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A Secret Well Kept: The Untold Story of Sir Vernon Kell, Founder of MI5

A Secret Well Kept: The Untold Story of Sir Vernon Kell, Founder of MI5

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A Secret Well Kept: The Untold Story of Sir Vernon Kell, Founder of MI5

294 Seiten
5 Stunden
Feb 23, 2017


The United Kingdom's domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, most commonly known as MI5, was founded in 1909 by Sir Vernon Kell KBE. Kell ('K' within the agency) not only founded MI5 but was also its Director for 31 years, the longest tenure of any head of a British government department during the twentieth century. Kell was also fluent in six foreign languages, making him arguably the most gifted linguist ever to head a Western intelligence agency.

A Secret Well Kept was written by Kell's wife, Constance, in the 1950s, and the manuscript has been a treasured family possession ever since. Constance's story is endlessly fascinating: she tells of their life in China during the Boxer Rebellion, the formation of MI5 in 1909, the key characters, events and spy cases of Kell's career, and his important work achieved for the country during two world wars.

A modern-day preface from Kell's great-granddaughter, introduction by Stewart Binns and notes from Dr Chris Northcott add historical context to this delightful and unparalleled insight into the personal life of an extremely powerful and important man.
Feb 23, 2017

Über den Autor

Constance Kell was the wife of Sir Vernon Kell, founder of MI5, for over 40 years. Deeply devoted to him, she provided constant support to him in his life and work. A Secret Well Kept is her account of their fascinating and wonderful life together, written after his death in 1942. Constance died in 1971.

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A Secret Well Kept - Constance Kell




It was in August 1909 that an opportunity arose for Vernon Kell to do something vitally necessary for the safety of his country. There was the risk that should he fail to carry it through it would leave him with his career wrecked and bring about the dismal prospect of having to provide for his family with no adequate means of doing it. But he was young and an optimist – why should he fail? I was sure he would succeed, so he decided to accept the suggestion of the Committee of Imperial Defence that he should start a scheme of special defence to counter espionage.¹ He was a fine linguist, that would be an asset; he had travelled a good deal and, best of all, he had vision.

He started off with high hopes, hardly knowing how to begin to lay the foundations of the organisation that eventually proved so successful. Even the enemies against whom the schemes were directed bore rather rueful testimony to their efficacy. In fact, they voiced grudging admiration of the way their network of spies was broken up and they found it necessary to alter their methods frequently, only to have them quickly checkmated.

Little did Vernon realise in those early days when he started with just one clerk that he was creating an organisation which would require the assistance of hundreds of people to operate, the number growing ever larger as the war years approached. He found that his experiences in China, and especially those relating to his work in connection with that of the temporary Russian Railway Administration during the Boxer Rebellion, had given him an insight into the way the military minds of various foreign nationalities approached questions that required much vision to deal with and do so without friction.

Vernon liked to describe himself as a ‘Yarmouth Bloater’,² for it was at Yarmouth, where his mother³ was spending a few days at the seaside, that he was born on November 21st 1873. He grew up with a cosmopolitan outlook, for his mother, a most attractive woman, was only half-English, her father, Count Konarski,⁴ having married an English girl. The Count left Poland when many of the nobility and landed gentry had been pushed out during the unrestful days of the last century, and he had settled down to a rather uneventful country life in England.

Perhaps it was this touch of foreign blood in Vernon that accounted for the fact he was an excellent linguist, for he could, as a young man, speak six languages. He was educated privately, and it was at first intended that he should enter the Diplomatic Service, his name being placed on the personal list of Lord Salisbury, the prime minister.⁵ This idea of a diplomatic career arose quite by chance from an incident that brought his name forward. As part of his studies, he was told to translate into four languages the address which Colonel Kenyon Slaney, then MP for Shropshire, had moved in the House of Commons in reply to the Queen’s speech.⁶ The Colonel was a great friend of the family, and the translations were sent to him more in joke than in earnest, but he was so struck with them that he showed them to Lord Salisbury, who promptly gave Vernon a nomination for the Diplomatic Service.

Vernon’s father, Major Waldegrave Kell,⁷ had started his army career in the Connaught Rangers,⁸ then stationed in Ireland, and on the outbreak of the Zulu War⁹ he went with his regiment to South Africa. Here, during the campaign against the Zulus, he very successfully carried out a most unusual task for an infantry officer. He was placed in command of a battery of artillery that had been left completely denuded of officers owing to wounds and sickness. He carried out this task so efficiently that it earned him a mention in dispatches, and he was given accelerated promotion and a job on the staff. One of his duties as a staff officer was to make arrangements for bringing back the body of the Prince Imperial to England for his funeral.¹⁰ This prince, so beloved of his mother the Empress Eugenie, and in fact loved by all who knew him and served with him, had been ambushed and killed by the Zulus, a tragedy felt most deeply, especially by Queen Victoria, who knew what his death would mean to his mother.¹¹

On his return from carrying out this duty, Waldegrave Kell was promoted to captain in the South Staffordshire Regiment and was made adjutant to the 4th Militia Battalion stationed at Lichfield.¹² He and his family went to live there, but his wife disliked his many moves to different stations while he was in the army and persuaded him to retire shortly after he had been promoted to major. They went to live in Shropshire at Ruckley Grange, a lovely house on a small estate where there was a certain amount of shooting, three small lakes and quite a good trout stream. Vernon soon became a good fisherman, and fishing remained always his favourite sport.

It was sometime after this that the question of a career for Vernon had to be decided. His father had suddenly and very unexpectedly decided to alter his plans for his entering the Diplomatic Service and now turned to the possibility of sending him into the army. Vernon was now just eighteen and could therefore only have one chance of passing the entrance examination before he reached the age limit. He was sent to a crammer, and succeeded in passing both his preliminary exam and his final within three months of each other.

In 1892 he went to Sandhurst and spent two very happy years there.¹³ During his second year, a cadet arrived who was to become one of the most famous of men, namely Winston Churchill, who came with the reputation for being able to get away with most things, having been quite irrepressible at both his private and public schools.¹⁴ But at Sandhurst he was determined to get through well. His imperturbable character, so individualistic and purposeful, got him into some difficulties and he had to undergo some pretty drastic ragging, but this completely failed in its object, for nothing could get him down and he passed out with nothing particularly arresting to relate while he was at Sandhurst. In later years Vernon was to see much more of him.

Vernon thoroughly enjoyed his time at Sandhurst, especially as he had been entirely free from asthma, which was the one great difficulty he had to contend with. From the time he was eight years old and in consequence of one of the usual infectious diseases of childhood, he was left with asthma, at first very severe, but later controllable except in certain localities. He was strong physically, but his affliction was always the thing he dreaded and had to fight against.

His father was now living in London and had married again, as his first wife had left him. Their house in Clarges Street was a delightful centre, for his American wife was a very charming hostess and they had a large circle of friends. Vernon liked his stepmother¹⁵ greatly and spent many happy days there, but mostly he went abroad when he got leave and stayed with his French relations, who lived in the south of France and in Paris. His mother’s two sisters, Countess Marie Konarska and Countess Emma Macswiney, lived in a lovely house at St Germain en Laye. They were known as ‘the English ladies’, though their very foreign accent seemed to belie that title considerably. Countess Emma had married a rich banker and was a wonderful horsewoman, with her own haute école on the premises. She was rather a haughty woman, very artistic, and had a great collection of antiques, so that her home resembled a museum. She chose to live like this, surrounded by glass cases, cabinets, statues of all sorts and no comfort anywhere, which was hard on poor Countess Marie, who loved her creature comforts. Vernon had many French cousins also and much enjoyed staying with them.

On completing his time at Sandhurst, Vernon joined his father’s regiment, the 1st Battalion South Staffords, at Lichfield in October 1894. He went through the usual subaltern’s courses, but he was determined to strike out on his own and make use of his languages. He therefore applied to go to Russia to get the Russian interpretership, which meant that he had to take a preliminary exam in London to qualify for it. While waiting for this he passed the French and German interpretership exams with ease. Having received permission to work for the Russian preliminary exam, he passed it successfully and could now go to Moscow to learn the language fluently.

In 1898 he got the necessary leave and went to live with a family called Von Kotzk in Moscow, where he could get the tuition he required. Madame Von Kotzk and her family were interesting, artistic, most amusing and lively. Madame took in boarders, British officers who were studying for the Russian interpretership, and she was a most excellent teacher. One of her pupils was a certain Captain Lindsay who had brought his wife and daughter with him. The little girl was a great favourite with them all and a very constant companion of Vernon’s. What was their consternation when she suddenly developed scarlet fever, which in due course she handed on to Vernon. The question as to what to do with him was a puzzle, for there seemed nowhere else to send him but to the fever hospital in Moscow, where the accommodation was very primitive because the hospital at that time only catered for the very poor who could not afford to pay

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