Spies like us

21st November 2018

Can a tiny Sussex village really be the birthplace  of the fictional British spy? Our man on the South Coast visits Rottingdean in search of Rudyard Kipling’s former home, and the story behind Kim.


Set amid the vicissitudes of The Great Game, the late 19th and early 20th century power struggle between Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is still ranked as one of the greatest British novels of all time.

Inspired by Kipling’s childhood in Bombay and his experiences as a young journalist at the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore, this much-loved tale of espionage follows young Kimball O’Hara as he is trained in the art of subterfuge, enabling him to seize maps and documents from Russian intelligence agents seeking to wrest control of the Himalayas from the British.

Kim was not, as a first time reader may assume, written in breathless haste by an author rootlessly flitting from one far-flung foreign location to the next. It was in fact written in an atmosphere as far removed from the secrets, lies and derring-do of international espionage as is possible to imagine.

The bucolic village of Rottingdean, just an hour’s drive from Goodwood, was Rudyard Kipling’s home when he was writing what is now regarded as the very first British spy novel. Indeed, without Kim , we might have never had John Buchan’s The 39 Steps , John le Carré’s Smiley novels or the slithery array of agents and double agents portrayed in numerous Graham Greene novels. We may (whisper it) never even have had Ian Fleming’s adventures involving a certain agent with the code name “007”.

Kim was the first time in literature that the classic elements of the British spy were displayed – characteristics with which Fleming, Greene and le Carré would later imbue their own heroes.

Honour, moral superiority over the “enemy”, a certain rakish charm, the ability to be utterly and disarmingly ruthless yet always remain patriotic to a cause more important than one’s own survival, Kim is the prototype for every male fantasy of a life chequered with non-stop travel, adventure and daring.

The streets are empty, and we come quietly to The Elms to take on a sort of ghost life.

Walk through Rottingdean today and the sense of detachment and seclusion that Kipling experienced while writing the novel are still apparent. The house in which the Kipling family lived during their time here, called The Elms, dates back to the late 18th century and is now, as  it was then, an impossibly handsome bow-windowed property looking directly out onto the lush village green.

Living in the village between 1897 and 1902 marked a professionally productive but personally turbulent, often tragic, period in Kipling’s life. Despite getting parts of Kim published in McClure’s Magazine in 1900, as well as working on what would become the phenomenally successful Just So stories, Kipling’s sojourn in Rottingdean coincided with the death of his daughter Josephine, who had succumbed to pneumonia after a storm-tossed voyage to New York.

“The village green is most beautiful,” wrote Kipling’s wife Carrie in her diary when they returned to Rottingdean. “The streets are empty, and we come quietly to The Elms to take on a sort of ghost life.”

While Kim began to enjoy considerable critical and commercial acclaim, the birthplace of the fictional English spy would soon be abandoned by Kipling. The invention of double-decker buses brought hordes of “gawkers” from nearby Brighton to Rottingdean; drivers would stop outside The Elms so that passengers on the top deck could catch a glimpse of Kipling at work in his study.

Unsurprisingly, the family moved out – to the then remote village of Burwash, where Kipling would stay until his death in 1936. Today, The Elms itself is in private hands but the gardens that were once part of the property are now open to the public. Strolling among the rose and herb gardens as the gentle thwack of a croquet ball echoes in the distance, it’s perhaps not so difficult to understand why Kipling chose somewhere so peaceful to create the quintessential spy.

Kim, and all the secret agents who have delighted, infuriated and captivated us in British fiction since then, have all had one thing in common: robust buccaneers they may have been, but there has been an underlying sense of melancholy to each and every one, from Fleming’s Bond and George Smiley to Richard Hannay.

Rootless, alone and often in peril, perhaps it was a place like the village green at Rottingdean that was in their minds as they piteously dispatched another threat to Queen and country. Maybe, just maybe, every spy dreams one day of coming home.

  • gettyimages-2695588.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Welcome to the future

  • sir-stirling-moss-fos-1995-james-bareham-mail-on-sunday.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Greatest Racing Driver of All Time

  • palace-gardens-tile.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Natural Selection