Gonville and Caius College

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College of Cambridge University.

MI6 approaches

Richard Tomlinson

Former MI6 officer Richard Tomlinson was originally approached to join the service while at the College.

The Big Breach describes how Tomlinson was approached, in time honoured fashion, by a tutor at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, a typical MI6 talent spotter. He was himself classic MI6 material - an enthusiastic member of the university's air squadron, fit, adventurous and with a first class degree in aeronautical engineering.
Initially, he demurred and accepted a scholarship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then passed a rigorous test to become a member of the territorial SAS. In 1991 he remade contact with MI6 and made a favourable impression at its "front office" in Carlton Gardens off the Mall in central London.[1]
After Cambridge I more or less lost touch with Richard. But I do remember meeting him at a party, shortly before I went to Bangkok as a foreign correspondent in 1992. Richard more or less told me that he was working for MI6 and gave me the name of the British spy at the embassy in Thailand. When I arrived in Bangkok, I duly made contact. The spy was a bit suspicious and asked who had given me their name. I said Tomlinson and there was a long pause, before he replied warily - "He shouldn’t have told you that". As far as I know, Richard didn’t fall out with MI6 until the mid-1990s. But I guess he was displaying an unconventional attitude to security, even then.[2]

Andrew Roberts

When, 10 years ago, I was recruited into MI5's rather grander sister organisation, SIS, I was impressed by the very un-Guardian way it was all done - a chat with a Cambridge contact, tea at an address in Carlton House Terrace, a discreet lunch a fornight later and then a delightfully absurd mini-exam, in which one of the questions was "Put the following in order of social precedence: earl, duke, viscount, baron, marquis".
Yet even then there were elements of political correctness. One of my interviewers wore a red shirt, a grey tie and a beard. The corridors of the Century House headquarters in Lambeth Bridge Road were more civil service grey than Ian Fleming pannelled. But I recognised several of the young Miss Moneypennys from the secretarial schools' parties at university, and the questions in continuing interviews continued to be splendidly ridiculous.
If I had been a communist, a fascist or a homosexual, for instance, would I really have told them when they asked politely, knowing that in those pre-Guardian days I should have been automatically excluded from the service? "Where do Britain's best long-term interests lie? Washington, Brussels or Moscow?" was another teaser. This, considering the cold war was still being fought in 1987, made me wonder which idiotic applicants actually chose Moscow.[3]
Richard and I both took firsts and were years later both approached to join MI6. I passed all the (often hilarious) entry procedures, but decided after completing them to write history books instead. Richard went ahead and spent four years in "Six". There the fatal combination of his ambition and his fantasising soon emerged to threaten what must at the outset have seemed a very promising career.[4]

Notable alumni

Notable Fellows


  1. What's in that book, by Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, 24 January 2001.
  2. My Friend, the Renegade Spy, by Gideon Rachman, FT.com, 14 February 2008.
  3. Spying is a good old boys game, Andrew Roberts, Sunday Times, 25 May 1997.
  4. The Man with the Golden Tongue, Andrew Roberts, Sunday Telegraph, 25 May 1997.