Enter the Spy – William Melville 1850-1918

Photos courtesy of the Internet.

William Melville

had an interesting career as an Irish Law enforcement officer, a founding member of the Special Irish Branch, Superintendent of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch, and – allegedly – the original M. It was a colourful life for the son of a baker.  In 1887, he foiled the Jubilee plot against Queen Victoria; in December 1888, he was assigned to protect the Shah of Persia and was instrumental in revealing the Walsall Plot, which he had instigated in order to trap an anarchist cell working out of the Walsall Socialist Club in 1891. By 1893, he was appointed to Scotland Yard following the retirement of John Littlechild.

He arrested notorious Parisian bomber and anarchist, Theodule Meunier at Victoria station on the 4th of April 1894. In June 1900, he met Harry Houdini – from whom he allegedly learned his lock picking techniques. In 1901, during the State Funeral of Queen Victoria  he worked with the German Secret Service in the form of Gustav Steinhauer, to successfully thwart a plot to assassinate the Kaiser.

Surely enough for most men? But no!

On the 1st November 1903, Melville resigned. His biographer Andrew Cook alleges that this was when Melville became Head of the British Secret Service.  History credits the Intelligence Service as the brain child and baby of Captain Vernon Kell – K and disputes  Cooks claims. But as relations between Germany and Britain deteriorated, Melville was instrumental in demanding a counter espionage service, though this was not set up until 1909.

In the intervening years, partly because of lack of funds and partly because he enjoyed the active service, Melville used his own Private Detective Agency – headed by himself, under the pseudonym, William Morgan to go where even secret government organisations couldn’t venture. This team succeeded in obtaining German mobilisation plans, investigated Boer financial support of said mobilisation and was probably used to hire a representative of Courage Brewery, Hamburg to supply intelligence. In 1909, with the creation of the Secret Service Bureau imminent, Melville went to Germany to recruit more agents.

With the creation of MI’s 1 – 19, most in the know would have thought that Melville and his team would be subsumed into the new organisation. However, his team remained in place as a unit for the tracking of German spies. In August 1914, as War drew steadily nearer, Melville finally proved  after  four years of investigation that Karl Gustav Ernst’s barbershop  – at the location of 156 Caledonian Road N19 -was the centre of a German spy ring. More money was forthcoming when Melville’s team became attached to the newly founded G-section, responsible for investigating suspected enemy agents. Additionally, he founded a spy school opposite the War Office in Whitehall Court.

In February 1918, at the age of 68, Melville died of kidney failure.