Food Riots and Recession in Napoleonic-era England

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Declaration by Norfolk Labourers
Photo Nigel Jones CC

In 1793, the tensions caused by the revolution in france finally exploded into a pan-european conflict. In some ways, it was nothing new. Wars were endemic to most parts of the European continent. Britain and France had been fighting one another sporadically for more than 500 years before. This time, however, war between the two countries was to be on a far greater scale — though no one could have foreseen it would last for 22 years.

It’s natural for historians to lay much of the emphasis on the political and military aspects of the fighting. I want to consider another side to the Napoleonic War. The war’s effects most often impacted the ordinary people of England in the workplace and the kitchen. Britain was moving rapidly from being a subsistence to a market economy. More and more people bought the bulk their food instead of growing it. Instead of working on the land, many now gained employment and income in factories, mills and the growing towns of the industrialising North. The effects of the war, exacerbated by a series of poor harvests, were felt in all these areas and caused a good deal of unrest and discontent. It wasn’t until after 1803, when invasion seemed almost certain, that British people succumbed to a wave of patriotism. Not until after the great victory of Trafalgar in October 1805 did they show a real determination to see off ‘Old Boney’ for good.

Recession and Unemployment

In the counties of East Anglia, with a long history of close trade and family ties with what are now Holland, Belgium and the countries of Scandinavia, the effect of the war on business was felt with particular severity. It was — and still is — one of the primary grain-producing areas of the country, so agricultural reform and improvement arrived there early and in full measure.

Local people, surrounded by fields of grain, did not react well to high prices. The trouble lay partly with the insatiable demands of London, and partly with exports to other European countries suffering grain shortages of their own. Many did not understand the nature of a market economy. Efforts by local magistrates to limit rises in the cost of basic foods like bread did little to help. Few were effective anyway. Instead, local mobs resorted to seizing grain stores and flour mills and selling the produce themselves at what they thought were more appropriate prices. Despite receiving the money afterwards, the merchants and millers were far from amused!

In 1792, there was an especially violent riot in Great Yarmouth because of the price of corn. The local authorities managed to suppress the riot and do so without calling in the army. The Mayor, Edmund Lacon, was knighted as a reward. Yet this was far from the only example of local unrest due to high food prices, particularly for grain — and hence bread. Millers were accused of holding back supplies to increase the price, or depriving local people because the price in London was higher. Many dealers sold grain and flour to the military authorities, especially the navy, instead of sending it the nearest market town.

These food riots were usually short-lived affairs, but the bread riots of 1795 and into 1796 were different. Outbreaks of disorder caused by high bread prices spread throughout Britain. Wheat yields in 1795 were extremely low, due to bad weather as well as the war. There had also been a poor harvest in 1794, followed by an extremely cold winter, which stopped farmers from working on the land. The spring of 1795 again produced bad weather, so that supplies to the markets were reduced. The war against revolutionary France had so disrupted European and Atlantic trade that it prevented the import of sufficient grain to make up the shortfall. What followed was a full-blown crisis, as food prices soared. Some areas seemed on the brink of famine.

Fear of a British Revolution

The riots, combined with unrest over the war, might have offered a fertile ground for the republican and revolutionary movements then active. In fact, most were strong on rhetoric and protest, but weak when it came to action. Still, with recent events in France in mind, and with unrest in Ireland almost a constant, they were enough to provoke Pitt’s government into taking Draconian action. The leaders of such groups were arrested and meetings banned. Virtually any organisation thought to be seditious, or antagonistic to the current form of government, were targeted. The crisis was weathered, but not without resorting to methods of dubious legality in constitutional terms.

There’s little evidence the French were behind any of this, save in the broadest sense of offering moral support. Even the Irish, desperate for French help to stage an armed rebellion, found themselves let down. In England, the Corresponding Societies and other revolutionary groups looked back more often to the English Civil War for their inspiration than to events in France. ‘Conservative’ thinkers argued that Britain had already had its revolution in 1688 and needed no other. Radicals claimed that the spirit of that ‘Glorious Revolution’ had been watered down by the king and his Tory ministers. Just as today, politicians split on party lines: the Tories were for stability and the status quo; the Whigs — especially the faction around Charles James Fox — for significant change.

It’s interesting to reflect how little things have changed over some 250 years. Both sides used ‘scare tactics’ to win over support. The Tories, with Edmund Burke as their champion, decried all that came across the English Channel as likely to ruin Britain’s future prospects in the world. The Foxite Whigs pointed to the need to reform Britain’s constitution and believed continental models could indicate something of how to do it.

In the end, of course, Britain went its own way via the great Reform Act — but not until after more than sixty years of acrimonious, and often pointless, argument.

Posted in Georgian Society, Keeping the Peace | Leave a comment

“The Convivial Songster”

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I wrote a short while ago about music-making in the Georgian home. Here’s a fascinating advertisement for the kind of music available for home music-making in 1783. Note the list of song types, in which “Songs on the Caprices of Women” is given its own category!

Singing or playing an instrument were important ’accomplishments’ for young women to acquire. Young men too might use any skills in such areas to impress potential brides — and their mothers — with their suitability.

It’s also worth noting the price of this collection. Two shillings and sixpence — perhaps £25.00 in today’s terms — would put the collection well beyond the reach of anyone save the more prosperous merchants, the gentry and the aristocracy. The music of the poor, played in taverns and at variuos gatherings, would have been picked up by listening and played by ear. Even many churches of the time lacked any music at all, especially in rural areas. When the congregations did sing, it was usually simple psalms. An organ was a great possession, probably only available as a gift from a wealthy patron. Otherwise, singing would have been unaccompanied, or assisted by whatever instruments happened to be available.

Convivial Songster, New Edition.

This Day is Published, Embellished with an elegant Frontispiece of the Chapel of Venus, an engraved Title page, and a beautiful Vignette. Price 2 shillings and 6 pence, bound in red, The Convivial Songster; Containing a select Collection of the best Songs in the English Language, classed under the following Heads, viz. Humorous, Amorous, Bacchanalian, Satyrical, Songs on the Caprices of Women, Dialectic Songs, Sea Songs, Miscellaneous and Original Songs, with the Music prefixed to each; selected from the best Authors, and the most approved Collections, and expressly intended for the Use of those who will wish to please the Companies where Humour, Mirth, and Wit are understood and applauded. With an Introduction, containing Rules and Instructions for such as wish to become pleasing and good Singers. To which is added a great Number of entirely original Toasts and Sentiments, no where [sic] to be found but in this Work.

N.B. The Tunes themselves form a pleasing Collection, are put in the most familiar Keys, and, to such as play the German Flute, Violin, etc are, from the Scarceness and Goodness of many of them, worth more than the Price of the Book.

(The Norfolk Chronicle, 4th January, 1783)

Posted in Georgian Society, Leisure | 2 Comments

Norfolk, Napoleon and the Decline of Trade

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Many of england’s mediaeval wars were primarily ‘dynastic’ – fought to advance the power, prestige or hegemony of the king and nobles. Even the wars of the first part of the eighteenth century were more for political gain than anything else. War against Revolutionary France, then Napoleon, however, was mostly about trade and empire. Britain dominated the world’s trade at the time. Its empire, though mostly picked up thoughtlessly, was now showing its true worth as a means of gaining yet more trading opportunities. France had been left behind or excluded. Now its leaders, especially Napoleon, dreamed of seizing a goodly share of Britain’s empire for their own country.

Two elements of Napoleon’s ‘Continental System’ of trade sanctions particularly affected the economy of Norfolk. The disruption of trade in the export of fine woollen cloth crippled the weaving trade. Norwich ‘stuffs’ — luxury, highly-patterned, worsted fabrics in rich colours — were shut out of the bulk of traditional export markets in Europe and Russia. Secondly, the shift from British trade focusing on continental Europe to an Atlantic bias meant Norfolk’s location far from the main ports of Liverpool and Bristol put it at a disadvantage. Norwich had used its own wool, plus additional supplies from all over eastern England. Cotton came from India and America and landed at the western ports. At the same time, increased mechanisation, first water and then steam-powered undermined Norwich as a manufacturing centre.

The Rise of ‘King Cotton’

Cotton fabrics were lighter and cheaper that Norfolk’s fine worsteds. They could also be printed easily with complex patterns in a range of rich colours. Norwich ‘stuffs’ were woven, not printed. Demand did not fail altogether, but the city struggled to cope with the twin threats of cheaper manufacturing in the Yorkshire woollen towns and elsewhere and the trend towards the use of thin, even diaphanous, cotton calico for Regency dresses. It maintained its superiority only in the production of fabric for mourning clothes, clerical gowns and the like. The lustrous black of bombazine remained de rigour for such formal wear throughout the nineteenth century.

Norwich also developed an unlikely trade in producing shawls based on Kashmir originals. Some of these were printed and others woven, but Norwich shawls also became essential parts of any fashionable lady’s wardrobe.

Norfolk Slips into Decline

The merchants, the traders and the bankers, whose interests could be advanced or ruined by the outcome of the war, watched the outcome with close interest, nowhere more than in East Anglia. In the eighteenth century, Norfolk was seen as a hotbed of radicals, extremists and anti-establishment politics. It also has coasts judged to be suitable, if not quite ideal, for mounting a sea-borne invasion. What might happen if the enemy arrived in force and encountered a local populace primed to rise up against the government in London.

Norfolk’s massive textile industry reached its peak of importance in the 1760s. By 1793, when war with Revolutionary France became a reality, it had already lost much of its pre-eminence. That added unemployed weavers and other textile workers to the county’s rich mix of disgruntled groups. Then, even before war had broken out, the ordinary people of rural Norfolk had been struggling with poor harvests, high food prices and limited employment.

The result was the beginning of the county’s long, slow decline into losing much of its commercial and industrial power. Agriculture remained relatively buoyant, largely due to the efforts of reformers and innovators like ‘Turnip’ Townshend and Coke of Norfolk. For the rest, the textile trade moved northwards to places better suited for mechanised operations, while innovative bankers, like the Gurneys, formed the basis of the High Street banks we have today.

Was any of this due to Napoleon’s efforts to cripple “the nation of shopkeepers”? Probably very little, if any at all. Norfolk would have lost out in the coming changes that we term the Industrial Revolution whatever the French did. It was hampered by geography, not an external enemy. A largely flat county offers little potential for the use of water-powered machinery. One without coal, no attraction in the age of steam. The new factories and their machines were bound to be sited elsewhere.

Lessons From History

Even so, governments have never forgotten the potential for using trade as a weapon of war. From the submarines and commerce raiders of the First World War and The Battle of the Atlantic to today’s trade sanctions, interfering with the movement of commerce and supplies is often the first recourse in any international dispute. And if it didn’t quite originate in the eighteenth century, that was when the use of trade sanctions was first carried out on a major scale.

Posted in C18th Norfolk, Commerce

The Wealth of an Early 18th-century Butcher

burwash-inventory

Probate inventories are fascinating documents. Unlike more ‘literary’ documents, such as contemporary novels, they let you see the eighteenth-century world as it was, warts and all. By listing everything owned by someone who had recently died, down to broken pots and pans and worn-out linens, they open a window on the daily lives of the ‘middling sort’ that you can get in no other way, not even in contemporary diaries.

Take this inventory of the goods of a local butcher in Kent, one Thomas Burwash, who died in 1705, when Queen Anne was on the throne. It begins like this:

Ane Inventary of all and singular the goods & chattels and credits of Thomas Burwash, late of the parish of Gillingham in the County of Kent, Butcher, deceased taken & appraised the 24th day of Aprill Anno Domini 1705 by Mathew Tilden of Gillingham aforesaid, yeoman, and John King of the same yeoman as ffolloweth vizt:

These are two local tenant farmers and were presumably either the executors of the butcher’s will or friends. They are going to go through Thomas Burwash’s house, room by room, listing what they find and assigning it a value for the purpose of obtaining probate from the consistory court of the diocese.

The first thing that strikes you is that none of the main rooms seem to have a single use. Beds are mixed in with chairs, tables and the rest.

Inpri[mi]s (First) in the Best Chamber
his wearing apparel, purse with money: xx li (£20.00)

Item one ffeather Bedd and all its ffurniture: v li (£5.00)

Item 3 Chests and a base of drawers: i s vj d (1s 6d)

Item ½ a doz. of Leather Chaires: ix s (9s)

Item One looking glass and some Earthen ware: v s (5s)
Item 20 pair of sheets and 10 paire of pillow Coates: iv li xv s (£4 15s)
Item three Dozen of Napkins and Towells: i li ix s (£1 9s)

It’s hard to turn these into precise modern values, but if you work on the basis of likely purchasing power, one pound in 1705 would be equivalent to some £200–250.00 today, one shilling about £10.00 and one penny (1d) around £1.75p. If you work on the basis of equivalent earnings, you could multiply by about ten again.

This is quite a list. Apparently his clothes and the money in his purse are worth £20.00, while no fewer than “three chests and a base of drawers”, presumably to hold them, are so old, battered or of such poor quality that they’re appraised at only 1/6! Note also that he has no fewer than 20 pairs of sheets, ten pairs of pillow cases and thirty-six assorted napkins and towels. Why so many? Because, as I noted in an earlier post, washing days came around only every month or six weeks. If you and your family wanted to sleep in clean sheets most of the time, you needed lots of bed linen.

Item in the second Chamber over the Ffire Roome
one ffeather Bedd with all its ffurniture: iij li (£3.00)

Item One Trunke One Chest and one looking glass: viij s (8s)

Item in the Little Chamber
one fflock Bed one Chest one little Table: i li xv s (£1 15s)

These do seem to be just bedrooms, but the furniture in them is scanty and worth very little, other than the beds. The ‘furniture’ of the beds means the bed hangings (these would be tester/four-poster beds), mattress and bolster/pillows.

These three rooms seem to be the entirety of the living quarters. All the other rooms noted are either servants’ quarters, domestic offices or connected with food storage and preparation. Presumably, the family spent their time either in a bedroom or in the kitchen.

Item in the Brewhouse Chamber

two fflock Bedds and their ffurniture One Chest: ij li (£2.00)

Item in ye Corne Chamber
two Seames and a halfe of Wheate: iij li ij s vj d (£3 2s 6d)

Item six Leather Chaires: xv s (15s)

Item a palate Bedds and Eight joint stooles: xv s (15s)

Item one fflock Bedd and its ffurniture: xv s (15s)

Item one Table andirons fire shovell and tonges i li vj s vj d (£1 6s 6d)

What all this furniture is doing in the ‘Corne Chamber’, along with 20 bushels of wheat, is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it was simply being stored in case it was needed for visitors or guests. The items may have been old as well, since altogether they are only worth £3 11s 6d.

Item in the Kitchen

hafe a dozen of pewter dishes one doz: of plates: i li v s vj d (£1 6s 6d)

Item one paire of Cole Racks and ffender fire shovels and tongs: v li (£5.00) <br /.>
Item one Jack and Clock: ij li (£2.00) [a clockwork turnspit]

Item one paire of Brass candle-sticks & brass mortar and pestle one dripping pan one Gridiron two box Irons three spits two Candle Boxes: x s vj d (10s 6d)
Item one Cubbord one little Table halfe a dozen of Chaires and Earthen Ware: vij s x d (7s 10d)

Item two ffeather Bedds and their ffurniture: ij li x s (£2 10s)

Two beds in the kitchen!

Item in the Seller [cellar]
one dozen of Caskes two brine Tubbs four Bowles and other Lumber: ij li x s (£2 10s)

Item in the Buttery
one brass kettle four skillets a dripping pan a ffrying pan a warming pan: xiv s vj d (14 6d)

Item in the Brewhouse
foure porridge potts eight Tubbs an Iron Kettle and two ffurnaces: iv s vj d (4s 6d)

Item two Bucketts and Rope & two pailes xv s (15s)

Item for goods in the shop: x li (£10.00)

It may be that the shop was somewhere else. A butcher’s shop was a messy and smelly place, so you might well not want to live too close to it.

Item in the Barne
one [?illegible]
one [?]scuppett one sive one ffan: x s (10s)

These look like items for winnowing grain. Then follow the livestock and farming goods. Even a butcher in Queen Anne’s time farmed a little land as well. The move to a purely market economy hadn’t progressed so far as to rule out the need for producing at least some of your own food.

Item one Mare [illegible] ,br />
Item for two Hoggs: i li (£2.00)

Item for ffour Cowes: x li (£10.00)

Item One Court and two Harrowes: ij li (£2.00)

Item for nineteene acres of Corne on ye Land: xxv li (£25.00)

Item for ffifteene sheep and lambs: v li (£5.00)

Finally the debts, including ‘desperate’ ones, and anything missed out or overlooked.

Item debts Desperate due & oweing to the said dece[ase]d amounting to ye sume of: vj li (£6.00)

Item for things unseen and forgotten: x s (10s)

Suma Totalis: Cxxviij li (£128.00)

All in all a fairly prosperous local tradesman. His clothes and ready money alone come to £20.00, which was about a year’s income for an ordinary working man. His stock, crops and livestock were valued at £53 2s 6d, or around the annual tithe income of a country parson. In comparison, all his other possessions came to only £55.00, of which £6 3s is for bed linen and about £7 10s for cooking utensils.

Compare that with the wealth of the most meagre landed gentry, at around £200 p.a., and you can see the huge gulf that existed between them and the middling sort at the start of the century. By the end of it, the gap would have closed almost completely, with a good many merchants, manufacturers and professionals commanding greater wealth than the gentry who supposedly outranked them.

Posted in Commerce | 5 Comments

The Gallant Lieutenant Western, 1793

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Last week, i was in holland on a short vacation and visited the fascinating town of dordrecht. There is a fine church in the centre of the town, so naturally I went inside to look around. Imagine my surprise at finding a massive memorial tablet  (about 10 feet by 5 feet), written in English and set into the wall of the south aisle, not far from the main altar.

War with France … Again

The story behind this memorial goes like this. The Revolutionary government in France declared war on Britain in February 1793, fearing that the main European powers were about to ‘gang up’ against them to reinstate the Bourbon kings. Surprisingly, Britain chose to strike the first blow in a war that was to last, in total, some 22 years and span much of the known world.

Early in March, a detachment of 3000 men of the Foot Guards was sent to the Netherlands, under the command of The Duke of York. Their orders were to help the Dutch drive out the French forces that were attempting to take over their country to export their revolutionary ideas. Additional soldiers were sent from Hesse and Hanover to help in the process. There was also a small Royal Navy presence.

It was one of these ships, the 32-gun frigate ‘Syren’, which figures next in this story. It served as the flagship of this naval squadron and was under the command of Captain John Manley. The ships were anchored at the Maese, from where an expedition was mounted against five French forts, which had been erected to bombard Willemstadt, about 30 miles east of Helvoetsluys.

Superior Fire-power

The expedition consisted of three gunboats, under the command of the 22-year old Lieutenant John Western. He must have led his men with great verve and determination, since the French, amazed by the fire-power he directed against them, wildly overestimated the size of the attacking force and fled, leaving all their cannon behind.

On March 21st, Lieutenant Western was in action again, this time bombarding the French camp at the Noord post on the Moordyke. Sadly, his luck ran out and he was killed by a musket-ball which struck him in the head, making him the first British fatal casualty in the war. He must also have made a great impression on his superiors to merit both a full military funeral in Dordrecht and the presence of The Duke of York himself, who ordered the memorial erected which stands there to this day.

The wording reads:

To The Lamented Memory
OF
JOHN WESTERN. Esq
Lieutenant of His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate SYREN
AND
As a Testimony of the gallant services performed by HIM
This MONUMENT is erected
BY ORDER OF
HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE DUKE OF YORK.
LIEUTENANT WESTERN,
After distinguishing himself by his Conduct and Intrepidity
With which he assisted
The Garrison of Williamstadt
(At that Time besieged by the French)
FELL EARLY IN THE CAREER OF GLORY,
Having been unfortunately killed by the Enemy
off the Moordych
On the Twenty-first Day of March, A. D 1793
In the TWENTY-SECOND Year of his Age,
IN THE SERVICE OR HIS COUNTRY,
AND IN DEFENCE Of HOLLAND.
HIS REMAINS
Were deposited near this Place,
ATTENDED BY HIS ROYAL HIGHNESS THE DUKE OF YORK,
BY THE OFFICERS AND SEAMEN OF THE ROYAL NAVY,
The Companions of his
MERITORIOUS EXERTIONS,
AND BY
THE BRIGADE OF HIS BRITANNIC MAJESTY’S FOOT GUARDS
In Garrison at Dordrecht.

This extravagant funeral and memorial may have been a response to a genuine act of heroism or just an opportunistic piece of propaganda. I’m hoping some reader of this blog will be able to enlighten me on that. Either way, poor Lieutenant Western is still remembered 224 years after his death.

Posted in Military | 1 Comment

The Heyday of Norfolk Smugglers

Smugglers by G. Morland

Smuggling is usually associated with the south coast of england, from Kent to Cornwall, where the crossing to the French coastline was shortest. Yet East Anglia was also a popular haunt of these criminal gangs. Norfolk, in particular, offered long stretches of lonely beaches with easy access to the land behind. It was also barely one hundred miles across the sea to the coasts of Holland and Flanders.

The heyday of Norfolk smuggling probably came in the 1770s and 1780s, when high taxes were imposed on ‘luxury’ items like tea, gin, brandy, silks and lace to pay for England’s endless wars with continental Europe and America. It seemed to take a while before the authorities worked out that high taxes on basically cheap items meant huge returns for the smugglers: more than enough to make up for the occasional losses to zealous Revenue agents.

Even when goods — or persons — had been seized, holding them was quite another matter, as this newspaper excerpt shows:

The Norfolk Chronicle, 18th January, 1783

Friday last was committed to the Castle1 by M. F. RISHTON, Esq., Thomas FRANKLYN, of Lynn, fellmonger2, a noted smuggler, charged on the oaths of William SPENCER and Thomas ABBOTT, excise officers, and John BOUTELL, a private of the 11th regiment of dragoons, with having, in the morning of Friday the 31st of last month, aided and assisted by divers other persons unknown, armed with fire-arms and other offensive weapons, rescued at Thornham twelve bags of tea, each containing 26 pounds [in weight], after the same had been lawfully seized by Robert BLISS, supervisor, John BANHAM, and the above officers, and also with having violently assaulted the said Mr BLISS, desperately wounding him, and threatening to murder the other officers.

Another account says, last week the following melancholy accident happened at Lynn, in Norfolk: – One FRANKLYN, a noted smuggler, being pressed by the men on that service, was rescued by one of his men who met them; upon this they pressed the man for setting his master at liberty, and thereupon FRANKLYN, for the better enabling him to set his man at liberty, went home for a bludgeon, and meeting them in the market-place, he knocked down one of them with the bludgeon, and set his man at liberty, and both walked home to FRANKLYN’s house, defying the gang. And about three hours after this, the gang [the pressgang], together with a file of soldiers, came to FRANKLYN’s house to take him, whereupon FRANKLYN fired at them two or three times through the door; upon this, the officers commanded the soldiers to fire, who did, and shot one NICHOLS, a taylor [sic], dead; lodged a ball in the arm of a woman, and grazed the temples of another, and after some resistance took him [presumably Franklyn], and he was on Friday last conveyed to Norwich castle.

Even today, there’s a tendency to think of smugglers as romantic figures, whose only crime was against the government and the Revenue. This is quite false. Smuggling gangs were usually ruthlessly efficient, using bullying to deter juries from bringing in convictions and taking severe revenge on informers. As the extract above shows, they had no hesitation in resorting to violence when it suited them. They were much more like the Mafia than a few local men bringing in the occasional keg of spirits or bag of tea.

That they succeeded for so long has parallels with drug dealers today. In both cases, enough people — especially, the wealthy — wanted to buy what they offered to drive up prices and produce vast profits. At the same time, a general public opposition to anything that acted in restraint of trade made the taxes imposed on the goods being smuggled seem unfair and arbitrary. In Norfolk, getting cheap goods seemed to blind even the most respectable to the actual nature of the trade. Men from Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, to Parson Woodforde happily bought from the smugglers for their personal needs, while decrying the trade in public.

When taxes were reduced to more acceptable levels and enforcement made more effective, much of the trade died out. Perhaps that’s why, with the added glamour of hindsight and Hollywood, those who brought in “…brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk …” are still regarded as mostly harmless today.

  1. Norwich Castle, which acted as the county gaol. ↩︎
  2. A seller of animal hides or skins, particularly sheepskins. ↩︎
Posted in Crime

The Murky Recesses of the Georgian Post Office

 

post-office

Said to be the Secret Office

 

One of the principal reasons for establishing a government-controlled monopoly over the transmission of the mail was the opportunity it would offer for controlling and intercepting anything judged subversive or too critical of government actions. Such was the theory. In practice, it never worked nearly as well as successive governments wished. Direct censorship laws had been ended in Britain by the start of the eighteenth century. Thereafter, governments had to rely on vague statues governing libel or ‘seditious libel’ or on so-called General Warrants.

Even the latter expedient collapsed in 1762, when the government of the day tried to use it to crush The North Briton — a radical political magazine whose principal author was John Wilkes. Demands for freedom of speech were too strong and even a charge of libel against the king saw Wilkes soon released from prison. As a result, various eighteenth-century governments fell back on secret ways of dealing with the spread of information or ideas judged inimical to their wishes. Many of these involved the use of the Post Office.

Espionage, Intelligence and “Dirty Tricks”

Espionage was an important element in the remit of The Postmaster General in the eighteenth century. It sometimes surprises people to know that the Georgian Post Office played such an important range of roles in this area, more or less doing the jobs that Special Branch and the Secret Services (MI5 and MI6) do today. Not just passive interception of documents either. The Post Office was an active participant in transmitting intelligence to and from those who needed it, as well as significant roles in collecting and creating it. It even took some part in various government “dirty tricks” aimed at thwarting or revealing plots and stratagems by hostile parties.

The Private Office

The Private Office used the unparalleled network of postmasters, Country Deputies and other staff employed by the regular post to send a stream of intelligence back to London. This covered everything from crime reports and economic conditions to notes on suspicious persons. As directed by legal warrants, they also opened specific correspondence and copied it before it was sent on. Ship’s captains were encouraged to supply their observations of naval and merchant shipping movements on the high seas and in foreign ports. Lloyds, already the home of marine insurance, used its own port correspondents to collect similar intelligence for commercial use, then shared it with the Post Office. The captains of the Packet Ships, which took official mail overseas, supplied lists of passengers and still more observations. They also supplied a vital link between secret agents in foreign ports and their masters back in London.

The Foreign Private Office or Secret Department

This was the hub for opening and reading official despatches and letters between foreign governments and their British embassies and consulates, so secret that the other GPO departments were unaware of its existence. The office even had a secret entrance in a residential street to avoid any overt link with government activity. Pay came covertly from Post Office revenue ‘diverted’ for the purpose.

The Foreign Secret Office operated continuously, day and night, so that foreign mails and despatches could be opened and copied with minimal risk of the governments concerned perceiving a suspicious delay. Foreign mail was sent to the office, where teams of translators could read the contents and copy out significant passages in English. These copies were passed to the secretary of state, while the originals were returned for delivery as normal. The whole process could take as little as an hour.

Of course, both foreign governments and conspirators were well aware of the possibility of their communications being intercepted and tried to guard against their private messages being read. That gave rise to the third secret part of the Post Office.

The Deciphering Branch

The Deciphering Branch both ‘broke’ foreign and domestic, especially Irish, codes and provided a service to the other branches in reading what they had intercepted, before passing it on to the king and his ministers. Naturally, its activity fluctuated with international tensions. In 1748, the staff included a ‘Chief Decypherer’ and Second, Third and Fourth Decipherers. Their salaries rivalled the annual incomes of a good many wealthy country gentlemen, providing a strong incentive to loyalty and secrecy.

These specialists also used their expertise to reverse the process, producing forged despatches and letters to confuse enemies or be ‘planted’ on foreign diplomats or agents to suit government plans. They even researched ‘invisible inks’ and developed secret methods of writing, engraving copies of foreign seals and procuring special waxes to help in the opening and re-sealing of letters without trace.

So long as the British king remained ruler of the German state of Hanover, a similar set of secret offices was maintained there. Contact between the two sets was always maintained at a high level, giving the king and government the earliest possible warning of foreign intentions throughout Europe. All the Hanoverian kings showed a direct interest in intelligence work, especially George III. Like Winston Churchill during World War II, he demanded to see daily intelligence reports and often the raw intelligence itself, if he could obtain access to it.

Summary

Like the staff of Bletchley Park and other intelligence operations in the 1940s, those who operated the Georgian intelligence network in the Post Office showed exemplary loyalty and attention to security. As a result, parliament and public remained mostly ignorant of their existence. There were one or two security breaches over the years, often produced by over-zealous parliamentary committees in search of extravagance or government inefficiency. None produced any long-term problems. As a result, both private correspondents and foreign governments and diplomats went on using the Post Office without much concern.

Winston Churchill called the staff at Bletchley Park, “The geese who laid the golden eggs and never cackled.” Much the same could be said of the mostly forgotten men who staffed the secret, unacknowledged parts of the Post Office in the eighteenth century.


williamsavageWilliam Savage writes historical fiction set in eighteenth-century Norfolk in the years between 1760 and 1800. This was a period of turmoil — constant wars, the revolutions in America and France and finally the titanic, 22-year struggle with Napoleon. The series featuring Dr Adam Bascom, a young gentleman-physician caught up in the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, takes place in a variety of locations near to the North Norfolk coast. The Ashmole Foxe series is located in Norwich. Mr Foxe is something of a dandy, a bookseller and, unknown to most around him, quickly involved in dealing with anything likely to upset the peace or economic security of his beloved city. You can check out both series here.

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