|Sir Francis Walsingham|
To understand how the spy system worked during the era of Regency Spies, we must look at the machinery of government. Official government departments dealing with domestic and foreign affairs had existed for centuries; for example, Sir Francis Walsingham was famous for his role as chief spymaster in Elizabeth I's reign.
However, in 1782 the Home Department (Home Office) and the Foreign Department (Foreign Office) were established in a form roughly equivalent to those existing today. George III had two principal secretaries in charge of government affairs: one for the Home Department, and one for the Foreign Department.
The Home Secretary (as we would call him today) was responsible for maintaining law and order. Henry Dundas was Home Secretary in the early 1790s, followed by the 3rd Duke of Portland, who served under Prime Minister Pitt the Younger.
Initially, the Home Department’s staff consisted of a principal secretary, two under-secretaries, eleven clerks, two chamber-keepers’ and one ‘necessary woman’ (maid or housekeeper).
After France declared war on Britain in 1793, and fears of an invasion grew, the British government adopted a more professional, centralized approach to intelligence-gathering. The Home Office initially took charge of the war effort. The following year, a War Department was founded and an additional Secretary of State appointed.
The Home Office also set up the Alien Office, which kept tabs on foreign visitors (especially suspected French spies) to Britain, and deported them if necessary. Formerly, secret service work was undertaken when needed by an obscure body known as the Foreign Letter Office.
Under the leadership of the redoubtable William Wickham and Charles William Flint, the Alien Office became the unofficial headquarters of the secret service and a central clearing house for intelligence on foreigners. Its premises were near the prime minister’s official residence in Downing Street, and its officials were primarily Oxford graduates. By 1816 the under-secretary of state at the Home Office had taken over the Alien Office’s duties.
|Westminster from the roof of Whitehall, c.1807.|
War with France increased the Home Office’s workload and it took on extra staff. The Home and Foreign Offices also shared staff such as messengers, translators, and two ‘decipherers’ or decoders. They had a very important task. Since the early eighteenth century, Secretaries of State had had powers to issue warrants to post-masters and post-office clerks to intercept, open and decipher the letters of suspect personages. In Ireland, the Lord Lieutenant issued warrants to detain the mail if necessary.
A warrant to open mail did not necessarily relate to just one person; several individuals could be named as persons of interest. Warrant could also be issued for all letters potentially relating to a particular offence, such as treason or sedition. This gave the authorities great scope for surveillance.
All images from the author's collection.