William Wickham (1761–1840)

William Wickham (11 November 1761 – 22 October 1840) was a British civil servant and politician who was a founder of British foreign secret service activities during the French Revolution, and was later a Privy Counsellor and Chief Secretary for Ireland.

William Wickham

Portrait of William Wickham
Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
In office
MonarchGeorge III
Prime MinisterHon. William Pitt the Younger
Preceded byCharles Greville
Succeeded byEdward Finch Hatton
Chief Secretary for Ireland
In office
MonarchGeorge III
Prime MinisterHenry Addington
Preceded byCharles Abbot
Succeeded bySir Evan Nepean, Bt
Personal details
Born(1761-11-11)11 November 1761
Died22 October 1840(1840-10-22) (aged 78)
Alma materChrist Church, Oxford

Early years

Born into wealth in Cottingley, Yorkshire, England, he was the eldest son of Henry Wickham, Esq., of Cottingley, Lieutenant-Colonel in the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards, and a justice of the peace for the West Riding. His mother was Elizabeth, daughter of William Lamplugh, vicar of Cottingley. Wickham attended Harrow School[1] and Christ Church, Oxford, where he was a protegé of Cyril Jackson.[2] He took a law degree in Geneva, Switzerland in 1786. He was also called to the bar in England, at Lincoln's Inn.[1]

In 1788 he married Eleonora Madeleine Bertrand (d. 1836), whose father was professor of mathematics in the University of Geneva. They had one son, Henry Lewis Wickham (b. 1789); Henry's son, William, was a member of parliament for Petersfield.


From 1790 to 1794, Wickham was a commissioner of bankrupts.[3] Following the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act of 1792, Wickham was appointed in 1793 as one of the new stipendiary magistrates. In this position he began to undertake secret work for the Government, at the behest of Lord Grenville, the then Foreign Secretary. This was at a time when the French Revolution was causing great concern to the British political establishment, and powers were given to magistrates under the 1793 Aliens Act. An early action of Wickham's in his new post was the infiltration of the radical London Corresponding Society, leading to the arrest and trial for treason of its leaders. Despite the apparent failure of his spies to uncover anything incriminating amidst the society's meetings and papers or to entrap the members in sedition, treason, or other crimes, Wickham was made 'superintendent of aliens' in 1794 by the then Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland.[4]

Intelligence activities

Because of his knowledge of Switzerland, Grenville sent Wickham to that country in 1794 as assistant to the British ambassador. A year later he was named chargé d'affaires when the ambassador took extended leave, and then appointed ambassador in his own right. His unofficial duties were to liaise with French opponents of the Revolution. By 1795, England was openly combating the French revolutionaries who had usurped and beheaded King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette. Wickham established a spy network in Switzerland, southern Germany and in France and negotiated with French Royalists and others, supporting amongst other initiatives the disastrous rising in la Vendée.[5]

Wickham strengthened the British intelligence system by emphasising the centrality of the intelligence cycle - query, collection, collation, analysis and dissemination - and the need for an all-source centre of intelligence.[6][7]

The government secretly funded Wickham with a substantial budget for his objects. A good deal of this was spent in a complex plot to bring French revolutionary general Charles Pichegru, over to the ranks of Louis Joseph, Prince of Condé who maintained an army on the Rhine. Wickham advanced £8,000 to feed and supply Pichegru's troops; however, Pichegru vacillated and the initiative failed. Wickham also reported on French troop positions, armaments and operations. French spies, however, learned of his network, and France pressured Swiss authorities to expel him.[5]

Wickham resigned, returning to England in 1798, where he resumed, after some internal wrangling, his position as Superintendent of Aliens, and was appointed Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department.[3] For a year and a half he was " the effective head of the secret service".[8] He returned to Europe to Swabia, close to the Swiss border, in 1799 where his averred role was to liaise with the armies of Austria and Russia in Europe, which were supported by Britain against Napoleon. Again he negotiated inconclusively with Pichegru, but his expensive intrigues were rendered useless by Napoleon's victory at the Battle of Marengo (June 1800); moreover he was accused in London of misuse of public funds, which brought him close to a nervous breakdown. He returned to London in 1801.[3]


In 1802 Wickham was appointed to the Privy Council and named Chief Secretary for Ireland, a post he held until 1804, when he resigned following the execution of Robert Emmet, as he felt the laws governing Ireland to be "unjust, oppressive and unchristian".[9] He also entered Parliament as MP for the Irish borough constituency of Cashel: he sat for Cashel from 1802 to 1806, and for Callington in Cornwall from 1806 to 1807.

Family papers

The Hampshire Record Office holds a number of Wickham's papers. The archive relates also to his grandson William Wickham, who was vice-chairman on the first County Council. The archive includes grants of full powers to Wickham in 1799 and 1801; also poll books for the election of members of parliament representing Oxford University in 1801 and 1809, a plan showing the arrangement of wine in the cellars, and papers about Wickham's success in growing fig trees, which continue to flourish at his home in Binsted.[10] His other property was Lullebrook Manor at Cookham in Berkshire.


  1. "Wickham, William" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. p. 178.
  2. Durey (2006), 719–720.
  3. Sparrow (n.d.)
  4. Sparrow (1990), 363–365.
  5. Sparrow (1990), 368–369.
  6. Michael Durey, "William Wickham, the Christ Church Connection and the Rise and Fall of the Security Service in Britain, 1793–1801." English Historical Review 121.492 (2006): 714-745.
  7. Roger Knight, Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815 (2013) pp 125-42.
  8. Durey (2006), 736.
  9. "Robert Emmet between history and memory", History Ireland website, accessed 22 March 2014.
  10. "Hampshire Record Office Wickham family [38M49/E]". The National Archives, Kew (UK). Retrieved 10 July 2009.


  • Durey, Michael (2006). "William Wickham, the Christ Church Connection and the Rise and Fall of the Security Service in Britain, 1793–1801", The English Historical Review 121#492 (June 2006), pp. 714–745.
  • Durey, Michael (2006). "When great men fall out: William Wickham's resignation as chief secretary for Ireland in January 1804." Parliamentary History 25.3: 334-356.
  • Sparrow, Elizabeth (n.d.). "Wickham, William" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online, accessed 22 March 2014.
  • Sparrow, Elizabeth (1990).The Alien Office, 1792–1806 The Historical Journal, (June 1990), pp. 361–384. Cambridge University Press .

Other publications

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Lord Robert FitzGerald
British Minister to the Swiss Cantons
Succeeded by
James Talbot
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Bagwell
Member of Parliament for Cashel
Succeeded by
Viscount Primrose
Preceded by
Ambrose St John
Paul Orchard
Member of Parliament for Callington
With: William Garrow
Succeeded by
Thomas Carter
Lord Binning
Political offices
Preceded by
Charles Greville
Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
Succeeded by
Edward Finch Hatton
Preceded by
Charles Abbot
Chief Secretary for Ireland
Succeeded by
Sir Evan Nepean, Bt
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