My series of mysteries featuring Dr Adam Bascom are all set in the early years of the struggle between Britain and revolutionary, later Napoleonic, France. Several feature the British government’s real concerns about spying, infiltration and subversion by the French. I think it makes for a good story, but is it genuine history?
For a start, France had declared war on Britain. The revolutionary government in Paris had also vowed to help foment potential republican revolutions against all other European monarchies. Britain was woefully unprepared for war, especially land warfare, so any invasion by the French — if they could get past the Royal Navy — was quite likely to succeed against the bare handful of regulars and a mass of ill-trained, poorly armed militia. After a rocky start, the French armies had recently won several stunning victories. They were well on the way to becoming seasoned veterans.
The revolution in France had been driven from below, led by middle-class lawyers and intellectuals who were adept at using the urban poor as ’storm troops’ to overwhelm opposition from the upper elite. While Britain’s aristocracy had not descended to the same levels of arrogance and sense of entitlement as those in France, there was no doubt that a home-based urge towards republican reform did exist in the England of the time. There’s plenty of evidence of that. When the revolution began in France it was widely supported on this side of the Channel. Not until Robespierre and The Terror did opinion sway firmly in the opposite direction. Even then, significant groups remained who had a strong interest in producing constitutional reform. To do so, they would need to weaken the grip of the monarchy and the great landowners on the levers of power. The Opposition in parliament wanted several reforms. The many radical artisans’ societies which sprang up, such as the London Corresponding Society and its offshoots in Norwich and Sheffield, wanted many more. They appeared to profess ideological, if not political, allegiance to the types of reform now sweeping through Europe, carried by the armies of France.
The British Government’s Response
At first, it was clumsy. Parliament passed a number of draconian legislative acts aimed at repressing the parliamentary opposition and the spreading radical groups. Maybe they knew from the start that few juries were willing to convict any one charged under these laws. They were rarely used. Events proved they would even more rarely lead to convictions. However, their existence on the statute book definitely had some deterrent effect. Faced with the threat of harsh punishment for ‘seditious libel’ or simply organising a political meeting, the radical groups and their leaders either gave up or went underground. It also became clear that public opinion was not sufficiently engaged by the radicals’ ideas to produce the type of demonstrations which had begun the revolution in France. The bulk of the people remained loyal to the monarchy and highly suspicious of republican ideas. Taken together, the new laws and the lack of public response to republicanism were enough to quell most radical activities and mute any significant demands for reform.
What finally tipped the balance in favour of the status quo was an intense government campaign aimed at counteracting effects from “divers wicked and seditious writings”, such as Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. This campaign blended torrents of outrageous propaganda with secret financial support for conservative groups. Loyalist associations in most larger cities and towns were established and their marches and other activities subsidised. Spies and government informers were used to infiltrate the radical societies. Intelligence was collected from magistrates, local officials and many others and ‘subversives’ targeted. Letters were opened and scanned for any signs of espionage or treasonous intentions.
Fear of Immigrants
When the revolution began, many French refugees fled for safety to England. At first, they were welcomed. Later, as their numbers grew, sympathy turned to suspicion. Were these truly innocent refugees? How many might be agents provacteurs, spies or revolutionaries hell-bent on sabotage. Were they exploiting the English radicals to further the aims of the French government? Were they plotting with dissident Irish nationalists to stir up rebellion? Were those who expressed support for them harbouring secret notions of treason?
Following a direct threat of invasion, the climate of opinion shifted decisively against the refugees and immigrants. Fears of the large number of undocumented French still arriving caused Parliament to pass the Aliens Act. This required all ports to keep a detailed account of the identities and purposes of all immigrants entering the country. The Secretary of State was now allowed to expel any aliens he deemed suspicious. Those who did enter were not allowed to bring even personal weapons or to travel without passports. Even those foreigners already within the country had to live in specified areas, submit to registration and give up their arms.
How real was the threat?
It was almost certainly wildly overstated. Much of the intelligence supplied to the government was either dubious or false, since informers and agents were paid for the amount of ‘evidence’ they produced, giving them an incentive to exaggerate — even invent — their reports. The real climate of fear, caused by threats of invasion and insurrection, also afforded the government a chance to crush even modest moves in favour of reform. All such attempts could be represented as the slippery slope that must lead inevitably to extremism. In reality, a French-style revolution in Georgian England was never a serious proposition. However, the fact that it took until the 1830s for tentative steps to be taken towards the most necessary constitutional reforms shows the lasting impact of the invasion fears of the 1790s.
I’m not going to make comparisons with events in our own times. Readers can make up their own minds on such matters. However, what is clear is that the media and Hollywood-induced picture of late-Georgian England, based in large part on Jane Austen’s novels, is far from the reality of the time. Austen’s heroines move on a stage which purposely omits anything which might clash with a picture of upper-class polite society going about its daily business. In my books, Dr Bascom is no less a member of the upper class. I have however tried to set him more clearly in the reality of a period wracked with anxieties and fears for its very survival.