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The Origins of Public Secrecy in Britain

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009


The first modern crisis of public secrecy was set in motion in the Spring of 1844 when a little-known Italian exile began sending himself letters in which he had placed grains of sand, poppy seeds or fine hairs. The discovery that the additional contents were disappearing in transit confirmed Joseph Mazzini's suspicions that his correspondence was being opened by Sir James Graham, the Home Secretary, at the request of the Austrian ambassador. There then followed what Graham's first biographer described as a ‘paroxysm of national anger’ as the extent of clandestine domestic espionage was exposed. A powerful coalition of working-class radicals and Parliamentary Liberals came together to protest at the use of ‘the spy system of foreign states’.‘The proceeding cannot be English,’ thundered The Times, ‘any more than masks, poisons, sword-sticks, secret signs and associations, and other such dark ventures. Public opinion is mighty and jealous, and does not brook to hear of public ends pursued by other than public means. It considers that treason against its public self.’

Research Article
Copyright © Royal Historical Society 1991

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