The C18th British Secret Service under Pitt (2)

Tom Paine, Arch-radical

Part 2: Radicals, Rebels and Republicans

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

The British government in the early 1790s was facing many challenges. War was brewing against Revolutionary France. There was radical agitation at home, partly encouraged by French ideas and partly stemming from the success of the Americans at declaring their independence and establishing a republican government. Home-grown doubts about the British monarchy and its place in constitution remained. The Hanoverian kings were often unpopular and were suspected of using British lives and money to pursue the interests of their German homeland. Whigs wanted to see parliament make all the decisions, with the king being a mere figurehead, and religious affiliation a matter of personal conscience. George III and the Tories schemed to create the opposite outcomes. Ireland was being difficult again. It was always hard to prevent the Irish from rebelling. Now the French were being urged by Irish nationalists to give active support to yet another uprising to eject the British gentry from their island.

Times were hard, harvests often poor and food costs high. The living and working conditions of the lower classes showed little or no improvement, even as ever-greater wealth became concentrated in the hands of rich merchants, bankers and the gentry. [Does this sound familiar?] Political corruption too often determined who went to parliament, political patronage ruled most civil and military appointments, while the vast bulk of the population continued to be denied almost all political and civil rights.

All of these grievances and concerns were legitimate. Yet nothing was likely to be done to address them so long as war with France and unrest in Ireland continued.

Radicalism equals Sedition

It was concerns such as these which caused the government of William Pitt to take an uncompromising stance against radicalism. Forums for discussion of radical ideas, such as the Corresponding Societies, and mass meetings demanding political, social and economic reform were all characterised as expressions of sedition and disloyalty. Images of the arch-radical Thomas Paine were burned by loyalist mobs up and down the country. Dr. Joseph Priestley, scientist and Unitarian, was attacked by the mob in Birmingham and driven into exile in America. Radical leaders were rounded up and imprisoned wherever they could be found.

Secret Police

Of course, there were no ‘police’ of any modern kind at this time, which makes talking about any ‘secret police’ seem ludicrous. Yet it is hard to know how else to describe the state security apparatus which was developed at that time. From interception of communications through infiltration of suspected groups to spies and informers, a range of government and military agencies were employed in gathering information, tracking down and arresting radicals and suppressing every kind of dissent. What is more, they were very successful.

There had been a number of systems of internal and external spies in place for many years before war with Revolutionary, then Napoleonic France broke out. Spies were used by both sides in the war for American Independence, together with the full panoply of ciphers, codes and secret inks. Daniel Defoe, author ‘Robinson Crusoe’, was a British spy and agent provocateur, as well as helping to set down on paper a logical basis for subsequent espionage arrangements. There was even an eighteenth-century ‘Bletchley Park’, where ciphers were cracked and secret messages read, under the direction of a clergyman, Edward Willes, who was rewarded by successive appointments as Canon of Westminster, Dean of Lincoln, Bishop of St. David’s and finally Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The Post Office regularly opened and read mail from persons deemed ‘suspicious’. In fact, there was a secret part of the Post Office entirely dedicated to the interception, decryption and copying of mail, especially despatches sent to foreign governments from their representatives in Britain. No ‘diplomatic bag’ to shield messages from prying eyes! (This Secret Office will be the subject of a post yet to come.)

A whole range of spies and informers, ‘professionals’ and amateurs alike, reported back on people and groups thought to be of dubious loyalty to the King. People informed on their neighbours. Organisations deemed potentially seditious were infiltrated and notes made of those who attended their meetings. Ships’ captains brought back news from overseas and merchants used their own agents abroad as sources of useful information, then passed it on to the authorities. Even the coffeehouses, especially Lloyds’ where insurance was traded, became a fruitful source of secret intelligence.

King George III as ‘Spymaster’?

There was no centralised system of secret surveillance. No MI5 or MI6. Instead, various officials in government ministries, the Admiralty and the Foreign Office collected and collated data, before producing reports. What is fascinating is the level of interest the King took in these reports, reading them every day and using them to send messages and instructions to his ministers and supporters. Like Churchill 150 years later, George needed no convincing about the importance of being well informed of his enemies’ intentions.

While we can see that the Jacobite threat to the Hanoverian dynasty was over from the 1745 rebellion, it may not have been quite so plain at the time. The eighteenth century was, after all, the heyday of a mass of secret societies, from Hellfire Clubs and drinking and gambling clubs, to Freemasons, Catholic and post-Jacobite plotters, Illuminati, freethinkers and agitators for constitutional change. It seems at times that every Englishman of even a modest level of prosperity spent much of his free time in one club or another. And though most ranged from the benign to the somewhat silly, others did indeed seek the overthrow of the ruling class and the redistribution of wealth.

Limited Evidence

Until quite recently, most historians seems to have ignored or dismissed eighteenth-century espionage as something of a misnomer. Now we can see they were wrong. Of course, the nature of secret services is to stay secret, so evidence for their activities and arrangements is not likely to appear in plain print. However, if you forget the bias caused by assuming spying in the 1700s must look like the same thing in the 1900s, the evidence is there, especially in the King’s accounts and the Privy Purse – both fine places for large expenditures to be hidden from parliamentary scrutiny.

That’s where the next post in this series will go: to the evidence for secret expenditure and the clandestine activities of agencies supposedly set up on a purely temporary basis during war-time, yet managing to persist well afterwards too.


William Savage lives near the beautiful North Norfolk coast in Eastern England and writes historical mystery novels, set in Norfolk between 1760 and 1800. His first 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.
This entry was posted in Secret Service and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.