Keeping It in the Family – Public Communication Intelligence in History

By Roger Davies / 29 December 2013 / History, Intel Analysis

The Bode family and the Willes family played a peculiar and crucial role within the British Intelligence community between 1732 and about 1844.  In Oliver Cromwell’s time the post of “Secret Man” in the Post Office was established in 1657 to open and examine suspicious letters of intelligence value. Communications interception by governments really isn’t that new. Indeed the powers of the Post Office were enshrined in an Act of Parliament which openly declared that postal system was the best means “to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs… the intelligence whereof cannot well be communicated but by letter of escript”.  The demise of these families’ engagement in intelligence was for reasons with exact parallels with current affairs regarding public secrecy.

By the early 1700s the Secret Man had become “the Secret Department” of the Post Office, under the control of the Foreign Office. The Secret Department, peculiarly, was manned for decades by members of the same families.  The Department specifically monitored correspondence between embassies and their home governments. The Department was supported by its own Secret Deciphering Branch, run by an ordained priest who later became a bishop, Edward Willes, who ran the Branch between 1716 and 1773.  Willes brought in three of his sons and they brought in three further cousins.

The first of the Bode family, John Ernest Bode, was brought to England in 1732 from Hannover where he ran a key postal interception unit with the British allies in Hannover, with successful postal interception units in Celle and Nienburg. Bode had apparently had some success in Hannover  and was brought in to improve the management of the headquarters in London. He promptly recruited two of his own brothers and two of his sons.   Eventually the family connection came to an end in 1844 when John Bode’s grandson, William Bode, exceeded his authority to step beyond diplomatic correspondence and opened the mail of alleged subversives. At the time the Home Secretary had asked that the Post Office intercept the mail of an Italian political refugee in Britain, Giuseppi Mazzini.  In an almost exact parallel to today’s concerns about interception of communications by governments, there was a public outcry when the existence of the technique was made known on the newspapers, and a parliamentary inquiry was established into the Secret Department and its activities.

William Bode defended the work of the office strongly. In the end the Inquiry stepped back from making any serious recommendations, but subsequently the Foreign Office cut its budget and disbanded the department.  One of the members dismissed was Francis Willes, the Bishop’s grandson, who complained bitterly about his loss of income, and another Willes, his brother was also made redundant.

In the late 1600s and 1700s, all governments were assumed to open diplomatic mail.  Hence the development of code systems which the Willes family were experts at cracking. I’ll write more about these 17th century codes in future blogs  But there was more to it than just intercepting and de-ciphering diplomatic mail. They “planted” mail as part of deception operations, searched suspect letters with special “liquors” for invisible ink, and identified British reports sent to “cover” addresses.  Occasionally they facilitated communications with enemy ministers.

The technical skills to open, decrypt and re-seal the letters was significant. Opening and closing could be done without a trace, and there were meticulously engraved forgeries of seals and duplicates of the special waxes were developed.  In a typical operation, a letter from the King of Prussia took three hours to open, copy and reseal.

The parallels between government interception of communications in the 18th and 19th centuries and the modern electronic equivalents are striking. In 1844 the “Post Office Espionage scandal” surrounding the mail interceptions described above was discussed widely by the public and in the press.  In parallels again with modern day difficulties, a foreign government (the Austrians) asked the British for help in intercepting the communications of a radical living in the UK, Mazzini. The public debate focused on the excessive powers being deployed by the government to intercept the mail. Interestingly, it is largely agreed that as a result of this scandal, British interception and derived intelligence largely ceased to exist for as much as 70 years, until WW1.  This was the first major crisis of public secrecy, perhaps driven as today by public adoption of a mode of communication that rapidly became ubiquitous. Prior to the 1840s public use of letters for significant communication was limited, but the introduction of the penny post by large parts of the population who before hadn’t given two hoots about their government intercepting letters to foreign governments, and they suddenly felt personally vulnerable. Perhaps the same is occurring today with widespread adoption of electronic communications.  There’s an excellent essay on the 1844 scandal here, and another here.  I find it fascinating that like today the debate was so vociferous and wide ranging. Charles Dickens became actively involved, and there were cartoons in “Punch“.

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