Spying…in Leeds

Leeds…it doesn’t seem like a hotbed of spies, does it? And while no state secrets might have ever gone missing from here, in turn of the 19th century there were a couple of case of definite skulduggery.

Almost certainly there’d have been earlier instances. Elizabeth the First’s spymaster almost certainly had people reporting from the Darnley household at Temple Newsman, and both Royalists and Roundheads would have had informers in Leeds during the Civil War.

But the first recorded case was a little different, and a symptom of the competition brought on by the Industrial Revolution, where Leeds was very much at the forefront.

Before we begin, though, a couple of facts you probably learned at school:

  1. James Watt invented the steam engine.
  2. Stephenson invented the first steam locomotive, the Rocket.

The first is right. The second is wrong. The first steam locomotive was invented in Leeds, the idea of a man named John Blenkinsop and used to bring coal from the Middleton mines to the staithes near Leeds Bridge. Called the Salamanca, it was built by Fenton, Murray & Wood at their rotunda works in Holbeck – the area we know today as the Round Foundry.

Salamanca, and the locomotive in action, 1814

Well before the locomotive, though, Murray’s company was the subject of industrial espionage, courtesy of James Watt, Jr and his works in Birmingham. Two of his senior men visited Holbeck in 1799 and were given a personal tour by Murray, one that proved sobering, as a letter to Watt from his business partner Boulton showed:

“Murdock & Abraham are now returned from their excursion highly delighted and full of panegyricks upon Murray’s excellent work. Abraham is now entirely convinced of his inferiority, and what is more, of the possibility of amendment and he is now actually making trials of different substances to mix with the sand with the view of giving a better skin to the castings. We have likewise written to G. Mc Murdock to send a boat load of the sand used by Murray”

They wanted to stop their Leeds rival, even buy up land close to his works to stop Murray expanding and keep a close eye on what he was doing. One story even has Watt taking a room at the Cross Keys on Water Lane to carry out spying himself.

round foundry

Murray’s works in Holbeck with the Round Foundry (Rotunda)

A few of Watt’s workers had moved to Leeds to work for the new company. They were contacted and encouraged to return to Birmingham with the knowledge they’d gained. Watt himself broke into the trunk of one and discovered drawing he’d made of machinery used in his Birmingham works. But it wasn’t theft; there was nothing to be done.

It was to a head when Watt’s company filed suit against Murray, accusing him of patenting ideas that belonged to them. The Leeds man didn’t yet have the money to fight a long battle in court – but instead turned to public opinion, which eventually vindicated him. He had more invention ahead – including the Middleton locomotive, although it’s rumoured that spies working for other countries tried to steal the details, although no one else ever made it work.


Matthew Murray

That was the industrial espionage.

But a few years later there was also the politics. It was known as the Oliver Affair, and the 1817 scandal in the West Riding almost brought down the government in London.

William Oliver, or Oliver the Spy as he became known, was actually a carpenter or clerk whose real name was W J Richards. He’s spent time in debtors’ prison, eventually released with the help of a friend, a shoemaker with connections to Radical causes. From there, Oliver wormed his way into the political circles until he’d become known and accepted.

It was after that he went to see the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, the man responsible for the hanging of several Northern Luddites a few years before. After the Napoleonic Wars, England was in a fragile state. Prices kept rising, wages were low, unemployment was high; there was a genuine possibility of revolution in the air. He offered to become the government’s man, a spy, an agent provocateur.

oliver brown coat library of congress

A contemporary cartoon, Oliver fourth from right in brown coat (Library of Congress)

Oliver accompanied another Radical, a man named Mitchell, on a tour of meeting in the Midlands and the North. After that, Mitchell was arrested – which left Oliver as the conduit between Radicals in London and the North.

Late May and early June saw Oliver back in the North, especially in Yorkshire, sending daily reports to the Home Office. A meeting of leading Radicals was set for June 6, just outside Dewsbury. Two days earlier, Oliver had met Major-General Byng, head of the army for the North of England.

When the meeting in Dewsbury took place, troops arrived and all the delegates arrested – except Oliver, who ‘managed’ to escape.

Early the next morning, a Radical who hadn’t been at the meeting spotted Oliver in Wakefield, waiting to board a coach for Nottingham, and deep in conversation with a man who admitted when questioned that he was one of General Byng’s servants.

Rumours of Oliver’s treachery reached Nottingham before he did, and he was lucky to survive the grilling he head from some Radicals there. But an uprising in Pentrich had already been planned, and had begun before word could reach them. They’d been betrayed by Oliver, of course. Three of the leaders were executed for treason, and others transported to Australia.

The Leeds connection came days later, when Edward Baines published a series of articles in the Leeds Mercury, giving all the details of what Oliver had done as the government’s agent provocateur. They were read out in Parliament and became the subject of several debates that embarrassed the government. At one point it seemed to be on the edge of falling.

Baines had caused a sensation. Magistrates had used informers to catch the Luddites, but that was during the Napoleonic Wars, and in wartime extreme measures can be excused. But this was peacetime, and the public were outraged. It came to a head too late for the Pentrich men to escape hanging (although they weren’t drawn and quartered in an ‘act of mercy’) but most of those arrested in Dewsbury were released.

oliver spy report

Oliver’s notes (National Archives)

And Oliver? In 1819 the government quietly packed him off to South Africa with a grant of land. He died there in 1827.

Of course, it was hardly the end to undercover policing here. There’s almost certainly been plenty more that’s never come to light. But one incident has surfaced: between 2002-2008, an officer given the identity Lynn Watson was based in Leeds, with the job of infiltrating groups like Climate Camp and the organising hub Dissent! Her role was publicly confirmed in 2011.

History, it seems, has a nasty way of repeating itself.

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.

A 1733 Interview with Richard Nottingham, Part One

From the Leeds Mercury, 1733:

As the citizens of our good town will know, among the public offices in Leeds is one of Constable. Whilst many of those who abide within the letter of the law may be unaware that the role is anything more than ceremonial, those of a nefarious and dubious character know all too well that our Constable is someone to be feared, a man who uses his rank wisely to see that they’re punished for their misdeeds.

Earlier this year our present Constable, Mr. Richard Nottingham, was incapacitated by a grievous knife wound in the act of apprehending some dangerous criminals. For some time the outcome of his life lay in the balance. Praise be to God, however, that he returned from such a brink and currently finds himself recuperating at home.

Constable Nottingham was gracious enough to accede to request from your humble correspondent and answer questions for the Mercury. We deem this interview to be of great account to those in Leeds, that they may acquaint themselves with a man who’s proved himself to be such a valued servant to the city.

We wish you well of the day, sir, and hope your condition’s improving.

Slowly. Another month and I should be back to my work. To tell you the truth, I’ll be glad of it; I wasn’t made to be idle.

You have no thoughts of retirement?

Perhaps my wife would like that but she knows me too well to insist. I love my job. I’ve been doing it sixteen years now (Editor’s note: Mr. Nottingham was named as Constable in 1717) and I can’t imagine anything else. Certainly not doing nothing.

Who has been your greatest foe?

Greatest? I’m not sure that’s the word I’d use for him, but probably the most dangerous was Amos Worthy. He died a year ago, taken by cancer. He was a pimp, a money lender, he had a hand in much of the crime we had here.

And yet he was never in court? Never sentenced to hang or transported?

He was a wealthy man. Money can buy power and protection. Perhaps it’s best just to say that Mr. Worthy used his riches wisely. Those who might testify against him or threaten him would change their minds or decide to leave Leeds. A number of years ago, back before I became Constable, there was a man named Tom Finer. He vanished overnight. We’ve never discovered what happened to him.

Leeds is a place that is changing in every way. It’s growing bigger and richer each year. Has the nature of the crimes from which you defend us altered?

People drink, they argue and fight. Nothing’s changed there and it probably never will. Men grow weary of life and kill themselves. I’ve seen men and woman kill for passion. I’ve seen them steal and even murder to be able to feed their families. I’ve seen things most people could never believe. We have more people in Leeds than ever before. The rich are richer and the poor grow poorer and more desperate. There are plenty hereabouts with next to nothing. When folk are like that they end up feeling they have nothing to lose, and they’re right. Even the danger of having their necks stretched up on Chapeltown Moor doesn’t seem like much. Imagine having empty pockets and an empty belly then seeing a man wearing a coat and breeches that cost more than you’d be able to scrape together in three months. How would you feel?

Those are very radical opinions, sir. You make Leeds sound like a dangerous place.

It can be. It’s my job – and those who work with me – to keep people safe. All the people of Leeds, not only those who live in the grand houses.

The second part of our conversation with Mr. Nottingham will be published in our next edition, which will appear seven days from now. We trust you will find it as edifying as the first.

ImageAnd a reminder that the next novel featuring Richard Nottingham, At the Dying of the Year, is published in hardback in the UK on February 28th.