Dead Letter Boxes And Deadly Deceit In Brompton!

By Richard Moss
a photograph of a large white church building

Brompton Oratory. Situated next to the V&A, the serene Oratory was the site of many 'drops' of top secret intelligence during the cold war. © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

The Brompton area was a popular haunt for spies and their handlers during the cold war period. Its central location, surrounded by a mixture of winding streets and public buildings made it an ideal place to engage in the centuries old profession of espionage. An integral part of this 'business' was the use of dead drops.

'Dead drops' or 'dead letter boxes' were the means by which agents would leave sensitive and top secret material in preordained places to be picked up later by their handlers. Some of these can still be visited.

The Brompton Oratory was the perfect setting for one such secret place. Situated in the heart of the capital's museum district, the interior of the church offered an ideal place in which to leave top secret material.

Entering by the right hand door, agents would immediately see the small Pieta statue just to their right. To the left of this, behind two pillars, is a small space where agents could leave their microfilms or cassettes to picked up later.

Just imagine, as you enter the beautiful and calm sanctity of the church, how a Soviet double agent could light a candle, say a prayer and leave a microfilm to be picked up later by a 'handler' from the Soviet Embassy.

a photograph of a tree

Near the statue of St Francis of Asissi at Brompton Oratory. "Just behind the statue, next to a tree" - another unlikely place for Soviet dead drops. Did Philby ever use this spot? Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

A little further away, literally just behind the oratory, the Holy Trinity Church is the site for another dead letter drop. As you approach the church from the Brompton Road, bear to your left and in the corner there is a small statue of St Francis of Assisi. Soviet agents reputedly left their files and microfilms on the ground at the base of the tree next to the wall.

Looking at the drop now it's not that hard to imagine a Soviet agent, perhaps even Philby, Burgess or Maclean furtively placing a cassette or film canister at the base of the tree, before slipping away into one of the many sidestreets of the Brompton area.

Harold 'Kim' Philby was especially familiar with the mile or so around Brompton and Kensington. A former resident of the area, his mother resided for many years at Holly Mews in a basement flat where Philby and his family had actually lived during the 1950's.

a photograph of the corner of street with the sign Holly Mews attached to the railings and a large red brick flat behind

Holly Mews - in a crowded basement flat in this building, Kim Philby assembled the nation's media to roundly deny claims that he was, in fact, a Soviet spy. Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

Possibly the most prolific double agent to sit within the centre of the British Secret Service, Kim Philby served the KGB for more than 50 years.

After an early career as a war correspondent for the Times and Moscow Centre his former Cambridge associate and friend Guy Burgess recommended him for a job in MI6.

So began a remarkable career of double-dealing and treachery during which he revealed some of Britain's most important espionage secrets to the East. He finally escaped - unpunished and unrevealed - to the Soviet Union in 1962.

a photograph of a bank with a curved frontage

My local? A trendy bank! The relentless march of progress may have seen Philby's old local, the Markham Arms, converted into a building society cum coffe shop, but during the cold war it was the scene for some important meetings of the Cambridge spy ring. © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

The Markham Arms in the King's Road was his habitual pub. Now sadly converted into a coffee shop cum building society, it is said to be the very meeting place where Anthony Blunt chose to re-established contact with Philby after the three-year hiatus that followed Burgess and Maclean fleeing to the Soviet Union in 1951.

Having come under both media and secret service suspicion following the defection, Philby was increasingly suspected of being what was then termed 'the third man'. The suspicions of some of his fellow intelligence agents (especially within MI5) eventually led to his expulsion from MI6.

Burgess and Maclean may have blown cover and sought refuge in the Soviet Union but for Philby this latest episode was just another chance to use his years of experience as a Soviet agent to double bluff both the media and the government.

Following questions in the Commons regarding his role in Soviet intelligence he called a dramatic and very public press conference to roundly deny the claims.

a photograph of the white entranceway to a block of brick built apartments

Grove Court - Kim Philby lived here with his family in the late 1950's. His mother continued to live here drinking herself to an early death in the 1960's. © Richard Moss/24 Hour Museum

The place he chose was his mother's flat (and former family residence) at Grove Court, Holly Mews, in South Kensington. The Grove Court Press Conference was one of his greatest bluffs and within six months he was working for MI6 again.

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