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Friday, 18 March 2016

A different breed

Mansfield Smith Cummings was born Mansfield Smith, on April Fool’s Day 1859 and two years before the U S Civil War. He became a naval officer and  was decorated in 1882 for his role in the Anglo-Egyptian war. Shortly afterwards he retired on the grounds of  ill-health.

So far—so unremarkable

Things look up for him when he marries a very rich woman, May Cumming, and as part of the marriage settlement he changed his name to Smith-Cumming; an interesting twist, showing money trumps patriarchy. In fact money trumps everything, possibly even Trump.

Then, in 1898 his life and the lives of many others changed. He was recruited by the embryonic British Secret Service. In time the Service  expanded and was subsequently reorganised.

 In 1907 Sir Vernon Kell, headed the Home Secret Service, (MI5)and Mansfield Cumming was placed in the Foreign Secret Service, (MI6) Both were highly able, but Cumming was forever on his guard against further reorganisation that might see him subordinate to one overpowering Head ie Sir Vernon Kell. Cumming believed it crucial that MI5 and MI6 remained separate entities. 

Mansfield Smith Cumming, the man invalided from the Navy on the grounds of ill health, worked a nonstop twelve hour day, a schedule that would wear out the healthiest of men, but his mettle was to be tested still further.

In the Summer of 1914, on a driving holiday in France, his car overturned. His only son, Alistair was flung from the car and suffered fatal injuries to his head. Cumming was trapped by a crushed leg, and was forced to listen to his son's dying groans.

It was an unsatisfactory situation. Mansfield Cumming thought so. He took out his penknife and began sawing through his mangled leg. As soon as he freed himself he crawled to his son and placed his coat over him. The two of them were found nine hours later.

Six weeks after that he was back in his office with a new, wooden leg and a child’s scooter with which he propelled himself down long corridors.

He he also made good use of his wooden prosthetic.

When interviewing prospective recruits he would fix them with a stare and plunge a knife into a pinstriped leg. Should the candidate flinch Cumming would assume the man was not up to it and call the next candidate in. It must have cost a fortune in trousers, but at least ensured unflinching recruits.

With his gold-rimmed monocle, swordstick, and strong chin, he cut a fine figure. He was even more impressive to those children he gave rides to on his privately owned tank.

Mansfield Cumming was, in many respects the original Q of James Bond fame, experimenting with miniature cameras, rocketry, mysterious telescopes and bombs. He also had a passion for code breaking and invisible inks, encouraging countless experiments, involving various chemicals: potassium permanganate, antipyrine and Sodium nitrate.

No stone was left unturned in the search for the perfect invisible ink, though some stones should, perhaps, have lain undisturbed. Spies were told they might make invisible ink from semen, an interesting example of mixing business with pleasure. The practise was put into cold storage after complaints from those who had to open them. They found the smell off putting.

Maxwell Smith Cumming died in June 1923 just before he was due to retire—for a second time. This time there was no Cumming back. (My apologies)


Maria Zannini said...

I would've liked to have met this man. He sounds like my kind of guy. LOL.

re: Cumming back
Did you hear me groaning after I read that?

Mike Keyton said...

The Atlantic calms the most tempestuous of groans. I felt a gentle breeze.:)