Wednesday, 28 June 2017

28th June 1817: 'The Spy System' in the Leeds Mercury


The exposure made in this paper of the arts practiced by the government spies and informers, though it has not arrested the progress of the Bill for placing the liberties of Englishmen in the hands of a Secretary of State, has produced an impression, both in the Senate and the country, that will not soon be effaced. To the timid it has given confidence, and to the truly loyal it has imparted the highest satisfaction. The discovery that the cause of alarm was rather imaginary than real, and that the alleged disloyalty of the people may be traced to the sinister arts of their traducers, could not felt to have a tranquillizing effect upon every class of society, with the exception only of those who wish to see their country torn by civil wars, or shackled by the chains of despotism. Attempts have been made, indeed, to deprive the people of the consolations which this view of the situation of the nation is calculated to inspire; but all the efforts made, both in and out of Parliament, to justify the Plot-mongers at the expense of the great body of the community, have failed.

In confirmation of the veracity of our statements, we appeal to the impression made, by the investigation at Wakefield at the conduct of Oliver, upon the mind of the Lord Lieutenant; and upon this point we have the authority of Lord Milton for saying, that his venerable father, "having made a strict investigation into the situation of the West Riding of Yorkshire, was perfectly satisfied that there was no ground for the renewed Suspension of the Act of Habeas Corpus." With his Lordship’s views before the system of espionage was exposed, the country is well acquainted. Another circumstance strongly confirming our statement, is the fact, that all the persons apprehended at Thornhill Lees, at the pretended meeting of delegates on the 6th of the present month, were liberated by the Magistrates, who, according to Lord Milton's declaration made in the House of Commons on Friday last, "found, from the testimony taken before them, the statement made in the Leeds Mercury established beyond dispute." But we do not rest the veracity of our statements on the authority, high as it is, of the Lord Lieutenant, and the Magistrates of the West Riding of Yorkshire. We appeal to Lord Liverpool, the first Minister of State, and to General Byng, the Commander of the District; by the former of whom it is admitted that Mr. Oliver, the man who, it has been proved, was attempting to seduce his Majesty's from their allegiance, was "an agent of Government;" and the latter of whom we learn, that this government agent was in communication with the Commander of the District.

These important admissions, seconded as they are by the admirable and well-timed DECLARATION of the Clergy, Ministers, Churchwardens, Constables, and principal inhabitants, of the township of Dewsbury, give "confirmation strong as proof of holy writ," to the statements that have been published, and shew, by a species of evidence which cannot be overturned, who were the principal conspirators, and what was the nature and object of the conspiracy. Dewsbury, it will be recollected, is in the immediate neighbourhood of Thornhill Lees, where the meeting of the 6th of June was held, and the following is the language of the best-informed circles in that place:—"To the best of our knowledge and belief, there does not exist, nor ever has existed, any society of people in this our township, who are or ever have been in the habit of meeting or assembling together for any political purposes whatever, save such as the constitution and laws of the country warrant; nor have we any grounds to believe or suspect that there exists any conspiracy of any kind whatsoever in this populous township, inimical to, or subversive of, its peace and good order, and the general tranquillity of the country at large; and moreover, that there have not been found in this township any individuals who have suffered themselves to be seduced to attend the meetings which have been promoted by those political missionaries or spies, who have been recently detected, and who, with intentions the most criminal and diabolical, have endeavoured to inflame the minds of the lower classes to acts of treachery and open rebellion, for the purpose alone of betraying them."

Against this clear and decisive evidence, what have the ministers of the crown or their agents to oppose? Lord Sidmouth, to whose department the system of espionage particularly attaches, says, that "the statement in the Leeds Mercury he believes is incorrect in many material points, and that a counter-statement will shortly be put forth." This promised counter-statement we long to see; we hope it will go to the bottom of the inquiry; we fear however that no statement resting on an impartial investigation the facts will ever see the light, and we are convinced that the material points in the account already published, cannot be shaken. This counter-statement was promised on the 20th, and though it is now the 28th, it has not yet made its appearance.

The Lord Chancellor too, in his speech in the House of Lords, is reported to have said, "that with respect to the person in Yorkshire, (Mr. Oliver) respecting whom so much is said, their Lordships would do well to suspend their judgment till the proper time should come for his noble friend to explain the circumstances of the case, and to remember that the authority of a country newspaper on the subject, was very bad authority indeed; and perhaps their Lordships would not be a little surprised when they were told, that it was by the advice of London Lawyers, that these publications should appear."

The recommendation of the Lord Chancellor to their Lordships to suspend their judgement, would have come with peculiar force had it been accompanied with a recommendation to suspend the further progress on the Bill on which the inquiry hinged; but it partakes too much of an Irish mode of legislation, to press the passing of the Bill first, and afterwards to judge of its propriety. As to the authority of a country newspaper, of which his Lordships speaks so disparagingly, we have only to remark, that its statements, in the material points, are supported by the united testimony of the Lord Lieutenant, the Magistracy of the Riding, the first Minister of State, and the Commander of the District.

The assertion imputed to the Lord Chancellor, we know not how truly, but the publication was made by the advice of "London Lawyers," is destitute of all foundation. No assertion can be more groundless; and, if it would not be thought presuming, we should beg to inquire what authority his Lordship had for promulgating such a statement. In reality, the publication was made without the advice of any individual whatever, either legal or political. From a variety of circumstances, it had been suspected that the people dignified in the name of delegates, who were apprehended at or near Thornhill Lees, on the 6th of June, had been the dupes of the arts, and the victims of the perfidy, of a hired informer: but it was not till four o'clock in the afternoon of Friday the 15th, that  tangible shape was given to the surmises, by letter which the Editor of this paper received from Mr. James Holdforth, of this place, who, on his way through Dewsbury to Manchester, had learned, that a person of the name of Oliver, had attempted to seduce Mr. Willan, a bookseller, in that place, to attend the meeting at Thornhill Lees, and that Oliver had previously been in communication with General Byng, the commander of the district. Struck at once by the importance of this communication, and by the delicacy of the subject it involved, we repaired to Dewsbury without loss of time, to investigate the facts on the spot, and to receive the information from the lips of the persons who could alone speak to the facts with certainty and precision. We have already stated that the testimony was given with that punctilious regard to accuracy which left us no doubt, not the least, of the veracity of our informants. About nine o'clock the investigation closed; before midnight the result of our inquiries was in the hands of the compositors, and on the following morning, being our usual day of publication, the exposure was exhibited in the principal towns of the county of York. Two days afterwards the intelligence reached London in the ordinary way, and the first specific information that any member of either of the two houses of parliament had of the detection of the real conspirators, was through the medium of this journal.

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