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Thomson, Sir Basil Home (1861–1939), intelligence officer and colonial administrator, was born on 21 April 1861 at Oxford, the third son of , provost of the Queen's College and later archbishop of York, and his wife, Zoë, daughter of James Henry Skene, sometime British consul at Aleppo. He was educated at Worsley's School, Hendon (1866–74), and at Eton College (1874–9). He went up to New College, Oxford, in 1879. In early life he was subject to bouts of profound depression, one of which led him, after only two terms at Oxford, to abandon university studies in 1882, and to emigrate to the USA to train as a farmer in Le Mans, Iowa, with the agricultural firm Close, Benson & Co. Before leaving England he had formed an attachment to Grace Indja Webber, daughter of Felix Stanley Webber RN. In 1883 he learned that Grace was contemplating marriage to another, which led to a relapse of his nervous condition and a precipitate return to England. He was able to reach an understanding with the Webbers that if he could establish himself financially a marriage proposal might be entertained, and with that end in mind, and through the good offices of his father, he obtained a place as a cadet in the colonial service attached to Sir William Des Voeux, governor of Fiji.

Thomson arrived in Fiji early in 1884 and began assiduously learning the Fijian language. He was appointed stipendiary magistrate, first at Nadroga, then in the Lau Islands, and later at Colo West in the central highlands of Viti Levu. He spent a three-month furlough in Tonga in 1886, where he gained a smattering of the Tongan language and made important contacts among the Tongan chiefs. When William Macgregor was appointed administrator of British New Guinea in 1887 Thomson volunteered to join his staff. In New Guinea he contracted malaria and was invalided home.

In England, Thomson renewed his suit to Grace Webber and they were married in October 1889. They were to have two sons and a daughter. The couple returned to Fiji in January 1890, when Thomson was appointed commissioner of native lands. However, in July 1890 the governor, Sir John Thurston, who was also high commissioner for the Western Pacific, visited Tonga and deported its premier, the Revd Shirley Baker, as being ‘prejudicial to the peace and good order of the Pacific’. A pro-British chief, Tuku'aho, was appointed premier, and Basil Thomson was dispatched from Fiji to be his adviser and assistant premier. During his tenure of eleven months Thomson reformed taxation, thus restoring solvency to the government, and introduced penal reforms based on the Indian penal code.

From 1891 Thomson worked in Suva in the native lands office and as assistant commissioner for native affairs. However, in 1893, owing to the deteriorating health of his wife, Thomson quit the colonial service and returned to England, where he accepted a position acting in loco parentis to two Siamese princes who were in England for their education. During this period he embarked on a career as a writer. While in Fiji he had published South Sea Yarns (1894). In London he wrote The Diversions of a Prime Minister (1894), his most enduring work, based on his experiences in Tonga, and The Indiscretions of Lady Asenath (1898), an amusing explanation of population decline in Fiji. These works led to his becoming a reviewer for the Pall Mall magazine and to a friendship with Lord Northcliffe.

At the same time Thomson entered the Inner Temple and read for the bar examinations. He was admitted in 1896 but accepted an appointment as deputy governor of Liverpool prison. From 1896 to 1908 he was successively governor of Northampton, Cardiff, Dartmoor, and Wormwood Scrubs prisons and from 1908 until 1913 he served as secretary to the Prison Commission. As a prison governor Thomson had to attend all executions carried out in his prison. This seems to have affected him little and he remained a firm advocate of capital punishment. As secretary of the Prison Commission he had to deal with those opposed to it and gave them short shrift. He was equally dismissive of suffragettes, especially when they responded to imprisonment by engaging in hunger strikes.

It was Tonga, however, which catapulted Thomson to eminence. In 1899 an Anglo-German agreement was signed exchanging rights and claims over Tonga and Samoa respectively. Thomson, as someone with special knowledge of Tongan affairs, was charged with gaining Tongan acceptance of a British protectorate over the islands. Despite considerable resistance in Tonga the protectorate was established in May 1900.

In 1913 Thomson was appointed assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and head of the CID at New Scotland Yard. When war broke out in 1914 the CID became the enforcement arm of the War Office and Admiralty in intelligence matters. The Admiralty and the War Office had existing intelligence arms dealing with tactical matters, but it was not until 1910 that a secret service bureau was established (later the Secret Intelligence Service). The secret service bureau collected information on a lot of suspected spies, but on the outbreak of war had no machinery for arresting them. It therefore fell to the Metropolitan Police, and especially the head of the CID, Thomson, to carry out the arrests of these suspects. Thomson had something of a flair for self-advertisement, and made much of his role as ‘spycatcher’. In fact, of the twenty-one German suspects arrested only one was brought to trial. The reality was that although a small German secret service agency did exist before the war its espionage efforts were directed almost exclusively towards France and Russia. After the commencement of hostilities, however, real spies did begin to infiltrate Britain, and Thomson had a role in arresting and interrogating them. Twelve of these were executed between 1914 and 1918, the best-known being Carl Hans Lody, a lieutenant in the German navy, who was executed in November 1914. Thomson also interrogated Margareta Zelle, better known as Mata Hari, and concluded that there was no evidence that she was a spy. She was, however, arrested by the French, tried by court martial, and executed in November 1917. The evidence against her remains very suspect.

Another famous case in which Thomson was involved was that of Sir Roger Casement, captured while attempting to run guns to Irish rebels in 1916. Casement's diaries were retrieved from his luggage, and they revealed in graphic detail his secret homosexual life. Thomson had the most incriminating pages photographed and gave them to the American ambassador, who circulated them widely. They were a significant, if unmentioned, ingredient in the trial and subsequent execution of Casement. After the Easter rising in Ireland, Thomson was again involved in Irish affairs. He was called in to advise the viceroy, Sir John French, on the best way of dealing with the emergency. His advice, he claimed, fell on deaf ears.

Thomson's most controversial activities concerned his surveillance of labour organizations. In 1916 the Ministry of Munitions asked him to organize an intelligence operation to report to it on industrial unrest. Thomson culled some of the best men from the CID for this service, and on the basis of their assessments issued regular reports to the ministry and later to the Home Office. In May 1917 a major strike occurred among engineering and munitions workers in response to a ‘comb-out’ to draft unskilled workers from these protected industries into the army. The war cabinet sought Thomson's advice on the matter. He advised prosecuting the ringleaders. Seven were arrested and the strike was called off in return for a pledge that no further arrests would be made and that no men with trade cards would be called up. In 1916 Thomson received a CB and in 1919 he was knighted.

After the war the army dismantled its surveillance of industrial matters, and the CID was left as the sole source of information on the mood of labour. The growth of left-wing activism, that took its lead from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, had increased the importance of surveillance of labour activities. It was a reflection of the new priorities that the Home Office directorate of intelligence was created in 1919, with Thomson as its director. He was thus the supremo with overall control of naval, military, foreign, and domestic intelligence. In 1921, however, for reasons that remain obscure, Thomson lost the confidence of Lloyd George and was asked to resign. In 1925, in circumstances which cannot be explained, Thomson was convicted of an act of indecency with a Miss Thelma de Lava. He was let off with a fine.

Thomson was a prolific writer, both during his working life and after his retirement, his writings covering aspects of his very varied experience. His autobiography, The Scene Changes, was published shortly before his death on 26 March 1939 in Teddington.

Noel Rutherford

Sources  

NL Aus., Basil Thomson papers · B. Thomson, The scene changes (1939) · B. Thomson, The diversions of a prime minister (1894) · DNB · N. Rutherford, ed., Friendly Islands: a history of Tonga (1977) · C. Andrew, Secret service: the making of the British intelligence community (1985) · J. Morgan, Conflict and order: the police and labour disputes in England and Wales, 1900-1939 (1987) · P. Knightley, The second oldest profession: spies and spying in the twentieth century (1988) · N West, MI6: British secret intelligence operations, 1909-45 (1983) · H. Kirk-Smith, William Thomson, archbishop of York (1958) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1939) · The Times (27 March 1939)

Archives  

NL Aus. |  Parl. Arch., letters to Lloyd George


Likenesses  

photograph, c.1910–1920, NPG · W. Stoneman, photograph, 1920, NPG · photograph, c.1920, Hult. Arch.; repro. in Andrew, Secret service

Wealth at death  

£66 16s. 2d.: probate, 19 July 1939, CGPLA Eng. & Wales