Nelson & His World

Discussion on the life and times of Admiral Lord Nelson
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 Post subject: More on Interception, Decyphering and Subterfuge
PostPosted: Thu Oct 08, 2009 8:09 am 
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There have been several threads on interception of mail, ciphers, decoding etc. (links below) which produced some interesting snippets, but no coherent pattern or policy with regard to intercepting and decoding mail.

I have just started reading Steven Maffeo’s book: ‘Most Secret and Confidential: Intelligence in the Age of Nelson’. It promises to be a mine of information. Most interestingly, in the opening chapter he quotes a book by Kenneth Ellis, ‘The Post Office in the Eighteenth Century: a study in Administrative History.’ (London, OUP 1958) The Post Office worked closely with the Foreign and Home Offices, which were the ministries most concerned with intelligence. The Post Office employed ‘hundreds of officials, postmasters and sailors; [and was] the centre of imperial communications, controlling a large fleet of packets [ships]; and a propaganda and intelligence organ serving as the government’s mouthpiece, eyes and ears.’

Maffeo continues: ‘The Post Office was involved in ‘intercepting mail, opening it, copying it, analysing it and then sending either unedited full-text copies, or synthesised ‘interceptions’ to the secretaries of state.’

‘Generally, the secretaries of state would send lists – actually warrants – to the Post Office for the interception of certain diplomatic, political, private, general or suspicious correspondence…..methodology of interception varied according to the origin and destination of the correspondence, though many letters were forwarded to London ‘to have the benefit of superior methods of opening there.’ (State Papers PRO 35/31 folio 147)

All these interceptions had been legal since the early 18th century. The decoding was initially undertaken by the Decyphering Branch, almost a family firm consisting, by the 1750s, of The Rev Edward Willes, a former Oxford don and now Bishop of Bath and Wells, and his three sons. They worked part-time, combining ‘cryptanalysis with lives of squires and clerics and did all their secret work in the comfort of their country homes.’ In addition to interceptions, the Post Office, under the direction of the Foreign Secretary, was active in other activities such as forgery and detection. ‘His office prepared ‘plant’ letters, for foreign courts or agents, searched suspected letters with special ‘liquors’ for invisible ink…and occasionally facilitated contact between government and enemy ministers.’

Even though I am only on the first chapter, already it is proving a mind-boggling read. The book was originally prepared for a Master’s thesis and had some of the drawbacks of academic writing. Though not convoluted, the style is not particularly polished; but the raw information is quite gripping.


Links to earlier discussions:

http://www.nelsonandhisworld.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=532

http://www.nelsonandhisworld.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=360

http://www.nelsonandhisworld.co.uk/viewtopic.php?t=71

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