Two 19th Century Scoops: Part I – The Spy Oliver

This week we hear from Library and Digital Assistant Ruairí Lewis on some fascinating examples of local, Leeds newspapers making their mark on the national stage.

On top of our extensive local newspaper collection in the Central Library, Leeds Libraries also have access to the British Newspaper Archive’s 19th Century Newspapers database. This gives library users access to a huge range of digitised 19th Century newspapers including the Leeds Mercury and the Chartist Northern Star, completely free and accessible from home with a library card. Have a look at our online resources here to find out more: Online resources 

Local does not mean insular, so here is part one of two ground-breaking scoops from the local newspaper the Leeds Mercury that had national scope and interest, all accessed online using 19th Century Newspapers. (Part two will follow at a later date)

The Spy Oliver, 1817 

Jeremiah Brandreth, Pentridge Uprising leader 

At the beginning of June 1817, a party of around 50 men from Pentridge in Derbyshire began an abortive attempt at insurrection. They were stopped in their tracks by a force of Dragoons the same night their revolution began. Three of the risings’ leaders were tried for treason and found guilty before being punished in the customary manner – hanging and beheading. 

On 5 July that same year, The Leeds Mercury published one of the most incendiary articles of the 19th Century, implicating an agent provocateur in the employ of Lord Liverpool’s government, known only as Oliver, in fomenting the doomed uprising. The editor Edward Baines wrote: “We claim the credit of having made the exposure of Mr Oliver and the spy system, purely on public and patriotic grounds.” 

The paper alleged that Oliver (one of “thousands” of spies) had made his way amongst the otherwise “peaceable and well-disposed” population “disseminating the poison of his treasons.” When a senior Yorkshire magistrate informed the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth of the agitator, he received a reply that Oliver was in fact an “agent of government”. It is not clear how the Mercury landed the story, but their main source appears to be the Sheffield magistrate who was left outraged at the behaviour of the government in allowing Oliver to provoke revolt in his jurisdictional backyard while the government sat on its hands. 

During the early 19th Century, from the Spa Fields Riot to the Pentridge revolutionaries, there was an undeniable uptick in insurrectionary activity in England. On 12 July the Mercury defended its editorial position that government spies were the motive force behind this wave of activity. The article, entitled ‘Origin of the Late Conspiracies’, argued that Oliver was “The Great Man – that under his direction the… delegates were appointed – that he moved and controlled everything, and that he was… the foreman of the concern.”

The editor was at pains to stress that the Mercury was not politically motivated, did not back any party and was indeed against reforms such as universal suffrage, anticipating criticism that the paper had published the revelations to challenge the government. They wrote:

If our frequent calls for… the long promised statement of Lord Sidmouth in justification of the system of espionage has the appearance of pertinacity, we have no other apology to offer for our perseverance than that which arises out of a deep anxiety for the establishment of truth, and a sincere wish to rescue our countrymen from the stigma which has been cast upon their character, in order to find a pretence for suspending their liberties

As dyed-in-the-wool liberals representing the views of non-conformists and textile interests, the Mercury had little sympathy with revolutionaries and rabble-rousers. Their concern over the implications of their investigation was driven by the broader political context surrounding the spy system.  

On top of deploying a network of spies to root out dissent, Parliament had in 1817 suspended habeas corpus for the first time since 1794, allowing detention of those suspected of conspiring against the government. The aftermath of the French Revolution had put the fear of Jacobinism and the Rights of Man into the British state, and the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 had exhausted the economy. Wartime industries faced a collapse in demand, and thousands of sailors and soldiers were released with little prospect of work, commonly without pay. Social unrest was rife, from Parliamentary reform advocates to machine-breaking Luddites.

The interests the Mercury represented had little appetite for state repression when it extended beyond getting workers to work (Mercury proprietor Edward Baines wrote that the 1834 New Poor Law institutionalising the workhouse was “one of the greatest Reforms that ever yet occurred.”[1]). State interference in most matters was something to be avoided like the plague for fear of upsetting the smooth functioning of market exchange and the individual freedoms in property, religion and education that came with it. So while the Mercury’s concern for the individual freedoms of property owners was no doubt serious, it is hard not to feel they protested too much in stressing the peaceable spirit of the English worker. Did Oliver and those like him really drive workers to rebel, or did they fan flames that were already lit by deteriorating social and economic conditions?

[1] David Thornton, MR MERCURY – A BIOGRAPHICAL STUDY OF EDWARD BAINES WITH SPECIAL REFERENCE TO HIS ROLE AS EDITOR, AUTHOR AND POLITICIAN, p. 250 (available at L B BAI in Local Studies & Research, Leeds Central Library)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.