This is my blog, intended to provide information relevant to the history of Edinburgh in the Georgian period. I would love to hear any comments you may have.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Robert Watt: radical or government spy?

It is generally appreciated today that Edinburgh in the late eighteenth century was the scene of many new scientific, academic and cultural innovations. The capital was the chief centre of the Scottish Enlightenment and the habitat of a galaxy of famous names associated with learning and the arts; the Adam brothers, David Hume and Adam Smith are only examples from a long list. What is perhaps not so widely appreciated is that Edinburgh was also the scene of certain political developments, including a brand of fiery radicalism that caused the political authorities of the day deep concern. The victory of the United States of America over monarchical Britain in 1783 and the outbreak of the French Revolution six years later helped inspire a new republican enthusiasm in many parts of Britain, but nowhere more than in Scotland. In the early 1790s this movement took the form of 'corresponding societies', groups of individuals who favoured radical political reform and who met openly to debate and exchange ideas. In October 1793 the Scottish 'Friends of the People' society held a British Convention in Edinburgh which was attended by delegates from other corresponding societies in England, as a result of which a manifesto was approved and published which praised the principles of the French Revolution and called for universal male suffrage as well as annual parliaments.

James Gillray, 'London Corresponding Society alarm'd' (1798), a pro-government view of the radicals.

The reaction of government was harsh and authoritarian. The leading Scottish radicals were arrested, tried for the new crime of 'sedition' and transported to New Holland for fourteen years. The writings of republican authors such as Tom Paine were proscribed, political assemblies prohibited, and in England, habeus corpus was suspended. These measures forced the radical movement underground, and turned what had been a peaceful movement for reform into a network of secret societies with revolutionary aims. In order to undermine the radicals government had pursued a policy of recruiting paid informers to penetrate their ranks and identify their leaders, and in Edinburgh a man named Robert Watt approached lord advocate Robert Dundas with the offer of informing upon his fellow radicals in 1792. Watt's business as a wine merchant had failed after Britain's declaration of war upon France, and presumably he meant to salvage his fortunes by betraying his fellow radicals. His reports from this period relate to political activities in Perth, Dundee and Glasgow as well as Edinburgh, written in a close, spidery hand; the documents have survived and are held in the Advocate's Library, Edinburgh. Watt's reports are thoroughly alarmist, exaggerating the threat to the existing order in order to encourage government's further interest. In April 1793 Watt wrote offering the lord advocate information from two unnamed persons who demanded £100 for their services; Watt was given £30 but no useful information was forthcoming, and thereafter Dundas appears to lose interest in his informer. These are not trifling amounts, for £100 in the 1790s would be the equivalent of about £8,000 today.¹

John Kay, 'Robert Watt' (1794). Kay was Edinburgh's foremost caricaturist in the period.

By 1794 Robert Watt appears to have given up his attempts to wheedle more cash from the authorities and to have returned to his former political activities, for in May of 1794 a search of his house for property belonging to a bankrupt revealed the presence of several pikes and copies of a printed handbill which was designed to suborn the loyalties of the soldiery in Edinburgh Castle. Watt was immediately arrested, and a subsequent search found more pikes at a local blacksmith's. Details emerged of a plot to seize the Castle, the post office, the banks and the industrial works of the city, and to remove the existing authorities and replace them with a provisional republican government, though how close to realisation this scheme was, or indeed how realistic, remains open to question. Watt had been part of a seven man 'Committee of Ways and Means' which had dreamt up the plot, and another man, an Edinburgh silversmith named David Downie, was arrested with him. Both men were charged with high treason, and the trials took place in Edinburgh in the August and September of 1794.

Public execution in Edinburgh. 'The Execution of Deacon Brodie' by Alexander Hay Ritchie.

Watt's counsel conducted Watt's defence on the basis of his contention that he was acting as agent provocateur for the civic authorities, but with the city authorities testifying that he had received no encouragement from them to do so, and with most of his fellow conspirators turning King's evidence against him, the result was a foregone conclusion. He and Downie were both found guilty, the jury recommending mercy. In the case of Downie, this was agreed to, and the death sentence was commuted to permanent transportation to New Holland. Watt, now universally detested on both sides of the political divide, was not so fortunate. The sentence passed by the court was that 'you... be taken  from the bar to the place from whence you came, and from thence to be drawn upon a hurdle to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck, but not till you are dead; for you are then to be taken down, your heart to be cut out, and your bowels burned before your face, your head and limbs to be severed and held up for public display.'² This sentence was carried out on 15th October 1794.


1.  http://www.johnowensmith.co.uk/histdate/moneyval.htm

2. The Trial of Robert Watt, late Wine Merchant in Edinburgh, for High Treason (1794), P.34

No comments:

Post a Comment