Vincent Dowling

After the establishment of the The Observer in 1791 Vincent Dowling was appointed as the newspaper's first reporter. When the newspaper failed to make money for its owner, W. S. Bourne, attempts were made to sell it to the government. This move was unsuccessful but the government did agree to help subsidise the newspaper in return for influencing its content.

The Home Office also decided to recruit Dowling as a government spy. In 1815 Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, became worried about the growing demands for parliamentary reform. One group of radicals causing particular concern was the Spencean Philanthropists. Although the man who had inspired the group, Thomas Spence, had died in 1814, this had not dampened the Spenceans desire for a change in the political system. Sidmouth gave John Stafford, chief clerk at Bow Street, and the supervisor of Home Office spies, the task of obtaining the evidence necessary to destroy this group. Stafford recruited John Castle, a member of the Spenceans, as a spy. He also asked Dowling to obtain information on the group.

In December 1816, John Stafford paid Dowling to record what was said at a political meeting organised by the Spenceans. The speakers at the meeting at Spa Fields, Islington, 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.

After the arrest of the leaders of the Spencean Philanthropists Dowling was sent to Coldbath Fields House of Correction in Clerkenwell. Dowling used his short-hand skills to record what the prisoners said to their visitors. In one report that Vincent Dowling sent to John Stafford, he warned him that James Watson was intending to use many "quotations from scripture" in his defence.

James Watson was the first to be tried. The two main prosecution witnesses were two government spies: John Castle and Vincent Dowling. The defence council were aware of this and tried very hard to undermine the testimony of these two men. During the cross-examination the defence council was able to show that Castle had a criminal record and had been acting as an agent provocateur (a person employed to incite suspected people to some open action that will make them liable to punishment).

The defence also tried to show that Dowling's testimony was suspect. It was suggested that the information he gave in court was untrustworthy as Dowling was a paid informer. Although Dowling admitted in court that he had given information to John Becket, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office, he denied he had received any money for his services.

After hearing all the evidence the jury concluded that the information supplied by John Castle and Vincent Dowling was unreliable and refused to convict James 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.

Primary Sources

(1) Vincent Dowling being cross-examined during the trial of James Watson (June, 1817)

Question: Have you ever applied for any employment under Government?

Vincent Dowling: I have not.

Question: Of any kind?

Vincent Dowling: No.

Question: Who desired you to attend on the second of December?

Vincent Dowling: I attended by desire of the proprietors of the Observer newspaper.

Question: Had you any direction from anyone in the Secretary of State's office, or any magistrate?

Vincent Dowling: I had not, nor never had any previous communication with them.

Question: Having taken this note on the second of December, to whom did you give the copy when you transcribed it from your note?

Vincent Dowling: I gave it to Mr. Beckett.

Question: Mr. Beckett the Under-Secretary of State?

Vincent Dowling: Yes, so I understand.

(2) Percy Bysshe Shelley, letter to a friend in 1817.

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.