In early August 1797, a concerned resident wrote to the Home Office to report his fears about the new tenants at Alfoxton (Alfoxden) House, near the little village of Holford, Somerset. He believed that these incomers were actually French spies (especially as there had recently been an attempted invasion at Fishguard in Wales).
The new tenants were actually William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy. A couple of years earlier, they had set up their first real home together (a long-held dream) at Racedown Lodge, in Dorset. Then 1795, Wordsworth met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and a famous literary friendship blossomed. The Wordsworths moved to Alfoxton House, not far from Coleridge’scottage at Nether Stowey. The two men, accompanied by Dorothy, went on long walks together over hill and dale, discussing poetry and philosophy long into the night.
The Home Office spent special agent James Walsh to investigate. From his base at Nether Stowey, he discovered that one of the guests at Alfoxton was ‘Citizen’ John Thelwall, a noted Radical and Jacobin sympathiser he had been investigating for years.
Next, he turned his attention to Coleridge, who was said to have his own printing press – perfect for publishing seditious literature. Coleridge and Wordsworth often rested and chatted on their favourite seat by the seashore at Kilve, discussing poetry and philosophy. The agent hid for hours, listening to their conversation. He was alarmed; the spies seem to know of his presence – they repeatedly talk about ‘Spy Nozy’. At last Walsh was convinced that Spy Nozy was ‘the name of a man (Spinoza) who had made a book, and lived a long time ago’. The Home Office had nothing to worry about.
Were the Romantic poets really in danger of being imprisoned, maybe even executed? Coleridge, apprised of the tale from the pub landlord, had a wonderful after-dinner story to entertain his guests. Wordsworth treated the whole affair as a storm in a teacup, but the owner of Alfoxton, angered by rumours of Jacobins, gave him notice to quit soon after. Writer Thomas de Quincey later dismissed the ‘Spy Nozy’ story as a fable, and insisted Coleridge had been duped.
But the Home Office files clearly show that the story was true – and that for a time at least, someone in the Government took the matter very seriously indeed…
Alfoxden (Alfoxton) House, Somerset. Dorothy and William lived here in 1797-8. © Sue Wilkes.
Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey. © Sue Wilkes.
Wordsworth. Engraving by the Brothers Dalziel for Poets of the Nineteenth Century, (Frederick Warne & Co., c.1870).