Spies and other creepy crawlies

The last decade of the 18th century and the first of the 19th was not all balls, assemblies, and house parties, even for Britain’s top ten thousand families. Radical notions were abroad. Outrageous ideas such as land reform, a fairer distribution of resources, and universal male suffrage. Even female suffrage, but that idea didn’t have support beyond a very small group of women.

In the view of those who controlled the country, such ideas were dangerous. It seemed clear to most of our aristocrats that God had ordained a system in which the rich spent more on a single waistcoat than the seamstress who made it earned in a lifetime of sewing. The French Revolution had shown that the poor did not agree.

Was the threat real?

Coffee houses were meeting places for those who wanted to discuss radical ideas.

How real was the threat that the downtrodden labourers of Britain would rise up like the French, kill their betters, and sweep away all the apparatus of government, church, and Society? It didn’t happen. Minor flare-ups and riots did not draw the kind of popular support the rebels hoped.

Perhaps the British people did not have an appetite for the kind of bloodbath that had happened over the channel. Perhaps Parliament made enough changes, albeit slowly and reluctantly, to give reformers hope for a legitimate social evolution.

Or perhaps the desperate endeavours of a cadre of spies provided sufficient information about the radical societies that their paymasters could nip revolution in the bud.

Who were the spies?

When I hear the term ‘spy’, I tend to think of people operating in the territory of some foreign power, as part of a declared or undeclared war. And this period had those, too. More about them another time.

But today, I want to talk about the spies that worked within Britain, infiltrating radical groups and feeding information back to the government official or nobleman who employed them. I became interested when I realised that my current hero and heroine, and the heroine’s fifteen year old daughter, we’re heading straight into the middle of the 1812 riots in Lancashire and Yorkshire. Riots? Revolts? Or damp squibs?

And what did they do?

Georgian spies did not merely report the plans of the little groups who fomented the rising. They contributed to riots and attempted revolts, by enthusiastically providing false information to the organisers so that they would have plans to sell to the government.

Certainly, the government paid large sums in bribes and reward to those prepared to join an organisation that was possibly fomenting revolution. The spying effort was managed across various agencies and individuals, all working independently of one another, and researchers reading government records have unearthed a six-fold increase in costs in the last two decades of the 18th century.

More police stooge than James Bond

Today, anyone going undercover in a democratic nation is hedged about by restrictions designed to protect the rights of citizens. For example, in most countries, the agencies need evidence to convince a judge that a crime is being committed. Back then, all it took was a willing person and a purse full of cash.

And entrapment is a crime. An officer who entices a gang member or terrorist into committing a feolony is themselves guilty of a crime. Not so back in the tumultuous years of which I write though, depending on the jury, evidence of entrapment could and sometimes did, lead to a case being thrown out of the court.

Forget James Bond. What the English government had was more like the police informer in the modern tv crime shows: a dirty little man with a drinking problem, half blackmailed and half bribed into reporting the activities of those who thought him a friend.


I recommend

Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels and Revolutionaries, by Sue Wilkes.