Vernon Kell
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Vernon Kell

Vernon Kell

Born21 November 1873
Died27 March 1942(1942-03-27) (aged 68)
Other names'K'
OccupationIntelligence officer, soldier
Espionage activity
AllegianceUnited Kingdom Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
Service branchMI5
Service years1909-1940
RankDirector of MI5
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1894-1939
UnitSouth Staffordshire Regiment
Battles/warsBoxer Rebellion
First World War
AwardsKnight Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George (KCMG)
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE)
Companion of the Order of the Bath (CB)
Officer of the Order of Leopold(Belgium)
Officer of the Légion d'honneur (France)
Officer of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (Kingdom of Italy)

Major-General Sir Vernon George Waldegrave Kell (21 November 1873 - 27 March 1942) was a British Army general and the founder and first Director of the British Security Service, otherwise known as MI5. Known as K, he was described in Who's Who as "Commandant, War Department Constabulary".[2]

Early life

Born in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, in 1873, Kell was the son of Major Waldegrave Kell of the 38th Foot and his wife, Georgiana Augusta Konarska. She was a daughter of a Polish émigré, Alexander Konarski, a surgeon with the 1st Podhalian Rifle Regiment who had fought in the November Uprising and had been awarded the Virtuti Militari Gold Cross, by his marriage to an English wife.

Military service

After graduating from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Kell was commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment on 10 October 1894.[3] He was promoted to lieutenant on 15 December 1896,[4] was seconded in January 1900,[5] and fought in the Boxer Rebellion later that year. He could speak German, Italian, French and Polish with equal facility, and after serving and studying in China and Russia, he learned their respective languages too. While he was on the intelligence staff in Tientsin he was also the foreign correspondent of The Daily Telegraph. He was promoted to the supernumerary (temporary) rank of captain in his regiment on 24 September 1901.[6]

After his return to London from China in 1902 Kell was employed to analyse German intelligence at the War Office until 1906. He was promoted to the substantive rank of captain on 1 October 1903,[7] and was appointed a staff captain on 9 February 1904.[8]

Rising public fears in Great Britain of German espionage precipitated the creation of a new government intelligence agency. In 1909 Kell was selected by the War Office and the Admiralty as one of two officers, alongside Mansfield Smith-Cumming, to head the newly formed Secret Service Bureau.[9] He retired from active duty on 16 October 1909, but remained in the reserves.[10]

Intelligence service

Kell and Cumming decided to divide the intelligence work, Kell taking responsibility for domestic concerns, while Cumming was to oversee foreign matters. However, their working relationship was fraught, as Cumming advocated the separation of the Bureau's work into two distinct departments. The separation took place in 1910.[11] These two distinct sections were later retitled as the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service (now commonly known as MI5 and MI6 respectively).

Kell was promoted to the rank of major in the reserves on 20 August 1913.[8] Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Kell was restored to active duty as a GSO 2,[12] and was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel on 5 September.[13] On 1 March 1915, he was appointed a GSO 1, retaining his temporary rank.[14] For his service, he received a brevet promotion to lieutenant-colonel on 3 June 1916, and received a temporary promotion to colonel on 21 December.[15][16]

First World War

During the First World War, Kell headed MI5(g), a section dealing with the Indian seditionist movement in Europe. Among Kell's officers were ex-ICS officers Robert Nathan and H. L. Stephenson.[17] Kell also worked closely with the Special Branch of Scotland Yard, then headed by Basil Thomson, and was successful in tracing the work of Indian revolutionaries collaborating with the Germans during the war.[18]

Between the wars

Kell was promoted to the rank of colonel in the reserves on 1 April 1924.[19] Upon reaching the age of 60 on 21 November 1933, he was struck from the reserve list.[20] Kell received an honorary promotion to major-general on 27 September 1939.[21]

In December 1938, having reached retirement age, Kell asked to remain in post on a year-to-year basis.[22]:218 With the onset of war, MI5 finally got the hiring and financial resources of which it had been starved for years. However, MI5 proved unable to deploy them without confusion[22]:219 and Kell and his deputy, both in their mid-60s, got the blame. On 10 June 1940 Kell was dismissed on the instructions of Winston Churchill, after 30 years in post. He was the longest-serving head of any British government department during the 20th century.[22]:227

He was knighted for his services shortly before his death in 1942.[23]


Kell was awarded the following orders and decorations:



Popular culture

Kell was the basis for a major character in Bert Coules's radio adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle's His Last Bow. He was portrayed as a highly talented officer and a polyglot who had immense respect for Sherlock Holmes, claiming to have read all his publications. Kell convinces Holmes to join the war effort and to seek out the mastermind of a German espionage organisation.

Kell is depicted as an ally of a secret society of bodyguards attached to the radical women's suffrage movement in the graphic novel trilogy Suffrajitsu: Mrs. Pankhurst's Amazons (2015). The depiction is considered rather fantastic.

Kell is a major character in the novel called Blackest Of Lies. Written by novelist Bill Aitken, which is set during the First World War and concerns the death of Lord Kitchener.

In Dennis Wheatley's 1950 novel "The Second Seal", Kell investigates the book's hero, the Duke de Richleau. When the Duke meets a highly placed official at a London party in the Spring of 1914, he spins a fantastic yarn to the official about a plot by the Serbian Black Hand to stir up trouble in the Balkans and maybe promote a World War. Kell is given the job of verifying the Duke's background and reliability.

See also


  1. ^ Madeira, Victor (2014). Britannia and the Bear: The Anglo-Russian Intelligence Wars, 1917-1929. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 140. ISBN 9781843838951. OCLC 870639051.
  2. ^ H. Montgomery Hyde, "A matter of official secrets", The Times, 4 December 1976
  3. ^ "No. 26559". The London Gazette. 9 October 1894. p. 5688.
  4. ^ "No. 26836". The London Gazette. 26 March 1897. p. 1741.
  5. ^ "No. 27163". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 February 1900. p. 910.
  6. ^ "No. 27418". The London Gazette. 21 March 1902. p. 1964.
  7. ^ "No. 27604". The London Gazette. 9 October 1903. p. 6152.
  8. ^ a b "No. 27712". The London Gazette. 9 September 1904. p. 5844.
  9. ^ Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), p.21.
  10. ^ "No. 28297". The London Gazette. 15 October 1909. p. 7567.
  11. ^ Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), pp.25-27.
  12. ^ "No. 29046". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 January 1915. p. 690.
  13. ^ "No. 28892". The London Gazette. 4 September 1914. p. 7001.
  14. ^ "No. 29124". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 April 1915. p. 3554.
  15. ^ "No. 29608". The London Gazette (Supplement). 2 June 1916. p. 5559.
  16. ^ "No. 29871". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 December 1916. p. 12424.
  17. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 218
  18. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 220
  19. ^ "No. 32940". The London Gazette. 30 May 1924. p. 4310.
  20. ^ "No. 34005". The London Gazette. 15 December 1933. p. 8127.
  21. ^ "No. 34714". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 October 1939. p. 7102.
  22. ^ a b c Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (London, 2009)
  23. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 June 2011. Retrieved 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  24. ^ "No. 31395". The London Gazette. 6 June 1919. p. 7426.
  25. ^ "No. 29916". The London Gazette (Supplement). 23 January 1917. p. 924.
  26. ^ "No. 30302". The London Gazette (Supplement). 21 September 1917. p. 9863.
  27. ^ "No. 30306". The London Gazette (Supplement). 25 September 1917. p. 9946.
  28. ^ "No. 31263". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 March 1919. p. 4199.
  29. ^ a b Portrait photograph of Kell at Plate 1 of Christopher Andrew's Authorised History of MI5 (partly obscured)


  • Intelligence and Imperial Defence: British Intelligence and the Defence of the British Empire, by Richard James Popplewell, 1995
Government offices
Preceded by
William Melville
Director General of MI5
Succeeded by
Brigadier 'Jasper' Harker

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