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M15's First Spymaster
By Andrew Cook
The History PressCopyright © 2011 Andrew Cook
All rights reserved.
The Man From Kerry
A secret is no longer a secret once it is revealed.
This self-evident truth is difficult for most people to grasp. William Melville, M of the British Secret Service, had no problem with it. In the last months of his life he was persuaded to commit a brief account of his career to paper. He had, after all, been known as Le Vile Melville to revolutionaries from St Petersburg to New York; men had been jailed for conspiring to kill him. This being known, a less revelatory memoir would be hard to imagine.
It did, however, confirm suspicion that he had not, as the public thought, retired in 1903, but instead had worked in some secret capacity at a time when MI5, according to official histories, did not yet exist.
His life's work depended upon discretion. So did his reputation, which was the foundation of his family's prosperity, and he was never such a fool as to threaten that. There were skeletons in Melville's cupboard that he never expected to emerge.
Concluding his short memoir, he offered mild advice to those who proposed to embark upon a career in counter-espionage.
Above all, the mysterious manner should be avoided. It only engenders distrust. A frank and apparently open style generally gains confidence ... people as a rule are not averse to seeing you again. One can joke and humbug much in a jovial manner; one can talk a great deal and say nothing.
The genial mask concealed a ruthless operator.
Melville came out of the back of beyond, but the present inhabitants of his home town would thank no one for saying so. Sneem in County Kerry is a thriving tourist centre and one of the prettiest little places in the west of Ireland, its gaily painted houses set around an old stone bridge over a tumbling stream amid greensward surrounded by hills. But at a longitude of nearly 10 degrees west of Greenwich, it is further out in the Atlantic than almost anywhere else in Europe.
Sneem suffered badly in the famine of the 1840s. From good beginnings as the hub of many outlying cabins and cottages, with a couple of schools, a penny post to Kenmare, seven markets a year and a post of constabulary, by 1850 – when Melville was born there – Sneem had declined into no more than a sad huddle of grey houses and listless people: 'a poor, dirty village' in the words of one traveller.
William was the son of James and Catherine Melville. As far as we know he was their first child. Family legend has it that Catherine (née Connor) gave birth to him at a place called Direenaclaurig Cross (a junction of two roads) on the shore side of Kenmare Road, which leads east. The road itself had been officially called into existence some twenty years before. Until then, west of Kenmare towards Sneem and the ocean there had been no more than a track, impassable in bad weather.
Sneem in 1850 had a population of 360 living in about sixty dwellings, from the poorest one-roomed mud cabins with rags stuffing the windows to those slate-roofed, mortar-covered houses, mostly terraced, which survive today set around two triangular greens.
Having been born on 25 April 1850, William was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church the following day. There was no Irish civil registration until 1864. The baptismal record we owe to the often erratic attention of the parish priest. Father Walsh, the inspiration for Father O'Flynn in a popular song of that name, was priest in Sneem from 1829 until his death in 1866. He rarely preached a sermon from one year's end to another and was a notorious backslider when it came to record-keeping. Speaking English and Irish, he kept the books, when he bothered, in dog Latin. He devoted himself to hunting, being the proud owner of six or seven greyhounds even during the famine ('though nobody could tell how he was even able to feed himself'), as well as a collection of jackdaws and hawks; his usual garb was a battered hat and hairy suit made of buffalo skin and he and the local doctor once caused an explosion while concocting home-made gunpowder. We must, in the circumstances, be grateful for what little information we have.
The very poorest of the native Irish at this time lived in medieval conditions, in earth-floored dwellings having only one or two rooms. They burned turf for cooking and warmth and would share their roof with the animals overnight in winter. They had to live at subsistence level off whatever they could grow, and the animals they could keep, on any strip of land rented from English landlords. Getting cash depended on employment by these landlords on their land or at the nearest Big House. Otherwise farming and fishing, a little discreet smuggling of brandy, wine or tobacco by sea, or a skilled trade were the only options short of emigration to America or England.
Perhaps because the well-off Anglo-Irish around Sneem intermarried with each other over generations and generally put down roots, thus supporting the economy and the smuggling to a greater extent than elsewhere, the village was not entirely deserted like so many during the famine; most unusually for this time and place, the population actually increased in the ten years before William was born.
James Melville is recorded as a tenant, apparently a farmer, in the land valuation records of 1852, and in the next few years he and Catherine got enough money together to start a business in the middle of the village. They kept a bakery and also sold liquor. The traditional Irish pub with a shop at one end of the counter is still familiar. Quite how many children they had is uncertain. Two girls, Catherine and Mary, and three boys, survived to be baptised, and these at long intervals. After William came Richard in 1859, who was enrolled at the village school when he was five, and George in 1868, who does not appear on the school rolls until 1875. Unlike his brothers, William's school attendance would appear to have been somewhat erratic to say the least, tailing off during his last year to virtual non-attendance. As the eldest, his duties in the bakery would almost certainly have come before schooling.
He would have learned the practical skills of rural life. Almost every family, even the tradespeople, kept a few chickens and grew vegetables, and James Melville as baker and liquor-seller kept a pony and cart for haulage and would have expected his sons to help out. As his parents ran a cash business the boy was probably acute enough about figures.
With Father Walsh to offer pastoral care, and the town's Roman Catholic chapel being left to crumble, religion is unlikely to have played a major part. Sneem's Catholic community was not to be allowed to slide into non-observance, however. In 1855 the Earl of Dunraven took a holiday home locally, and converted to Catholicism. When he saw the leaky old earth-floored shack of a chapel in Sneem he determined to donate something better, and commissioned no less a man than Philip Hardwicke, the distinguished London architect, to design a new church. As is usual in such matters, construction hit a snag. The local builder, Mr Murphy, died. But the new church had found a practical saviour in his son, who, at nineteen, was just six years older than William Melville. Murphy managed to get the church completed on time and its consecration in 1863 was followed by a bonfire and festivities, which continued until dawn. So well did the young Murphy, another Sneem boy made good, profit from building Sneem's church that he went on to found the multi-national construction company that still bears his name.
William Melville would have been a familiar figure to everybody in that village of only three or four hundred people. We gather that he did not leave home until his later teens, because he was known locally as a great hurley player.
In the Melville family it is said that as he grew up, William used to take the pony and cart each Wednesday to Killarney Station to collect supplies. One Wednesday he did not return. A search was mounted and the pony was found, patiently waiting at the station. William had taken the train to Dublin.
Whether he stopped for days, or years, in Dublin, Liverpool or anywhere else, is impossible to say. He could have left Sneem at seventeen or at twenty-one; we do not know for sure. Reports he wrote later in life demonstrate a high degree of literacy, so he may have done as many ambitious young English men did and attended evening classes after a day's work in a shop. Self-help – social and financial advancement through hard work, good books and respectable living – was in vogue in these mid Victorian years, and as he would have known from personal observation, money spent on drink – money that he may have wanted to send home – would be wasted. The first record so far discovered of Melville's presence in England is his acceptance into London's police in 1872; yet it doesn't seem likely that what Dubliners are pleased to call a bogtrotter, however bright and adaptable, could have crossed from Sneem to London and within months acquired the basic worldly wisdom required of even the greenest police constable. William probably spent a few years in a big city after he left home.
London was at this time the largest conurbation on earth, with a population approaching four million and growing fast. Lambeth, comprising the parts of London immediately south of the Thames, which is where Melville was working when he applied to join the police force, was decidedly mixed. Along the riverbank, Waterloo was the haunt of prostitutes, cheap music halls and the usual con men and hustlers who congregate around railway stations; Vauxhall was blighted by terrible poverty and the dirt and smell of dockside workshops, potteries and distilleries; and in both districts the roar and steam of the railways were ever present. Behind them lay Kennington, a central suburb where many of the stately Georgian houses were now in multiple occupation. In winter, a noxious cloud of river fog and coal dust would descend upon the entire area for days at a time.
When Melville joined the Metropolitan Police at the age of twenty-two, he is said to have been a baker in the employ of James Macaulay at 99 Kennington Road, Lambeth. No.99 is gone now, but it was one of a row of houses backing onto the grounds of Bedlam, the Bethlehem Hospital for the insane. James Macaulay the baker is shown living there, with his wife and six children and a middle-aged lodger, in the 1871 census. Upstairs was the home of the secretary of a religious society and his family. Kennington was quite respectable.
Maybe it was the sight of new police accommodation being built just along Kennington Road at No.47 that sparked Melville's idea of becoming a London policeman. Irishmen quite often did; they comprised around six per cent of the force at a time when the Irish in Ireland had good reason to consider themselves oppressed by an imperial power. Indeed, Irish-American agitators, having failed in a half-hearted bid to promote an uprising in Dublin, had settled for terrorism in mainland Britain. There had been a devastating Fenian attack on the Middlesex House of Correction in Clerkenwell in 1868, with twelve people killed, though mercifully few signs of violent insurrection since.
Melville, although he was Irish and proud of it, had no truck with that sort of thing. He was sober and intelligent with a strong constitution and the social skills necessary to deal with the public. Metropolitan Police officers must be at least five feet eight inches tall. This was above the average. At five feet eight and a half, Melville got in.
And promptly got out again. Having been admitted as PC 310 to the register of E Division (Bow Street and Holborn) on 16 September 1872, he was one of over a hundred officers dismissed for insubordination on 20 November.
In a way the problem went back to the Clerkenwell bombing. It had been after this that the Government, threatened with further terrorism, realised that effective defence required a better-informed, more astute body of police. At the time there were 8,000 men in the Metropolitan Police and according to the Home Secretary just three of them were 'educated'. On 'Irish duty' (that is, watching known Fenians), they were already routinely armed. Beat officers were not respected by their superiors, yet a job as demanding and responsible as this must attract men of high calibre. This meant better pay and a less militaristic approach. But the Government took a long time to draw up new pay scales, and some senior policemen took even longer to change their authoritarian attitudes towards the rank and file.
When Melville joined in 1872 nothing had been done. The proposed pay increases were almost insultingly stingy, and at a meeting at the Cannon Street Hotel, all those present elected PC Henry Goodchild to be secretary of a Pay and Conditions Negotiating Committee to represent them. They specifically ruled out strike action; they had simply set up the machinery for collective bargaining.
This alone was enough to alarm the Home Office. It immediately made a better offer, to the great satisfaction of Sir Edward Henderson, the Commissioner. Unfortunately, Assistant Commissioner Labalmondière and the Superintendents, many of whom had a military background, saw things differently. The Superintendents demanded that Goodchild give them details, in writing, of all the men who had been at the meeting, or meetings, where the Pay and Conditions Committee had been voted into existence. He refused. They told him he was going to be transferred; he saw this for the punishment it was, and asked to have the charges against him read out. The Assistant Commissioner sacked him on the spot for insubordination.
Goodchild quickly canvassed his supporters. The Commissioner's enquiry stated that on Saturday evening, 16 November:
At Kensington, 43 men of T Division, when paraded by their Inspector for night duty at 9.45 p.m., refused to move off to their beats. Of these, four men, on the appeal of the Superintendent, at once went on duty. The remaining 39 men persisted in their refusal until 12.45 p.m.
At Bow Street a similar course was pursued by 71 men of E Division, who refused to go on duty until 11.30 p.m.
At Molyneux Street, 65 men of D Division, when ordered to move off, at first refused, but on the Superintendent's appeal at once went on duty.
All the offenders in E Division, and 39 from T division, were dismissed. Nearly all were reinstated a week later, dropping a 'class'. Melville had not far to fall, and after this hiccup his upward progress in the force recommenced on 29 November. The future trajectory of Goodchild, a brave man, is not recorded.
Melville was based during his first six months at Bow Street; this was Metropolitan HQ, Scotland Yard not yet having been built. As a constable, Melville would carry a truncheon and a whistle and, accompanied by a more experienced officer, patrol E Division from Covent Garden to Holborn.
The ideology of the 1870s was proudly bourgeois, with a social conscience. There was a sense that government brought responsibilities, as well as rights. So, although Gustave Doré had illustrated the smoke-laden, overcrowded nightmare of central London as recently as 1869, the squalor in which the poorest people lived was slowly lessening. In the last decade or so investment in a new sewage system had made the Thames cleaner and connected private houses to efficient main drains. The London Underground railway was expanding, allowing better-paid workers access to the suburbs. As business grew there were more clerical jobs and, with universal education, more people capable of doing them. Public hangings had stopped (one of the Clerkenwell culprits was the last man hanged in public). The filth and cruelty of Smithfield's livestock market had been replaced by a properly organised meat market. Cock-fighting and prize-fighting were not the socially acceptable pastimes they used to be. And Shaftesbury Avenue would soon be driven through the notorious rookeries of St Giles where policemen dared not go.
The West End may have been tidied up, but the Bow Street force must have smirked at Sir Edward Henderson's diktat of the previous year. Alarmed by a spate of thefts from washing lines, the Commissioner had earnestly instructed all constables 'to call at the houses of all persons on their beats having wet linen in their gardens, and caution them of the risk they run in having them stolen'.
E Division was rough, and policing it a twenty-four-hour job. It contained not only St Giles, but a major railway station at Charing Cross, the sinister black arches of the Adelphi along the river – full of rough sleepers, and the Strand, with its theatres and restaurants attracting gullible provincials and sophisticated Londoners alike. Opposite Bow Street, a gas-lit Covent Garden market began trading in fruit, vegetables and flowers long before dawn; the pubs were always open, fights commonplace, and prostitutes never off the streets. Behind the great thoroughfares, above the warren of lanes strewn with horse dung and rotten vegetables, in cold and threadbare rooms there slept, and worked, a motley band of fly-by-night purveyors of abortifacients and dubious publications by mail order. E Division was a good place to start if you wanted an overview of human life at its most desperate.
Excerpted from M15's First Spymaster by Andrew Cook. Copyright © 2011 Andrew Cook. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbout the Author,
1 The Man From Kerry,
2 Dynamite Campaign,
3 Plot and Counterplot,
4 A Very Dangerous Game,
5 War on Terror,
6 A Man to be Trusted,
7 The Lodging House,
8 W. Morgan, General Agent,
9 Shifting Sands,
10 The Bureau,
11 Drift to War,
12 G Men,
Appendix: Bill Fitzgerald Interview,