John Castle

John Castle was born in Yorkshire in about 1785. Castle moved to London where he found work in a brothel run by Mother Thoms in King Street Soho. In 1812 Castle and his friend, Daniel Davis, were arrested for forging bank notes. The charges against Castle were dropped when he agreed to give evidence against Davis. As a result of Castle's evidence in court, Daniel Davies was executed.

In 1816 Castle was working as a whitesmith when he met James Watson, one of the leaders of the Spencean Philanthropists, a group inspired by the ideas of Thomas Spence. Soon afterwards John Castle became a member of the Spenceans.

William Salmon, a police officer at Bow Street, knew of Castle's police record and when discovered that he had become a Spencean he told John Stafford, the Chief Clerk at Bow Street, and Home Office spymaster. Stafford decided to recruit Castle as a spy. After a combination of threats and promises, Castle agreed to provide Stafford information on the activities of the Spenceans.

This print by George Cruikshank shows Lord Sidmouth, Thomas Reynolds, John Castle, William Oliver, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. In the picture spies (Reynolds, Castle and Oliver) are providing government ministers with information on those advocating parliamentary reform. (July 1817)
This print by George Cruikshank shows Lord Sidmouth, Thomas Reynolds, John Castle,
William Oliver, George Canning and Lord Castlereagh. In the picture spies (Reynolds, Castle
and Oliver) are providing government ministers with information on those
advocating parliamentary reform. (July 1817)

On 2nd December 1816, the Spencean group organised a mass meeting at Spa Fields, Islington. The speakers at the meeting 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.

James Watson was the first to be tried. John Castle was the main prosecution witness. However, the defence council was able to show that Castle had a long criminal record and that his testimony was unreliable. The jury concluded that Castle was an agent provocateur (a person employed to incite suspected people to some open action that will make them liable to punishment) and refused to convict 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) John Stafford recorded his first meeting with John Castle (6th February, 1816)

I told him he did not deal candidly with me, and that I knew he had not disclosed all he knew. He declared nobody could say anything against him, for he detested violence and bloodshed. When people had too much drink they talked of that had better not been mentioned. He said he knew he was liable to be brought to Bow Street and publicly examined. He with others had suffered a great deal from distress and that he did not much care for his life and a man could only die once.

(2) John Castle later recorded his first meeting with John Stafford on 6th February, 1816.

Mr. Stafford introduced me to Mr. Beckett the Under-Secretary (at the Home Office), who did assure me my safety on condition that I told the truth, which was a great ease to my mind, and from that moment I entered into confidential communication with Mr. Stafford. I shall get away with it if I can but if I should be taken I expect to be protected. I know I run great risk of assassination but I am determined to go through with it and report everything.

(3) John Castle was cross-examined during James Watson's trial in June 1817.

Question: How long have you had that coat on?

John Castle: A month or six weeks.

Question: Did Mr. Stafford order it for you?

John Castle: No.

Question: Who did?

John Castle: I ordered it at the clothes shop.

Question: Mr. Stafford. Question: Ever since your arrest you have been supported by him?

John Castle: I do not know who paid the expenses; the clothes were purchased by Mr. Stafford and given to me.

Question: Have you had any pocket money from Mr. Stafford?

John Castle: I have.

Question: Who furnished the money for your wife's going down to Yorkshire?

John Castle: Mr. Stafford.

(4) 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.

(5) The British Museum (6th February, 2022)

Three Ministers sit at a council table on which is a large green bag, from which docketed papers project; the bag has folds making it resemble a grotesquely sly face. With them are three ruffianly looking agents or spies. On the extreme left sits Sidmouth in profile to the right; thin, elderly, and angular, his hands resting on a tall cane; his queue terminates in a clyster-pipe instead of a bag. Opposite him sits Thomas Reynolds, indicated by a paper beside him: "Reynolds Ireland". He shows Sidmouth a paper: "List of Victims in Ireland". Beside him is a bag inscribed "Blood Money". At the opposite end of the table sits Castlereagh, also very thin but elegant and fashionable; he sits forward his hands on his crossed knees, holding a paper "To Mr Reynolds", the name scored through but just legible. On his right hand is Canning, who covertly points to two ruffians, one on each side of the table, saying, "Don't you think my Lord that our friends, Castle & Oliver should be sent to Lisbon or somewhere as Consul Generals, or Envoys?" Castlereagh answers: "Can't you negotiate for some boroughs." The two men, who grin expectantly, are indicated by papers addressed respectively to "Oliver Leeds" and "Castle Spafields"; in the latter's hat is a bundle of "Forged notes". Papers in the green bag are docketed: "An Oath to be Proposed to the distressed"; "Plan for the Attack on the Regents Carraige"; "Treasonable papers to be sliped into the pockets of some duped artisans"; "Plans for a General Row". On the table: "Toast to be given in the Company of moderate men & then Swear they drank them" (Castle's evidence); "Every means to be taken to implicate Sr F. Burdett Ld Cochran"'. On the floor beside Sidmouth: "Instructions for Entraping the poor & needy", and "under sanction of Government". Beside Castlereagh lie flags and favours labelled "Tricolord Flags &c &c for Spa Fields", with a stuffed stocking labelled: "A Waggon Load of Ammunition!!! Vide Mr Cannings Speech in ye House of Coms". Through a window on the extreme right, and just behind Castlereagh, John Bull, registering horror, gazes into the room; he exclaims: "Oh! Oh I have found out the Conspirators at last, poor Starving John is to be enslaved into Criminal acts & then the Projectors & perpetrators are brought forward as principal evidences! This is another Vaughan, Brock & Pelham business, and I suppose they are to be made Consuls too, the high road to Ld Castlereigh's particular favor Canning travelled it."