Macintosh and the spymaster

Macintosh has a habit of falling through the cracks of mainstream historiography; where he appears at all, it is, more often than not, in the footnotes. This apparently marginal position conceals, of course, Macintosh’s contemporary importance, the significance of his writing, and the extent of his social and correspondence networks.

The task of recovering Macintosh from the footnotes cannot straightforwardly be achieved, however, without the option of full text search made possible by Google Books, the HathiTrust Digital Library, and other similar repositories. The ability to search beyond the terms included in a book’s index is hugely valuable and generates the circumstances for serendipitous discovery. One recent such discovery concerned the British politician-cum-spy, William Wickham (1761–1840).

William Wickham (1761–1840).

William Wickham (1761–1840).

Wickham’s career progression from magistrate to “Britain’s master spy on the Continent for more than five years during the French Revolutionary wars” is detailed in Michael Durey’s 2009 monograph, William Wickham, master spy: the secret war against the French Revolution. Under instruction from the then Foreign Secretary, Lord Grenville, Wickham was sent to Switzerland in 1794 ostensibly as assistant to the British ambassador. There, however, he executed his covert task of gathering information on the progress of the French Revolution that would assist Britain in its counter-Revolutionary activities. As Durey puts it, Wickham was “creator and head of a small and highly organized secret service unit” and was allocated a significant budget to support these activities. Macintosh was, it appears, one of Wickham’s informants.

Although Macintosh is not named in Durey’s index, he is listed twice in the footnotes regarding letters sent to Wickham in 1795 and 1797. These letters, and possibly many others, are part of the William Wickham Papers, held at the Hampshire Record Office. Although it is not possible to tell from Durey’s book precisely what was contained in Macintosh’s letters, they raise some interesting questions about whether or not Macintosh had a government-sanctioned role as information provider/spy. I have written previously about Macintosh’s apparent connection with Grenville and the existence of a correspondence with Wickham further strengthens that link. Clearly, a visit to the Hampshire Record Office is on order.