Undercover Policing, 19th Century Style

There’s story about Oliver the Spy, a true tale in which Leeds features. It’s a stake some 200 years old, but one that  could just as easily have come from today’s headlines, featuring a man called WJ Richards, or William Oliver as he introduced himself.

In 1817 the French wars were done, but the economy was bad and there were demands for reform of Parliament, to allow more people the vote. The Tory government was fearful of rebellion by the working classes, especially in the North and Midlands. At the start of the year the man known as William Oliver began to move in radical circles in London. His politics seemed as strong as those others wanting change and he was accepted. He asked people to introduce him to Northern radicals.

In April and May 1817 Oliver toured towns across the North, preaching revolution to like minds. He was in Leeds twice. Touring once more in June he began making plans with locals for revolution. There would be a large meeting on June 6, 1817 in Dewsbury. Very soon, he assured everyone, things would begin.

But on 4 June, William Oliver slipped away and met General Byng, the commander of troops in the North and informed him of the Dewsbury meeting, which was surrounded and everyone arrested by the troops – except Oliver, who just ‘happened’ to escape. But he was spotted in Wakefield, talking to one of Byng’s servants just hours after the event. Word spread, and Edward Baines, owner of the Leeds Mercury, did a little digging. In an edition of the paper he revealed Oliver’s name and the fact that he was more than a government spy – he was an agent provocateur, actively fomenting rebellion. The government denied it, of course, but was finally forced to admit the fact. Most of those arrested in Dewsbury were released without charge, and the career of William Oliver the spy was over. He vanished back to wherever he’d been before – probably as a clerk in London.

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