The C18th British Secret Service under Pitt (1)

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Part 1: Establishment and Growth

This is the first instalment in a series of posts dealing with spies and clandestine operations between 1790 and 1815.

As the end of the 18th century approached, Britain faced a serious problem. Looming war with the French and fears of riot and insurrection at home demanded keeping a close eye on all kinds of agitators and revolutionaries. Preserving trade against French opposition also increased the government’s need for timely and comprehensive intelligence. At the same time, the attempts of George III to reassert the power of the monarchy raised fears that liberties fundamental to the English Constitution would be undermined. Parliament wanted tight controls over all aspects of royal expenditure.

Since this included both the costs of government and spending in the secret service, there was bound to be a clash. No secret agency wants the nature or extent of its spending to be made public. Nor did the government want to be restricted in its secret dealings by parliamentary scrutiny.

Discontent at home, looming war with France and all kinds of radical and republican ideas being discussed openly. It was enough to give King George and his government some very sleepless nights. It was not surprising that they took firm action to try to contain all these threats to what mattered most to the ruling elite: the preservation of privilege and property. Some of these actions were open and backed by increasingly severe legal action against sedition. Some were clandestine, based on infiltrating suspicious organisations, disrupting their plans and activities and arresting the ringleaders. Those were perhaps the most effective and will be the subject of this series of posts.

James Bond’s eighteenth-century predecessors

The English secret service in the 18th century was a mix of previous English experience with the practices of other countries, in particular Italy and France.

Sir Francis Walsingham (1534-1590) developed a formidable intelligence network under Elizabeth I. Focusing on potential Catholic plots, he mined diplomatic and unofficial sources in Holland, France, and Germany. Yet, despite the undoubted importance of his work in keeping his queen safe and her country free from ‘terrorist’ activities, he never even received full payment. He often had to use his own money to keep his operations functioning, eventually bankrupting himself and his family.

Oliver Cromwell was, if anything, even better at espionage, prompting Samuel Pepys to remark that “Cromwell carried the secrets of all the princes of Europe at his girdle.” Yet, although Britain was almost constantly at war with one group or another during the century and more between the restoration of Charles II and the American Revolution, intelligence services were generally allowed to decay. It took a new French war and a new prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, to bring Britain a functioning secret service again.

The French Revolutionary Wars

William Pitt, prime minister from 1783 to 1801 and 1804-1806, used spying, infiltration and clandestine operations on a scale far greater than ever before. These he used both at home, against radicals, agitators and Irish insurgents, and overseas, to support British interests and military operations. In 1775, total expenditure on all clandestine operations was £52,500. By 1798, it was £185,000.

From 1710, an Act of Parliament gave the Post Office a monopoly on carrying mail. A Secret Office, established within it, was thus able to read and monitor virtually any correspondence at home or going to or from other countries. Pitt’s government made full use of such facilities, even establishing a proto-GCHQ to decrypt coded letters between embassies and their home governments. Astonishingly, the ‘head’ of this eighteenth-century Bletchley Park was the Bishop of Bath and Wells, a most accomplished code-breaker, it seems. It was said the coded despatches to Prussia were read by the English King well before they reached his Prussian counterpart.

Like Churchill 150 years later, George III took a close, almost obsessive interest in intelligence matters and read almost every report personally. Military commanders in the field were also expected to develop and use their own espionage networks to stay informed of enemy plans and strategies. Nelson was especially keen to obtain useful intelligence for operational purposes, employing both his own spy network and information gleaned from British representatives in key centres and reports from his subordinates. Indeed, his famous complaint about ‘want of frigates’ hampering his effectiveness probably had as much to do with the information they could bring him as any of such ships’ fighting qualities.

Control of clandestine activities

Almost by definition, most spies, subversives and double-agents are shifty at best and downright treacherous at other times. Most required bribery to operate at all, since eighteenth-century Britain had no corps of paid and trained spymasters: no George Smiley or ‘C’ of unquestioned loyalty to the Crown. It was up to ambassadors and other diplomats abroad, and a handful of civil servants at home, to recruit, pay and supervise such agents as they deemed necessary. They also disbursed the secret funds needed to pay for the bribery of foreign officials and the purchase of stolen secrets. Huge sums might pass through their hands, but the accounting for how and where it was spends was rudimentary. All that was required of them was this oath:

I A.B. do swear, That the Money paid to me for Foreign Secret Service, or for Secret Service in detecting, preventing, or defeating, treasonable, or other dangerous Conspiracies against the State…, has been bona fide, applied to the said Purpose or Purposes, and to no other: and that it hath not appeared to me convenient to the State that the same should be paid Abroad. So help me GOD.

This oath was accepted as equivalent to documentary evidence. Imagine a system like that today!

Agents in the Field

Agents could be used to spread false information and stir up dissent as much as collect useful data. We know that some offered to become spies for France, then tried to supply their new masters with deliberately misleading ‘facts’. An agent who went under the name of Montague Fox came extremely close to causing real havoc in this way in 1780, using French diplomats in The Hague to back him. After the revolution, William Wickham, based in Switzerland, ran a series of spy networks in Europe and sought to undermine the loyalty of French army officers, including one general. William Windham, Norfolk squire and Pitt’s Minister at War, oversaw several British attempts to stir up and support French Royalist rebels in the Vendée and elsewhere against Napoleon.

Sir Sidney Smith, as a young captain, was able to travel in France after the Peace of Paris in 1783 and even observe new construction at the base at Cherbourg. In 1796, he was captured and imprisoned for two years, though even then he managed to keep contact with French Royalists and British agents. In the end, the Royalists helped him escape and return to England. He went on to have a distinguished career fighting against Napoleon, including preventing a relief force from reaching Egypt when Nelson’s victory at Aboukir Bay had trapped the French there. That was why Napoleon later said of Sir Sidney Smith, “That man made me miss my destiny.”

The second instalment in this series of posts will look at keeping tabs on domestic subversion.


William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. The first book in the series, “An Unlamented Death“, appeared in January 2015. A second book is now in its final stages and will be published in Spring 2015.

Will is also a local historian. In that guise, he researches topics relevant to the general period of his historical writing, gives talks to local groups and societies and is a regular volunteer guide at a nearby National Trust property. He finally has time for doing all this now he has retired.

For eleven years, Will and his wife lived in the USA, latterly in southern Arizona. This experience sparked an enduring love of the breathtaking beauty of the Sonoran Desert, as well as the history of the American West, especially Native American art and culture. As a result, Will became intrigued by the figure of Coyote: the Trickster God of many indigenous cultures across western states of the USA.

Will’s book of fantasy Coyote stories – in affectionate homage to this powerful archetype of human experience – will be published later in the year.

About William Savage

Independent researcher and author of mystery stories set in Georgian Norfolk.
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