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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.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Spymasters I

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.
George III
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.

Friday, 6 November 2015

The Bow St Runners

The next stop on my blog tour is on Victorian crime author Angela Buckley's excellent history blog. The magistrates attached to the Bow Street office in London, and their peace officers, the famous Bow Street Runners, play an important role in my new book Regency Spies.  
The Runners were sometimes asked perform investigations in the provinces; the magistrates also undertook covert missions outside London when necessary, for example, during the Luddite disturbances of 1812, and during the run-up to the Blanketeers' march of 1817. When local magistrates asked the Home Office to send Runners to help with inquiries in their locality, they were not best pleased to discover that they had to pay for their services.
Illustration:  The Bow St Runners arrest the Irishmen they hired to make false coins. George T. Wilkinson, Newgate Calendar Improved Vol. IV, Thomas Kelly, no date. Courtesy the Internet Archive,

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Sir Francis Burdett: Radical Reformer

Following on from my first guest blog post on Geri Walton's website, the next stop on my blog tour is on the wonderful All Things Georgian website.
Sir Francis Burdett, the Radical reformer, was an outspoken critic of repression, in particular the Tory government's repeated suspensions of Habeas Corpus during this era. This 1809 print by James Gillray, titled 'True reform of parliament, or Patriots lighting a revolutionary bonfire’ shows Sir Frances Burdett waving a red cap of liberty while Horne Tooke sets fire to a mass of papers including the Bill of Rights, and an angry mob attacks parliament. The building shown ablaze on the far right is the old Westminster Hall. The Houses of Parliament really did burn down (by accident) in 1834, but luckily Westminster Hall survived.  Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ds-01039.   

Regency Spies Released Early!

I've just had confirmation from Pen & Sword that Regency Spies has been released today! There's a special offer of a 20% discount if you order now. I do hope you enjoy reading my book as much as I enjoyed researching it! 
Update 1 December 2015: You can read an interview about me and my work here on the Northwich Guardian website.

Conspirators, or Delegates in Council.

This 1817 print by George Cruikshank shows some of the most infamous spies of the era.

On the far left, Lord Sidmouth (with a cane) is being given a paper by former Irish spy Thomas Reynolds (who was given a consulship). A huge ‘green bag’ full of Radical papers sits on the table. Seated on the right, from left to right are spies John Castle (with his back to the reader), William Oliver, then Canning and Castlereagh.  On the far right, honest John Bull looks through the window, horrified by the proceedings. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-6856.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Fishguard Invasion

The clock is now ticking towards the launch of my new book Regency Spies! Today author Geri Walton has very kindly hosted my blog post on her fabulous blog, History of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Early in 1797, Britain was on high alert following a failed invasion attempt, the Bantry Bay expedition, by Wolfe Tone and a French fleet led by General Hoche. This debacle was followed by the Fishguard invasion - the last time foreign troops landed on Britain's mainland. Now read on...
Irish Invasion and Destruction of the French Armada, 1797.