Born: 25 April 1850
Died: 1 February 1918
Intelligence involvement: Superintendent of Scotland Yard Special Branch (1893-1903), Secret Service Bureau (exact dates unknown)
Culture involvement: Was the subject of much of Patrick McIntyre’s memoir about Special Branch. Subject of an acclaimed biography ‘M: MI5’s first spymaster’. Possible basis for the character of ‘M’ in the James Bond novels.
Bio: William Melville was born in the town of Sneem, County Kerry in the South West of Ireland. He first joined the Metropolitan police in 1872 and he quickly rose through the ranks. A friend of the magician Harry Houdini, during the 1880s he headed up the Special Irish Bureau designed to deal with the problem of Fenian ‘dynamitards’. He was part of the team that foiled the 1887 Jubilee Plot, which was supposedly an assassination attempt against Queen Victoria. In reality it was a state sponsored covert operation, approved by the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, run through the spy Francis Millen with the aim of discrediting Irish nationalism. It is possible that Melville was not in the loop and as far as he was concerned had foiled a real plot.
Melville went on to lead the fight against the international anarchist movement in the late 1880s and 1890s. He was likely the mastermind behind another provocation-entrapment operation against a group known as the Walsall Anarchists. They were arrested in 1892 and stood trial, accused of planning bombings and running a bomb factory. Evidence against them was fabricated, and when they defendants asked questions of Melville about the role of another man named Auguste Coulon, Melville stonewalled and was supported in this by the judge. Three of the men were given 10 years hard labour, another was given 5.
Allegations that Coulon was a police spy or agent provocateur circulated among the radical community in Britain. This was confirmed a few years later when a former Special Branch officer published a memoir in a newspaper accusing Coulon of having conspired with Melville to set up the Walsall Anarchists. Coulon even wrote into the paper admitting he worked for the police. A century later a Metropolitan Police officer named Lindsay Clutterbuck was doing a PhD in counter-terrorism work in the late 19th century and he obtained access to police ledgers from the period detailing payments to informers and agents. These ledgers had previously been requested by authors and researchers under FOIA but the police refused to release them, saying they didn’t exist. The PhD thesis refers to them frequently, and ultimately they were released to public researchers.
Melville retired from Special Branch in mysterious circumstances in 1903, despite have risen all the way to Superintendent. He then became involved with the military counter-intelligence units looking for German spies in Britain. Exactly what happened in this period isn’t clear, but Andrew Cook maintains that Melville ended up as head of the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner to MI5. In the last years of his life he even ran the spy school, teaching the methods he’d honed over decades to young recruits. He died of kidney failure in 1918, leaving behind Britain’s first formal intelligence institution.
Following the Walsall Anarchists provocation/entrapment, Melville fell out with a sergeant under his command, Patrick McIntyre. McIntyre was forced out of Special Branch, and wrote a memoir calling Melville out and blowing the whistle on the Walsall affair, the Martial Bourdin incident and other actions of the British security state. You can download the McIntyre memoir in hi-res image format here (ZIP file, 37.5MB). I sourced this via the Jack the Ripper case book forum.
Clutterbuck’s thesis is available in full online but most important for the Melville story is the case study on Auguste Coulon a.k.a. ‘Pyatt’, proving that he was a well-paid police spy for over 10 years. You can download the case study here (PDF, 600KB).
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