Regency Spies by Sue Wilkes (Pen & Sword History, 2016), 203 pages, £19.99 from Pen & Sword.
In 1819, in response to the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, Shelley wrote his revolutionary poem, The Masque of Anarchy. The poem was seen as a declaration of nonviolent resistance and an exhortation on the poor to stand up to oppressors, but without resorting to arms. This is reflected in its most memorable line,
Ye are many – they are few!
The tone of the poem echoed not only Shelley’s political views and those of the Peterloo protestors, but also of the strong revolutionary spirit of the 1780s-1820s. As Sue Wilkes makes clear throughout her latest book, Regency Spies, this was an era of revolution in politics, industry, social policy, and (as evinced by Shelley) literature.
The Peterloo rebels are just some of those Regency protestors and reformers whose plans and plots Wilkes explores in this richly detailed account.
Wilkes sets her history of British rebels in the difficult context of the aftermath of the Regency crisis of 1788-9. She emphasizes that, “the government of the day certainly believed the danger was real.” Today, some of those radical campaigners are regarded as heroes in a fight for equality or as inspirations for progress in political liberty. The early 19th century government, however, thought differently.
Such was the concern over the perceived threat from the alleged traitors that several of the spies featured in the book were executed. It is perhaps surprising to the modern reader that such executions took place in a period regarded by many as “enlightened” and modern.
One negative point about Regency Spies is the preponderance of men, with the few women who do feature being known by titles only, such as “Mrs Hepworth” or Miss Piozzi”. One of the few women who is identified by a full name, Sarah Hickling, appears in an unheroic role as an informer against the Luddites. Having said this, it is worth noting that the small number of women included here may reflect the paucity of records on female history of the period rather than on their inactivity as revolutionaries or spies.
Other aspects of the book reflect a fresh approach to the historiography of this era. For example, Wilkes is keen to emphasize the Luddites’ original motivation of wanting to feed their destitute families and their anger against poverty, rather than of their role in popular mythology as enemies of progress.
This refreshingly original history is attractively presented in an illustrated hardback. Well-researched and immaculately sourced, each chapter is rich in original parliamentary and home office material.
Overall the book would be an asset to the shelf of any family historian interested in the revolutionary background to the lives of their Regency ancestors in Britain.