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.
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.
William 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.