The bravery of a Highbridge man who saved thousands of Jews from the Nazi gas chambers has been recognised at Downing Street.

A new award – British Hero of the Holocaust – was presented in recognition of the courage of Major Frank Foley, the spy who risked his life to save others.

A silver medallion inscribed with the words “In The Service Of Humanity” was presented to his niece, Patricia Dunstan, who lives in Cornwall. Major Foley, who was born in Highbridge, was one of 27 people honoured in a ceremony at No 10 yesterday, most of them posthumously.

The award was announced last year when Gordon Brown visited Auschwitz, and is the first state recognition for those who saved the lives of Jews and other persecuted groups during the Holocaust.

The Prime Minister said: “They were shining beacons of hope in the midst of terrible evil because they were prepared to take a stand against prejudice, hatred and intolerance.”

Major Foley was born in Highbridge in 1884 and was a spy in Berlin in the 1930s, using the cover of head of the passport division of the British Embassy. He risked his life by helping persecuted Jews leave Nazi Germany, saving thousands from certain death.

He entered concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen and gave visas to the authorities so Jews could be free to travel.

He also hid Jews in his home and helped get them false papers, forged passports and visas, breaking British law, and risking his life because as a spy he would have no diplomatic immunity. It is thought he saved 10,000 people who went to countries under British rule.

He was awarded a CMG (Order of St Michael and St George) and in 2005 volunteers from Highbridge raised money for a statue commissioned from sculptor Jonathan Sells.

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Commemorative statue for Frank Foley unveiled in Higbridge