Century Old Secrets
To most visitors it is just another hotel in Whitehall, but the Royal Horseguards Hotel has an electrifying history that spy novelists can only imagine
Intrigue, mystery and century-old secrets that will never now be truly told; the secret service history of the Royal Horseguards Hotel is the stuff of dreams for thriller writers and espionage enthusiasts.
Now a bustling hotel in the thick of Whitehall, many guests remain unaware that they are walking through corridors and rooms where plots and discussions about historic characters such as Stalin and Rasputin were whispered, where the original tropes of gadgetry and secrecy that remain a feature of Bond films to this day were first employed, and where James Bond himself would have been recruited had fiction indeed started as fact.
Built between 1886 and 1892, the hotel was originally built as Whitehall Court, superior flats whose residents included William Gladstone, Lord Kitchener, George Bernard Shaw, H.G Wells and Grand Duke Michael of Russia, the younger brother of Tsar Nicholas II.
The undertaking bankrupted the original developer Jonathan Carr and was completed by Jabez Balfour. But it wasn’t long before the building’s position in Whitehall meant that the fully-serviced flats, next door to the Liberal Club founded by Gladstone and frequented by the likes of Winston Churchill, would be considered fully advantageous to the founder of the new Secret Intelligence Service.
He was known as ‘C’ but he was effectively ‘M’. The fictional Bond equivalent head of MI6 could be seen as an homage to Commander Mansfield Smith-Cumming, the 50-year old naval officer tasked with setting up the new foreign intelligence service, latterly know as Mi6, in the early 1900’s.
With Whitehall Court flats conveniently situated at the rear of what was then known as the War Office, Smith-Cumming opted for flat 54 on the eighth floor. Soon, his operation spread to further flats in the building. This is where legends of espionage in popular imagination were born. Secret passages, button operating levers and pedals to slide partitions and book shelves all played their part in ensuring that different routes were used every time to create confusion.
Other fictional spymasters such as John Le Carre’s ‘Control’ are indicative of the regard in which Smith-Cumming was held. He was a man possessed of extraordinary abilities and qualities. As part of his recruitment of agents, he would stab himself in the leg with a paper knife to assess their reaction. Applicants who winced were told: “Well, I’m afraid you won’t do.”
As it happened, Smith-Cumming’s leg was wooden. He allegedly amputated it himself with his pocket knife after it was nearly severed when he crashed his Rolls Royce in France, in order to crawl to his dying son.
He wore a gold-rimmed monocle, carried a swordstick, enjoyed practical jokes and had a “chin like the cut-water of a battleship”. He took children for rides in his own tank and could be seen whizzing through Whitehall on a child’s scooter. When he discovered that semen made a good invisible ink, his agents adopted the motto: “Every man his own stylo”.
Smith-Cumming’s agents would include W. Somerset-Maugham and John Buchan, writer of The 39 Steps.
SIS plots to deal with foreign agitators, including, allegedly, Russian figures such as Rasputin and Joseph Stalin as he first came to prominence, were hatched within the walls of the Royal Horseguards Hotel.
During WW2, after the death of Smith-Cumming, most of the building was taken over by Government departments. Incredibly, the fifth floor was utilized by the Russian Embassy, the sixth floor by the American Embassy. The seventh floor was the HQ of the Air Training Corps.
As the nearest hotel to Palace of Westminster the hotel has been frequented by numerous politicians. The division bell in the restaurant is known to give MPs exactly eight minutes to get to the Commons to vote.
With its history so entwined with the National Liberal Club next door, the hotel will soon be offering tours, which will include a visit to the cellar, where a bricked up doorway hints at the rumoured network of underground tunnels of Westminster, and where the foundations stone laid by Gladstone in 1884 can still be seen.
The building was converted to a hotel in 1986, the National Liberal Club now have use of only the first floor after the club bedrooms were taken over by the hotel company and principal function rooms were restored. The Gladstone Library, now a function room, once housed a collection of 20,000 volumes which, formed in recognition of William Gladstone’s services to the country, stood as a unique record of the liberal tradition. The collection was sold at a bargain price, the money then pocketed by the NLC’s then general manager, who was soon turfed out after it was discovered he was plundering the club’s resources in the seventies.
The room, now lined with faux book spines, is now used for dinners and functions. When Alistair Darling met there with leading bankers during the financial crisis, rumour has it that they sent out for a curry.
Tour guide David Thompson will lead the tours and is fascinated by the hotel’s history and association with characters such as Mansfield Smith-Cumming and Winston Churchill:
“Top brass and people were in the building during WW2. Churchill knew the place because he knew the Liberal Club as a young MP and he certainly knew it during the war because he went there to drink.
“Smith-Cumming was quite an eccentric character, and there are all of these stories about underground tunnels in Whitehall, so the top brass could go about their business without actually appearing on the street. I talk about the tunnel, but quite what we’d find if we started chipping away I don’t know!”.