Blue Plaques

CUMMING, Sir Mansfield (1859–1923)

Plaque erected in 2015 by English Heritage at 2 Whitehall Court, Westminster, London, SW1A 2EJ, City of Westminster

All images © English Heritage

Profession

First Chief of the Secret Service

Category

Armed Forces

Inscription

Sir MANSFIELD CUMMING, 1859–1923, First Chief of the Secret Service, lived and worked here, 1911-1922

Material

Ceramic

Sir Mansfield Cumming was the first Chief of the Secret Service Bureau, the organisation that grew into the agencies known today as MI5 and MI6. At various times between 1911 and 1922, 2 Whitehall Court served not only as Cummings’ home, but also as headquarters of the Foreign Section of the Secret Service Bureau.

A half-length portrait of Sir Mansfield Cumming in full dress uniform
A portrait of Sir Mansfield Cumming in full dress uniform

EARLY LIFE AND CAREER

Cumming was born Mansfield George Smith in April 1859, changing his name to Mansfield Smith-Cumming on his marriage to May Cumming in 1889, then later dropping the Smith entirely.

At the age of 12 Cumming joined the Royal Navy and rose to the rank of Flag Lieutenant, serving in operations against Malay pirates in 1875–6 and in Egypt in 1883.

In December 1885 he was placed on the retired list. The reasons for this measure are not entirely clear, with references to a severe seasickness being treated with a degree of scepticism by biographers.

The next 13 years of his life are a bit of a mystery, but it’s known that he worked as a private secretary and estate manager to the Earl of Meath. In 1898 he was invited to take charge of organising the boom defence vessels that helped to protect Southampton Water from invasion by laying nets as navigational obstacles.

THE SECRET SERVICE BUREAU

In 1909, Cumming received a mysterious letter inviting him to a meeting in London about ‘a new billet’ and ‘something good.’

Here, he was told about the creation of a new organisation called the Secret Service Bureau (SSB), and was offered the position of head or chief of the Secret Service – which became the Foreign Section of the SSB in 1911, responsible for gathering intelligence overseas. Cumming held this post from 1909 until his death in 1923.

Cumming proved to be an inspired choice for the new agency: hardworking, committed and secretive, he was engrossed by what became known as ‘tradecraft’ – secret writing, disguises, technical inventions and mechanical gadgets which he trialled in his own laboratory.

During the First World War, Cumming was responsible for creating the wartime network ‘La Dame Blanche,’ which reported on enemy troop movements. By January 1918, over 400 agents were reporting on German troop movements from occupied Belgium and northern France, and were aiding the arrest of a number of German spies in England.

LEGACY AND CHARACTER

Soon after taking on the role in 1909, Cumming became known as ‘C’ due to his habit of initialling papers, which inspired Ian Fleming to name James Bond’s fictitious spymaster as ‘M’. His practice of writing exclusively in green ink was also continued by his successors. In 1914 Cumming was appointed CB (Companion of The Most Honourable Order of the Bath), and later KCMG (Knight Commander of The Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George) in 1919 for his important service in foreign affairs.

In October 1914, Cumming was involved in a tragic car accident in which his son Alastair was killed and Cumming lost the lower part of his right leg. However, this does not seem to have diminished the energy with which he approached his work. After having an artificial leg fitted, he travelled around Whitehall corridors on a scooter and occasionally enjoyed shocking unwitting visitors and colleagues by sticking compass dividers into his wooden limb.

Cumming died suddenly at home, 1 Melbury Road, Kensington, London, on 14 June 1923, shortly before he was due to retire.

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