Think hi-tech state surveillance of your communications are a recent development? Think again… it goes back centuries.
Between Sunday, 2 September and Thursday, 6 September 1666, the ‘Great Fire of London’ in 1666 destroyed 13,200 houses (the homes of some 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants), as well as 87 parish churches, and, famously, St Paul’s Cathedral. It took out most of the administrative buildings of the City authorities.
And it also devastated some of the most secret offices of the English state… including a mysterious machine designed for surveillance of subversive elements.
It is recorded that on September 3rd, the fire spread to Posthouse Yard, lying off Threadneedle Street, where the relatively new General Post Office was based, and that the Postmaster, James Hickes, tried, but failed, to save from the flames the ‘Secret apparatus for tampering with, copying & forging letters in the interests of the State’.
What was this machine…? Initially reading this sentence made me think of a device part kettle, part knife, slitting or steaming open letters… while other arms copy the writing, like a large steaming spider…
The ‘apparatus’ had been in invented by Sir Samuel Morland, an inventor who had begun his career as a diplomat and spy under the Cromwell regime, as secretary to John Thurloe, a Commonwealth official in charge of espionage. He had then become a double agent & worked for the future Charles II; after the latter was restored to the throne, Morland employed his mechanical talent to creating various innovative devices, including calculating machines, water pumps, and an early type of megaphone or ‘speaking trumpet’…
His double agent work for the royalist cause while still serving Cromwell having led him to be rewarded with a baronetcy in 1660, Morland went to work helping supervise intelligence gathering and espionage/counter-espionage for the new regime. While his character was generally held to be shifty, untrustworthy and his loyalty pretty much for sale, he had an undeniable mechanical talent; being a place-seeker and of limited financial means, he put his abilities at the service of the state (as well as attempting to make some cash on the side).
The restored Stuart monarchy had many enemies, a number of which were to continue conspiring, plotting rebellion, uprising, restoration of the Republic, for twenty years: ex-Levellers, former Fifth Monarchists, puritan activists, ex-Cromwell soldiers… A teeming republican underground had already developed under the protectorate, as disillusion with Cromwell had set in, but this multiplied under Charles II, and was spiced by a general perception that the new reign was gradually sliding towards sympathy for the widely feared & despised catholicism. Soon penetrated by spies, the murky restoration underbelly was complicated by the power struggles of great lords and state officials, often working against each other, so that there were double and triple agents, spying on each other, grassing each other up, and being manipulated by their masters. Add to this the agents of foreign governments… there were quite a lot of people the secret state needed to keep tabs on, and the written communications of whom were of great interest to the spymasters.
The Post office was of central importance to this surveillance. The ‘Secret Office’ – an arm of what was basically a secret service, dedicated to opening post to discover plots against the government – was formed around 1653 under Cromwell’s post-Civil War republican Protectorate; but it proved so handy, the Office was continued after the restoration of the monarchy.
Part of the whole rationale of having a single state-controlled post was to be able to monitor what people were writing to each other, by opening and inspecting their letters. Nearly a century before Thurloe, the Elizabethan state had already been regularly reading the letters sent abroad by French and Spanish diplomats and uncovering plots to overthrow the queen by diehard catholics…
Cromwell’s Parliament enacted powers for a state run post office in 1657 that stated openly that a state run monopoly postal service was the “best means to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs which have been and are daily contrived against the peace and welfare of the Commonwealth, the intelligence whereof cannot well be communicated, but by letter of Escript”.
In May 1655 Cromwell appointed his spymaster John Thurloe as postmaster general. In a secret room at the Post Office, Thurloe’s spies covertly intercepted letters from those suspected of plotting against Cromwell’s Protectorate. Thurloe infiltrated agents into the circles of Royalists plotting to overthrow Cromwell and restore the monarchy; he employed Oxford University mathematician John Wallis to decipher their codes.
Part of Morland’s work under Thurloe was overseeing the opening of letters at the Post office, and he continued this work in the early 1660s. Initially this work was done manually, which was obviously time consuming; but Morland bent his clever mind to obtaining or devising more sophisticated methods. Henry Bennet, Lord Arlington, the secretary of State, claimed, in a discussion with Morland, that the Spanish government had devised ways of sealing letters to make them tamper-proof; Morland, however, asserted that he could open them. Arlington wrote a sample letter to test this and posted it; Morland produced a copy of his letter. This so impressed Arlington that he arranged for king Charles himself to view the process late one night in 1664, where the monarch observed “the opening… [of] all manner of seals, as well in wafer as in wax, and then closing and sealing them up again, so as never to be discovered by the most curious eye”. Year later, Morland reminisced about the occasion: “With these [machines] the king was so satisfied that he immediately put [them] into practice as they were and competent salaries appointed for the same and this practice continued with good success till the fire of London consumed both the post house and all the engine and utensils belonging to the premises.”
At this point the machine Morland had either devised or got hold of seems to have involved dextrously opening the letters (though how this was done this is not fully described) copying them by pressing a damp paper to the writing to transfer the ink, then re-sealing them. This last part may have involved replicating the existing wax seal. The process was said to take less than a minute.
Morland was given two rooms in the post office to put his machines into operation. Relatively quickly the system was up and running, and the government was able to extract letters from the post, open and copy them, and replace them in the post overnight.
Morland also recorded what he saw as the basic function of his devices and of surveillance in general: “a skilful prince ought to make a watch tower of his general post office… and there place such careful sentinels as that, by their care and diligence, he may have a constant view of all that passes.”
After the 1666 disaster destroyed his devices, Morland continued to work on similar schemes. In 1688 he offered to sell a machine along these lines to the Venetian Republic. A year later the new postmaster, ex-Leveller and cunning politicker John Wildman, attempted to instigate a plan to build several more letter-openers, and Morland hired 60 workmen to build them. However, the new king, William III, was for some reason unsupportive, and the plan was eventually dropped.
If in Morland’s day, surveillance of the post was centralised at Lombard Street, by the eighteenth century, the surveillance function of the post office had been spread out to the local post offices across the country, where the postmasters served as ‘the eyes and ears of the state’, informing on “material transactions and remarkable occurrences”. This involved less opening mail, as reporting on people’s actions and opinions locals to the central post office, which got passed to the authorities. (Actually steaming open the post was still a perk of the central office in London.)
The work of the Secret Office, however, continued for centuries.
Its main role was to intercept and read mail between Britain and overseas. Foreign post and official dispatches passed between Britain and the rest of the world via the Packet Service: a fleet of fast ships sailing regular routes. Foreign mail bags were sent to the office, where on their arrival teams of translators and decipherers read through the contents to copy out any relevant information in English.
The copies were then sent on to the secretary of state, and the mail was returned to the GPO for delivery as normal. From the 1790s, mail arrived at the office twice a day: at 10am and 2pm. In some cases, the inspectors could be given as little as half an hour to read through all the items and send them on their way again.
Secrecy was naturally at the heart of these operations. If foreign governments realised their mail was being read, they could instead send it by special messenger, denying Britain access to valuable intelligence. Located near the Foreign Post Office, the Secret Office was so well concealed that employees of other GPO departments were completely unaware of its existence.
During the second half of the 18th century, it was the role of the chief clerk to examine any letters that he thought might be useful. However, inspections of certain items could also be commanded by the king. In 1755, for instance, King George II specially requested that the French mail bags be inspected for letters from a ‘Mr Barry’.
At the heart of the Office’ operations was a team of decipherers, which in 1748 included a ‘Chief Decypherer’ and Second, Third and Fourth Decipherers.
These positions were well paid – the head of the group earned £1,000, and his underlings around £80 to £100. Considering the average wage for a mail ship crewman was around a shilling a day, or £18 and five shillings per year, these wages were a strong incentive to keep your mouth shut about your secret work. Even the Office ‘Door Keeper’ got £50 per year. Other employees included a chief clerk, general clerks, and an ‘Alphabet Keeper’.
When Britain was at war the need to monitor communications for possibly valuable information rose sharply. In 1752 the office employed five people, but by the time the American War of Independence was in full flow in 1776, there were 10.
These numbers remained high through the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France, (1792-1815). The number of Packet ships running between Britain and overseas also increased dramatically during times of war. At the height of the Napoleonic Wars, there were around 40 ships sailing, carrying letters to and from soldiers’ as well as government dispatches. The Packets also smuggled newspapers out of France and spies into it.
In 1816, after these wars ended, staff numbers in the office were reduced to six.
By its nature secret, it is impossible to know how many letters were opened over the centuries. Opening mail required a Warrant requesting that items of correspondence be sent to the Secret Office, but there was no official practice for recording the warrants: in fact, most warrants were burned after being received by the postmaster general.
Warrants for the interception of foreign mail tended to lead to the copying out of passages, whereas ‘criminal’ warrants relating to domestic mail often simply permitted its seizure.
These inspections certainly led to arrests in Britain. In 1758, Dr Florence Hensey was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death, based on ‘treasonous correspondence’ seized by the office.
Hensey had a friend in France whom he corresponded with and sent intelligence to, for the sum of £25 a month. In an attempt to outwit any other readers, Hensey had written in lemon juice between the lines of a seemingly innocent letter.
In another case, a letter home by a sailor ‘pressed’ – forcibly conscripted – into the Navy was seized during the Napoleonic Wars. Writing to his wife, the sailor complained about his treatment and outlined a plan to escape, but his letter was read and kept as evidence against him.
The technical skills to open, decrypt and re-seal the letters was significant. Opening and closing could be done without a trace, and there were meticulously engraved forgeries of seals and duplicates of the special waxes were developed. In a typical operation, a letter from the King of Prussia took three hours to open, copy and reseal.”
During the 1840s, the Secret Office was exposed and an inquiry was held to investigate its activities. The interception of foreign mail was not the issue that outraged the public (foreigners basically being less deserving of human rights than freeborn Englishmen obviously!); however there was concern that the government was also spying on domestic mail.
The GPO eventually admitted that British letters had in fact been targeted. In one Post Office statement, it was said that the chief of the ‘Secret Department’ had only read domestic mail very reluctantly, and under government instruction, and that “inspection of private correspondence is altogether and entirely disclaimed”.
There’s an interesting account here on the scandal around the British state spying on exiled ‘foreign’ radicals that broke when the full extent of the secret office’s activities became known in 1844.
The 1840s enquiry into the Secret Office ostensibly marked an end of the institution’s activities, but clearly this didn’t really happen – new forms of surveillance simply replaced them.
During WW1, the War Office employed thousands of bilingual women to work on postal and telegraphic censorship monitoring correspondence with neutral countries all over the world. Assisted by the Post Office, this censorship was the largest of its kind and helped the government to catch spies, control the dissemination of military information and to compile economic data used to better execute the blockade of vital imports into Germany.
Of course, surveillance continues, especially against ‘domestic extremists’, radicals, anarchists, communists, etc… These days keeping tabs on electronic media constitutes much of their work, a huge industry in itself.
The Post Office has continued to co-operate with state surveillance into modern times – as late as the 1990s, in our own experience, Special Branch were still sending plods to Herne hill Sorting office to read the mail to the nearby 121 anarchist centre, which must have been a very dull assignment. Such activities must have been replicated against hundreds or thousands of groups and individuals considered a threat to the state – more or less accurately…