Dame Stella Rimington, former Head of MI5. Photo by Jamie Hughes, courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing and Dame Stella Rimington.

Writer Watch

Stella Rimington

‘I sent it in to the clearance process which exists for people like me… there was a sort of a deathly silence in Whitehall, you could almost hear the  corporate gasp coming out of Whitehall as they wondered what on earth to do.’ Stella Rimington.

Open Secret

The rumours surrounding the imminent publication of the former head of MI5’s autobiography sent shock waves through Whitehall as members of the Old Boys’ Network suffered a collective attack of apoplexy.


When Stella Rimington was five-years-old, she and her brother Brian, aged eight, waited outside their primary school in Essex for the bus to take them home. It never arrived. At home, their mother became increasingly frantic waiting for them to turn up, but in those days of no telephones and no cars there was no way of finding out what had happened to them.

It was Stella’s first experience of a Top Secret, ‘need to know’ operation and how it could affect the lives of ordinary people. As it turned out, all buses and other transport had been commandeered to assist in the evacuation from Dunkirk, but the general public had been given no warning which might have allowed them to make alternative arrangements.

Luckily, the bank manager saw the children standing forlornly on the footpath and arranged for a pony and trap to take them home, which then became their normal mode of transport to school.    

When war broke out in 1939, Stella and Brian’s parents decided to send them to the United States to stay with their father’s sister who had emigrated to Philadelphia. The children were almost ready to go when news came that one of the ships carrying children to Canada had been torpedoed. They promptly changed their minds.

As the war wore on, Stella became increasingly sensitive to her parents’ growing anxiety, and gradually changed from being a confident and happy youngster into a perpetually worried little girl. So, how did this frightened child develop the nerves of steel required to run one of the oldest and most complex intelligence agencies in the world? Read on!

Stella Rimington was born in 1935 and educated at Nottingham Girls’ High School and Edinburgh University, where she finally took a MA in English 2:1 after spending most of her time drinking, partying and generally enjoying herself. She soon found that a degree in English apparently qualified her for nothing at all, so she followed it up with a Post grad Diploma Archives at Liverpool University.

The usual course of action for young women at that time was to fill in their days working at something or other, while saving money for the future and buying things for their ‘glory box’ until Mr Right (or Mr Convenient) proposed marriage and they could get on with being a wife and mother.

Stella had no idea what she wanted to do with her life, but at the age of twenty-four she began work as an Assistant Archivist in the Worcestershire County Record Office, followed by a position as Assistant Archivist in the India Office Library – where a huge old East India Company clock loudly ticked off both the passage of time and the decline of the British Empire.

Stella did follow the prescribed path for young gels, marrying her childhood sweetheart and civil servant John Rimington in 1963, after which she travelled to India as a diplomat’s wife. It was the height of the cold war and spies from both sides had descended upon India like falling rain. Stella joined the security service in 1969 after being tapped on the shoulder while working as a clerk/typist part-time in the Security Liaison Office in New Delhi.

In July 1969 Stella started work at MI5’s then headquarters in Leconfield House at the Park Lane end of Curzon Street, now the glittering London headquarters of banks and property companies, but at that time rundown, dark and gloomy, and with an excellent view of the White Elephant Club and other gambling dives across the road.

After undergoing training, Stella was posted to Counter-espionage in 1979, and took up the position of Assistant Director: Counter-subversion in 1980. This was followed by a stint in recruitment in 1984, after which she served as both Director: Counter-espionage and Director: Counter-terrorism.

When Stella Rimington became Deputy Director General in 1988, it was the first indication that it might actually be possible for her to be promoted to the top job in a man’s world. Stella Rimington was indeed eventually appointed Director General in 1992, a position she held until she retired in 1996.

‘Stella Rimington’s memoirs are only the latest step on the long road toward a mature relationship between the security services and the public they exist to serve…The story of MI5’s transformation from a stuffy, paranoid, introverted, exclusively male, incompetent dinosaur into a modern, efficient, self-confident public service is fascinating.

So, too is Rimington’s account of her rise in what was very definitely a man’s world…Fascinating too, is the way in which Rimington juggled her domestic life as a mother of two young daughters (and in later years as a single parent) with the extraordinary demands of her job.’ Guardian.

What possessed Dame Stella to write her memoirs given the secrecy surrounding the intelligence services? The ABC’s Michael Cathcart spoke with Stella Rimington in June 2012 and asked her just that question (see Website Watch on 'More Stella...P.3' for a link to the full transcript).

Dame Stella said: ‘When I retired, lots of publishers wrote to me and said, “We'd love to publish your memoirs,” and I wrote back and said I couldn't possibly do that, it's all too secret. And that was where it rested until about five years after I retired when one summer when I wasn't doing anything very much I thought maybe I'll just have a try at writing my autobiography. And I started and I went on with it, and in the end I finished it.

‘And I sent it in to the clearance process which exists for people like me or any public servant in Great Britain who wants to write their memoirs or anything else really, you have to have it cleared. So I sent it in to be cleared, and there was a sort of a deathly silence in Whitehall, you could almost hear the corporate gasp coming out of Whitehall as they wondered what on earth to do.’

The most effective Secret Service is the one which is secret. She should shut up.’ Bernard Ingham.

‘Because I'd written it very carefully, it was not full of the nation's secrets at all, it was my life story, and yet they were anxious about this. And so there was this deathly silence until one day somebody in the clearance process broke cover and put this completely uncleared manuscript into a brown paper envelope and sent it to the Sun newspaper, which is one of our most tabloid of tabloids. And they didn't know what to do with it.

‘So they put it back in another brown paper envelope and sent it to Number 10 Downing Street in a taxi with a press photographer, and that started a huge great press furore about whether I should be allowed to do this or shouldn't be allowed to do it.’

'Stella Rimington deserves our thanks for resisting the bullying of the Cabinet Office and many of her colleagues and associates in Whitehall, and pushing on to publication.’ New Statesman.

‘It achieved vast publicity which I would never have achieved if I'd tried. And in the end it was cleared, I was asked to make a few adjustments but not very many, and I published it. So that was the beginning of my writing career, which began in a way I hadn't intended actually.’

‘Was she right to publish? Most certainly. If we are to have a mature attitude to our intelligence services, we need this kind of inside account – it is vital in stripping away mystique and building understanding.’ Telegraph.

In the Acknowledgements section for Open Secret Dame Stella said: ‘I want to thank my successor as Director-General of MI5, Sir Stephen Lander. He and I have been friends and colleagues for years and, as I would expect, he has kept cool throughout the hysteria which has sometimes surrounded the preparation of this book. He has said that he would rather I had not written it, but in that I did, he has done his best, in difficult circumstances, to ensure that our relationship remains friendly.’ Stella Rimington.


For more on Stella Rimington (including interviews), summaries of her books, plus links to MI5, MI6, GCHQ, and other sites of interest to people writing about espionage, history, or those who are just avid spook fans, go to More Stella pages 2 and on the links below to go there.

More Stella...P.2

More Stella...P.3