Government Surveillance in Peacetime: Home Office Spies, c.1800 (David Worrall)

Government surveillance, using networks of spies and informers, were active both before and after the Napoleonic War (1793-1815).  In the case of the Anabaptist, William Winterbotham, although in 1792 the country was still at peace, a spy was in place to intercept him on a West Country highway and lure him into seditious conversation.  In the late 1810s and 1820s, when Britain was engaged in no major conflict, spies were sent into taverns and lecture rooms to report back on what was said.  In 1817, two years after Waterloo, Robert Wedderburn, a West Indian son of a slave (and the first black leader of mainly white working class followers), denied the existence of God vehemently enough to both attract a government spy and, on the eve of the Cato Street Conspiracy (whose 200 year anniversay we celebrate this year), even to attract his own, unofficial, would-be informer, one ‘J. Brittain.’  The sheer longevity of government surveillance of peaceful citizens, stretched back a long way before digital face recognition cameras.

‘To persecute a man for opinion is become so fashionable’: surveillance and the suppression of radical politics in Bristol, 1792-1820 (Steve Poole, UWE)

How did Bristolians respond to the democratic ideas unleashed by the French Revolution? This talk rejects the conventional view that the city’s labouring classes were uninterested in progressive politics and argues on the contrary that the relatively low profile of radical organisations reflects not indifference but the determination of the local authorities to keep them under surveillance and obstruct them. From the founding of the Constitutional Society in 1792 to the mass outdoor meetings called by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt and others in the era of Peterloo, democratic ideas were alive and well in Bristol, but obstructed, by fair means or foul, at every turn.

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