You’re quietly eating your sandwich on a park bench when a man in dark glasses sits down next to you. ‘The red squirrel eats with a fork tonight,’ he intones in a thick accent. Do not be surprised. Make no false moves. You’re in the right place. Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster have a rich history of such non sequitur meetings and clandestine assignations. From Baden Powell to, body-in-the-bag spy, Gareth Williams, the area is a renowned for espionage and its practitioners.
‘Neighbourhoods like this,’ Roy Berkeley wrote, about the second world war in A Spy’s London, were perfect for spies; ‘where bourgeois propriety could be counted on to give a certain security: the odd-looking foreigners, if noticed at all, would tend to be discreetly ignored.’ And little has changed in this area, a vanguard of multiculturalism, where the only colour that matters is the colour of your money.
Some of these boroughs’ best kept secrets lie in the inconspicuous buildings we pass every day. There are no blue plaques, no statues or thronging crowds of tourists, but the quiet men and women, who plied their secret trade on these streets, changed the course of the world.
Harold ‘Kim’ Philby is one of Kensington and Chelsea’s most infamous former residents. A member of the notorious Cambridge Spy Ring, he worked as a double agent passing secrets from MI6 straight to the KGB for over twenty years; he was central to perpetuating the Cold War and the fear of imminent threat it held for so many.
When MI6 moved to central London in 1943, Philby took up residence at his mother’s flat in the basement of Grove Court, Holly Mews. He came with his wife, his two children and his two terriers called MI5 and MI6. And it was here he returned, in 1955, to hold a press conference, after being thrown out of Washington by the CIA as a suspected Russian spy. He denied spying, threatened to sue anyone who speculated that he did, and he was comfortably back at work in MI6 within six months. It was another ten years of treachery before he was finally exposed and fled to the USSR.
In 1944, collecting salaries in both roubles and pounds, Philby was able to move his family into the very exclusive 18 Carlyle Square, heart of the wealthy beau monde. He held lavish and decadent parties here yet few thought, or dared, to ask how a mid-ranking civil servant could afford such splendour.
Both properties are just a short stroll from the, then, Russian Consulate at 3 Rosary Gardens. Many believe it was here Philby was ‘turned’; recruited to the KGB. The building still keeps thick black blinds permanently down; the only clue to its present owner is the name on the bell, RIA Novosti, the Russian press agency.
It’s unlikely Philby delivered Britain’s most sensitive intelligence here; too obvious, too surveillable. Spies prefer ‘Dead Drops’ or ‘Dead Letter Boxes’ (DLBs); secret caches to leave film or information for later collection by other agents. When senior KGB boss, and British double agent, Oleg Gordievsky defected, he brought with him the KGB spy’s handbook which described the locations of the Russian DLBs. The statue of St Francis of Assisi opposite Holy Trinity Brompton Church was one. ‘If you stand facing the statue,’ says the handbook, ‘there is a large tree growing just to the left… The site for the DLB is on the ground at the base of the tree, between the tree and the fence.’
Another DLB is actually inside neighbouring Brompton Oratory; behind ‘the column nearest to the wall,’ by the first altar on the right as you enter. Seldom visited, poorly lit and not on ‘State property’, it was described by one KGB agent as ‘the safest in London.’ It seems they took the maxim of ‘hiding in plain sight’ very literally.
The Special Operations Executive, the secret WWII organisation tasked with teaching terror tactics to underground movements in occupied countries, didn’t just hide in plain sight, their ‘safe house’ used to protect foreign agents at 20 Cranley Place, just screams for attention with its extraordinary classical pediment.
Nearby, The Right Club – the clue to their political leaning was in the name – held their clandestine meetings in the flat above the Russian Tea Rooms, at 50 Harrington Road. As fascist anti-Semitism rose in 1930’s Germany, this extremist ‘Club’ gathered the cream of British society to agitate for Nazi rule in the UK. It included a dozen MPs, four peers, four sons of peers and a host of well-connected socialites.
MI5 agent Joan Miller infiltrated the group and befriended Anna Wolkoff, daughter of the Tea Room’s Tsarist owner. Marooned in London after the Russian Revolution, believing that their enemy’s enemy must be their friend, the Wolkoffs were rabid Nazi sympathisers.
When Miller began, she reported to MI5, just a few blocks away at 124-126 Cromwell Road. By the time she bust the Right Club, scoring the first major intelligence success of the war, MI5 had moved to Thames House in Victoria.
Anna Wolkoff’s lover, Tyler Kent, was a code clerk, at the American embassy. A vicious anti-Semite, he was a frequent guest at her house, 18 Roland Gardens. In 1940, as Chamberlain faltered in the first months of WWII, Churchill secretly began a dialogue with Roosevelt, hoping to persuade the US to enter the war. Kent, fearing an agreement would doom the Nazi effort, stole the documentation. He passed the papers – that could have undermined trust in Churchill, forcing him to resign – through Wolkoff, to the head of the Right Club, Archibald Ramsey, MP.
Just 13 days after Churchill was selected – rather than elected – as Prime Minister, Miller got wind of the plot. Tyler and Wolkoff were quickly apprehended and before Ramsey could release the papers, he too was arrested at his house at 24 Onslow Gardens. On finding the Right Club’s register of members, a total of 1,373 influential British Nazis were arrested. Churchill remained and in 1941 America entered the war; the rest is, of course, history.
But the area isn’t just testament to historic spying. ‘Tradecraft’ remains, very much, among us. Mystery still surrounds the discovery of Gareth Williams, the 31 year old code expert on secondment from GCHQ to MI6, whose dead body was found naked and padlocked in a sports holdall, submerged in “a fluid” in the bath of his 3rd floor flat at 36, Alderney Street, in 2010. Some say the flat is an MI6 safe house. But the Land Registry reveals the offshore owner is one New Rodina. Rodina, or родина, is the Russian word for ‘home’ or ‘Motherland’. In fact The Rodina Society was used as a cover operation for KGB activity in the West during the Cold War.
So tread carefully, keep an eye over your shoulder, there are spies among us.
Marius Brill’s comic spy thriller, Making Love: A Conspiracy of the Heart is available on Amazon and from all good bookshops.
First published in