Vernon Kell. Constance Kell Estate /

By Mark McConville

RARE family photos have offered an insight into the life of MI5 founder Sir Vernon Kell.


Vernon in later life. Constance Kell Estate /

The intimate images show how the British intelligence kingpin balanced his family and working life as he is pictured relaxing with his wife Constance in New York, Constance and son James in China in 1901 and South Africa with his other son Johnny in later years.

Other revealing shots show Constance Kell in her wedding dress as well as soldiers posing in North China during the early 1900s.


Constance, in what was probably her wedding dress, 1900. Constance Kell Estate /

The archive pictures are showcased in a new book, A Secret Well Kept, written by Lady Constance Kell in the late 1940s but published for the first time, by Bloomburg.

Sir Vernon Kell founded the UK’s domestic counter-intelligence and security agency, MI5, in 1909 and the Director for 31 years, making it the longest tenure of any head of a British government department in the twentieth century.


Book cover. Constance Kell Estate /

Commonly known within the agency as ‘K’, Sir Vernon was also fluent in six foreign languages; German, Italian, French, Polish, Russian and Chinese.

The book offers an unparalleled insight into the personal life of the extremely powerful man, from the person who knew him best. Lady Constance Kell was Sir Vernon Kell’s wife for more than 40 years.


Vernon, Constance and youngest son Johnny. Possibly in South Africa, 1926. Constance Kell Estate /

The biography uncovers not only Kell’s personal life before MI5, but also the key characters and events during Kell’s career with the agency – particularly the people he worked with and the big spy cases from 1909–1918.

Kell initially served in the military, rising to the rank of staff captain before retiring from active duty after being selected, alongside Mansfield Smith-Cumming to lead the new government intelligence agency.

‘The one and only real staff’, North China, 1901. From L–R Captain Lee, Sir Sidney Barton, Colonel Dorward, Vernon, Admiral George Holmes Borrett and Colonel Menzies. Constance Kell Estate /

He was restored to active duty following the outbreak of World War One in 1914, once again rising through the ranks as a General Staff Officer One with the rank of colonel.

Kell remained in his post as head of MI5 until June 10th 1940 when Winston Churchill dismissed him after 30 years in the role.


Constance, Vernon and Mrs Thomas at the Thomases house in Troy, NY, USA, 1900. Constance Kell Estate /

The decision came after MI5 was completely unprepared to carry out the task it had been set during the Second World War – the large-scale internment of enemy aliens in an attempt to uncover enemy agents.

Officially this intelligence failure was blamed on the fact that both Kell and his deputy were in their mid-60s.


Mr and Mrs Bullard at their home in Shanghai with Constance and Mrs Bower, 1900. Constance Kell Estate /

A Secret Well Kept: The Untold Story of Sir Vernon Kell, Founder of MI5 by Constance Kell is out now (Bloomsbury, £16.99/ £14.99 eBook)