St Ermin's is the only publicly accessible establishment in London closely associated with the history of British espionage.
During the 1930s St. Ermin's hotel and the next building at 2 Caxton Street were used by officers of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) located close by at 54 Broadway to meet agents, and is well documented from March 1938 as the headquarters first of SIS’s Section D, headed by the Australian George Taylor and then as the home of Special Operations Executive (SOE), working under ‘Statistical Research Department’ cover. Among the more famous personnel known to have worked from offices in the building are Ian Fleming, Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Laurence Grand, H. Montgomery Hyde and Eric Maschwitz.
Throughout the Second World War the building operated as a convenient annex by SIS surrounded by other secret organizations including the London branch of Government Communications Headquarters (in Palmer Street); MI9 in Caxton Street; the SIS Chief’s office at 21 Queen Anne’s Gate; the SIS offices in Artillery Mansions on Victoria Street and in the basement of St Anne’s Mansions and the MI8 listening post on the roof of the Passport Office in Petty France.
In addition, the hotel and its Caxton Bar was used regularly by SIS, MI5 and Naval Intelligence Division case officers to meet their agents, as mentioned in SNOW by Madoc Roberts whilst the SIS also interviewed prospective employees (usually by the organisation’s recruiter, Marjorie Maxse, as detailed by Kim Philby in his autobiography, My Silent War), in its rooms.
Shortly before the WWII the hotel was the venue for guerilla warfare classes run partly by MI6 and amongst those working for ‘King and Country’ within that group at the time was Noel Coward as well as art expert and member of the notorious Cambridge Five spy ring, Anthony Blunt.
In 1940 Sir Winston Churchill – who was known to have enjoyed a glass of his favourite champagne in the Caxton Bar - asked a group of very special individuals to meet at the St Ermin’s Hotel to “set Europe ablaze” - that group became the SOE (Special Operations Executive). Its purpose was specialized, covert operations during WWII; we know them today as the SAS. They initially housed themselves over an entire floor of this historic Westminster hotel.
Shortly after WWII St Ermin’s was again at the heart of an undercover operation – this time for the Russians. Double agent and eventual defector Guy Burgess frequently met his Russian counterpart at the hotel to hand over top-secret government files in the Caxton Bar. The hotel has also been used as an MI5 safe house and intelligence expert, author, and ex-MP Rupert Allason named his publishing house after the hotel; St Ermin’s Press.
The hotel’s exceptional position is, perhaps, largely responsible for its interest to those for whom discretion is key; St. Ermin’s Hotel is now immediately opposite the Metropolitan Police headquarters at New Scotland Yard, a stone’s throw from Whitehall, just to the north of Parliament Square and across the river from the new headquarters of the British secret service. Ideally placed for the establishment’s secret London, rumour has it a tunnel runs from underneath the grand staircase in the sumptuous lobby all the way to the Houses of Westminster – could this be part of the mysterious Q-Whitehall network?
There is certainly a Division Bell to usher Members of Parliament out of their cozy corners and back across Parliament Square.