How ‘spying’ in Rusper became the birth of MI5

It is January 1910 and a ‘lady of high social standing in Surrey and Sussex… actuated by patriotic motives’ is meeting with a friend of hers, a high-ranking officer in the British army, and has a conversation that will soon lead to the small village of Rusper becoming the focus of Britain’s first secret service undercover operation.

Tuesday, 26th January 2021, 3:13 pm
Updated Tuesday, 26th January 2021, 3:13 pm

Until October 1909, Britain had been without a professional, dedicated spy and counter-spy organisation, despite rising paranoia over German militarism since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The military had been reduced in strength as armies on the continent were expanding theirs. The shock by which a small but technologically superior Prussian army managed to invade and defeat France resulted in outrage over the state of Britain’s own military.

Shortly after the Prussian victory, George Tomkyns Chesney, a former captain in the Royal Engineers, wrote The Battle of Dorking as a warning to the general public about this new threat. In the book, Germany launches a successful invasion of Britain, landing at Worthing and converging on the ramshackle British defenders at the Surrey town. Germany inflicts a heavy defeat and Britain becomes a heavily-repressed German colony.

As the story became more and more popular, the idea that Germany desired to invade England took hold. Stories of German spies operating in Britain became more commonplace. Unreliable reports that high-ranking German army officers had admitted to a sophisticated spy network in southern England only served to fuel the paranoia; the fact that many of these stories were clearly of dubious origin at best, and completely fabricated at worst, did not matter.

Herr A arrived in Rusper in November 1909 and applied for rooms, most likely at The Star Inn. The unnamed ‘lady of high social standing’ was at Rusper Post Office in January 2010 when she overheard him and another German man discussing a foreign money order. Picture: Steve Robards SR2012017

In 1909, the Admiralty and the War Office formed the joint Secret Service Bureau, later to be re-named as the more familiar MI5, in order to counter the activities of the Imperial German government.

For several years beforehand, Major General Vernon Kell had been analysing German intelligence for the War Office, and it was natural that he was approached to become the first head of the new Secret Service Bureau. Kell agreed, retired from the army and took on the codename of ‘K’.

In these early years, the bureau’s remit was greatly restricted and had only a small staff. In fact, the bureau had to rely upon the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch to provide the actual manpower to conduct investigations into reported and suspected foreign agents.

When the unnamed ‘lady of high social standing’ made her report to her officer friend, Kell dispatched his assistant William Melville, a former Special Branch officer, to Rusper to investigate further. When he arrived in the village, Melville, codenamed ‘M’, uncovered the full story.

The lady in question had visited Rusper Post Office one day and found there were two German men – named in the records only as ‘Herr A’ and ‘Herr B’ – having a discussion with the sub-postmaster, Walter Martin, about a foreign money order.

Things were clearly getting lost in translation and the lady, who was a skilled linguist, offered to render assistance. In so doing, she saw the order was made out to a German-Polish name, that the sender was also a Pole and that it had been sent from a town in southern France. Her suspicions were further aroused when she later learned the two men were living in the village but had ‘no visible occupation’.

Melville ascertained that Herr A arrived in the village in November 1909 and immediately applied for rooms at ‘Mr X’s’, most likely The Star Inn, professing to have travelled from Monte Carlo and to have been recommended to Mr X by a Polish baroness. Mr X, probably George Fripp, the landlord, declared that he had never heard of the baroness before.

Nothing else of interest occurred until January 1910, when Herr B arrived from Nice and took up lodgings at The Star Inn, also on the apparent recommendation of the mysterious baroness. Both men pretended to be strangers to each other but seemed to be familiar with the other man’s business and personal affairs. When Melville arrived in the village, Herr A was reported to have become ‘visibly disturbed… and cross-questioned the landlord very severely’ about the new arrival, and was particularly anxious to know if he understood any foreign language. He became more relaxed when Melville assured him that he had no knowledge of either French or German.

During Melville’s stay in Rusper, Herr A was regularly in receipt of registered letters from Germany and Herr B maintained a continuous correspondence with the mystery Polish baroness. However, shortly after Melville arrived, the men got into an argument, which both Kell and Melville believed was a ‘put up job’, and refused to speak to one another during the remainder of his stay.

Nonetheless, it was learned that the two men were regularly motoring between Rusper and various locations on the south coast and seemed to be keeping a record of the times and distances travelled – apparently managing one time to make a run from Brighton to Rusper in 55 minutes.

Furthermore, the men were known to have also visited key local landmarks and high ground, including at Hindhead, Box Hill, the now-demolished tower at Holmbush Beacon near Lower Beeding, the tower of St Mary Magdalene Church, Rusper, and the water tower at Lyne House near Capel, all of which ‘would be of the greatest value to an invading force advancing… between Dover and Portsmouth’.

It was also alleged that the men were gaining an ‘intimate acquaintance’ with the railway lines between the south coast and the major junctions at Guildford, Dorking and Tunbridge.

At the same time, a similar case was being investigated at Frant, on the Sussex-Kent border, and it was also theorised that a German cavalry officer who had recently taken up lodgings at East Horsley vicarage may have had some connection to the Rusper and Frant cases. He was apparently on an educational visit to learn English but already had a ‘perfect’ grasp of the language.

Despite a lack of any actual evidence of spying, and suspicions being made mostly on paranoia than on any solid facts, Kell confidently concluded that the investigations at Rusper and Frant had ‘justified’ the infant bureau’s existence and that the bureau should be the sole body for investigating reports of foreign spy activity.

Furthermore, Kell concluded the Rusper and Frant cases had provided ‘strong… evidence to the existence… of an organised system of a German espionage’. However, these conclusions were despite the fact that ‘there are a good many links missing in the chain of circumstances’, but this seemingly obvious admission of the flimsy nature of the evidence was quantified with the statement that ‘it does not require a very great stretch of imagination to insert connecting links of one’s own forging, thus producing a pretty strong chain of evidence, all emanating from… Germany, and ending in the same objective - the spying out of the land’.

Nonetheless, Kell’s superiors all shared his views of the German threat and thus Kell did not shy away from requesting that the Official Secrets Act needed additional clauses to make it easier to investigate foreign activity and take action if appropriate. He argued that it was easier to get a warrant for reports of petty larceny but that in ‘cases involving the safety of the Empire’ the police had no powers to act. He also advised that a specific law should be introduced prohibiting the photographing, planning or sketching of military infrastructure, which hitherto could be tried only as a civil offence of trespass.

Further cases of alleged German spying were investigated in the years preceding the First World War but with similar outcomes to the above instances. By the time war broke out in 1914, the bureau, now better funded, better staffed and split into two branches and renamed as MI5 and MI6 respectively, had produced the Special War List of suspected German spies living in Britain and who were to be kept under surveillance and arrested in the event of an invasion. Among the many names listed were Henry Anglehart of Beaumont Lodge, Ifield Wood, Dr von Muller of Wiston Old Rectory and Hermann Taglow of Eltham House, Station Road, Billingshurst.

■ Eddy Greenfield is a writer and historian living in Sussex and the author of A-Z of Horsham (Amberley Publishing, 2019) and Secret Arundel (Amberley Publishing, 2020). His next book, Battle of Britain: West Sussex is due for release by Pen and Sword in 2021.