British Spy Who Inspired James Bond's 'M' Revealed As William Melville

Roundup: Talking About History

Jonathan Thompson, Independent on Sunday (London), 05 Sept.

Spymaster William Melville in 1906 (right), MI5 members in 1918 (left) and Judi Dench as M in the 1995 Bond film Goldeneye' One of the great espionage mysteries has finally been solved - the identity of the real-life inspiration behind M, James Bond's fictional boss.

A new biography, drawing on previously unseen government files, will unmask William Melville as"the Godfather of MI5" and the inspiration for Ian Fleming's M. Like all good spies, Melville carefully hid his true identity. Few outside the world of espionage have ever heard his name. But next month - more than 85 years after his death - Britain's first modern spymaster will get the credit he deserves.

Melville is referred to in the files as M, and it is now being claimed that Fleming used him and his epithet for the character in his James Bond novels. The new book, written by the historian and intelligence expert Andrew Cook, draws on family material from Ireland and New Zealand, along with closed official records, to reveal Melville as the brains behind Britain's embryonic security service.

A master of disguise, the ex-police officer and his team were at the heart of British counter-espionage during the First World War. Melville's exploits, which included enlisting the skills of Harry Houdini to train his operatives, went on to inspire Fleming, who worked for British Intelligence during the Second World War.

"People often discuss who the greatest spies were, but the really great spies are the ones we've never heard of," said Mr Cook."Melville was one of the most significant espionage operatives of the 20th century. He was the father figure of MI5. A lot of the things he pioneered are still in use today."

In M: MI5's First Spymaster, Mr Cook traces the roots of modern British Intelligence back to a tiny outfit founded by Melville in London's Victoria Street almost exactly 100 years ago.

"When Melville started in 1904, he was effectively posing as a private detective agency under one of his pseudonyms, William Morgan," said Mr Cook."Even then, he was acting as a focus for dealing with, and recruiting against, the German espionage network. In 1909, the organisation became the Secret Service Bureau."

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