Wednesday 27 February 2019

Secrets and Spies: Intelligence Gathering During the Napoleonic Wars, by Penny Hampson #History #Napoleonic #Spy @penny_hampson

Secrets and Spies: Intelligence Gathering During the Napoleonic Wars.
By Penny Hampson

When we talk of espionage today, we think of James Bond action heroes, or perhaps the quiet, outwardly-unremarkable characters of a Le CarrĂ© novel. But spying isn’t a new phenomenon - governments have been collecting information and intelligence on their enemies for hundreds of years. There is evidence to suggest that as early as the 1330s, King Edward III of England had a secret intelligence system reporting to him on foreign commerce and shipping. But it was during the Napoleonic Wars that intelligence gathering in Britain developed into something resembling the modern secret service we know today.

In 1797, the Secretary of State for the Home Office, Henry Dundas, who was later created Viscount Melville, commissioned a report to be circulated only to Cabinet members, which amongst other things, stressed the importance and necessity of up-to-date intelligence.  Good and reliable information about the enemy was beginning to be regarded as a crucial element in winning the war against Napoleon. Wellington, in particular understood its importance; during the Peninsular Wars he employed code breakers to reveal the secrets of captured French dispatches, helping him to
plan his campaigns.

We know government funds were being allocated for the payment of spies from the paperwork left behind. The Civil List for 1786 shows that approximately twenty-five thousand pounds was allocated for foreign secret service operations. Furthermore, the money for intelligence work was not restricted to foreign fields, it was also used at home to deal with perceived threats to the status quo. Payments were made from the fund to subsidise friendly elements of the British press and clergy in return for their help in combatting domestic radical movements, and it was reported that Catholic priests and seminaries received Secret Service Fund monies.

In 1804, a secret treaty with Sweden enabled the establishment of a British military base there, as well as allowing British merchants to operate. The Swedes were initially reluctant to agree to the treaty, fearing reprisals from the French. However, a large payment of sixty thousand pounds persuaded them to change their minds and the treaty was eventually signed. So bribery to attain desired political ends was also considered a valid use of the Secret Service Fund.

Another use for Secret Service funds was the payment of informers. Reports from British diplomats in Europe dwindled with Napoleon’s expanding empire, therefore making recruited paid informants the main source of information in countries under French rule.

The Royal Navy too, played its part, and received money from the Secret Service Fund. Inactive British naval officers, and even smugglers, were employed as informants; their knowledge of shipping and ports enabled them to send back useful information about French fleet movements. It was suggested, after Nelson’s death, that Lady Hamilton should be paid a pension from the Secret Service Fund, in recompense for her diplomatic and translation services while she was acting as a de facto ambassadress at Naples. This was refused.

You may also be surprised to learn that the British Post Office was a hub of information gathering. Through its staff, local offices, and large fleet of packet ships, it collected, processed, and transmitted intelligence. Around the country and the colonies, postal staff sent in reports on both civil and military matters, reporting on suspicious persons and activities, collecting shipping news and lists of passengers on merchant vessels.

The Post Office Act of 1711 gave the Post Office the legal right to intercept mail. Once opened, letters would be read, analysed and if thought useful, copied, before re-sealing and forwarding to their intended recipients. The copies would be sent to the relevant secretaries of state. In London, foreign correspondence was opened in a special office, known as the ‘Secret Office’. Created in 1653, the Secret Office had a staff of ten by 1801, and cost around five thousand pounds a year to run.

Many intercepted letters were written in code; these were sent to the ‘Decyphering Branch’.

This department, the creation of an Oxford don, the Reverend Edward Willes, was set up in 1703. Some codes were easy to crack, and it was sometimes possible for coded letters to be deciphered and read by the King within a day of them being written. Others proved more difficult and then the race would be on to crack the code and re-seal the letter before its intended recipient grew suspicious about the delay in delivery.

Operatives were employed who were skilled in opening and closing correspondence without leaving any trace; they were able to produce meticulously accurate copies of seals, so that the recipient would never know that they were not the first to read a letter’s contents. Despite the use of seals, ciphers, and invisible ink, a wise man would avoid sending anything by post that he did not want to become public knowledge.

Another major institution involved in intelligence gathering was Lloyd’s. Established in 1688, this association of merchants, bankers, ship owners, and insurance underwriters, whose knowledge of international shipping and naval affairs was unsurpassed, meant that the news of the Battle of Trafalgar was posted at Lloyd’s before the British newspapers got wind of it.

While not an actual government department, Lloyd’s shared with Whitehall important information on naval and military matters. In 1790, Lloyd’s had about thirty-two port correspondents sending back this information. In return for this assistance, the Government  reciprocated by occasionally  providing protection to merchant ships at risk from privateers, or ordering Royal Navy ships to keep a look out for merchant ships reported missing. 

The value of all this information gathering was immense, especially with regard to the formulation of foreign policy and particularly in times of war. The  Government often received information that gave useful insights into foreign affairs and clues to impending hostilities.

In my latest novel, An Officer’s Vow, my two main characters unwittingly become involved in espionage when they stumble into… well that would be telling!

Urban, Mark: The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, 2001, Faber and Faber
Maffeo, Steven E: Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson, 2000, Chatham Publishing   
Post Office - Lewis Walpole Library
Lloyds’ Subscription Room - Lewis Walpole Library
Board Room of the Admiralty- Lewis Walpole Library

An Officer’s Vow

The future looks bleak to Major Nate Crawford. Depressed after being sent home from the Peninsular Campaign as unfit for service, he contemplates ending it all. Then an unexpected opportunity for adventure beckons in the shape of a delightfully intriguing runaway heiress. He will prove his worth as an officer and a gentleman by offering his help. He has a plan…
Lottie Benham is desperate. Her life is in danger and she needs a place of safety until her next birthday. The unexpected proposal from this attractive, but intimidating officer could be the answer to her prayers. Not normally a risk-taker, she decides to gamble all by placing her trust in this charismatic gentleman, who she suspects might be more in need of help than she.
But the best laid plans…
Caught up in conflict, danger, and deception, will Lottie and Nate survive to find the perfect solution to their problems?

Penny Hampson

Having worked in various sectors before becoming a full time mum, Penny Hampson decided to follow her passion for history by studying with the Open University. She graduated with honours and went on to complete a post-graduate degree.
Penny then landed her dream role, working in an environment where she was surrounded by rare books and historical manuscripts. Flash forward nineteen years, and the opportunity came along to indulge her other main passion – writing historical fiction. Encouraged by friends and family, three years later Penny published her debut novel A Gentleman’s Promise.
Penny lives with her family in Oxfordshire, and when she is not writing, she enjoys reading, walking, swimming, and the odd gin and tonic (not all at the same time).
Connect with Penny: WebsiteTwitter


  1. Thank you for hosting me on your blog, Mary Anne.

  2. Interesting article - I hadn't realised opening letters was an official thing!

    1. 'Fraid so, Jayne, it apparently was the norm. Intercepting letters has a long history and not just in Great Britain. Alexandrine, Countess of Taxis was Postmistress of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1600's, following the death of her husband; she ran a spy network that sold information to the highest bidder (see:Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman)

  3. Really good article, I’ve done some background reading on this, but didn’t know how heavily the post office were involved.

  4. Thanks, Lynn. Yes, I was surprised too.


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx