Vernon George Waldegrave Kell
Life beyond Elmbridge
Vernon George Waldegrave Kell the only son of Major Waldegrave Charles Vernon Kell and his Polish wife Georgiana Augusta Konarska was born on 21 November 1873 at the barracks, South Town, Matford, in Suffolk. He was educated privately and had a cosmopolitan upbringing. His aptitude for languages led to thoughts of a diplomatic career but instead he decided to become a soldier and entered the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1892. In 1894 he joined his father's regiment, the South Staffordshires. Here he was able to hone his linguistic skills, qualifying first as an interpreter in French and German and then in 1898 in Russian after a period of study in Moscow. 1900 brought marriage to Constance Rawdon Scott and soon afterwards a posting to Shanghai to add Chinese to his list of languages. He qualified as a Chinese interpreter in 1903; his studies having been prolonged by being caught up in the Boxer Rebellion or Uprising (1898-1901). The 'Boxers' were opposed to foreign imperialism and Christianity and they were defeated by an eight nation alliance of which GB was a member bringing 20,000 troops to China. Massive war reparations were imposed on China. Kell's involvement resulted in his receiving a medal with clasp and being mentioned in despatches. He then returned to London, initially to a post in the German intelligence section of the War Office, in 1905 he moved to the Far Eastern section and in 1907 to the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) where he was involved in writing the official history of the recent Russo-Japanese War (1904-1906). By this time he was living in Weybridge.
By 1909 fears were growing of German ambitions, even of a possible invasion, so CID was tasked with investigating the danger of German espionage and a new Secret Service Bureau was set up. Kell became its military representative having agreed to retire from the army. He set about his assignment with typical rigour operating on a limited budget and restrained from active enquiries by his chronic asthma. Kell established trusted links with a select group of Chief Constables and government officials and having become convinced of Germany's aggressive intentions organised the secret registration of 30,000 resident aliens who he believed to be the foundation of a network of agents and saboteurs. The true extent of Germany's espionage in GB was a small group of naval agents seeking technical intelligence about the Royal Navy. This cadre was detected through Kell's efforts and destroyed in August 1914 but he was still convinced erroneously that a much larger group was at large. It is interesting to note that in his family's entry in the 1911 Census his children's governess, Anna Seitz, is of German birth.
In all, Kell's counter-espionage department, now named MI5, brought thirty-one German agents to trial during the First World War. One such was Carl Hans Lody who operated under the alias of Charles A. Inglis; he had toured the UK gathering military intelligence and was found guilty of 'war treason' and killed by firing squad at the Tower of London on 6 November 1914, the first person to be executed at the Tower for over 150 years. When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s Lody was adopted as a national hero. However, MI5's main objective was to detect wider and more subtle conspiracies to which end it embarked on the comprehensive surveillance of over 5000 people. Once conscription had been introduced in May 1916 Kell agreed that the British peace movement must now be categorised as pro-German which helps to explain the numbers under scrutiny. As ever MI5's leader proved to be supremely diligent and by 1917 the organisation's registry contained almost 40,000 files and 1 million cross-indexed cards. The gathering and analysis of information had become the essence of M15. Many who were totally innocent had come under the agency's gaze. Vernon Kell was appointed CBE in 1917 and KBE in 1919. The end of the war had a huge impact on MI5: in November 1918 it had a staff of 850 and an annual budget of £100,000 but the reorganisation of the intelligence services saw that amount decrease to £35,000 and the staff to just 30. The key function of the unit was now confined to counter-espionage and the detection and combating of Communism in the armed forces. For the next six years Sir Vernon Kell fought constant battles with Special Branch and M16 (foreign intelligence service) just to protect the existence of M15.
Between the two World Wars MI5 (renamed Defence Security Service in 1929 and then the Security Service in 1931) had to contend with the challenge of espionage from the USSR and Nazi Germany and the threat of subversion from within the UK. Initially, Kell's resources remained limited and he had to rely on his contacts and meticulous intelligence gathering techniques. His management style was described as being paternalistic by a former member of staff, '...Working in the office was like being in a small family firm, we felt secure.....Sir Vernon Kell was a small, quiet man, rarely seen by us. He kept an eye on our behaviour though...the Colonel [Kell] did not approve of familiarity between officers and staff.' In the 1930s, as the Security Service's workload grew there was a rapid increase in its resources and in 1939 it had a staff of 330 with an annual budget of more than £90,000. In 1936, Kell submitted the following prescient memorandum (drafted by a colleague, Jack Curry) to CID:
' ...any obligation which they[ Hitler and Mussolini] have undertaken is liable to be repudiated without warning if it stands in the way of what these dictators decide at any moment to be in the vital interests of their nations...'
The memorandum went on to show that Kell and Curry believed that Mein Kampf [My Struggle] had an authentic bearing on '.... the supreme direction of foreign policy - cum - military strategy.....' The events of the next ten years demonstrated the accuracy of this assessment.
When war broke out in 1939 the Security Service was ill-prepared for the huge increase in its workload. They were moved to Wormwood Scrubs prison and then, in sharp contrast, to Blenheim Palace as their HQ. The move to Wormwood Scrubs happened so quickly that unemptied chamber pots were still to be found in some of the cells! There were also new concerns for female staff who were warned by a warden, 'Don't go near them [remaining prisoners]. Some of them ain't seen no woman for years!' They were inundated by vetting requests - at one point in 1940 they received on average 8,200 per week. Their plight worsened with the introduction of internment [detention without trial]; between September 1939 and March 1940 64,000 German, Austrian and Italian UK residents had to be interviewed to establish their status as enemy or friendly aliens. Kell could no longer rely on having the confidence of his senior officials and when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in May 1940 he decided that it was time for Sir Vernon to 'retire'. Kell's diary entry for 10 June 1940 reads, 'I get the sack from Horace Wilson (Head of the Civil Service), 1909 - 1940.' He drew a line under the dates. His brief retirement was spent in Olney, Buckinghamshire where he died on 27 March 1942.
Life in Elmbridge
Sir Vernon Kell and his family lived in two houses in Weybridge; the first 'Marrowells' was in Oatlands Chase and the second, 'Lynwood' was in Oatlands Park. 'Marrowells' was a splendid house designed by the architect Algernon Winter Rose close to St. Mary's Church. Captain Winter Rose would go on to be awarded the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry on the Somme only to die of influenza in October 1918. When the Kells' five months old daughter Mary died in 1908 she was buried in the Terrace Road cemetery in Walton-on-Thames as there was no burial ground available at Oatlands; the ecclesiastical parish of St. Mary's lay largely in the ancient parish of Walton-on-Thames.
By 1911 the family had moved to Oatlands Park and besides Sir Vernon and Lady Kell the household consisted of their daughter Margaret aged 6, sons James and John aged 9 and 1 respectively, a governess and three domestic servants. The house had twelve rooms. It must have been a huge wrench for the family to leave their beloved home in 1917 '...whose large garden contained 400 rose trees and a grass tennis court....' in order to move to Camden Hill in London which was much more convenient for Sir Vernon's office at a time when his asthma was worsening. Lady Kell describes the move taking place on a snowy day in January; she records that the move did not go well as the last furniture van which contained the maids and the 'livestock' by which she meant '.... our beloved Scottie dog, the cat and the parrot...' skidded off the road into a shop window and '... slung the parrot cage through it, the screeching bird adding to the confusion.' Unsurprisingly, soon afterwards Sir Vernon Kell was forced to take sick leave. His connection to Elmbridge did not end in 1917; in 1942 the casket containing his ashes was brought to Walton and rested on a table in St. Mary's Church during the service which preceded its internment in his baby daughter's grave.
Sir Vernon Kell was a distinguished public servant, the longest serving head of any twentieth century UK government agency or department. He was conscientious, brave, a man of high principle with a profound sense of duty but perhaps a shade too inflexible. It is said that in the early days of the First World War he refused to attend Prime Minister Asquith's Sunday morning cabinet meeting on the grounds that he had duties to perform at his parish church in Weybridge! According to Sir Dick White (Director-General of MI5, 1953-56), Kell was 'a calm, modest and patient man....' He did his considerable best in a highly demanding post during world wars, political upheavals and a rapidly changing technological landscape between 1909 and 1940.
J.S.L.Pulford and Anne Wright
- C. Andrew, The Defence of the Realm, The Authorised History of MI5, London, 2009
- Nicholas Hiley, 'Kell, Sir Vernon George Waldegrave (1873-1942)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/37625, accessed 21 Nov 2011]
- MI5 History, [www.mi5.gov.uk]
- Surrey Country Houses of Today, vol. 2, chp. XXXVII, [www.archive.org/stream]
- 1911 Census, [www.1911census.co.uk]