‘I don’t think “spy” is the right word; but I mean something pretty bad’

Davies hesitates to call Dollman a ‘spy’, for good reason. There was little understanding as to what this word meant in 1898 – it certainly didn’t carry the associations it does for us.

But this period is pungent with the smell of undercover agents, of men who are not quite what they seem, of boys-own adventure mixed (shaken, not stirred) with deceit and falsehoods. The era of the Secret Agent is upon us.

Three men personify this uncertain period: Charles Marie Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy, Sir Mansfield Cumming and the rather more plainly-named Arthur Melville.


Charles Esterhazy was born in Paris in 1847, and was left an orphan at an early age. After some early schooling at the Lycée Bonaparte in Paris, he disappeared for four years in 1865. In 1869 he enlisted in the Legion of Antibes, a unit drawn from French volunteers in the service of Pope Pius IX. There followed an odd rise through the ranks of the French army, during which time he began to assume the title of ‘count’, to which he was not entitled – some records of what was to come still call him Count Esterhazy.

Commandant Esterhazy
Commandant Esterhazy

From 1880 he was employed to translate German at the French military counter-intelligence section, and from there went to work at the French War Ministry. He led a life of dissipation in Paris, squandered a fortune, and then squandered his wife’s dowry when he married in 1886; she left him in 1888. He borrowed money from the Rothschilds while supplying information to the anti-Semitic newspaper La Libre Parole.

In September 1894 an office cleaner working at the German Embassy in Paris – who also happened to be an agent of French military intelligence – passed her handlers a memo written by an unnamed French officer, offering the German Embassy various confidential military documents. The following, a captain called Alfred Dreyfus was picked by the Army on the basis that his handwriting was similar to that on the memo. A more likely reason for his arrest was his religion: he was Jewish. He was also an Alsatian. The French army threw the rulebook at him, he was formally stripped of his military rank in a very public ceremony of degradation, and was then shipped to the penal colony of Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.

Dreyfus on Devil's Island
Dreyfus on Devil’s Island

In 1896, Lieutenant-Colonel Picquart, the new head of the Intelligence Service, became convinced that Esterhazy was the German spy, and not Dreyfus. His army superiors wanted none of it – they even transferred Picquart to Tunisia to shut him up. But he sent his evidence to Dreyfus’ lawyers, and they started a campaign against Esterhazy. A new trial was held behind closed doors in 1898 (the year in which Riddle of the Sands is set, we believe). He was, not unsurprisingly, acquitted – with now-famous results.


Esterhazy was put given a military pension and fled ti England. He moved to Milton Road in Harpenden, fromuntil his death in 1923. He is buried in St Nicholas’ churchyard, Harpenden under the false name of Jean de Voilemont. Count de Voilemont, bien sûr. 


In 1909 the British Government Committee on Intelligence, encouraged by Winston Churchill, established a new Secret Service Bureau. It had a Home Section under command of Captain (Later General) Sir Vernon Kell and a Foreign Section under Commander (later Admiral) Sir Mansfield Cumming 1909, and was a joint initiative of the Admiralty and War office. The naval section focussed on overseas ‘target espionage’, the army section on internal counter-espionage. The seeds of the future split between MI5 and MI6 are found here.

In 1911, this split was made formal. The home section of the Secret Service Bureau became the Directorate of Military Intelligence (5). MI6 (ie, Military Intelligence, Section 6)  – also known as the Secret Intelligence Service – was headed by Captain Sir George Mansfield Smith-Cumming. He dropped the Smith in routine communication, and signed his name as C.


He was born in 1859 as Sir George Mansfield Smith, adding Cumming when he got married. He served in Navy but was discharged with ‘extreme seasickness’. In 1898, while still on the Royal Navy retired list, he was posted to Nelson’s old flagship Victory ‘for special service at Southampton’. The ‘special service’ included occasional intelligence work abroad, but his main work for the next decade was the construction and command of the Southampton boom defences at Bursledon on River Hamble.

Childers, remembered, moored the Vixen at Bursledon in 1898 and spent his weekends cruising in the Solent with his friends. Did he know Cumming? That question is speculative, but interesting.

By 1911, Cumming was head of the early MI6. He described espionage as ‘capital sport’, and his early operations were almost entirely against Germany. Before the war he recruited part-time ‘casual agents’ in the German shipyards. During the First World War, his most important network was called ‘La Dame Blanche’,  which by 1918 had over 400 agents reporting on German troop movements from occupied Belgium and northern France. Agents who worked for MI6 during the war included Augustus Agar, Paul Dukes, John Buchan, Compton Mackenzie and W. Somerset Maugham. The literature of the spy was, in large part, invented by those who had spied themselves.

William Melville

The swashbuckling Cumming is the prototype of the posh spy, obsessed with gadgets and cars. But for every James Bond, there is a Harry Palmer. And one model for Palmer must have been William Melville.

Melville of the Met
Melville of the Met

Melville joined the Metropolitan Police in 1872, having worked as a baker in Lambeth.  He was almost immediately dismissed for insubordination, having taken part in agitation for improved police pay and conditions (very H Palmer!), but he was reinstated a week later. Within seven years, he was promoted to Detective Sergeant in CID.

In 1883 Melville was appointed to the special Irish branch, a new covert division within Metropolitan Police CID formed in response to the Irish-American dynamite bombing campaign in Britain. Melville’s intelligence led to the arrests of Fenians planning to assassinate Queen Victoria in Westminster Abbey during the celebrations of her Jubilee in June 1887.

The ‘Irish special branch’ soon became known as Special Branch, and was increasingly turning its attention to European anarchists who had obtained asylum in Britain and. In late 1891 Melville uncovered the so-called Walsall plot to manufacture a bomb for use against the Russian tsarist regime; he personally arrested the Walsall socialist Joseph Deakin, at Euston Station in January 1892.

Melville took over as head of special branch in March 1893. In February 1894 he was present in the aftermath of the explosion in Greenwich Park that killed the French anarchist Martial Bourdin, after which he led a raid by armed police on the anarchist Autonomie Club in Windmill Street. The death of Bourdin was the inspiration for Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent.

There followed a string of significant arrests: in April 1894, after a violent struggle at Victoria Station, Melville arrested Théodule Meunier for his part in bombings in Paris. In the same month, in Farringdon Road, he arrested Francis Polti, an Italian anarchist, carrying a bomb casing wrapped in brown paper, which was apparently intended to be used to blow up the stock exchange. In December 1897, after correspondence with the Russian secret police, he arrested the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Burtsev as he was leaving the British Museum reading room, on a warrant for publishing an incitement to assassinate Tsar Nicholas II.

As if to demonstrate the blurred lines in this new secret war, in 1901 Melville worked with Gustav Steinhauer of the German secret service to thwart a plot against the Kaiser during the funeral of Queen Victoria. But then in 1903, Melville retired, and a national testimonial campaign raised £200 to thank him for his work against anarchists. Subscribers included the German ambassador and Arthur Conan Doyle.

But Melville did not retire at all. He began work in counter-espionage investigations for the newly created intelligence departments of the War Office which would, eventually, become MI5. He worked from a plain office in Victoria Street (Harry Palmer once again), monitoring Tsarist and German agents in Britain. He was known in correspondence by his initial: M.

After the formation of the Secret Service Bureau and then MI5, Melville’s section continued to operate independently. By then – barely a decade after Riddle of the Sands – the threat of German spies in England was widely acknowledged.

Melville retired from what was by then MI5 in 1917, and died the following year.


But perhaps the most interesting thing about Melville, at least in regard to Riddle of the Sands, is this: he was Irish. He was born in Sneem, county Kerry, in 1850, the eldest of three sons of James Melville. Until the age of fifteen he worked for his father, who was then a baker and publican in Sneem. One day he want to collect the weekly stock delivery from the railway station in Killarney, but he never came back. He boarded a train, probably bound for Dublin, and eventually reached London. Seven years later, he joined the Met.

So – Davies and Carruthers may have tripped over the word spy in 1898. But by 1914, everyone in Britain was very, very familiar with it.


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