Vernon Kell

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Sir Vernon Kell
Born21 November 1873
Died27 March 1942(1942-03-27) (aged 68)
Other names'K'
Occupation(s)Intelligence officer, soldier
Espionage activity
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service branchMI5
Service years1909–1940
RankDirector of MI5
Military career
AllegianceUnited Kingdom
Service/branchBritish Army
Years of service1894–1939
RankMajor General
UnitSouth Staffordshire Regiment
Battles/warsBoxer Rebellion
First World War
AwardsKnight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George
Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire
Companion of the Order of the Bath
Officer of the Order of Leopold (Belgium)
Officer of the Legion of Honour (France)
Officer of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus (Italy)

Major General Sir Vernon George Waldegrave Kell, KCMG, KBE, CB (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".[1]

Early life[edit]

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, daughter of Samuel Alexander Ernest Konarski and Harriet Fraser Lucas.[2]

Military service[edit]

After graduating from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, Kell was commissioned into the South Staffordshire Regiment on 10 October 1894,[3] and promoted to lieutenant on 15 December 1896.[4] He was in January 1900 seconded for service in China,[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 rank of captain on 24 September 1901,[6] while still seconded in China where he served as a Railway Staff Officer (for which he was mentioned in despatches).[7]

After his return to London from China in 1902, Kell was employed to analyse German intelligence at the War Office. He returned to a posting in his regiment from 1 October 1903,[8] and was appointed a staff captain serving at the War Office on 9 February 1904.[9]

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.[10] He retired from active duty on 16 October 1909, but remained in the reserves.[11]

Intelligence service[edit]

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 (which evolved into MI5 and MI6). The separation took place in 1910.[12]

Kell was promoted to the rank of major in the reserves on 20 August 1913.[9] Following the outbreak of war in 1914, Kell was restored to active duty as a GSO 2,[13] and was promoted to the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel on 5 September.[14] On 1 March 1915, he was appointed a GSO 1, retaining his temporary rank.[15] 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.[16][17]

First World War[edit]

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.[18] 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.[19]

Between the wars[edit]

Kell was promoted to the rank of colonel in the reserves on 1 April 1924.[20] Upon reaching the age of 60 on 21 November 1933, he was struck from the reserve list.[21] Kell received an honorary promotion to major-general on 27 September 1939.[22]

In December 1938, having reached retirement age, Kell asked to remain in post on a year-to-year basis.[23]: 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[23]: 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.[23]: 227 

Already a Knight of the Order of the British Empire (KBE), Kell was admitted as a Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) for his services shortly before his death in 1942.[24]


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.[31]

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).[32]

In Dennis Wheatley's novel The Second Seal, Kell investigates the book's hero, the Duke de Richleau.[33]

In Bill Aitken's novel Blackest of Lies, Kell is involved in the concealment of Lord Kitchener's fictional death at the hands of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ H. Montgomery Hyde, "A matter of official secrets", The Times, 4 December 1976
  2. ^ "Vernon George Waldegrave Kell". Elmbridge Borough Council. Retrieved 1 November 2021.
  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. 27497". The London Gazette. 21 November 1902. p. 7532.
  8. ^ "No. 27604". The London Gazette. 9 October 1903. p. 6152.
  9. ^ a b "No. 27712". The London Gazette. 9 September 1904. p. 5844.
  10. ^ Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), p.21.
  11. ^ "No. 28297". The London Gazette. 15 October 1909. p. 7567.
  12. ^ Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of Mi5 (London, 2009), pp.25–27.
  13. ^ "No. 29046". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 January 1915. p. 690.
  14. ^ "No. 28892". The London Gazette. 4 September 1914. p. 7001.
  15. ^ "No. 29124". The London Gazette (Supplement). 9 April 1915. p. 3554.
  16. ^ "No. 29608". The London Gazette (Supplement). 2 June 1916. p. 5559.
  17. ^ "No. 29871". The London Gazette (Supplement). 19 December 1916. p. 12424.
  18. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 218
  19. ^ Popplewell 1995, p. 220
  20. ^ "No. 32940". The London Gazette. 30 May 1924. p. 4310.
  21. ^ "No. 34005". The London Gazette. 15 December 1933. p. 8127.
  22. ^ "No. 34714". The London Gazette (Supplement). 20 October 1939. p. 7102.
  23. ^ a b c Christopher Andrew, The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 (London, 2009)
  24. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 June 2011. Retrieved 25 April 2011.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  25. ^ "No. 31395". The London Gazette. 6 June 1919. p. 7426.
  26. ^ "No. 29916". The London Gazette (Supplement). 23 January 1917. p. 924.
  27. ^ "No. 30302". The London Gazette (Supplement). 21 September 1917. p. 9863.
  28. ^ "No. 30306". The London Gazette (Supplement). 25 September 1917. p. 9946.
  29. ^ "No. 31263". The London Gazette (Supplement). 28 March 1919. p. 4199.
  30. ^ a b Portrait photograph of Kell at Plate 1 of Christopher Andrew's Authorized History of MI5 (partly obscured)
  31. ^ "The District Messenger" (PDF). The Sherlock Holmes Society of London. 10 August 1993. Retrieved 1 November 2021.
  32. ^ "Suffrajitsu: A Graphic Novel Celebrating The Fighting Spirit Of The Suffragettes (Konbini)". 12 October 2015. Retrieved 1 November 2021.
  33. ^ Wheatley, Dennis (1973). The Second Seal. Hutchinson & Co. ISBN 978-0090414321.
  34. ^ Aitken, Bill (2015). Blackest of Lies: Kitchener's Final Mission. Amazon. ISBN 978-1511498135.


  • Popplewell, Richard James (1995). Intelligence and Imperial defence : British Intelligence and the defence of the Indian Empire, 1904-24. Frank Cass. ISBN 9780714645803. OCLC 316027333.
Government offices
Preceded by Director General of MI5
Succeeded by

External links[edit]

Media related to Vernon Kell at Wikimedia Commons