Vernon Kell

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Sir Vernon Kell
Allegiance United Kingdom Flag of the United Kingdom.svg
Service MI5
Active 1909–1940
Rank Director-General of MI5
Award(s) Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Companion of the Order of the Bath

Born 21 November 1873
Great Yarmouth
Died 27 March 1942(1942-03-27) (aged 68)
Nationality British
Occupation Intelligence officer, soldier

Major-General Sir Vernon George Waldegrave Kell, KBE, CB (21 November 1873 – 27 March 1942) was the founder and first Director General (DG) of the British Security Service, otherwise known as MI5. Known as K, he was described in Who's Who as "Commandant, War Department Constabulary".[1]


Born in Great Yarmouth 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.

After graduating from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Kell was commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment and fought in the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. 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 captain in his regiment on 24 September 1901.[2]

After his return to London from China in 1902 Kell was employed to analyse German intelligence at the War Office until 1906, eventually rising to the rank of staff captain.

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.[3] The two officers 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.[4] These two distinct sections were later retitled as the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service (now commonly known as MI5 and MI6 respectively).

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.[5] 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.[6]

In December 1938, having reached retirement age, Kell asked to remain in post on a year-to-year basis.[7]: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[7]: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.[7]:227 He was knighted for his services shortly before his death in 1942.[8]


Kell was awarded the following orders and decorations:

Popular culture[edit]

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).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ H. Montgomery Hyde, "A matter of official secrets", The Times, 4 December 1976
  2. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27418. p. 1964. 21 March 1902.
  3. ^ Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), p.21.
  4. ^ Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), pp.25–27.
  5. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 218
  6. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 220
  7. ^ a b c Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009)
  8. ^
  9. ^ London Gazette 21 September 1917 p9863
  10. ^ London Gazette 25 September 1917 p9946
  11. ^ London Gazette 6 June 1919 p7426
  12. ^ Portrait photograph of Kell at Plate 1 of Christopher Andrew's Authorised History of MI5
  13. ^ 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