William Melville

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Person.png William Melville  Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
(policeman, spook)
William Melville.jpg
Born25 April 1850
Sneem, County Kerry, Ireland
Died1918-02-01 (Age 67)
ReligionRoman Catholic
ParentsJames and Catherine Melville
Children • Kate
• William
• Cecilia
• James Melville
Spouse • Kate Reilly
• Amelia Foy

Employment.png Director General of MI5

In office
1 November 1903 - 1909
Succeeded byVernon Kell

William Melville was the head of Scotland Yard's Special Branch and later the first chief of the British Secret Service Bureau.


William Melville was born son of a baker and publican in Direenaclaurig Cross, Sneem, County Kerry, Ireland. He moved to London in the 1860s and followed his father's footsteps as a baker before he joined the Metropolitan Police in 1872.[1]

Scotland Yard

In 1882 he was chosen to be one of the founding members of the Special Irish Branch that was founded to work against Fenians and anarchists.[2] Melville was posted to the Le Havre port, during which posting his children, James Benjamin (1885) (later Sir James Melville KC) and Cecile Victorinne (1886; died in London in 1891), were born. In December 1888 Melville returned to London and was assigned to protect the Shah of Persia in his state visit. His duties later expanded to the protection of British Royal Family and he foiled the Jubilee Plot against Queen Victoria in 1887. In 1891 he began to campaign against anarchists by raiding and wrecking anarchist clubs and underground printing houses. He also revealed the Walsall Plot [3], which was created by his agents provocateurs.

In 1893 Melville became Superintendent of Scotland Yard's Special Branch when his predecessor John Littlechild retired to become a private investigator. When he fired veteran sergeant Patrick McIntyre, McIntyre went to press and claimed that Melville had instigated the whole Walsall Plot himself, a claim vindicated by police files released over 80 years later.[4]

In the next ten years, Melville embarked on a large series of well-publicized raids against anarchists. He went to Victoria Station to personally arrest bomber Théodule Meunier.[5] In 1896 Melville recruited Shlomo Rosenblum (later known as Sidney Reilly) as an informer in an organization he suspected to be involved with Russian anarchists.[6]

In 1901 he worked with Gustav Steinhauer of the German Secret Service to thwart a plot against the Kaiser during the state funeral of Queen Victoria.[7] In June 1900 Melville met future stage magician Harry Houdini when he came to Scotland Yard to showcase his abilities as an escapologist. When Houdini released himself easily from the police handcuffs, Melville befriended him and reputedly learned lock picking.[8]

On 1 November 1903, Melville resigned as superintendent but was secretly recruited to lead a new intelligence section in the War Office, MO3, which was redesignated M05 in 1907.[9] Working under commercial cover from an unassuming flat in London under the alias persona William Morgan, Melville ran both counterintelligence and foreign intelligence operations, capitalizing on the knowledge and foreign contacts he had accumulated during his years running Special Branch.[9] In 1909 the Government Committee on Intelligence, with advocacy of Richard Burden Haldane and Winston Churchill, established a new Secret Service Bureau with a Home Section under command of Captain Sir Vernon Kell and a Foreign Section under Commander Sir Mansfield Cumming. Melville's unit was folded into Kells department, which, while acting in Home matters, remained subordinate to the War Office.[10] By 1910 it was clear that the Home Section and the Foreign Section would seek their own identities, and Kell's department, the Security Service separated from Cummings' Secret Intelligence Service.[11]

According to the conclusions of author Andrew Cook, his biographer, which are not accepted by all historians, Melville then became the head of British Secret Service with the code name "M". Still, the service had small budget and on occasion Melville had to do the job himself.[12]

Secret Service Bureau

Melville's own section continued as a separate Special Section of the Secret Service Bureau and he concentrated on looking for German spies. In August 1914 the Bureau eventually identified the barbershop of Karl Gustav Ernst as the centre of a German spy ring.[13]


William Melville died of kidney failure in February 1918.[14]