Wednesday, 21 June 2017

21st June 1817: 'Exploded Plots' in the Leeds Mercury


The exposition made in our last paper of the plotters against the public tranquillity, has produced a sensation in the Metropolis—the Senate—and the nation at large, that has seldom been exceeded. One of its first effects was to procure the liberation of the principal part of the persons charged with holding a political meeting for treatable purposes, at Thornhill Lees, in this county; and the magistrates of the West Riding, with a proper regard to their own characters and to the public interest, have done themselves lasting honour, by setting at liberty the men, whom a perfidious conspirator, acted acting under a superior agency, had marked out for his victims. By this exposure, the secret springs of a diabolical conspiracy, not of the people, but against the people, have been laid bare. The real conspirators have been exhibited to public view. The nature and the object of the plots have been disclosed, and all the trepidation and alarm with which the public has been seized, have given way to an universally felt indignation against the alarmists and their emissaries. The effect has been almost magical. The blow aimed at the friends to reform, has been made, by a retributive recoil, to fall upon the heads of their adversaries, and every man, with an English heart in his bosom, whatever his party or his political predilections, feels himself insulted and outraged by the attempts made to convert the most populous and important part of the kingdom into a scene of conspiracies, and his countrymen into a nation of traitors.

The account published in the second edition of our last paper, and which will be found in the parliamentary proceedings of the present week, has proved to be in every important particular correct. From that account it appeared—that the Yorkshire plot was got up by a political agent of the name of Oliver, from London—that this man, under the guise of an ardent zeal for the cause of Parliamentary Reform, did not hesitate to suggest to Mr. Willans, a bookseller, at Dewsbury, the propriety and necessity of resorting to force for the purpose of compelling Government to grant that by coercion, which they were disinclined to concede by petitions. That, on the day when the meeting at Thornhill was appointed to be held, he endeavoured, by the most urgent entreaties, to prevail upon Mr. Willans to attend that meeting, and that in the course of conversation, he told Mr. W that "his" Mr. Oliver's "friends in London were almost heart-broken that the people in the country were so quiet." Who Mr. Oliver's friends, or at least his employers are, the Earl of Liverpool has, with great candour, informed the country; but why they should be so much disquieted at the tranquillity of the people, we shall not pretend to conjecture. It further appeared, from the statement above referred to, that Mr. Willans refused to attend the meeting at Thornhill, and that Dewsbury was thereby deprived of a deputy. Whatever might be the disinclination of Mr. Willans to attend the meeting, Mr. Oliver, it seems, was not actuated by the same motives—he attended—was taken into custody along with ten other delegates, and was suffered to escape "because he was a stranger, and had no papers about him." The next appearance of this stranger was at Wakefield, on the day and at the moment when the persons apprehended with him were under examination before the magistrates at that place, and there is was discovered by a singular train of incidents, that a few days before the meeting at Thornhill, Oliver was at the house of General Sir John Byng, the commander of the district, and that he was conveyed in the General’s tandem to meet the coach, which bore him to the scene of his delinquencies. This discovery, so fortunate for the country, will be considered as a special interposition of a Superintending Power, in favour of the country; and we may say with truth, "The finger of Providence was there."

On this part of the exposure a few observations will suffice. Every link in the chain of evidence is perfect. The conduct of Oliver, the informer, admits no further disguise—it is perfectly clear that he instigated persons to attend at Thornhill, on the day in question, and there is reason to suppose that he himself appointed the meeting. What were his instructions we cannot say, but he is completely identified with men in an official situation, by a species of evidence that scarcely stood in need of the admission made by Lord Liverpool, that he was an agent of the Government. But, says his Lordship, the account in the Leeds Mercury is an ex-parte statement, and as such must not be implicitly relied upon. That is true, my Lord, and our anxiety is, that it should no longer be ex-parte. We invite your Lordship to deprive it of this character, by rigorous investigation into all the facts of the case; and this investigation, we beseech your Lordship and your colleagues to institute, before the Suspension Bill, founded upon these alleged conspiracies, is suffered to advance another stage in its progress. Whether the bill to renew to Ministers the power of exercising a despotic controul over the liberties of their countrymen, has produced the plots, or the plots have produced the bill, it is not our present business to inquire; but we feel it our duty to say, as a circumstance coming within our own knowledge, that, in the inquiries which we made at Dewsbury, the day before the facts we have developed were laid before the public, we never recollect to have heard a witness give his evidence, even in a court of justice, and upon oath, with a more scrupulous regard to truth than Mr. Willans. If he erred, as he certainly did, in suffering a traitor like Oliver to come near his house, after he had, by insinuation, communicated his villainous designs, he has made ample reparation to his country for his error, by having first declined to attend a meeting, the object of which he considered to be mischievous, and then, by making those disclosures, even at the risk of the obloquy to which they were sure to subject him, which have tended to put down a system of espionage, contemplating first the seduction of his Majesty's subjects from their allegiance, and then the destruction of the seduced and the extinction of public liberty. Mr. Dickinson's evidence, which was given with the utmost frankness, Lord Liverpool has confirmed, by the acknowledgement that Oliver was an agent of Government, and in that capacity, it seems, was in communication with the commander of the district.

Mr. Oliver, the political incendiary, made his first appearance in Yorkshire about nine or ten weeks ago, accompanied by one Mitchell, a Liverpool delegate, (now in custody) under the assumed character of the zealous Parliamentary Reformer, whose object it was to ascertain the dispositions of the people, and to give to the sluggish current of public feeling a due degree of fervour. On his arrival in Wakefield, by the True Briton Coach, he called upon Mr. Benjamin Scholes, a publican in that place, a person who had taken a leading part in a meeting recently held, for the purpose of petitioning the Legislature, for a Reform in the representation of the people, and as a specimen of the manner in which Mr. Oliver executed his mission, we shall state the substance of a deposition made by Mr Scholes, before J. P. Heywood, Esq. one of the Magistrates of this riding:—


On his first interview with Mr. Scholes, Oliver said, that he was charged to present Sir Francis Burdett's compliments to him, and to inform him that he was delegated by the Baronet, Lord Cochrane, Major Cartwright, Mr. Hunt, and other gentlemen, to examine into the state the country, and to learn whether the country meant to sit down with their petitions being rejected or not. Mr. Scholes said, he could not speak for others, but for himself he must say, that though he believed he was among the most zealous of the Parliamentary Reformers in Wakefield, he would go as far as petitioning went, but no further. Some conversation then took place on the subject of the Wakefield petition, on which Oliver observed, that "it was very good, but it did not go far enough." Mr. Scholes replied that they did not need to interfere any further, and he referred Mr. Oliver, for information as to the views of the reformers, to Mr. Hurst, the printer of the Wakefield Journal, Mr. Dealtry, one of the West Riding Magistrates, Mr. Egremont, a gentleman of independent fortune in the neighbourhood, and other gentlemen, who had signed the petition. Mr. Scholes cannot say whether Oliver applied to these gentleman, but in point of fact we believe he did not. His dupes were to be found among the distressed and the ignorant, and it was to those principally that he addressed himself. Oliver then requested Mr. Scholes to furnish him with the names of such persons, in the neighbouring villages, as were favourable to Reform, which he did, and, amongst others, he mentioned John Smaller, of Horbury. Having thus far felt his way, Oliver next proposed to Mr. Scholes that he should accompany him to Manchester and Liverpool, on his political mission, and promised that he would both pay his expenses, and satisfy him for his trouble. This proposal Mr. Scholes declined.

Some time after Oliver again called at Mr. Scholes’s, and proposed a walk into the country, to examine the newly erected asylum, stating that he had some skill in architecture. During their talk the subject of Parliamentary Reform was resumed, and Oliver observed that Sir Francis Burdett and the other gentlemen by whom he was delegated were astonished that the country was not more alive to the subject of Parliamentary Reform. "I asked him," says Mr. Scholes, "what he meant by being alive," and he replied, "if petitioning will not do, we must use physical force." "Physical force," rejoined Mr. Scholes, indignantly, "the country must not be thrown into a state of insubordination, and I will have nothing to do with plunging the nation into anarchy." Thus repulsed, Mr. Oliver dropped the conversation. The third and last time that Mr. Oliver called upon Mr. Scholes, it was for the purpose of inviting him to attend a meeting, which Oliver said he had appointed, at Penistone, in this Riding, for discussing a plan of Parliamentary Reform. This meeting Mr. Scholes positively refused to attend, telling Oliver, at the same time, that he believed he was a bad man, and that he would not only not attend this meeting himself, but he would also dissuade any other persons, over whom he might have any influence, from attending it. He further asked him his reason for staying so long in this part of the country, as he must be satisfied that this project of resorting to force would not be encouraged. Oliver replied, that he did not dare to return to London till the State Trials were over, and, on being asked the cause of his fears, he said he had assisted young Watson in effecting his escape. In this conversation Oliver expressed himself dissatisfied with the apathy of the country, in proof of which, he said he had appointed two meetings at Huddersfield, and when he got there not a single individual had attended. At parting, Mr. Scholes said to Oliver, "Now, Sir, I beg, that from this time, you will never call upon the again." In the course of the evening, several men, who were drinking in Mr. Scholes’s house, told him that Oliver had appointed a meeting at Penistone the next day, and asked him his opinion of Oliver and his measures; to which he replied, "for God’s sake keep from Oliver and his meetings, for he is a base villain."

From the period of the Penistone meeting, which, we believe, was held on the 1st of June, till the eve of the Thornhill meeting on the 6th of June, we have no specific information respecting the operations of Mr. Oliver, but we understand, that a little before the time of the former meeting, this incendiary made a journey to London, and that, in the interval, he was travelling about in the counties of Nottingham, Derbyshire, Staffordshire, and Lancashire, labouring, no doubt, in his vocation. For the honour of human nature, we hope that the use made by Mr. Oliver of the names of Sir Francis Burdett, Major Cartwright, and others, was not authorized by Ministers; but after such a specimen of the vile arts employed to traduce the friends of Parliamentary Reform, we are not in future to be surprised at any calumnies that may be propagated against them.

We have already stated, from the testimony of Mr. Willans and Mr. Dickinson, how Mr Oliver was engaged in some parts of the day on Friday, the 6th of June, and the greatful feelings of one of the persons discharged by the Magistrates on Monday, has afforded us a clue to his proceedings in the early as well as the more interesting part of the same day. Last Tuesday morning, a person of the name of Thomas Murray, one of the Leeds delegates, so called, waited upon us, to express his acknowledgements, and the thanks of the persons who had been imprisoned with him in Wakefield House of Correction, for the services which they conceived we had rendered to them, in contributing to their liberation, by exposing the real conspirators. After he had explained his business, we inquired how it happened that he had attended the meeting at Thornhill, and what was the nature of his delegation? To this he replied that he would explain the whole matter, as far as he was acquainted with the business, and the following narrative, which was delivered in the most artless manner, he is ready, we understand, to confirm upon oath:—


THOMAS MURRAY is a linen-weaver, in the employment of Messrs. Benyon, Benyon, and Bage, of this place, and says, that on Friday morning, the 6th of June, about half-past seven o'clock, he was standing near his master’s works in Meadow-lane, near the junction of the two roads from Leeds to Dewsbury, along with a young man of the name of Thomas Dovner, when a person with the appearance of a gentleman, answering to description given of Mr. Oliver in the second edition of the Leeds Mercury of last Saturday, walked up to them and inquired the road to Dewsbury. On the road being pointed out to him, he inquired how much further Thornhill was than Dewsbury, and was told two miles. He then asked Murray if he was out of employment? and on being told that he was for that day, owing to the woman who assisted in his business being obliged to remain at home to attend to her family; Oliver observed that he had some business at Thornhill, and being an entire stranger in that part of the country, he should be glad if he would accompany him and show him the way, for which services he would reward him, by paying his expenses, and satisfying him for his day’s work. After some persuasions Murray was prevailed upon to go, and on their way to Dewsbury they regaled themselves at the public-house at Stump-cross with a shilling’s-worth of rum and milk, for which Oliver paid. During the journey the subject of politics was never introduced but once, and then Oliver informed his guide that "Mr. Abbott was elevated to the Peerage, and he was glad of it, for he was an impartial clever little fellow." On their arrival at Dewsbury, Oliver went into a small bookseller’s shop, (Mr. Willans’s) and requested his guide to wait for him at the door. When he came out, he said, the person he wished to see was not in, and they then went into an adjoining public-house, where they again refreshed themselves at Mr. Oliver's expense. While they were in the house a woman came in, which Murray believes was Mr. Willans's wife, and said, that her husband had come in, on which Oliver immediately followed her into the bookseller’s shop, and in the space of about a quarter of an hour returned. Murray and he then proceeded on their way to Thornhill, and when they had arrived in a lane about one hundred yards from the Sportsman's Arms, they saw three gentlemen, one of them being Major-General Sir John Byng, riding up to meet them at full speed. On their approach, Sir John advanced up to Oliver, and pointing with his finger, said, "I think I know you, Sir." Oliver, affecting to be overcome with fright, made no reply. Sir John then said, "I have had an accurate description of you from London! Sir, is not your name Oliver?" Oliver still remained silent, and by the orders of Sir John he was surrounded by a party of cavalry and taken into custody. Sir John then called to another detachment of Yeomanry Cavalry, who were on the road, to stop Murray, which they did, and after driving him into the ditch, they dragged him into the Sportsman's Arms public-house. Here they searched the person the Leeds Delegate, but found not a single scrap of paper upon him. At that time there were about five or six persons in the room all in custody, and he learned that they had all been picked up in different parts of the neighbourhood. When they had been in the public-house about half an hour, several post chaises, which seem to have been previously prepared, drove up to the door, and in them they were conveyed, under an escort of Yeomanry Cavalry, to the Court-house at Wakefield. From the time that Murray was apprehended, up to the period of his discharge, he never saw Oliver but once, and then he was brought into the room at the Sportsman's Arms in custody, but he had not remained there above half a minute, when he was called out of the room by Sir John Byng, and never again appeared. After the examination at Wakefield, Murray and his fellow delegates, not one of whom, to the best of his knowledge, he had ever before seen, were committed to the House of Correction, and were there for eleven days in solitary confinement, and on the prison allowance.

Such are the statements that we have received from the mouths of the persons whose names they bear. That they are all in their leading particulars correct, we have not the slightest doubt. They are published with the honest intention of tranquillizing the public mind, of justifying the innocent, and of exposing the guilty. Had we consulted either our own ease, or our personal safety, we should have shrunk, in times like these, from the responsibility of this exposure, but there is a feeling of the mind paramount to all these considerations—a sense of public duty, and by that principle alone we have been actuated.

The same spirit of candid inquiry and love of truth, which has, we hope, displayed itself in every part of our conduct in these mysterious transactions, induces us to present our readers with the following letter addressed to the Editor of this paper, and received yesterday morning, from Major-General Sir John Byng, the commander of the district.


"St James’s Square, (London) June 18th, 1817.

SIR,—You have introduced my name into your last paper in such a manner as to induce me to desire the insertion, in your next, of the following statement:—

Your have suffered it to be inferred, that a person of the name of Oliver, was employed by me—that he entrapped the persons taken up at Thornhill-Lees, and that he left London with the view of exciting and fomenting discontent and disturbances in different parts of the country. Not one word of this is true:—before Oliver left London, information had been transmitted to be, from Nottingham, of an intended rising in the manufacturing districts in the North of England and Scotland: this information was only a repetition of what I had reason to expect for several weeks, if the motion of Sir Francis Burdett, for a Reform in Parliament, should be rejected. The information from Nottingham was subsequently corroborated so fully to me from various quarters, and the 9th of June being from all fixed upon as the period of rising, I was induced, on Monday the 2d of June, to wait upon Sir Francis Wood, and communicate to him what I knew, who deemed my information of sufficient importance to propose a meeting of the Magistracy at Barnsley, for Friday, the 6th. On Wednesday, the 4th, I, for the first time, saw or heard from Oliver, who gave me some information corroborative of what I had before received, and further told me that there would be a meeting of delegates at Cleckheaton on Friday, the 6th. Mr. Parker communicated, on the 5th, to Sir Francis Wood and myself, that he had at Sheffield information given, upon oath, that a meeting of persons, who were finally to decide upon the plan for the 9th, would be held at the Sportsman's Arms, at Thornhill Lees, at 11, on Friday the 6th, and suggested the propriety of arresting these delegates, to prevent the fatal consequences which might ensue on the 9th:—this suggestion was agreed to at Barnsley, on the morning of the 6th. When the Magistrate (Mr. Chandler) and myself arrived at Thornhill, although some time after the hour of the proposed meeting, Oliver was not come, having been deceived as to the place of meeting, which, as I have before stated, he expected was to be at Cleckheaton, and so far from having entrapped the then arrested, he only knew one of them by name, (which, in fairness to the individual, I will not here insert). He neither knew the real place of meeting, nor the persons assembled, and was consequently not brought before the magistrates to confirm their other evidence.

With respect to the alleged conversation with Mr. Dickinson and Mr. Willan, I cannot speak, as I confine myself to facts; but I have to remark, that what is imputed to Oliver by them, is a direct contradiction to what he stated as his general line of conduct, and is quite contrary to what he considered his instructions, which were confined solely to give to any Magistrate, or myself, information necessary for preserving the peace of the country.

It only remains for me to add, that I am not empowered to hire any person—that I have never, directly or indirectly, paid any thing for the information I have received, which has hitherto been communicated to me from respectable authority, and from a far better motive than any mercenary consideration.

I am, Sir,
Your humble Servant,
JOHN BYNG, Major-General.

To Mr. Edward Baines, at the
Mercury-Office, Leeds.

In justice to ourselves, it is proper to remark, that in our paper of last week, we stated facts rather than drew inferences, and that not one of those facts has been shaken by the above letter. We did not say that "Oliver was employed by General Byng to entrap the persons taken up at Thornhill Lees." On the contrary we said that "from every thing we had heard of the character and conduct of General Byng, we were persuaded that he had been merely the medium for receiving Oliver’s information, and that whoever might have employed him, the General had merely acted in the discharge of his official duty." Nor did we state that Oliver "left London with the view of exciting and fomenting disturbances in different parts of the country." We could not dive into the dark recesses of Oliver's mind, and it was as impossible for us to know, with what views he left London, as it must be for General Byng to speak to the same fact. But with whatever views he left London, or whatever might be the nature of the instructions he received from Ministers on his departure, we think that, after the exposure which it has fallen to our lot to make of his nefarious practices, both General Byng and the country must now be convinced, that this profligate informer has excited and fomented disturbances in different parts of the country, and in the words of the Wakefield Journal, "that had there been no Mr. Oliver there would have been no plot." That there is a great mass of dissatisfaction in the country, and that rumours of the nature alluded to in General Byng’s letters, will continue to prevail as long as the public distress prevails, cannot be doubted; but that there was any concerted plan for a rising of the people, till Mr. Oliver and his co-adjutors came into the country, and injected their treasons into the minds of the people, would, we apprehend, be very difficult to prove. Even with Mr. Oliver's assistance, the meeting at Thornhill, if a meeting it could be called, was a most pitiful assembly, and General Byng, we are convinced, when he saw the materials of which that meeting was composed, must have perceived, that all apprehensions of the West Riding of Yorkshire being three days afterwards thrown into a state of insurrection, were utterly groundless. When the General uses the word delegates, he must, we presume, apply it in the popular and not in the correct acceptation of the term. It is our firm conviction, that not a single individual present, Mr. Oliver alone excepted, was clothed with delegated powers. The narrative of Thomas Murray, given above, proves very clearly what sort of delegation he possessed; and from every thing we can learn, we are persuaded, that the other delegates just as much represented the places where they happened to reside, as Thomas Murray represented the town of Leeds. General Byng’s mode of accounting for Oliver's late attendance at the meeting, is proved by the testimony of Murray to be incorrect, (unintentionally so, no doubt.) We find this man in Leeds, twelve miles only from the place of meeting at half-past seven o'clock in the morning of Friday, the 6th of June, inquiring, not for Cleckheaton, but for Dewsbury and Thornhill; and we find also, from the concurrent testimony of Mr. Willans and Thomas Murray, that the principal cause of his late attendance was, his wish to seduce Mr. Willans to attend that meeting, to which he had, by a different artifice, decoyed Thomas Murray. General Byng’s disavowal of the possession of any powers to hire persons to give him information, we do not call in question, though we do not perceive the propriety of making such a disclaimer, when the conduct of a confessedly hired spy is under discussion. It is a matter perfect indifference to the public, whether Mr. Oliver's remuneration stands under the head of "Secret Service Money," or of "Army Estimates."

The observation of Lord Liverpool, that Mr. Oliver was sent by Government to discover, and not to form plots, may be true, but a first Minister of State ought to know, that when a spy cannot find a plot, he will make one; and when he knows that his employers have a Green Bag to fill, he will not fail to present them with his well-timed contributions. But Lord Liverpool, in some of the reports of his speech, says, that if Oliver has practised the arts alleged against him, and endeavoured to excite the people to treasonable acts, he has exceeded his instructions. In that case, let him be brought to justice. Overt acts of treason have been committed, and Mr. Oliver, an avowed agent of Ministers, has perpetrated the crime. Either the agent or the principals are guilty. If he be not tried, they ought to be impeached. Impartial justice, and the loudly raised voice of the country, demands it; and it is the duty of Parliament to see that so reasonable a demand is satisfied.

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