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.