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Holt-Wilson, Sir Eric Edward Boketon, 1875-1950 (Knight, Brigadier and intelligencer)



  • Existence: 1875 - 1950


Eric Edward Boketon Wilson was born on 26 August 1875, son of the Revd TH Wilson by his first wife Helen Emily, daughter of Edward Greene MP. He was educated at Harrow School (1887-92) and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (1893-95), and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers in 1895. He served in South Africa with 7th Field Company, RE, throughout the Boer War of 1899 to 1902, receiving the DSO in September 1901. He was promoted captain in 1903, and became successively an instructor at the School of Military Engineering (1903-06), commander of 41st Fortress Company, RE, in Singapore (1907-09), and cadet company commander and instructor in military engineering at Woolwich (1909-12). In 1903 he married Susannah Mary Shaw, by whom he had two sons and two daughters (the elder of whom died as a baby). In 1912 Holt-Wilson retired from the Royal Engineers, and joined the War Office Special Intelligence Bureau, established in 1909 under the direction of Captain (afterwards Major-General Sir) Vernon Kell, for the investigation of cases of suspected espionage and the construction of machinery to monitor aliens resident in Britain. This organisation underwent several changes in its formal name, but was generally known after 1915 as MI5. Kell and Holt-Wilson were to be colleagues for 28 years, with Holt-Wilson being appointed Deputy Director to Kell in 1918. He carried out counter-espionage duties in France, Egypt and Salonika, as well as at home, during the First World War; and in 1919 was appointed Chief of the Police Commission for the British-occupied Rhineland. In 1929 he was British delegate in Geneva at the international convention on prisoners of war; and in 1929, 1930 and 1938 undertook tours of inspection of the intelligence services in India, the Dominions and the colonies. He was knighted in 1933. Holt-Wilson was the author of Field Entrenchments (1914), which was the 'Bible' on the subject for British forces during the First World War, and revised the Army's Manual of Field Engineering. He was also (in the words of his entry in Who's Who) 'the author of all pre-war official papers and manuals on Security Intelligence Police Duties in Peace and War'. In addition, he was a visiting lecturer at the Staff College, Camberley between 1921 and 1939. Although a firm believer in the over-riding importance of duty and hard work, Holt-Wilson also found time for recreation. From his schooldays onwards, he was a keen cricketer and footballer; and by 1914 he had extended his sporting interests to skiing, visiting regularly (at least from 1920) the resorts of Villars and Bretaye in western Switzerland. He founded a flourishing ski club based at the Villars Palace Hotel, and personally mapped the principal ski routes in the surrounding district. He was president of the club for ten years up to 1935, and president of the Ski Club of Great Britain in 1934/35. Holt-Wilson's first wife died in 1927, and four years later he married Audrey, only daughter of H.R. Stirling of Woldingham, Surrey. She was 35 years his junior, and some among her friends and relations took a gloomy view of the prospects for the marriage; but it seems to have been a great success, and the deeply affectionate (at times passionate) letters between the couple form the largest component of the papers. Like her husband, Audrey was a 'sporty' person, a lacrosse player on the verge of national standard, and an intrepid skier. Two daughters were born to the Holt-Wilsons: Gabrielle Genista ('Gay') in 1933, and Clemency Anne in 1939. On the outbreak of war Kell and Holt-Wilson (who was given the rank of honorary Brigadier) remained in their respective posts. However, increasing concern was expressed in government and official circles regarding the ineffectiveness of MI5 (despite its staff of 330) in revealing German espionage activities in Britain. Kell was in ill-health and (as even the loyal Holt-Wilson admitted) obsessed with the safety of the department's vast (and largely redundant) accumulation of files and index cards. On becoming Prime Minister in May 1940 Churchill made clear his deep dissatisfaction with the direction of MI5, and shortly afterwards appointed a younger man to take control over Kell's head. This was in effect the dismissal of both Kell and Holt-Wilson, who resigned together on 11 June. Holt-Wilson retained the office of Deputy Commandant of War Department Constabulary that he had held since 1927, and in 1942 succeeded Kell as Commandant. He died on 26 March 1950.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:


Papers of Sir Eric Edward Boketon Holt-Wilson

Reference Code: GBR/0012/MS Add.9794
Scope and Contents

Letters, diaries, photographs, printed books, miscellaneous papers.

Dates: 1899-1950
Conditions Governing Access: Unless restrictions apply, the collection is open for consultation by researchers using the Manuscripts Reading Room at Cambridge University Library. For further details on conditions governing access please contact Information about opening hours and obtaining a Cambridge University Library reader's ticket is available from the Library's website (