Spies, intrigue and afternoon tea: St Ermin’s Hotel and the Secret Intelligence Service

What were the Secret Intelligence Service and Churchill up to in Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster in London during the 1930s?

Every street in London has a story to tell. Some stories might be as simple as a birth or a death, a lasting legacy originating from someone coming into the world or someone leaving. The blue plaques which adorn many London buildings will happily point you in the direction of these important locations. But there is another type of London history. There are locations around the city which are wrapped in intrigue. Homes and hotels which have altered the course of the country’s history with little to no fanfare. While it might be important to know where an old poet breathed his last, those with a historical interest might be fascinated to discover the history which hides within some of the subtler city walls.

St Ermin's HotelIn terms of threats to the country, there were few which were more feared than the Nazis. The waging of the Second World War was a caustic and exhausting campaign, fought in the fields of France, in the skies above the city, on sea, sand and snow. But it was also the birth of modern spying. The war was a global concern, but the heart of the British effort was born in a clandestine series of locations in West London. Caxton Hall, Caxton Street and Westminster saw the arrival of British spying, and the creation of the vaunted SIS.

The birth of spies

Espionage in the British Isles has its roots in the end of the Victorian era. The Secret Service Bureau was established in 1909 with the intent of evaluating the capabilities of the German Navy. This service became formalised and evolved as the First World War began to take hold, with the branch devoted to foreign investigations becoming known as MI6. Although the service achieved middling results, it was able to collect a great deal of intelligence in neutral countries.

It was the 1920s which saw the service really coming into its own. Working closely with the diplomatic community, the British government began to establish a spy network across the world. At this time, the emerging service was based in Whitehall and increasingly became known as the SIS: the Secret Intelligence Service. Throughout this time, much of the concern was with Bolshevism, seen as the biggest threat to democracies in the west following the Russian Revolution and establishment of Soviet Russia.

It would be the rise of fascism, however, which would shape the century and soon enough, the SIS changed focus. As well as maintaining a spy network and a concern for foreign communist governments, the rise of the Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist government in Germany, as well as Franco in Spain and Mussolini in Italy, became a more pressing concern and it was here that the SIS would prove themselves invaluable.

Finding a home

The Second World War was something of an inevitability. Following the emergence of fascism and the Great Depression, the intermediary years between World Wars were something of an arms race. While earlier, countries had stockpiled ships and soldiers, now they were stockpiling spies. During the 1930s, as war drew closer, it became clear that the SIS would need to become directly involved in the coming war efforts and to do this, they would need a home, somewhere to meet. Today, St Ermin’s Hotel and the surrounding areas at 2 Caxton Street and 54 Broadway are the lasting legacy of those meeting places.

In the heart of the city, the buildings were the perfect location to move freely between the different departments which were concerned with the coming war effort. Palmer Street was the home of Government Communications, MI9 could be found in Caxton Street and the SIS Chief’s office was located at 21 Queen Anne’s Gate. Victoria Street, St Anne’s Mansions and Petty France all held vital branches of the government intelligence service, but St Ermin’s became the de facto neutral ground.

It became a meeting point for discussions and councils. The hotel and the close-by Caxton Bar were the ideal spot to meet agents of many different divisions. SIS, MI6 and Naval Intelligence all met in the building and exchanged information. The rooms themselves were used to interview prospective employees. The hotel and the surrounding area quickly became integral to the escalating efforts of the intelligence community. As the Second World War began to take hold, many operations and plans were discussed on this exact site.

ChurchillThe list of names which could be found in the area is sure to impress. Ian Fleming, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Laurence Grand, H. Montgomery Hyde and Eric Maschwitz had all worked in the building at one point or another, while the hotel and the bar quickly became a favourite location for Winston Churchill to meet with intelligence officers.

As well as general intelligence, guerrilla campaigns were born in the building. The training which was provided to many MI6 officers took place inside, involving people such as Noel Coward and Anthony Blunt, renowned for their work during the war. The SOE (Special Operations Branch) was an offshoot of the SIS created by Churchill, meeting in the hotel in order to “set Europe Ablaze” with covert operations. It was this group which would later become the SAS and their first home was an entire floor of the building.

During the 1930s, government intelligence worked tirelessly to gauge the threat which was posed to them by the country’s enemies. After 1939, their efforts became consumed with stopping the spread of fascism across the continent. As the Blitz saw the city bombed and millions perished on the front lines, the work of those in the offices in Westminster is easy to overlook.

The secret history of the British intelligence community is surreptitiously cloaked in mystery. While it can be easy to walk along a London street and read the swathes of history from the mementos and the tributes which adorn many of the buildings, some of the most important contributions were created in a secret fashion and have remained as such. For those looking for a real entry into the world of British spying and its contributions to saving the country, there is only one location which is open to the public. St Ermin’s hotel, in its own luxurious splendour, is a tribute to the efforts of those clandestine contributors.

Jonny Rowntree

St Ermin’s Hotel is a luxury hotel located in the heart of Westminster, Central London complemented by neighbouring bar and restaurant, Caxton Grill.