven years and divorced by his wife of 26 years.

Three heart attacks later, he was released midway through his jail term before marrying Sheila Buckley.

They had a son and lived in relative anonymity in West Totton before he died of a fourth attack at Southampton General Hospital in 1988, aged 62.

For those who knew Stonehouse as a Southampton schoolboy, his life of espionage is hard to comprehend.

“We only knew him as a youngster, but he was not that sort of person,” says an incredulous Jack Candy.