The Secret Service Bureau was the first real intelligence agency in Britain. The circumstances of its emergence shed some light on the questions we ask ourselves today about liberty and security.


The creation of the Secret Service Bureau in 1909 was a direct result of the recommendation of a subcommittee of the Committee of Imperial Defence which had been set up to consider 'the nature and extent of the foreign espionage that is at present taking place within this country'.1 The establishment of this subcommittee had come about due to the spy scare that was at present sweeping the country. The Secret Service Bureau was established primarily to deal with the 'extensive system of German espionage' which the subcommittee concluded existed in Britain.2 However, things were a bit more complicated than this.

Military intelligence

Prior to 1909 some individuals, especially in the military, had desired the establishment of something akin to the Secret Service Bureau. There had been several forays into the field of intelligence in the War Office, but they had tended to flounder due to lack of interest and resources. In 1873, the Intelligence Branch of the War Office was established and Major-General Sir Patrick Macdougall made its head. The IB was seen as an embryonic general staff along Prussian lines, which would mean it was a body that collected intelligence and then prepared war plans based on this intelligence.

Unfortunately, the intelligence it produced was rarely given the credulity it deserved by those it might have aided. Military commanders arrogantly thought they had no need for such information. Such became evident during the Second Boer War, when its information about the size of the Boer force was not believed. Its prestige took a further blow when it was discovered that its chief librarian and archivist, W.H. Cromie, was selling state secrets to the French – no doubt confirming in the mind of many honest military men the hunch they had always felt about the underhand nature of those who involved themselves in spy work.

Given the failure of intelligence use during the Boer War, it seems no surprise that the Committee of Imperial Defence – established as a direct result of that war to brainstorm on future British grand strategy – would at some point address the matter. The Boer War had made it clear to many people, not least Secretary of State for War Robert Haldane, that Britain was chronically unprepared to fight a European war, and would struggle even in future colonial encounters.

Improving military intelligence was the sensible thing to do as part of a program to generally strengthen the preparedness of British forces to face the enemy. Collecting information about foreign military power was hence one thing the government wanted from the Secret Service Bureau in 1909. However, this was far from the only thing.

The open society and its enemies

Anxiety about a European war was not the only background to the 1909 subcommittee report. Anxiety, however, was very much the general theme. Along with the threat of war in Europe, many British politicians worried about conflict in British society. The birth of the 'secret state' can be ascribed to a split within Liberalism in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a split which saw some Liberals moving toward the position that 'if democracy could not be depended upon to be capitalist, then capitalism might not be able to afford to be democratic'.3

Such fears were roused by the rise of sectional politics represented by labour unrest and the suffragettes. Capitalism had been supposed to raise both the standard of living and the standard of political education in the country, eventually leading to a liberal capitalist end-point were all men in the country would be a responsible part of the polity. The rise of sectional politics, especially at a time when the British state faced external threats, seemed at best to be a sign of selfish stupidity. At worse, it might be construed in some cases as treachery.

There is no evidence that the Secret Service Bureau was ever involved in activities against domestic organizations, and I do not mean to suggest it was construed in this light by the Liberal government of the day. However, the dual threats of foreign aggression and internal subversion created an atmosphere of uncertainty as to the future. Scruples about spies and spy-catchers started to seem slightly complacent as mid-Victorian optimism about Britain's equipoise started to become anachronistic.

The world was becoming more dangerous. In a dangerous world, one can less afford scruples. Just as the state felt it necessary to extend its activities into the economic sphere when its assumptions about economic and social progress proved incorrect, some Liberals started to believe it was time to redefine their assumptions about security and secrecy.

Spies and spy scares

This would make them suggestible. For years, figures in the military and in society at large had worried about the threat posed by German espionage in Britain. This was a part of the larger military anxiety, and had become specifically directed against Germany following the entente cordiale with France in 1904. Germans were the largest foreign community in Britain, numbering around 50,000. The presence of a large alien community which might be sympathetic to the enemy has always raised anxiety in times of tension, and this fear was increased by the fact the British state knew very little about these people or their activities. Anxiety multiplied by ignorance tends to result in exaggeration.

Matters weren't helped by a flush of lurid stories in the press and in print about the menace posed by German espionage. Worry about invasion was nothing new, even if after 1904 the enemy was. Plans to build a tunnel under the Channel in 1882 were met with 'a popular and national movement affecting every level of society' which was opposed to the idea on the grounds the French could march an army through it.5 Fears that a vast system of German espionage in Britain might exist hit the mainstream in 1907 with a story in the Globe, and hit the stratosphere with the publication of William Le Queux's Spies of the Kaiser in 1909.

Belief in the unscrupulousness of the enemy and Teutonic efficiency could easily lead to an image of a well-organized network of German agents in the country, prepared for an invasion. In reality, no such network existed. The German military had once considered an invasion of Britain but had dismissed the plans as impossible at the turn of the new century.5 The absence of any British agents in the German command meant that Britain was worried about this eventuality, abandoned nearly fifteen years earlier, at the outbreak of the war.

Yet this eventuality dominated the mind of Captain Vernon Kell, who was the first head of the counter-espionage section of the Secret Service Bureau. The fact this rather paranoid military man was tasked with counter-espionage says something about the atmosphere in the country in 1909. Secretary Haldane had for some time heaped scorn on the alarms raised by Lieutenant-Colonel James Edmonds, who headed the 'special' section of the directorate of military operations.

Edmonds was constantly warning of the menace posed by Germans in Britain and reporting wild rumours and circumstantial evidence as to their malignant intentions. However, he gradually browbeat the CID subcommittee through the sheer volume of rumours and reports he was able to array.

The Liberal government which established the Secret Service Bureau had been made more suggestible to the idea by the fears I have detailed already. However, it must seriously be questioned if anyone ever expected Kell to be able to tackle the German menace on his own. When he asked for an assistant, he was chided for extravagance. The government was dipping into counter-espionage, under Kell, and espionage, under Commander Bruce Cummings, in a half-hearted way.

It has been suggested Haldane was worried the fears of a fifth column might prevent the despatch of the British Expeditionary Force to the Continent and wanted to quell these fears, but as the new service was to remain secret this could only work if demonstrable successes were recorded and attributed to another law enforcement body.6 Clearly the new service was expected to record successes, but it was not to make too big an impact on the body politic. The D-Committee was set up to encourage the press to self-censor, and a new Official Secrets Act passed in 1911 was designed to allow the state to operate in secrecy.

The death of Liberal England?

All of this was rather new, and some have seen it as ‘the strange death of Liberal England’.7 Liberal England was not dead, but it was living dangerously. The anxiety in British society in the early twentieth century had led quite naturally to the government following measures to make themselves feel more secure. The tasks given to the Secret Service Bureau all ultimately had the aim of seeking to increase the state's knowledge of citizens within its own open society and what its enemies were planned abroad.

Faced with the modern threat of total destruction in an industrial war, the nightwatchman state of Victorian dreams was going to have to grow to augment its ability to gather information about the world it inhabited. The rather meagre resources dedicated to this activity before the First World War meant that it focused almost entirely on the country seen as Britain's main antagonist, Germany.

Haldane did not believe that tens of thousands of German waiters were poised to overrun the country, but it must have crossed the minds of all sensible gentlemen to think there was no smoke without fire. The Secret Service Bureau was clearly never intended to deal with the imaginary problem of a huge, organized fifth column which was in Kell's head. However, there was indeed limited German espionage activity going on in Britain, as it was reasonable to expect.

The British government had become sufficiently anxious about this activity to take measures against it, but wished such measures to be unobtrusive and small. Large encroachments on the liberty of free-born Englishmen were not justified by the scale of the threat, but the establishment of the small Secret Service Bureau was. It could continue to investigate the domestic threat, small-scale though it likely was. The counter-espionage activity of the Secret Service Bureau was similarly small in scale. Such an unobtrusive foray into spy-catching could easily be justified by the evidence which Edmonds had assembled.

The government wished the espionage activities of the Bureau to be equally small, and they set about financing them appropriately. Cumming's system of overseas intelligence was hampered by a reliance on open sources and a tendency to report information which fit in with preconceived patterns of German behaviour which were believed to be easily recognizable. The British government approached spying in even more circumspect way than spy-catching due to ambivalence about the idea as a whole.

Spying had to be cast as an essentially defensive action, only necessary because of the perfidy of the enemy. If he insisted on preparing for war in secret, then it was only natural that such underhand tactics would need to be met with similar behaviour. Although the Germans could hardly hide the existence of warships, there was much that might potentially be found out by snooping around – information on munitions for instance, or the intentions and assumptions of German naval doctrine. Cumming’s section was pushed to gather such information, but never took its role to the logical conclusion – by, for instance, making an effort to penetrate German command.

The essentially amateurish nature of British spies in Germany was perpetuated by the lack of money and inclination to finance and train a permanent, professional body of agents. Part-time spying by military officers could be cast as a sporting pursuit followed for good of country, whereas a body of men who did nothing other than spy was rather more distasteful to British sensibilities. It also reeked of the way the Germans were suspected of carrying out their espionage – cold, calculating, and not cricket at all.

The British government did not want to create such an organization nor ethos, even though it was realizing that intelligence gathering was a necessary evil in the modern world. The ethos of Cumming's organization of amicable gents exposed this dichotomy in British thought toward spying – having accepted it was necessary in some form, those pulling the purse-strings and worrying about Parliament were not ready to embrace it wholeheartedly.


In conclusion, the British government wanted two things from its Secret Service Bureau in 1909. It wanted to increase its knowledge of things it had up until now safely been able to ignore, but could ignore no longer due to the presence of a sizable community of foreign aliens believed sympathetic to an external enemy. The state wanted to extend its reach into areas it had thus far stayed away from, forced there by the machinations of the Germans.

Such perceptions are always Manichean, and the absolute depravity of the German agent displayed in literature was amply offset by the incorruptible goodness of his British counterpart. Only, that was, as long as the British agent played by certain rules. For this was the second thing the government wanted from the Secret Service Bureau – to contain this threat without radically altering the nature of the British state and certainly without the public knowing what was going on.

To remain secret and unobtrusive meant both elementary precautions and more fundamentally not becoming like the enemy. To establish a political police among the lines thought to exist in France, or a foreign intelligence and saboteur network like the one thought to be organized by Germany, would not only greatly increase the risk of the Bureau's detection but also would not be sporting.

Liberal Britain was grappling with the quandary of what to do faced by open societies that find themselves concerned their enemies are exploiting their openness to destroy them. At a time when the very existence of a Secret Service Bureau would be considered questionable in respectable circles, the small circle of men who knew of it and ran it had to make sure it would not be rolled up by 'naïve' politicians.

This is why Basil Thomson, commissioner of the Criminal Investigative Division suggested keeping the secret service alive after the war by using money from interest on a gift of War Bonds, hence removing its reliance on a Parliamentary grant. This was, of course, profoundly undemocratic. But with its very existence questionable from the start and its activities dependent on financing from a body which could be expected to be hostile to its activities, the British government wanted the Secret Service Bureau to be effective, but also unobtrusive.

1. Quoted in Christopher Andrew, Secret Service: the Making of the British Intelligence Community (London, 1985), 58
2. Quoted in Andrew, Secret Service, 58
3. Bernard Porter, Plots and Paranoia : a History of Political Espionage in Britain, 1790-1988 (London, 1989), 123
4. I.F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War, 1763-1984 (London, 1966), 96
5. See Paul M. Kennedy, 'The development of German Naval Operations Plans against England, 1896 – 1914' in Kennedy, The War Plans of the Great Powers (London, 1979)
6. Nicholas Hiley, 'The Failure of British Counter-Espionage, 1907 – 1914', Historical Journal, 28, 4 (1985)
7. Richard Thurlow, The Secret State (London, 1994), ch. 2

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