William Le Queux and the origins of the British secret service

In addition to being a popular spy novelist William Le Queux also considered himself an amateur spy catcher. In many of his novels he referred to his own hunts for enemy spies, particular those from Germany, who he believed were operating across Britain in the years before the Great War. This concern about potential German spies in Britain was also expressed by many within the British public, especially in the years 1907 and 1908. For example, in May 1907 the Morning Post published a letter from an alarmed citizen who claimed that there was supposedly some 90,000 German reservist soldiers and spies in Britain and there were weapons stored in nearly every city. [1] By 1909 the ideas of German spies operating Britain became increasingly common and it was decided by the British government that the question of enemy espionage in Britain and potential responses needed to be addressed and a sub-committee of Imperial Defence was formed. Among the military and intelligence officers called to present evidence at this committee was James Edmonds, the director of MO5, Britain’s military counter-intelligence service. Edmonds presented the committee with, what he believed to be, evidence of 76 cases of German espionage in Britain from 1907 until March 1909 and he concluded that a great number of Germans living in Britain were German spies. Among these 76 cases were five cases which originated from ‘a well-known author’ who was Le Queux. [2] The reason for is that in addition to being a senior counter-intelligence officer Edmonds was also a good friend of Le Queux’s and an avid reader of his spy novels. In the years just prior to the creation this sub-committee of Imperial Defence Le Queux’s spy novels had become focused on the theme of enemy spies from Germany being active in Britain. In novels such as The invasion of 1910 and The spies of the Kaiser these agents, wearing elaborate disguises, were employed as landlords, clerks, barbers, musicians and waiters and were working to gain access to sensitive British military and defence secrets which would allow for successful German invasion of Britain once war commenced between the two countries. For example, in The spies of the Kaiser Le Queux’s readers learnt about a German spy posing as a waiter while spying on British naval defences at Rosyth in Scotland, and also how a group of German spies, based at Southsea, were spying on the British navy in Portsmouth. [3] The five cases provided by Le Queux and presented by Edmonds to the committee referred to suspicious individuals who are either identified as being German or suspected of being German in or around the Portsmouth area. The evidence of supposed German espionage in these cases was highly circumstantial; for example, one of the cases mentioned two German barbers, one of whom wore a wig, and took an interest in naval gossip, while another case described an occasion when the well-known author accidentally ran into a foreign cyclist who swore in German and was seen with his companions exploring the area around Portsmouth and making sketches.[4] These cases could easily have been taken from one of Le Queux’s spy novels and can be viewed as pure fiction but they were presented by Edmonds as evidence of factual German espionage in Britain. Le Queux’s evidence, coupled with the other evidence provided by Edmonds, much of which was also highly circumstantial, played a role in informing the sub-committee which came to the conclusion ‘that a great deal of German espionage was being undertaken in Great Britain’. The committee recommended that a department be established to counter this security threat and this led to the formation of the Secret Service Bureau (SSB) the organisation that the modern intelligence and security service Secret Intelligence Service (SIS/MI6) and Security Service (MI5) both trace their origins to. [5] Thus, it can be said that a spy novelist and his fictional ideas of German spies played an active role in the creation of the modern British secret service at the start of the twentieth century.

[1] Morning Post, 7 May 1907.
[2] Cases of alleged German espionage, 13 April 1909 (The National Archives CAB 16/8).
[3] Le Queux, Spies of the Kasier, pp 11, 15-16, 34-8.
[4] Cases of alleged German espionage, 13 April 1909 (The National Archives CAB 16/8).
[5] The question of foreign espionage in Britain: third meeting, 12 July 1909 (The National Archives CAB 16/8).


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Jonathan Best

I historian of modern British history. In particular my research has focused on the activities of British secret services during the twentieth century, particularly during the two world wars and the early decades of the Cold War. In addition to this my current research has also examined the history of British spy fiction with a particular focus on the British spy novel between the late Victorian era and the 1960s. This interest is fueled by my personal passion for the secret world of espionage, intelligence, clandestine operations both fictional and factual.

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