Secret Service Under Pitt



It was not easy to separate the threads of the tangled skein which Mr. Froude found hidden away in the dust of the past. But, lest the process of unravelling should tax the reader’s patience, I have transferred to an Appendix some points of circumstantial evidence which led me, at first, to suspect, and finally to feel convinced, that ‘the person’ was no other than Samuel Turner, Esq., LL.D., barrister-at-law, of Turner’s Glen, Newry–one of the shrewdest heads of the Northern executive of United Irishmen.[27] Pitt made a good stroke by encouraging his overtures, but, like an expert angler, ample line was given ere securing fast the precious prey.

One can trace, through the public journals of the time, that the betrayer’s disclosures to Downshire were followed by a decided activity on the part of the Irish Government. The more important of the marked men were suffered to continue at large, but the names having been noted Lord Camden was able, at the threatened outburst of the rebellion, to seize them at once. Meanwhile an influential London paper, the ‘Courier’ of November 24, 1797, gave a glimpse of the system that then prevailed by announcing the departure from Dublin for England of Dr. Atkinson, High Constable of Belfast, charged, it is said, with full powers from Government to arrest such persons as have left Ireland, and against whom there are charges of a treasonable or seditious nature.

The former gentleman is well known, and will be long remembered by the inhabitants of Belfast, for the active part he took in assisting a Northern Marquis,[28] and the young apostate of the County Down, to arrest seven of their fellow-citizens on September 16, 1796; since which period these unfortunate men have been closely confined without being allowed to see their friends, and now remain without hope of trial or liberation.

‘The young apostate of Down’–thus indicated for English readers ninety years ago–was Lord Castlereagh, afterwards Minister for Foreign Affairs, and well twitted by Byron for his Toryism; but who, in 1790, had been elected, after a struggle of two months’ duration and an outlay of 60,000l., Whig Member for Down. Like Pitt, he began as a reformer; like Disraeli, he avowed himself a Radical; and presided at a banquet where toasts were drunk such as ‘Our Sovereign Lord the People.’ Ere long his policy changed, and his memory is described as having the faint sickening smell of hot blood about it.

Mr. Froude’s work has been several years before the world; it has passed through various editions. Thousands of readers have been interested by his picture of the muffled figure gliding at dark to breathe in Downshire’s ear most startling disclosures, but no attempt to solve the mystery enshrouding it has until now been made.[29]

The name of Samuel Turner obtains no place on the list of Secret Service moneys[30] expended by the Irish Government in 1798–thus bearing out the statement of Mr. Froude that the name of the mysterious ‘person’ was not revealed in the most secret correspondence between the Home Office and Dublin Castle. At the termination of the troubles, however, when the need of secrecy became less urgent, and it was desirable to bestow pensions on ‘persons who had rendered important service during the rebellion,’ the name of Samuel Turner is found in the Cornwallis Papers as entitled to 300l. a year. But a foot-note from the indefatigable editor–Mr. Ross–who spared no labour to acquire minute information, confesses that it has been found impossible to procure any particulars of Turner.

For years I have investigated the relations of the informers with the Government, and Samuel Turner is the only large recipient of ‘blood-money’ whose services remain to be accounted for. Turner’s name never appeared in any printed pension list. Mr. Ross found the name at Dublin Castle, with some others, in a ‘confidential memorandum,’ written for the perusal of the Lord Lieutenant, whose fiat became necessary. The money was ‘given by a warrant dated December 20, 1800,’ but the names were kept secret–the payments being confidentially made by the Under-Secretary.

At this distance of time it is not easy to trace a life of which Mr. Ross, thirty years earlier, failed to catch the haziest glimpse; but I hope to make the case clear, and Turner’s history readable.

Previous to 1798 he is found posing in the double rôle of martyr and hero–winning alternately the sympathy and admiration of the people. Mr. Patrick O’Byrne, an aged native of Newry, long connected with an eminent publishing firm in Dublin, has replied to a letter of inquiry by supplying some anecdotes in Turner’s life. It is a remarkable proof of the completeness with which Turner’s perfidy was cloaked that Mr. O’Byrne never heard his honesty questioned.[31]

In 1836 there was a tradition current in Newry of a gentleman named Turner, who in the previous generation had resided in a large red brick house situated in the centre of a fine walled-in park called Turner’s Glen, on the western side of Newry, in the County Armagh. Mr. Turner had been in 1796 a member of the great confederacy of United Irishmen, one of the leaders who, for self and fellows, ‘pledged his life, his fortune, and his honour’ to put an end to British supremacy in Ireland. About the date mentioned the notorious Luttrell, Lord Carhampton, who was commander of the forces in Ireland at the time, and was then making a tour of inspection of the army, had to pass through Newry. The chief hotel in Newry at that time adjoined the post-office. The gentry and merchants of Newry generally went to the post-office shortly after the arrival of the mails to get their letters, and while waiting for the mail to be assorted promenaded in front of the hotel, or rested in the coffee-room. Mr. Turner wore the colours he affected–a large green necktie. Lord Carhampton, while his horses were being changed, was looking out of the coffee-room windows of the hotel, and his eye lighted on the rebel ‘stock:’ here was a fine opportunity to cow a rebel and assert his own courage–a quality for which he was not noted. Accordingly he swaggered up to Mr. Turner and, confronting him, asked ‘Whose man are you, who dares to wear that rebellious emblem?’ Mr. Turner sternly replied, ‘I am my own man. Whose man are you, who dares to speak so insolently to an Irish gentleman?’ ‘I am one who will make you wear a hempen necktie, instead of your flaunting French silk, if you do not instantly remove it!’ retorted Lord Carhampton. ‘I wear this colour,’ replied Mr. Turner courageously, ‘because I like it. As it is obnoxious to you, come and take it off.’ Carhampton, finding that his bluster did not frighten the North Erin rebel, turned to leave; but Turner, by a rapid movement, got between him and the door, and, presenting his card to the general, demanded his address. Carhampton told him he would learn it sooner than he should like. Turner thereupon said, ‘I must know your name; until now I have never had the misfortune to be engaged in a quarrel with aught but gentlemen, who knew how to make themselves responsible for their acts. You cannot insult me with impunity, whatever your name may be. I will yet find it out, and post you in every court as a coward.’ The Commander of the Forces withdrew from Newry, having come off second best in the quarrel he had provoked. Mr. Turner, for reasons connected with the cause in which he had embarked, was obliged to lie perdu soon after, and so Carhampton escaped the ‘posting’ he would, under other circumstances, have got from the Northern fire-eater.

The general accuracy of Mr. O’Byrne’s impressions is shown by the ‘Life and Confessions of Newell the Informer,’ printed for the author at London in 1798.[32] Newell travelled with the staff of Lord Carhampton, and in April, 1797, witnessed the scene between Turner and him.

Newell’s pamphlet, which created much noise at the time and had a large circulation, did not tend to weaken popular confidence in Turner. It appeared soon after the time that he had begun to play false; but Newell, with all his cunning, had no suspicion of Turner.

The late Mr. J. Mathews, of Dundalk, collected curious details regarding the rebel organisation of Ulster in 1797. With these details the name of Samuel Turner is interwoven, but, although the object of Mathews was to expose the treachery of some false brothers, he assigns to Turner the rank of a patriot and a hero. How the authorities, by a coup, made a number of arrests, is described; and how Turner, after some exciting adventures, got safely to France.[33]

The spy on this occasion was Mr. Conlan, a medical practitioner in Dundalk. A sworn information, signed by Conlan, is preserved among the Sirr MSS. in Trinity College, Dublin. It is dated 1798, when Turner himself was betraying his own colleagues to Pitt! Conlan states that one evening, after Turner had left his house at Newry to attend a meeting of United Irishmen at Dundalk, the officer in command at the barracks of Newry got orders to march on Dundalk and arrest the leaders. An officer’s servant apprised Corcoran, who was an adherent of Turner’s. Corcoran mounted a horse and galloped to Dundalk, where he arrived in time to warn Turner. Conlan recollected Turner and Teeling travelling through Ulster and holding meetings for organisation at Dundalk, Newry, Ballinahinch (the site of the subsequent battle), Ronaldstown, Glanary, and in Dublin at Kearn’s, Kildare Street,[34] where the principal meetings were held.[35]

I find in the Pelham MSS. the examination of Dr. John Macara, one of the Northern State prisoners of 1797. It supplies details of the plan of attack which had been foiled by the arrests. ‘Newry was to be attacked by Samuel Turner, of Newry aforesaid, with the men from Newry and Mourn.'[36]

It was not Conlan alone who reported Turner’s movements to the Crown. Francis Higgins, the ablest secret agent of Under-Secretary Cooke, announces that Turner had sent ‘letters from Portsmouth for the purpose of upholding and misleading the mutinous seamen into avowed rebellion;'[37] and some weeks later he states that ‘Turner had returned from Hamburg with an answer to the Secret Committee of United Irishmen.'[38]

We know on the authority of James Hope, who wrote down his ‘Recollections’ of this time at the request of a friend, that Turner, having fled from Ireland, filled the office of resident agent at Hamburg of the United Irishmen. The Irish envoys and refugees, finding themselves in a place hardly less strange than Tierra del Fuego, ignorant of its language, its rules and its ways, sought on arrival the accredited agent of their brotherhood, hailed him with joy, and regarded the spot on which he dwelt as a bit of Irish soil sacred to the Shamrock. The hardship which some of the refugees went through was trying enough. James Hope, writing in 1846, says that Palmer, one of Lord Edward’s bodyguard in Dublin, travelled, ‘mostly barefooted, from Paris to Hamburg, where he put himself into communication with Samuel Turner.’ The object of Palmer’s mission was to expose one Bureaud, then employed as a spy by Holland. ‘Palmer,’ writes Hope, ‘gave Turner a gold watch to keep for him.’ He enlisted in a Dutch regiment, and was found drowned in the Scheldt. ‘When Turner,’ adds Hope, ‘was applied to for the watch by Palmer’s sister, he replied that he forgot what became of it.’

Hamburg in troubled times was a place of great importance for the maintenance of intercourse between England and France. Here, as Mr. Froude states, ‘Lord Downshire’s friend’ had vast facilities for getting at the inmost secrets of the United Irishmen. Hope’s casual statement serves to show how it was that this ‘person’ could have had access to Lady Edward Fitzgerald’s confidence, and that of her political friends at Hamburg.


[27] In chapter vii. my contention will be found established on conclusive testimony, which had failed to present itself until years had been given to a slow process of logical deduction. Vide also Appendix to this volume.

[28] ‘The Northern Marquis’ was, of course, Lord Downshire.

[29] ‘A Lanthorn through some Dark Passages, with a Key to Secret Chambers,’ was the title originally chosen for the present book, but I finally laid it aside as being too much in the style of old Parson Fry’s ‘Pair of Bellows to Blow away the Dust.’

[30] How this book got out of the Castle and was sold for waste paper by a man named Fagan is a curious story in itself. The volume is now preserved in the Royal Irish Academy.

[31] A prisoner named Turner, Christian name not given, indicted for high treason, is announced as discharged in December 1795, owing to the flight of a Crown witness.–Vide Irish State Trials (Dublin: Exshaw, 1796); Lib. R. I. Academy.

[32] Vide pp. 21-2. Newell’s pamphlet will be found in the Halliday Collection, vol. 743, Royal Irish Academy.

[33] Vide Mr. Matthew’s narrative in The Sham Squire, sixth edition, pp. 355-363.

[34] This place of rendezvous was, doubtless, chosen because of its proximity to Leinster House, where Lord Edward mainly lived.

[35] Major Sirr’s Papers (MS.), Trinity College, Dublin. Conlan’s information makes no mention of a remarkable man, the Rev. William Steel Dickson, D.D., a Presbyterian pastor of Down, and described by the historians of his Church as ready to take the field. Dr. Dickson, in his Narrative, admits (p. 193) that he had been ‘frequently in the company of Lowry, Turner, and Teeling.’ Turner was a Presbyterian and possibly wished to spare a pastor of his Church.

[36] The Pelham MSS. Examination dated September 6, 1797. Pelham, afterwards Lord Chichester, was Chief Secretary for Ireland at that time, and his papers are a useful help in throwing light upon it. A large portion of them are occupied by a correspondence with Generals Lake and Nugent regarding Dr. Macara; he offered to inform if let out on bail. Lake hoped that he would prove a valuable informer; and, as he was far from rich, could not afford to reject pecuniary reward; but, although Macara at first seemed to consent, his replies were finally found to be evasive.

[37] Higgins to Cooke, MS. letter, Dublin Castle, June 7, 1797.

[38] Ibid., August 29, 1797. Five weeks later Turner makes his disclosure to Downshire.

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