Secrets and Spies: Latchmere House in Wartime

I have a fascination with ‘secret history’, especially when it has local connections. During World War Two captured enemy spies were taken to Camp 020, located south-west of London. The Camp was a secret interrogation centre run by MI5, the Security Service. Not many people realise that Camp 020 was located at Latchmere House, quietly nestled on the Richmond and Kingston borders.

Built originally as a large private house by Joshua Field, a prosperous merchant in the nineteenth century, Latchmere had been purchased by the War Office during World War One and used as a hospital for shell-shocked officers.

Latchmere House, Photo: WikiCommons

Latchmere House, Photo: WikiCommons

Twenty years later, after the ‘Phoney War’ came to a dramatic end in spring 1940, MI5 decided that captured spies would need to be detained in a dedicated location separate from our general internment camps, where such men could be subjected to special interrogation techniques to ‘break’ them and extract as much information as possible about German plans.

Camp 020 was opened by MI5 in the summer of 1940, at the height of ‘spy fever’ in Britain. It was so secret at the time that the Home Office, after strong lobbying by MI5, did not even include it in a list of camps submitted to the International Red Cross. Indeed, MI5 argued that it was not a prisoner-of-war (POW) camp, and was therefore not subject to the Geneva Convention. It was classed as a ‘civilian’ camp. Clearly, though, Latchmere was a very different kind of place from other civilian detention camps. It was run on behalf of MI5 by an extrovert and rather temperamental former Indian Army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, who was so named because of his trademark monocle.

Stephens took over as Camp Commandant in July, 1940. He ensured that Latchmere’s rooms were turned into cells, each with a hidden microphone. He also arranged for an additional cell block to be added to the House, together with a special punishment room. However, it seems Stephens was against physical torture and strong-arm measures, and much preferred what might be termed ‘non-physical’ forms of interrogation, based on ‘special methods’ and psychological pressure, such as intimidation, sleep deprivation and long periods of isolation.

Lieutenant-Colonel Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, Photo: Smithsonian Mag

Lieutenant-Colonel Robin ‘Tin Eye’ Stephens, Photo: Smithsonian Mag

In the 1990s, as part of a new openness policy, MI5 began to release some its ‘historical’ files to The National Archives. Files released included an in-house Security Service history of Camp 020, written by Stephens after the War and titled A Digest of Ham, which gave me a much better picture of the nature of Camp 020. Stephens revealed that the Camp, which operated from July, 1940, to September, 1945, saw about 480 prisoners pass through its gates. The first ‘suspects’ to arrive included some refugees, various ‘aliens’ already resident in Britain, and some key members of the British Union of Fascists (BUF). Stephens soon decided this first batch were mainly ‘shabby nonentities’ and all the men were transferred to other camps.

When the first actual German spy arrived at Latchmere in July, important information was quickly extracted from him about German invasion plans, which indicates that the controversial interrogation techniques favoured by Stephens were yielding some success. By November, 1940, according to Stephens, the camp had ‘settled down to its proper role’ as a detention and interrogation centre for captured enemy spies and any others who were seriously suspected of being spies.

After the War, the prison service took over the site and it became an open prison. It was closed in 2011, as part of public expenditure savings. Recently, Latchmere was sold by the Ministry of Justice to housing developers, and the plans for the site were scrutinised by both Richmond and Kingston Councils.

Unfortunately, in the coverage of this sale by the local and national press, some popular myths were reproduced about the wartime prisoners held at Camp 020. It is important that these myths are demolished. There is no evidence, for example, that the BUF leader Sir Oswald Mosley was interned at Latchmere. Moreover, claims that Rudolf Hess and William Joyce (the infamous radio broadcaster ‘Lord Haw-Haw’) were kept at Latchmere also have no foundation in reality. Instead, Hess, who was Hitler’s deputy, was first held at the Tower of London and then transferred to Mytchett Place, a fortified mansion between Aldershot and Camberley, in Surrey. Joyce was held at Wandsworth prison, where he was executed in January, 1946.

Although it is a challenge to disentangle myth from fact concerning Latchmere, the story of the house in wartime remains an intriguing and unique part of local history in Kingston and Richmond.

Steve Woodbridge is a Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University and specialises in the history of fascism and the secret state.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Local History, Public History and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Secrets and Spies: Latchmere House in Wartime

  1. Jonathan Axford says:

    Really interesting article, I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of more information about German POWs and what sources you came across in your research into Latchmere house.

    Like

    • Thank you for your comments. There are some very useful sources on British Govt policy on German POWs located at the National Archives (TNA) at Kew, London, including some War Office (WO) and Foreign Office (FO) files. For the WO, go to the TNA catalogue and search for WO214/63B (Nov 1943). For the FO ones, look in particular at the FO1049 range, especially FO1049/783 (1947) up to and including FO1049/788 (1947). Also check out FO1049/1225, FO/1049/1229 and FO1049/1725. I found the following file also very interesting: WO311/566 (1948-50), which is on alleged ill-treatment of German POWs. Best wishes,
      Steve.

      Like

  2. Norma Galton says:

    I came across the grave monument of Latchmere House’s original owner Joshua Field JP, born 1829, and his family today whilst resting from a walk in the graveyard of St Andews Church at Ham, Richmond, Surrey UK. When I looked him up on Google I also found your article regarding Latchmere House’s use as a Spy Centre during World War Two. My elderly neighbour tells me that he was interrogated there having escaped from a concentration camp aged 17 or so. He was helped to safety by the underground movement in Germany and only made it to England by the skin of his teeth. He tells a fascinating story and, funnily enough, now lives only two minutes walk from Latchmere House! The two councils of Richmond and and Kingston are still arguing about whose proposals should be accepted for the development of Latchmere House’s surrounding land which was used, to my knowledge over 52 years of looking at its prison walls at the back of my garden, as a Remand Centre (some 35 years) and then as an Open Prison for prisoners who were on the last six months of their sentences and being prepared for life outside again. Many of them attended various courses at the local Adult Education Centre and quite a few became bus drivers. So many of the prisoners who walked daily down my street were young black men in the prime of life! It seemed such a waste of precious years in their young lives to have landed up in prison!

    Best wishes
    Norma

    Like

    • Many thanks for your fascinating e-mail, Norma, concerning your discovery of the grave of Joshua Field, and also for sharing your memories of Latchmere House when it was used as a Remand Centre after the War. As you say, it must have been a huge surprise to also discover that your neighbour had actually been interned there for a while during the War itself. What you say is not surprising, really, as all Germans during this period came under suspicion, even though some had escaped from Germany and Nazi tyranny and clearly saw England as a bastion of freedom. I bet he has some very interesting memories.

      Best wishes,

      Steve Woodbridge.

      Like

  3. A very interesting point concerning the issue of shell shock.

    “Latchmere had been purchased by the War Office during World War One and used as a hospital for shell-shocked officers”.

    I was led to understand that shell shocked Tommy`s were not recognised as such. Another UK fair play myth exposed.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s