John Stafford was born in London in 1766. By 1815 Stafford was the Chief Clerk at Bow Street. One of his main tasks was to recruit Home Office spies, give them their orders and to receive their reports. The Times later reported: "His sound knowledge of criminal law, his consummate skill in the framing of indictments, and his long practical acquaintance with the duties which devolved upon him, caused him very frequently to be consulted by the ablest criminal lawyers of the day."
In 1816 the government became very concerned about the growth of Spencean Philanthropists, a group inspired by the ideas of Thomas Spence. Stafford recruited John Castle, a convicted convict to join the Spenceans and to report on their activities. In October 1816 Castle reported to Stafford that the Spenceans were planning to overthrow the British government.
On 2nd December 1816, the Spencean group organised a mass meeting at Spa Fields, Islington. The speakers at the meeting included Henry 'Orator' Hunt and James Watson. The magistrates decided to disperse the meeting and while Stafford and eighty police officers were doing this, one of the men, Joseph Rhodes was stabbed. The four leaders of the Spenceans, James Watson, Arthur Thistlewood, Thomas Preston and John Hopper were arrested and charged with high treason.
James Watson was the first to be tried. However, the main prosecution witness was the government spy, John Castle. The defence council was able to show that Castle had a criminal record and that his testimony was unreliable. The jury concluded that Castle was an agent provocateur (a person employed to incite suspected people to some open action that will make them liable to punishment) and refused to convict Watson. As the case against Watson had failed, it was decided to release the other three men who were due to be tried for the same offence.
John Stafford remained concerned about the Spenceans and in early 1817 he asked a police officer, George Ruthven, to join the group. Ruthven discovered that the Spenceans were planning an armed rising. One of the leaders of the Spenceans, Arthur Thistlewood, claimed at one meeting that he could raise 15,000 armed men in just half an hour. As a result of this information, John Williamson, John Shegoe, James Hanley, George Edwards and Thomas Dwyer were also recruited by Stafford to spy on the Spenceans.
Percy Bysshe Shelley later complained: "It is impossible to know how far the higher members of the Government are involved in the guilt of their infernal agents. But this much is known, that so soon as the whole nation lifted up its voice for parliamentary reform, spies went forth. These were selected from the most worthless and infamous of mankind, and dispersed among the multitude of famished and illiterate labourers. It was their business to find victims, no matter whether right or wrong."
It was information obtained by these spies that made it possible for the arrest of the men involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy. After the experience of the previous trial of the Spenceans, Lord Sidmouth was unwilling to use the evidence of his spies in court. George Edwards, the person with a great deal of information about the conspiracy, was never called. Instead the police offered to drop charges against certain members of the gang if they were willing to give evidence against the rest of the conspirators. Two of these men, Robert Adams and John Monument, agreed and they provided the evidence needed to convict the rest of the gang. On 28th April 1820, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, Arthur Thistlewood, and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason and executed at Newgate Prison on the 1st May, 1820.
Robert Peel offered John Stafford the post of Police Magistrate but he turned it down "from a feeling, perhaps, of diffidence in his own abilities, and a natural desire not to obtrude himself into a situation which would necessarily bring him so frequently before the public."
John Stafford died at his home in September 1837.
It is impossible to know how far the higher members of the Government are involved in the guilt of their infernal agents. But this much is known, that so soon as the whole nation lifted up its voice for parliamentary reform, spies went forth. These were selected from the most worthless and infamous of mankind, and dispersed among the multitude of famished and illiterate labourers. It was their business to find victims, no matter whether right or wrong.
I told him he did not deal candidly with me, and that I knew he had not disclosed all he knew. He declared nobody could say anything against him, for he detested violence and bloodshed. When people had too much drink they talked of that had better not been mentioned. He said he knew he was liable to be brought to Bow Street and publicly examined. He with others had suffered a great deal from distress and that he did not much care for his life and a man could only die once.
His sound knowledge of criminal law, his consummate skill in the framing of indictments, and his long practical acquaintance with the duties which devolved upon him, caused him very frequently to be consulted by the ablest criminal lawyers of the day.
When the Cato Street Conspiracy was fully detected and the capture of the party determined upon, Mr. Stafford volunteered his services to head the Bow Street officers who distinguished themselves on that occasion, although his duties as Chief Clerk by no means required that he should hazzard his person in such a desperate enterprise. He had prepared his pistols and made the necessary arrangements when, just as he was about to join the officers and proceed to the scene of action, a message from the Home Office requiring his immediate attendance compelled him to forego his intention. He gave his pistols to the brave but ill-fated Smithers.