Spying for the Crown: Part 2 – French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era




“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE.”  –  Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War, Chapter 13″

British National Intelligence Effort

Today we define Strategic National Intelligence as the collection, analysis, processing, and dissemination of information aimed primarily to support the national command authorities.  In the period 1793 – 1815, secret intelligence of this nature would have been for consumption by the Prime Minister, secretary of state for the Foreign Office, secretary of state for the Home Office, secretary of state for War and the Colonies, the first lord of the Admiralty, and the King.  (Maffeo, 2000)

As the end of the 18th century approached, Britain faced serious problems.  At home, times were hard, harvests failed due to poor weather and, as a result, food costs rose, sometimes resulting in food riots.  The living and working conditions of the lower classes showed little or no improvement, due to wartime inflation, even as a greater proportion of the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of large merchants, bankers and the gentry.  Too often, political corruption determined who went to parliament; and political patronage, rather than ability or merit, determined most civil and military appointments.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Society of United Irishmen, spurred on by the example of the American Revolution, and the writings of the likes of Thomas Paine, increasingly challenged British government authority in Ireland.  The United Irishmen even went as far as to encourage the French to land troops in Ireland in support of the Irish Republicans.  Looming war with the French and fears of discontent and insurrection at home demanded keeping a close eye on all kinds of agitators and revolutionaries.  Additionally, preserving Britain’s world trade, against French opposition, also increased the government’s need for prompt and comprehensive intelligence.  It is not surprising that, in this situation, the British government took firm action to try to deal with these threats, both internal and external.  Some of these actions were open; backed by increasingly severe legislation against sedition, and some were clandestine; employing spies, infiltration, and secret operations on a scale far greater than Britain had ever used before.

Portrait of William Windham, William Pitt, the younger's Secretary at War

William Windham, William Pitt, the younger’s Secretary at War

In addition to collecting useful intelligence information, British agents spread false information and stirred up dissent among the target groups.  Some pretended to offer to become spies for France, then supplied their new masters with deliberately misleading information.  After the French Revolution, William Wickham, Britain’s European spymaster based in Switzerland, ran a series of spy networks in Europe and sought to undermine the loyalty of French army officers.  William Windham, Pitt’s Minister at War, oversaw several British attempts to stir up and support French Royalist rebels in the Vendée and elsewhere against Napoleon.

At home, concerns that French agents were driving radicalism and support for republican ideals caused the government, headed by Prime Minister William Pitt the younger,  to take an uncompromising stance against radicalism.  From the perspective of the government, forums for discussion of radical ideas, such as the Corresponding Societies, and mass meetings demanding political, social and economic reform were expressions of sedition and disloyalty.  Loyalist mobs throughout the country burned effigies of the arch-radical Thomas Paine.  In Birmingham a mob attacked, and drove into exile in America, Dr. Joseph Priestley, scientist and teacher, because of his Unitarian beliefs that did not agree with the Church of England.  All over the British Isles, a range of government and military agencies were employed in the interception of communications, gathering information through infiltration of suspected groups through spies and informers, tracking down and arresting radicals, and suppressing every kind of dissent, and, they were very successful.

The Post Office regularly opened and read mail from persons deemed ‘suspicious’. In fact, there was a ‘Secret Office’ of the Post Office dedicated to monitoring mail and dispatches sent to foreign governments from their representatives in Britain.  Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, this office was primarily run by two families, the Bode family and the Willes family.  The main role of this Secret Office was to intercept and read mail between Britain and overseas.  Foreign post and official dispatches passed between Britain and the rest of the world via the Packet Service: a fleet of fast ships sailing regular routes.  Foreign mailbags were sent to the office, where, on their arrival, teams of translators and decipherers read through the contents to copy out any relevant information in English.  The Secret Office then dispatched the copies to the secretary of state, and returned the mail to the GPO for delivery as normal.  Beginning in the 1790s, mail arrived at the office twice a day: at 10am and 2pm.  In some cases, the inspectors could be given as little as half an hour to look at all the items and send them on their way again.

Secrecy was at the heart of this operation. If foreign governments realized the British government was reading their mail, they could instead send it by special messenger, or begin sending false information thus denying Britain access to valuable intelligence. Located near the Foreign Post Office, the Secret Office was so secret that employees of other GPO departments were completely unaware of its existence.  Naturally, when Britain was at war there was a far greater need to monitor communications for possibly valuable information and thus the numbers of employees increased.  In addition to more people being employed for the Secret Office, the number of Packet ships running between Britain and overseas also increased dramatically during times of war.  At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, there were around 40 ships sailing, carrying soldiers’ mail as well as government dispatches.  The Packets also smuggled newspapers out of France and spies into it.

The Alien Office, another arm of the Secret Intelligence operation, on the other hand was never a secret.  Established in the early 1790s as a result of the Police Act of 1792 and the Alien Act of 1793, its apparent purpose was dull and administrative: to register the arrival and departure of aliens (non-British subjects) and their statements of their reasons for coming to the country.  However, the secret and undeclared part of the Alien Office’s activities are what is of interest for this article.  This blandly titled office, with its dull administrative role, became the perfect ‘cover story’ for what grew into a comprehensive set of activities designed to recruit and manage agents, collect and collate intelligence and sponsor agent provocateurs spreading misinformation and dissent in France itself.  In addition, it acted as a sort of counter-intelligence agency, rooting out ‘subversive activity’ within the United Kingdom and Ireland.

The Police Act of 1792 established stipendiary magistrates in office for the first time. Before this, almost all magistrates had been local gentry, unpaid and untrained.  The new stipendiary magistrates were (mostly) lawyers or barristers paid for their work.  The Act also provided a small force of constables to act as their eyes and ears. Using the local squire, doctor, priest, or minister as a magistrate may have worked for cases of poaching, vagrancy, or petty theft; however, it was clearly inadequate to deal with French spies, home-grown radicals intent on revolution, or Irish agents trying to stir up rebellion within their country.

Attached to a specific police district, each stipendiary magistrate quickly established their own networks of informers and agents to watch ‘persons of interest’ and infiltrate suspicious groups. This was how William Wickham shut down the London Corresponding Society, a group of radical republicans and revolutionary hopefuls, and arrested its leaders for treason. Like today’s Special Branch, the stipendiary magistrates and their constables concerned themselves primarily with organizations, individuals, or means of communication thought to be conduits for the spread of seditious or dangerously radical ideas.

Portrait of William Wickham

William Wickham

In 1794, the new Home Secretary further reviewed and strengthened the system, appointing William Wickham as Superintendent of Aliens.  Wickham used much of the best French practice under Louis XVI as a model, adding to the office’s clerical staff and increasing its ability to respond swiftly by keeping at least one constable always in waiting for orders.  For overseas operations, Wickham established proper networks of secret agents, referred to by the bland name of ‘correspondences’, in several key European centers, including the Channel Islands, Cherbourg, Lyons and Paris, as well as Switzerland and the Low Countries.  He quickly found that the French in particular were quite easy to bribe and this seems to have become one of his primary means of gaining information throughout his period in office.  Additionally, he was able to use British gold to stir up pro-Royalist factions and local insurrections within France.  William Windham, Secretary of War, helped in this through his by the unwavering support for French loyalists and counter-revolutionary plots he concocted.  The steadily rising costs, from £25,000 per year at the start, to £150,000 in 1795, shows how much this depended on liberal supplies of bribes.

Portrait of Sir Evan Nepean

Sir Evan Nepean

As with so much else, the British spying effort was fragmented between various agencies, all of which were independent of one another.  The Admiralty had its own secret intelligence operations, led by Evan Nepean. They used local spies, but also collected information from naval officers and merchant ship captains about sightings of enemy vessels and numbers laid up in port. Even the Prime Minister, William Pitt, had his own private spy network.  How much these groups co-operated is difficult to tell.  What seems to be true is that influential people like Wickham and Nepean managed to tap many intelligence sources, not just those under their direct authority.


Another re-organization of the Alien Office and its resources came about under a new Alien Act in 1798.  Because of French diplomatic pressure on the Swiss authorities, Wickham was recalled from his post as spymaster in Switzerland and resumed his position as Superintendent of Aliens.   Additionally; he was given the post of Under-Secretary at the Home Office.  To meet the increased demands of the wartime post, three Assistant Superintendents were appointed, and the system of monitoring aliens strengthened.  The funding and staff numbers for the Alien Office rapidly increased, despite parliamentary efforts to curb them, as did unspecified payments of large sums made under Wickham’s authority.  These may have been to support increased security activities in Ireland, where unrest was increasing at the time.

There seems little doubt that this office, a seeming precursor of today’s MI5 and Special Branch, was of great help in fending off revolution and maintaining the monarchy.  Overseas, it managed to destabilize the Republican and then Napoleonic regimes to a significant extent.  It also kept pro-Royalist ideas and groups alive in France as shown by the number of local insurrections that took place.  Throughout its existence, the intelligence system organized around the Alien Office both survived and grew, adapting constantly to the changing political and military situation.

© 2015
Chuck Hudson

In Part Three of this article will take a look at look at British Military Intelligence during the Napoleonic Wars; including Wellington’s ‘exploring officers’ and his code breaker. 


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