Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Victorian Women: Industrial Espionage And You!

The use of women as spies was certainly common enough in the 19th century. But a lot of the spying was not quite what you'd think. From a Straits Times of Singapore article, 21 October 1907:

During at least a century in Russia, ladies who have enjoyed the ear of the Court have been known to use their social opportunities for the purpose of obtaining State secrets for their various allies. In other Imperial Courts in Europe favoured courtiers have been long credited with the practice of eliciting political information for the benefit of their patrons. It is, however, comparatively of late years that the system of female espionage has been introduced into Great Britain and America with the object of elucidating matters of the first importance to financiers, promoters of trusts, and concessionnaires [sic] of all kinds.

The enormous profits which can be made by those who promote combines, railway amalgamations, mineral or other State concessions make it worth the while of capitalists to scatter some thousands of pounds amongst well-dressed and well-educated ladies and gentlemen of leisure who will exert themselves to obtain accurate information from authentic sources as to coming events of financial significance. For instance, the knowledge that some Oriental State was about to make a new issue or to convert an old one on certain lines has, in the past, enabled diplomatic capitalists to anticipate Stock Exchange fluctuations and secure a considerable profit.

In a more limited way, information as to the racing stables of celebrated owners is often gathered in the drawing-room or billiard-room of a country house far more effectually than by loafers about the training quarters. Lady detectives are sometimes employed by fortune-hunters to investigate the position and prospects of Amreican and other heiresses, and to report upon their movements and pastimes.
As far as I know industrial espionage hasn't been used at all in fiction about the 19th century, and I certainly haven't heard of a story or novel in which a Victorian woman was an industrial spy, but it's logical and even obvious once you think about it, and as the preceding shows, it was certainly a reality.

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