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In 1776 Sir William Eden’s finest secret agent was a scholarly American churchman

Posted in America, Espionage, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Revolution, War on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about espionage in America originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Battle of Bunker Hill, picture, image, illustration

Battle of Bunker Hill by Trumbull (after)

It was 1776. The young clergyman with the cherubic countenance edged his way through the dense throng near St. James’s. The passers-by stared curiously after him, catching the twang of his American accent, and some muttered darkly. For Britain was at war with her 13 colonies in America, and had recently suffered a humiliating defeat at Bunker Hill.

Had they but known it, the British had a firm ally in the young cleric. He was the Reverend John Vardill from New York, and he had given up a brilliant future as a churchman and scholar to serve as a British agent, believing that America’s best interests lay in maintaining her union with Britain.

As he made his way through West-minister a voice – also American – hailed him. He turned and found himself face-to-face with a fellow-student from New York. He greeted his friend warmly and invited him back for supper.

Vardill lived in a small office at No. 17 Downing Street, not far from the Prime Minister and near the rooms of Sir William Eden, the Under-Secretary of State who controlled Britain’s intelligence service.

As they shared a bottle of wine, he pressed his friend for the latest news from his home state. Then he asked what had brought him to England. His friend was at first reluctant to say, but after a few more bottles stood empty on the table, he revealed that he had just come from secret business with the American Commissioners in Paris.

Vardill pricked up his ears. These Commissioners were of great interest to him. They had been sent by the Colonists to negotiate with France for help against England. They were led by a sincere but guileless diplomat – Silas Deane. Vardill saw here an opportunity to infiltrate the commissioners’ councils.

Pulling his chair closer, he asked his friend where his loyalty lay. Indignantly the other replied that he served the Colonies. But as Vardill began to drop hints of the money which British agents could earn, his friend’s eyes glistened. By the end of the evening his friend was pledged to serve the British.

The bribes were to make a large hole in Sir William Eden’s resources, but it was a worthwhile investment. Through his friend, Vardill obtained the first reliable lists of the American agents in France and the covering names and addresses of their sympathisers in England.

This was just one of Vardill’s many services to Britain. His most elaborate undertaking had a larger cast. It brought together a rough sea-captain from the Colonies, a Cockney landlady and her pretty friend, and a retired English officer with a taste for cloak-and-dagger work. Between them, they robbed the Americans in Paris of vital despatches and destroyed the work of six months’ secret negotiations.

It started in No. 13 Stepney Causeway, an unsavoury boarding-house in London’s East End, kept by a Mrs. Jump. Vardill had had his eye on it for some time as a useful rendezvous and paid the landlady a retainer for her services.

Early in 1777 Mrs. Jump sent him word of a new lodger, one Captain Joseph Hynson. He had just arrived from Dover where, he boasted, he had been engaged on secret business. It did not take that astute lady long to realise that he was employed by the Colonies.

She encouraged him to talk freely, and even went so far as to introduce him to an attractive young friend of hers, Miss Cleghorn. The captain was susceptible to a pretty face and his new acquaintance soon wheedled further secrets from him. Hynson, it appeared, had been paid by Silas Deane to carry the American Commissioners’ despatches secretly across the Atlantic. He was at present buying the fastest lugger he could find for that purpose.

When Mrs. Jump passed on this news, Vardill was overjoyed. It was the chance that Eden and he had been waiting for. Eden and Vardill planned to steal the commissioners’ despatches and use them to embarrass the Colonists.

Through Mrs. Jump, Vardill was introduced to the captain. Soon his persuasive tongue – and his lucrative offers – had won Hynson over.

Nevertheless Vardill took no chances; none knew better than he the dangers of employing a double agent. Every letter that passed between Hynson and the Commissioners and even between the captain and his sweetheart, Miss Cleghorn, was intercepted, copied and filed. All these papers were eventually laid before the Prime Minister, Lord North, and before King George II.

As soon as they had permission to start, Captain Hynson returned to Paris. He was accompanied by an accomplice, Edward Smith, a retired lieutenant-colonel, whose stolid exterior disguised a boyish enthusiasm.

Under Smith’s direction, Hynson played cat-and-mouse with Deane and over the next few months produced reason after reason for postponing his departure.

The pile of despatches – and the value of their contents – grew.

The agents almost went too far. Deane suddenly announced that he could wait no longer and surprised Hynson by handing him a bulky packet of letters which Hynson was to convey to a Captain Folger. Folger instead of Hynson was to carry them to America.

This was not what Vardill had anticipated but Smith was equal to the occasion. Before the packet was handed over to Folger, Smith and Hynson stripped off the string which sealed its ends and removed the despatches, substituting blank papers. They then re-tied the packet.

Then, in Folger’s presence Hynson ceremoniously placed the packet in a bag and sealed it. He handed it to the captain with instructions that it was not to pass out of his hands. Should Folger’s ship be captured, however, the bundle should be tossed overboard.

The next day Folger sailed for America, and Hynson and Smith for England. A few hours later Smith was displaying to a delighted Eden and Vardill the entire confidential correspondence between the American Commissioners and the French, together with many letters from American sympathisers in France and England and other secret papers.

Deane, hearing of Hynson’s departure, imagined that the captain had deserted. He little knew that he had been double-crossed. It was not until an irate letter arrived from his superiors in America asking what was the meaning of the blank sheets which had arrived that he realised the extent of the deception.

By that time it was too late and Eden had leaked to the Press a series of disclosures which were highly embarrassing to the French and Americans alike.

As a result of his part in the plot Hynson was given a post in the British navy. Edward Smith received further chances to indulge his appetite for secret service; And Sir William Eden increased his reputation as a spy-master.

But to the Reverend John Vardill went a reward of a different sort. When the war ended he was made a Professor of Divinity.

He ended his days as a quiet clergyman in Lincolnshire. His obituary described him as a “rare example of splendid talents,” but omitted to mention the purpose to which they had been put. He was, it said simply, “devoted to the purest philanthropy.”

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