The Way We Were: How the founder of MI5 became a Emberton copper

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CITY historian JOHN TAYLOR takes another walk down memory lane....

IN almost a semi-state occasion, at Emberton church in March 1942 the funeral took place of Sir Vernon Kell, who, by his almost singular efforts, was responsible for the creation of the counter espionage and intelligence organisation of Britain.

Modern day 'spook' Lucas North

Modern day 'spook' Lucas North

In 1909, the year when many nocturnal sightings were made of a mysterious airship in British skies, concerns regarding German intelligence had lead to the creation of the Secret Service bureau, and although this initially comprised a military section and a naval section, within a year these had been replaced by a home department for counter espionage, the forerunner of MI5, and a foreign department for espionage, the forerunner of MI6.

Widely travelled in Europe, and competent in five languages, Vernon Kell, a 36-year-old army captain, became the first head of the military section, and – having been experienced since 1902 in German intelligence analysis at the War Office – he began his operation with just one clerk and the assistance of Special Branch, Scotland Yard.

They were now investigating suspicious Germans in Britain, and in consequence Kell began the compilation of a secret register, listing those aliens believed to be of hostile intent.

Then by chance he overheard a conversation on a train, and this enabled a German spy ring to be kept under surveillance for a number of years before the outbreak of World War One.

Thus when on the evening of August 3, 1914 he received secret notice of the intent to declare war, instructions were immediately issued for the arrest of the 22 paid German spies, and all except one, who had returned to Germany, were duly netted.

In fact – although this was not realised at the time – the entire German spy network in Britain was thereby neutralised.

As for Kell’s staff, they had numbered just three officers, one barrister and seven clerks.

In August 1914 the counter espionage department became formally reconstituted as sub section MO5g of the War Office, and in view of the hostilities the staff was increased to nine officers, three civilian assistants, four female clerks and three policemen. Yet by 1919 his empire comprised 844 employees, and now the main priority for MI5, which had been created in 1916, would be the threat of Communist Russia, for in 1920 the British Communist party was established.

In the ensuing battle of wits Vernon Kell was to play a significant role, and although in 1923 he officially retired, in reality he remained as the head of MI5 for years to come, which seemed just as well since 25,250 persons were now registered as being a threat to the national interest.

With MI5 having taken over the Scotland Yard intelligence, the period for the best progress against the Soviet codes would be the 1920s, although, apart from a lack of resources, matters were not helped when the Prime Minister read out decrypted information in Parliament.

Immediately the Russians changed their codes, and not before the wartime alliance would they again be broken, following which Churchill ordered a ban on such espionage against the Soviets.

At the outbreak of World War Two, MI5 moved to a well known London prison, but with a degree of acrimony Churchill asked Kell to vacate his position, and thus at the age of 67 he finally retired.

Embittered, he moved with his wife and two servants to Emberton, where, becoming a special constable, he lived an active existence among the community at ‘Stonepits,’ a house alongside West Lane.

Nowadays the Communist threat has been consigned to the past, although with Russian bombers regularly probing British air space, and ‘femme fatales’ popping up in Parliament, might there still be a cause for concern.

In fact whatever next, the infiltration of the local press?

Surely not, although – come to think of it – the name of my editor does seem to be just a little bit suspect...