Spies and policing – A short history

During the last few days the media has published details of police officers acting as ‘spies’ working undercover in the Special Demonstration Squad and infiltrating a variety of ’subversive’ groups.  Whilst this may not be news in itself, the fact that officers allegedly assumed the identities of dead children is.  The news was reported in The Guardian (http://tinyurl.com/ahylqam  & http://tinyurl.com/crjc83q) and attracted widespread comment.

The use of spies within policing is not new, but historically it is something that has previously had a detrimental impact on the development of policing.  This blog contains details of three such incidents. 

Oliver the Spy.

The early 19th Century was a period of great civil unrest as demonstrated their disaffection with government policy. It was a time of ‘chaos’ with Prime Minister Pitt and Home Secretary Sidmouth waging war against reformers,  and in order to isolate and terrorise potential revolutionaries the government adopted a policy of deliberate provocation (Thompson, 1963).  

This was ably demonstrated when in 1817 vague plans were drawn together to co-ordinate 100,000 men and march them from the Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire to London with the intention of taking over government. In fact the numbers were significantly smaller than that.  No more than 200 men in East Derbyshire and West Nottinghamshire were actively involved.  

There plot was doomed to failure as the government had placed a spy in the midst of the insurrectionists.  Known as ‘Oliver the Spy’, WK Richards kept the government informed at every step of the way.  Oliver had been sent to the Midlands by Sidmouth and such was his ability to deceive people that he was often at threat of arrest by Justices of the Peace who thought him a bona fide revolutionary.  Oliver is sometime described as a detective playing a dangerous but honourable role in maintaining order, but Thompson believes that such descriptions are misplaced and that such men are best described as ‘odious.’
Eventually, 20 men from the 15th Hussars rode from Nottingham to Pentridge and came across 50 revolutionaries.  Most scattered but 28 were initially arrested.  A total of 45 men were subsequently indicted of which three were hanged and 30 transported to Botany Bay, Australia.  

The Pentridge uprising was repressed by a government that relied on the use of spies and the antics of Oliver the Spy, according to Palmer (1988) set back the hopes of serious police reform, including the development of a full time police organisation.

The Cato Street Conspiracy

Two years later, in 1820, the country was still in a state of legislative repression.  Arthur Thistlewood, a gentleman who had suffered a variety of misfortunes, felt that it rested upon himself the duty to rescue the country from oppression.  He, along with a number of co-conspirators decided to murder the cabinet in London while having dinner and place the heads of Prime Minister Castlereagh and Home Secretary Sidmouth on pikes.  The conspirators plan was thwarted when they were arrested in Cato Street in London.  The trial of those in the Cato Street Conspiracy, as it is now known, identified the fact that George Edwards, one of the conspirators, was in fact an agent provocateur.    Edwards kept Sidmouth informed of the conspiracy for two months prior to the arrest of the men involved.  In fact Sidmouth played a part in the farce by arranging a hoax of advertising a false plan for dinner at the home of Earl of Harrowby in order to entrap the conspirators.

Five of the conspirators, including Thistelwood, were hanged and five others transported.  

Sergeant Popay

By 1834 the Metropolitan Police’ had been established for five years.  Peel put his officers in uniform to enable them to be seen, thereby removing any notion that they could be spying on citizens.  However, in 1834 the police were attached with bricks, bottles and stones in Cold Bath Fields.  Palmer (1988) reports this as a disorder which the police themselves initiated as a result of following instructions to disperse a meeting.  However, a more serious issue was the role played by Sergeant William Popay.  

Popay was identified as a police spy who had managed to infiltrate subversive groups, sometimes acting as a double agent, by pretending to be a poor artist.  There are commentators who state that Popay exceeded his instructions by infiltrating the National Political Union and playing the role of agent provocateur.  Following a parliamentary select committee Popay’s activities were condemned for their proactivity rather than investigative nature as attempted to justify his actions by stating “all thieves know a policeman in uniform and avoid him.”  This was supported by Superintendent Andrew McLean who stated that “A man in uniform will hardly ever take a thief.” Commissioners Rowan and Mayne also subscribed to this thought stating “It has been represented to us that for the apprehension of beggars and felons, three to one are taken by men in plain clothes.”  

Whilst the committee recognised the right of the Commissioners to use officers in plain clothes and exonerated them from connivance in Popay’s conduct, Popay’s supervisors were reprimanded for failing to keep him under a tight rein.  The committee concluded by condemning Popay’s conduct as ‘a practice most abhorrent to the feelings of the people and most alien to the spirit of the constitution’ and he was subsequently dismissed from the police.

The Poppay incident, according to Palmer, helped to delay the establishment of the detective department in the Metropolitan Police for a decade.   
The use of police working undercover is at best a risk to the reputation of the police force concerned.  Over the last few years the media has highlight moral and ethical issues, including officers being intimate with those that they are spying on.  Whether the committees description of spying as being abhorrent and unconstitutional is correct is a matter for debate and the reputational damage to the Metropolitan Police remains to be seen.

References drawn from

Thompson, E.P. (1964) The Making of the English Working Class. London. Gollancz 

Critchley, T.A. (1967) (2nd ed) A History of Police in England and Wales London. Constable

Emsley, C. (1983) Themes in Comparative History: Policing and Its Context 1750-1870. London. McMillan Press

Palmer, S. (1988) Police and Protest in England and Ireland 1780 – 1850 Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Emsley, C. (1991) (2nd ed) The English Police: A Political and Social History London.  Longman

Published by thebluelocust

Former police superintendent. Current university lecturer, police trainer and Director of Blue Locust Network Ltd

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