Secret Service Under Pitt



Of Duckett, an amateur rebel envoy, mentioned in connection with the arrest of Napper Tandy,[259] something remains to be said. He was a man of very active habits, and if less impulsive would have had more friends. Tone, already the victim of misplaced confidence, viewed many men with suspicion, and let them see it. In 1796 he was passing as a French officer, and mentions in his diary that, when waiting to see De la Croix, the minister of war at Paris, Duckett, who chanced to be also in the ante-room, sought to enter into conversation with Tone by handing him an English newspaper. Advances of this sort, though natural in an exiled Irishman meeting another, were not without effect in making Tone distrust and avoid him.[260] Duckett no doubt had projects connected with the enterprise in hand to which the chivalrous Tone would not stoop; but of these Tone knew little, and his prejudice was formed on quite different grounds. These suspicions were shared by Madgett, an official in the French War Office. Duckett, it appears, told Madgett that two expeditions were to proceed to Ireland. ‘Madgett said that he had endeavoured to put Duckett off the scent by saying he did not believe one word of the story, but that Duckett continued positive.’ Tone adds that the information was probably true; but that it was terribly provoking it should be known to Duckett, ‘to whom, by the by, De la Croix revealed in confidence all that he knew, for which he ought to be damned.’ Tone later on admits that he knows nothing against Duckett unless by report.[261]

Tone’s unhealthy impression Dr. Madden caught contagiously. In the first edition of his book, published forty years ago, he conveys that Duckett was a spy subsidised by England.[262] Innuendo grew at last into accusation, and a more recent edition records that Duckett, ‘there is good reason to believe, was not employed by the Irish Directory, but by the British Minister, Mr. Pitt.'[263] Again, we are told that Duckett was ‘assuming the character of an agent of the United Irishmen at Paris, and continually dodged Tone in all his movements.'[264]

I cannot endorse this imputation. In no pension list, or account of secret service money, is the name of Duckett to be traced; nor is there one line to criminate him in the archives of the Home Office. Nay more. Open the ‘Castlereagh Papers,’ and there Duckett is found denounced as a sworn enemy to England. These valuable State papers were published ten years previous to the issue of Dr. Madden’s revised edition; but, uninfluenced by their revelations, he renews the charges against Duckett.

Guillon, who has had access to the Government archives in France, says that Truguet, Minister of Marine, had thrown himself heart and soul into the projected invasion, and proposed to land 30,000 men in Ireland, under Hoche; and 60,000 later on in England; but the Directory deemed the plan too daring, and threw it aside; until Tone’s memorials made their thoughts recur to invasion, and they then adopted a portion of the rejected scheme of Truguet.[265] An interesting letter from Duckett to Truguet, Minister of Marine, turns up among the intercepted despatches. This functionary had just been succeeded by a new hand.

Is the Government still resolved to prosecute the same plans and the same projects [Duckett asks]. Can my country rely on its promises? Let me know, I beseech you in the name of Liberty, what is to be done? Shall I go home to accelerate the period for the arrival of which we are all solicitous? Consider that it is only patriots and enemies of England who risk anything–it is their blood that will flow.

The fears I had lest I should not be able to convert your bill into money are unfortunately realised. I have presented it to Citizen Reinhard, explained to him who I was, and what I was going to do. I showed him how necessary it was that I should leave Hamburg. He replied that his personal means did not permit him to comply with my application, adding that he could not act, because I had not a particular letter for him.

A mysterious task and goal are glanced at.

I am grievously mortified that I am not at this moment at the place of my destination. You know how deeply I interest myself in this cause; my presence will be conducive to the success of our friends. I wait for nothing but your answer to set out. I would merely request you to speak about me to your successor, to explain to him my situation and my necessities, in order that he may take into consideration the expenses which I shall be absolutely obliged to incur; for, when once arrived at my post, it will perhaps be impossible for me to receive assistance from him. I therefore beg of you to make him put me beyond the reach of accidents, by causing a sum that will afford me the means of subsisting and acting to be remitted to Hamburg. It does not belong to me to fix it. It is for him in his wisdom to see what sum will be necessary and indispensable for the expenses of six months. It would be superfluous to assure you of my attachment to the cause, and of the high consideration which I have for you personally.

P.S.–Address your answer to Citizen Reinhard: it is he who undertakes to forward this letter to you.[266]

It will be remembered that the betrayer whom Mr. Froude dramatically pictures as unbosoming himself to Downshire was the confidant of Reinhard at Hamburg, had access to his house, and used that fact to prove that his services, as an informer, were worth purchase by Pitt. I have elsewhere shown that the letters headed ‘Secret Information from Hamburg,’ which have crept into the ‘Castlereagh Papers’ to puzzle the world,[267] can only have been written by ‘Lord Downshire’s friend’–i.e. Turner. One appears at page 306 of the first volume of that work. There the objects vaguely broached by Duckett are revealed as plainly as though Reinhard himself had whispered the word. The spy, having furnished other items of news, writes:–

‘Duckett is at Hamburg; he has denounced Stone at Paris as a traitor.[268] I hear he [Duckett] has got money from the [French] Government for the purpose of renewing the mutiny in the English Fleet.'[269]

Obstinately hostile winds, as in 1796, once more saved England. Tone, whose untiring energy had accomplished the organisation of the invading forces, soliloquises in his diary of 1 August, 1797:–

I am, to-day, twenty-five days aboard, and at a time when twenty-five hours are of importance. There seems to be a fate in this business. Five weeks–I believe six weeks–the English Fleet was paralysed by the mutinies at Portsmouth,[270] Plymouth, and the Nore. The sea was open, and nothing to prevent both the Dutch and French fleets to put to sea. Well, nothing was ready; that precious opportunity, which we can never expect to return, was lost; and now that at last we are ready here the wind is against us, the mutiny is quelled, and we are sure to be attacked by a superior force. At Brest it is, I fancy, still worse. Had we been in Ireland at the moment of the insurrection at the Nore, we should beyond a doubt have had at least that fleet, and God only knows the influence which such an event might have had on the whole British Navy.

Much that Tone privately penned is found confirmed by a secret committee which sat while Parker’s[271] corpse hung in chains at Sheppey. It appeared that the crews were largely sworn to espouse the Irish cause; ‘to be faithful to their brethren who were fighting against tyranny;’ to carry a portion of the fleet into Irish ports, hoisting, instead of the Union Jack, a green flag emblazoned with Erin-go-bragh.[272]

Dr. Madden’s suggestion that Duckett was a spy of Pitt’s is reiterated with cruel consistency. Part of the grounds of his suspicion was Duckett’s intimate relations with Reinhard, also suspected by Madden, but who is now shown conclusively to have been true. Madden frequently quotes from the ‘Castlereagh Papers,’ but overlooks the following letter from Sir J. Crawford to Lord Grenville, one wholly inconsistent with his hypothesis that Duckett, like Turner, was a spy for Pitt. Crawford was, of course, the British representative at Hamburg.

October 23, 1798.

I shall abstain from any measures against Duckett, continuing, at the same time, to have him narrowly watched, which I hitherto have so completely, that there is scarcely a single step which he has taken since he has been at Hamburg with which I am unacquainted. His views for the present seem to be turned principally towards his Majesty’s dockyards, and not choosing to venture in England himself, he is very desirous of getting over hither some one of those evil-disposed persons whom he knows to be employed in the dockyards, for the purpose of concerting with him the means of setting them on fire…. He is in very little esteem in France, and is particularly ill with Talleyrand.[273] His principal supporter is Bruyes (sic),[274] brother to the deceased admiral, and who was Minister of the Marine. He pretends that, in case of a successful attempt on the part of the French to land in Ireland, his object would be to get over to that country; but I have not hitherto been able to learn any particulars respecting his commission. He affects much secrecy, even with those with whom he lives in the greatest intimacy.[275] He has of late been in correspondence with Holt,[276] the rebel chief, who, through him, has been pressing the French for assistance. He says that there are 3,500 land troops on board the squadron which lately sailed from Brest, but that they have French uniforms for 7,000 men, with the view, as he pretends, of clothing the first bodies of Irish that might join them in the same way as their own troops, and thus, a numerous body appearing in French uniforms, of impressing the Irish nation at large with an idea that they had landed a considerable force.[277]

This letter explains the more ambiguous despatch written two months before. Wickham transmits, by direction of Portland, for the information of the Irish Viceroy, a copy of a secret note,

which had been confirmed by the arrival of Mr. D—- [i.e. Duckett] under a feigned name in Hanover, on his road to Hamburg, and I have little doubt of the truth of the rest from my intimate knowledge of the writer. D., by the extreme vigilance and activity of Sir James Crawfurd, has been discovered and arrested on his road; but, as he has been acknowledged as a person attached to the French Mission at Hamburg, and claimed as such, I fear there are no hopes whatever of his being delivered up, or even of having his papers examined.[278]

Your lordship, who will be aware of the extreme delicacy of this business, will no doubt feel the necessity of keeping the whole of it as secret as possible. In the mean time it is a point of no slight importance that this man should have been discovered on his road, and his journey so much delayed as that the object of it will be, in all probability, defeated.[279]

Tone’s prejudice against Duckett influenced Macnevin. ‘Mr. Duckett is still here,’ writes Reinhard to De la Croix in another intercepted letter. ‘I proposed to Mr. Macnevin to reconcile himself with Mr. Duckett. He has refused to do so.’

It is remarkable that while the usually clear-sighted physician suspects Duckett of being an English spy, he praises ‘the zeal and talents of TURNER.'[280] Nor is there one line in Tone’s Diary to indicate distrust of Turner; but the wrong man, in true dramatic style, incurs suspicion and blows. On September 21, 1797, Tone called on General Hoche at Rennes. Hoche spoke of Duckett, and Tone destroyed him with an expressive shrug, adding that he had boasted at Paris of his acquaintance and influence with General Clarke, and even with Hoche himself. Two days later Colonel Shee, the uncle of Clarke, and who accompanied the expedition to Bantry Bay, also inquires if Tone knew Duckett. ‘I answered that Duckett was a scoundrel. I besought him to put Hoche on his guard.’ It appeared that Duckett had made two or three advances to Shee, who, however, had consistently avoided him. Tone’s gorge is raised, and he ends some remarks of asperity with ‘I’ll Duckett him, the scoundrel, if I can catch him fairly in my grip.'[281]

Duckett, according to the Hamburg spy, now shown to be Turner, was employed by the French Government to excite mutiny in the British fleet. Its first outburst was at Portsmouth; it was renewed at the Nore. As historians, who might be expected to treat largely of such incidents, barely notice that mutiny, a few remarks here are perhaps admissible; the more so as it will be necessary to recur again to Parker, who led the revolt. It assumed so formidable a front that Truguet thought it might prove the death-blow to England’s greatness. Parker, who possessed wonderful powers of persuasion, was soon joined by a large portion of Lord Duncan’s squadron, and became the soi-disant admiral of the fleet. He blockaded the Thames, and threatened to starve London. His mutinous force now consisted of twenty-four sail of the line. Each ship was governed by a committee of twelve, together with two delegates and a secretary, and all assembled by beat of drum. The pulse of public feeling was shown in three per cent. Consols falling to forty-five. The Board of Admiralty visited the scene of the mutiny, but failed to effect an arrangement. Lord Northesk, R.N., waited on Parker to hear his terms. These were so exacting that Northesk hesitated. The following is culled from the (London) ‘Courier’ of June 8, 1797, and it will be seen how much Parker’s letter differs from the mild version of it given in Campbell’s ‘Lives of the Admirals’:–

They persisted that the whole must be complied with…. Lord Northesk was now rowed on board the ‘Duke of York’ Margate packet, under a flag of truce, with three cheers from the ‘Sandwich,’ and with the following paper to ratify his credentials.


You are hereby authorized and ordered to wait upon the King, wherever he may be, with the Resolutions of the Committee of Delegates, and are directed to return back with an Answer to the same within 54 hours from the date hereof.

R. PARKER, President.

Northesk, furnished with a passport from Parker, returned to town, while Pitt and Dundas were hanged in effigy at the yard-arm. It was even debated to surrender the fleet to the French. Thereupon Sheridan suggested that all the buoys and beacons should be removed. A paper of the day states that the troops, ordered to fire on the fleet from the batteries at Gravesend, broke out into mutiny themselves, declaring that fratricide formed no part of their duty. The biographical dictionaries say that the popularity of Northesk and the firmness of Lord Howe caused the utter collapse of this great mutiny; but such history is misleading. The ‘Repulse’ was the first ship to abandon the cause, and becoming stranded was mercilessly cannonaded by the fleet. Its foremast and rigging were shot away; its decks were red with blood. Two more deserters, the ‘Agamemnon’ and ‘Vestal,’ escaped better. In slipping their cables and entering the Thames it was supposed that they were carrying into effect an already debated plan of bombarding Gravesend. The rest of the fleet followed and found themselves snared into the hands of the Government. When this fact became apparent, the mutineers were filled with fury. The ships separated, turned the great guns on each other, and fought furiously for hours, until at last Parker succumbed. In reading the trials of the delegates one is struck by such Celtic names as Sullivan, Donovan, Walsh, Hughes, Brady, MacCarthy, Maginnis, Coffey, and Branon. Strange reports were current.[282] The ‘Courier’ of June 6, 1797, records that

when he [Parker] was carried before the magistrates, he took two letters out of his pocket, saying, ‘These are my authorities; it was on these I acted.’ From this it has been inferred [adds the ‘Courier’] that he was set on by ‘higher powers,’ as the lower class call them: they say that Parker has declared he will not die till he has garnished Temple Bar with heads.

However, he made no distinct revelation. He was subjected to a number of interrogatories, ‘dans lesquels,’ observes a French authority, ‘on chercha vainement à découvrir les secrets moteurs de l’insurrection.’

Duckett’s letter to Truguet, minister of marine, and the information of the Hamburg spy, help to throw light on this stirring episode. The mutiny is commonly ascribed to the harsh regulations of the Admiralty. A deeper design underlay it. Parker was at first committed to stand his trial before a civil court; but a court-martial was suddenly substituted. This deprived him of the forensic services of Erskine, whose powerful eloquence had successfully defended Horne Tooke against the Cabinet of Pitt. It was desirable that so dangerous a man should be got rid of without delay. His application for an adjournment was refused; and on June 30, 1797, he suffered death.

These mutinies were largely the work of Duckett, acting under the instructions of La Croix, the French minister of war. Tone, as we have seen, hated Duckett, whom he constantly snubs and denounces. Had there been a co-operation, the event would doubtless have been different. However all moderate men rejoiced at the issue. The mutiny formed part of a scheme to sever England’s right arm; but the chivalry of Tone recoiled from a manœuvre of which he finally saw the importance while hesitating to approve of it. Dutch and French fleets for the invasion of Great Britain and Ireland had been nearly ready to start at the time of the mutinies.

Pitt used a powerful engine in subduing the mutiny. He despatched to the Nore a Roman Catholic priest, who impressively preached the doctrine of submission.[283] This was probably the same priest of whom Father O’Coigly complains as worrying him in the condemned cell in the hope of persuading him to inform.


[259] Ante, p. 72.

[260] Many men recoil from affable persons who seem over-anxious to know them. Sir Gavan Duffy in Young Ireland states that Davis had been prejudiced against the subsequently most distinguished Darcy Magee, because he had ‘obviously determined to transact an acquaintance with him.’

[261] Tone’s Journals, ii. 141. (Washington, 1847.)

[262] United Irishmen, their Lives and Times, 1st ed. i. 40-75.

[263] Ibid. 2nd ed. ii. 37.

[264] Ibid. iv. 603.

[265] La France et l’Irlande. (Paris, 1888.)

[266] Castlereagh Papers, i. 294-5.

[267] The puzzle is increased by the noble editor’s arrangement of the letters–made without regard to chronological order.

[268] Stone is the man who had been tried in 1795 for high treason, and found guilty. But Duckett, though a staunch rebel, may have had good reason for denouncing Stone three years later. Madame de Genlis, in her Mémoires, upbraids Stone with having treacherously retained some money which had been entrusted to him for Pamela. See tome iv. 130-1.

[269] Clarke, when giving Tone his commission in the French army, asks him (Journals, i. 151) if he knew one Duckett: ‘I answered I did not, nor did I desire to know him.’ Clarke replied that Duckett was ‘clever.’ Clarke, afterwards Duke de Feltre, stooped to ignoble tactics from which Tone recoiled. Clarke was a strong advocate for chouannerie (see Tone, ii. 96-9), and probably encouraged Duckett in his scheme for destroying the English dockyards and exciting mutiny in the fleet.

[270] At Portsmouth, when Lord Bridport gave orders to put to sea, every ship at St. Helens refused to obey. The marines fired and five seamen were killed. The crew of the ‘London’ turned the guns, and threatened to blow all aft into the sea. The officers surrendered; the marines laid down their arms, and Admiral Colpoys and Captain Griffiths were put in confinement.

[271] Leader of the mutiny.

[272] Report of the Secret Committee of Commons, England, 1799.

[273] As Tone suspected Duckett to be a spy, he doubtless cautioned Talleyrand against him. These misgivings spread from bureau to bureau.

[274] Tone’s Diary of June 16, 1798, praises the talents and activity of Bruix; ‘but what could he do? In the first place, he had no money,’ &c.–ii. 501.

[275] Turner’s instructions from the Home Office were, if he would not prosecute, to open a correspondence, at least, with leading rebels.

[276] Joseph Holt, a Wicklow Protestant, published his memoirs in two volumes, but does not mention Duckett.

[277] Castlereagh Papers, i. 263-4.

[278] Duckett was secretary to Leonard Bourdon, who voted for the death of Louis XVI., and by his energy overthrew Robespierre, July 27, 1794. He headed the Conspiracy of the Faubourgs in 1795, and doubtless applauded Duckett in his scheme.

[279] Castlereagh Papers, i. 263.

[280] Vide Dr. Macnevin’s memorial relative to a landing in Ireland.–Ibid. i. 305.

[281] Tone’s Journals, i. 208. (Washington, 1827.)

[282] The Courier, describing the execution of the delegates, states that the inextinguishable vitality of one man named Lee presented a striking spectacle, and that extra balls had to be poured into his head before he was despatched! A letter from the Irish Under-Secretary of the day, now preserved in the State Paper Office, reveals that Lee was discovered to have been a most determined United Irishman, and had joined the fleet for the sole object of helping the cause he had at heart. Lee and Duckett seem to have acted in concert. How largely the British navy was composed of Irish sailors, and under what circumstances their discontent originated, appear from an amusing anecdote. Shortly before Trafalgar, the first lieutenant of a man-of-war, when making his rounds to see that all hands were at their guns, observed an Irish sailor kneeling in prayer: ‘What! are you afraid?’ exclaimed the officer. ‘Afeard, indeed!’ replied the tar, contemptuously. ‘I was only praying that the shots of the French might be distributed like the prize money–the lion’s share among the officers.’ Tone assured Carnot that England had recently raised 80,000 Irishmen for her navy and marines. Carnot did not tell him in reply to reserve that statement for the marines themselves, but took it as strict truth. The computation, however, will not stand historic scrutiny. According to an official return, it appears that Ireland had furnished 11,457 men for the navy, and 4,058 for the marines.

[283] Of course with the sanction of Bishop Douglas, whose name is often mentioned in the Castlereagh Correspondence.

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