Legends, myths and facts about the hotbed of espionage that is Mayfair and St. James’s
The area’s association with spies and Roman Catholics goes back to Restoration England. A combination of three events in the 1660’s prompted changes to the geography of society and shifting religious and political allegiances in London which continues to set the tone of the Mayfair St James’s to this day.
It began with The Plague in 1665 followed by the Great Fire which decimated the City of London and the Ancient Livery Guilds and the hysteria of the mythical Papist Plot all of which led to King Charles II and the Stuart Kings formally ending their struggle for a Catholic England and moving their focus on creating a climate of religious tolerance against hard line Protestantism. It also led to the creation of St James’s as a retail and residential paradise as the City of London within the ancient Roman Walls had been largely destroyed.
Through their attempt to make religion a matter of personal conscience for their subjects, it brought about the end of the Stuart line. King James II was deposed in 1688 and throne passed to his Protestant daughter Mary and her husband William of Orange. In fact the present Prince William is the first heir to the British throne descended from the Stuart Line through his mother Princess Diana who was a direct descendant of the Charles II via his relationship with one of his many mistresses, Barbara Villiers (Countess of Castlemaine). Their son, Henry Fitzroy, 1st Duke of Grafton is his direct ancestor.
Since Henry Jermyn and Sir Christopher Wren built St James’s in the Restoration it has been teaming with spies. From Jacobites to Cold War Spies Russians and Nazis, secret agents planning to double agent or to hand over secret dossiers feel at home amongst fellow spies. They like good wine, a nicely cut shirt, fine art and finely bored gun barrel and they like to be around the people who can provide and appreciate these finer things of life so it is little wonder they cluster in St James’s and Mayfair.
Some of the more notorious spy scandals were played out right under the very noses of the establishment. St Ermin’s is just one of many local bars that spies enjoy.
Its bars and bistros quickly became a spy haunt. A rumoured tunnel leads from the hotel directly to the Palace of Westminster. The division bell, that summons Parliamentarians back to Westminster for votes, still rings here.
My father who worked as a spy during World War II first told me of the hotel as a child. From the 1930s, officers in the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS – now known as MI6), met their agents in the hotel bar. In 1938 MI6 gave up all the cloak and dagger nonsense and simply moved one of their sections into the hotel.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) an organization that carried out covert operations during WWII occupied a floor of the St. Ermin’s. The SOE was famously formed after Winston Churchill met a group of special people in the bar at the St. Ermin’s and charged them with “Setting Europe ablaze.”
Kim Philby and Guy Burgess were also members of the Cambridge Five spy ring and both worked at MI6 and propped up the Caxton Bar of the St. Ermin’s – it was here that the famous secret dossier was handed over their Russian handler before Burgess defected to the Soviet Union with Donald Maclean in 1951. You can still have a drink in the Caxton Bar. As a committed ear wig on other peoples private conversations I can also recommend the St James’s Hotel & Club Bar on Park Place and Wiltons on Jermyn Street where the oysters are unparalleled.