The Age of George III

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The career of "Oliver the Spy"

After the end of the French Wars, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. These problems collectively became known as the 'Condition of England Question'. Many of these problems would have occurred eventually but had been speeded up by the effects of the French Wars on the country. Most of the major changes were the direct result of the French Wars. Others came from natural growth and change. The distress and discontent caused by these enormous changes were manifested in a series of events in the period 1811-19.

There were few means of maintaining law and order at the disposal of the government. There was no police force on the mainland until 1829 so troops and the local militias had to be used. Likewise, means of communication were slow: news travelled only as fast as the fastest horse. In order to gather information, the governments of the time had to rely on Lords Lieutenant, local magistrates and Justices of the Peace - and spies whom they employed. Unfortunately, these men were paid by results and ultimately became agents provocateurs. One of the most notorious of these spies was WJ Richards, alias Oliver the Spy.

On the 1st of January 1817, a meeting of delegates from twenty-one petitioning bodies was held in our chapel, when resolutions were passed declaratory of the right of every male to vote, who paid taxes... The Hampden Club of London ... having issued circulars for a meeting of delegates at the Crown and Anchor, for the purpose of discussing a Bill to be presented to the House of Commons, embracing the reform we sought, I was chosen to represent the Middleton Club on that occasion.

Samuel Bamford, Passages in the Life of a Radical, ed. H. Dunckley, (1893)

Among those who attended the meeting at the Crown and Anchor in the Strand was Joseph Mitchell, a journeyman printer from Liverpool, whose wife had a draper's business. Mitchell travelled to Lancashire in search of work and became a self-appointed political "missionary", visiting a series of Lancashire towns and paying for his upkeep by selling copies of his own and Major John Cartwright's pamphlets.

At the end of the delegate meeting in London, Samuel Bamford and Mitchell attended a meeting of the Spencean Philanthropists, including Arthur Thistlewood, the Watsons and Mr Preston. Bamford then returned to Middleton (near Nottingham); Mitchell remained in London for several months longer. In April, he visited Charles Pendrill the Jacobin shoemaker and former associate of the Spenceans. Pendrill recently had helped a friend to get out of the debtors' gaol. Soon after this, the friend, WJ Richards - known to Pendrill as William Oliver and to history as Oliver the Spy -'began to make very vehement professions of patriotism, and expressed uncommon anxiety to know whether there were any Political Associations into which he might obtain admittance' (Cobbett's Political Register, 16 May 1818). Pendrill had known William Oliver since 1811, when Oliver was a foreman to a carpenter. Oliver has been described as a builder, carpenter and accountant. In fact, he was either a superior clerk or book-keeper and surveyor.

By March, Oliver had been admitted to the inner circle of London's reformers. On 28 March he requested an interview with Lord Sidmouth. In April he was introduced by Pendrill and other reformers to Joseph Mitchell. Mitchell went to Oliver's rooms;Oliver told Mitchell that 'it was the desire of the London friends to form a connexion with the country friends' but when Mitchell requested a meeting with the London committee, Oliver said it was too dangerous a time to call them together. Mitchell was persuaded to allow Oliver to accompany him on his next tour in the provinces and the two men set off on 23 April, on a tour that was to obtain, for Oliver, introductions to leading reformers in the main centres of the Midlands and the north. The itinerary was as follows:

April 24 Left London May 13 Leeds
25 Birmingham 14
26 Sheffield, via Derby 15 London
27 Wakefield 23 left London
28 Dewsbury 24 Birmingham
29 Leeds 25 Derby
30 Manchester 26 Derby
May 1 Liverpool 27 Nottingham
2 Liverpool 28 villages near Nottingham
3 Manchester 29 Sheffield to Wakefield
. 4 . . 30 Bradford and Halifax
5 Wakefield 31 Manchester
6 Huddersfield June 1 Liverpool
7 Wakefield 2 Manchester to Wakefield
8 Huddersfield 3 Wakefield
9 Barnsley 4 at Camps Mount - General Byng's headquarters near Wakefield
10 Ossett 5 Leeds
. 11 Spen Valley 6 Thornhill Lees near Dewsbury left with the Mail for Nottingham
12 Bradford . 7 Nottingham; left on the London mail

On 5 May, Oliver attended a delegate meeting at Wakefield that was attended by men from Birmingham, Sheffield, Huddersfield, Barnsley, Leeds and by Thomas Bacon for the North Midlands area . Promises were made about the number of men who would rise in each district: the date was set for 26 May and Oliver promised that London would be ready for the insurrection. Meanwhile, on 4 May, Mitchell had been arrested; this meant that the only contact between the radicals in the north and the London radicals was a government spy.

On his second tour, which began on 23 May, Oliver talked of plans for a general insurrection.He suggested that plans were further advanced in every place than the one where he happened to be; his attentions were concentrated particularly on the West Riding of Yorkshire and Nottingham - areas where Luddism had been strongest. William Stevens gave an account of the events of early June 1817:

on the 1st or 2d day of June, Oliver came to Nottingham to the house of this deponent. He said, that all would be ready in London for the 9th of June... Oliver had a meeting with us now, at which meeting Brandreth and Turner, and many others were present. At this meeting he laid before us a paper which he called a Plan of the Campaign.

When Oliver had thus settled every thing with us, he prepared to set off to organize things in Yorkshire, that all might be ready to move in the Country at the moment that the rising took place in London, where he told us there were Fifty Thousand Men with arms prepared, and that they would take the Tower...

A 'convention' of northern delegates was to meet at Sheffield on 7 June to make the final arrangements:

When it had met, the members were to separate and go to the several great Towns; and the members were to go, not to their own places of abode, but to other places, in order that mutual confidence might be established, and in order that true information might be interchanged...

Stevens set off for Sheffield on 7 June, but 'was overtaken by a Boy on horse-back', as a result of which he returned to Nottingham:

At his own house be found Oliver, who now said, that some treachery had taken place in Yorkshire; but that, as all was ready in London, all would go on well, if they did but remain firm to their promises at Nottingham and Derby. A meeting now took place, at which Oliver was present...

After this meeting Oliver immediately took post to London, explaining that he must 'give the risers in London an assurance of the hearty cooperation of the Country'.'

taken from EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Pelican Books, 1963, p. 720)

Between 2 and 6 June Oliver moved rapidly from town to town in Yorkshire, in preparation for a delegate meeting at Thornhill Lees, near Dewsbury, on 6 June. On 4 June he had a private interview with Major-General John Byng, commanding the troops in the north. The Thornhill Lees meeting was surrounded and the delegates seized by troops under General Byng's personal command. Oliver was allowed to 'escape', but was seen a few hours later by a reformer in a Wakefield hotel, shortly before his departure on the Sheffield coach, in conversation with a servant of General Byng's, and the truth leaked out. By the time Oliver reached Nottingham and the meeting there was a cross questioning of Oliver that he was lucky to survive. Unfortunately, Jeremiah Brandreth was not at the Nottingham meeting and the Pentrich Rising went ahead as planned. Oliver the Spy's plan cost the lives of Brandreth and his colleagues.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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