Search This Blog

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Happy Christmas Everyone!

Hugh Thomson illustration for the Graphic, 1889.
A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my readers! I look forward to sharing more secret histories from the world of Regency Spies in 2016!

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Spies

'Presentation of colours' to the militia. 
 Lord Liverpool once commented: ‘Spies and informers had been at all times employed by all governments, and ever must be’. The Home Office’s espionage or ‘missionary’ system was a significant expense for government. 

It spent thousands of pounds annually paying its own spies, and reimbursing local magistrates for their spies.

What kind of person was recruited as a spy? In London, the famous Bow Street Runners often undertook intelligence-gathering. In the provinces, lawyers were sometimes pressed into service (some notorious spies like Leonard McNally in Ireland, which rebelled in 1798, were legal professionals). 
Thomas Reynolds - a United Irish spy.

Army and navy officers and militia-men were also asked, or volunteered to, infiltrate the meetings of Radicals, workers’ societies and revolutionary groups, and root out potential traitors on the home front.
In the industrial districts, some impoverished workers were only too happy to earn good money informing on their neighbours. 
This period was very profitable for the Regency spies, but their lives were at risk if people realized they were being betrayed. On Saturday 9 May 1812, a Lancashire militia-man and his sweetheart died in sinister circumstances. Sergeant John Moore of the 1st Manchester Local Militia and his cousin Margaret were thrown into the Rochdale Canal, near Manchester, where they drowned. A Manchester spy, John Bent, later confirmed to the authorities that the locals had discovered that Moore ‘was an informer’.  

Fun And Games!

Gallop post-haste to my Jane Austen blog to find out more about a Regency kissing game!

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Britons To Arms! Spa Fields 1816.

Spa Fields Chapel in the 1780s.
One group of particular interest to Britain's spymasters were the Spencean Philanthropists. These revolutionaries were followers of Thomas Spence. Spence believed that ‘the land is the people’s farm’. Land should belong to all, not just the ‘landed monopoly’. 
Spence's Plan. HO40/9, 1817.
After Spence's death in 1814, a new society was set up by his adherents, which included former LCS members Thomas Evans and his son Thomas, who were earning a living as brace-makers in the Strand. 

The Spenceans held weekly meetings at pubs in the metropolis. Their members included Dr James Watson, ‘a respectable surgeon and apothecary’, his son Jem or 'Young Watson', John Hooper, Thomas Preston – and Arthur Thistlewood, a brooding, dangerous man. 
In the autumn of 1816, the Spenceans wrote to Radical orator Henry Hunt, asking him to address a meeting at Spa Fields. Hunt, a very popular speaker, was sure to draw a large crowd. The Spenceans could use the meeting to test public support for their plans to overthrow the government. 
Hooper and Thistlewood.
The Spenceans told Hunt that they planned to hold a meeting ‘of the distressed inhabitants of the metropolis’ at Spa Fields on Monday 15 November.  They would prepare a memorial to the Prince Regent detailing the people's grievances and asking for relief. Hunt agreed to go. But when he arrived in London, and the Spenceans showed him the speech which they wanted him to read out, Henry was aghast:‘The whole affair was made up of Spencean principles, relating to the holding of all the land in the kingdom to be one great farm, or something of that sort’. It was ‘treasonable matter’. At last Hunt agreed to chair the meeting provided there was no mention of Spencean ideas. He wanted to concentrate on the reform of parliament - the introduction of universal (male) suffrage and annual parliaments. 
Shortly before the meeting, 5,000 handbills were distributed in London: 'Britons To Arms! The whole country waits the Signal  from London to fly to Arms! Hasten break open Gunsmiths and other likely places to find Arms!... Stand True or be Slaves for Ever!' (HO 40/3/3, f.901, 1816). 
Although this meeting passed off peacefully, the next one, on 2 December, was a very different affair. The government's spies reported that the Spenceans planned to attack the Bank of England and and the Tower of London (very similar to the Despard plot).

So on the appointed day, troops and police were out in force in London. Dr Watson’s son Jem was first to address the crowd. He climbed on a coal-waggon decorated with tri-coloured flags: the emblem of the French revolution. 

When Hunt turned up at 1pm to address the 10,000-strong crowd, Young Watson was already heading towards Smithfield with several 
The Home Office received regular updates as the riot was taking place. HO40/10.
hundred men.
Jem shot a customer, Mr Platt, while raiding a gunsmith’s shop. Several shops were attacked, and a mob rampaged through the streets until stopped by the troops and cavalry.The Spenceans were now wanted men...

Tricoloured flags.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Spymasters II

During the age of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Home Office wanted good, reliable intelligence on the domestic front as well as in the sphere of war. Persons of interest to the authorities included the government's political opponents and critics, disaffected Englishmen, Irish and Scots, and even workers agitating for better wages and working conditions.

If the government believed that trouble was brewing, it was a far better use of resources to ensure that troops were already in place before they were needed, and this is one of the reasons why spies were needed. Whitehall relied heavily on reports from local magistrates and concerned loyalists for news of potential troublemakers in the provinces.
Many local JPs were active intelligence-gatherers.

Unfortunately many local justices seem to have been particularly pusillanimous and communicated every minor happenstance. Letters poured into the Home Office on a daily basis, and the clerks had the unenviable task of winnowing the chaff to determine which letters and spy reports were important and required immediate action, and which were trivial.

Several local officials employed spies and informers to gather information, which they forwarded to London. For example, magistrates like Col.Ralph Fletcher in Bolton, Rev. William R. Hay in Manchester, and clerk of the peace John Lloyd of Stockport, were highly active correspondents. Their spies and informers were given code-names in correspondence, such as ‘B’ or ‘S’; sometimes the term ‘confidential agent’ or ‘confidential person’ was used. 

John Bull fighting the French single-handed. Unknown artist, c. 1800. Courtesy Library of Congress LC-DIG-ppmsca-10749.
'The Bench'. Hugh Thomson illustration for Our Village, Macmillan & Co., 1893.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Arrest of Colonel Despard

On this day in 1802, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard and over twenty other conspirators were arrested at the Oakley Arms pub in Lambeth on suspicion of high treason. Despard (1751–1803) had formerly served as chief engineer to Captain (later Lord) Nelson. Despard was an Irishman, and had been a member of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) of which Thomas Hardy was a founder member. The LCS wanted parliamentary reform.

Despard and other Radicals were imprisoned for suspected treasonable practices during the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1798. (Sir Francis Burdett campaigned to get Despard and other prisoners held in appalling conditions in Coldbath-Fields released).  
KB8/87 Death sentences.

After his release from prison, Despard joined a secret society called the United Britons, which had links with the United Irishmen and United Englishmen. 

(The government believed that the United Britons was just another name for the United Englishmen. However, they appear to have had separate leaders at some dates). 

Despard's United Britons planned to rise up in unison with United Irish rebels in Ireland at the same time as a French invasion; they would seize the Bank of England, Tower of London, armouries, make ‘Insurrection Rebellion and War’ on the kingdom, and kill the king. Unfortunately for Despard, spies and informers had infiltrated his ranks, and their evidence helped convict Despard and his men. 

Was Despard an innocent man? He refused to admit his guilt, right up to his execution on 21 February 1803. And as the chief evidence against him came from informers, some contemporaries like Henry Hunt believed that Despard was 'stitched up' by the government. 
Update 22.1.16: You can read some of the newspaper coverage of the Despard plot here on the British Newspaper Archive blog.
Images: Colonel Despard, from the Memoirs of the life of Col. E. M. Despard (1803) held at the Working Class Movement Library. 
Photo showing the death sentence passed against Despard and his men. Special oyer and terminer and gaol delivery roll and file, Colonel Edward Despard and others, KB 8/87 at The National Archives.