Dan Snow - PM’s Despatch Box

Dan Snow - PM’s Despatch Box

What official secrets hide inside that battered red leather box? Popular historian Dan Snow and host Alice Loxton peer inside a Victorian Prime Minister’s despatch box, and speculate on the world-changing intelligence that such a storied case once contained.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 10: Dan Snow - PM’s Despatch Box

NARRATOR: What are the objects that define espionage? What secrets lie hiding in plain sight? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects.​ Perhaps it seems like an esoteric business to you, organizing this archive at the intersection of espionage and history. And yet I would argue that spies and historians have always had much in common. Each one trades in secrets, whether of the past or present, in the hope of making sense of the world around us. And even shaping it. It is certainly that impulse that drives the man you are about to meet.

DAN SNOW: My name's Dan Snow, I'm a history broadcaster, podcaster - everything like that. I think history has the most fascinating, strange, unusual, uplifting, depressing, crazy, stories in our collective human journey. So I think I'm endlessly fascinated by what we have done in the past. We're a very strange species. We have fought extraordinary wars. We've made scientific breakthroughs. We've shown unimaginable compassion and terrible, terrible evil.

NARRATOR: For Dan Snow, somewhere in the midst of all that compassion and evil lies the essence of humanity. A good story from the history books can bring you into contact with it fleetingly. But, for those fortunate enough to find them, there are more direct lines to the past.

DAN SNOW: Stories hook you, stories engage you, but sometimes when you're visiting an actual space or handling a physical object, you get a kind of electric sense of the past. The years between fade away. So when you're handling Bronze Age burial goods that were buried in the soil 4,000 years ago, it's like they were just produced yesterday. So suddenly, the millennia between you and that person, those objects just dissolve and you feel that you're - well, you're touching a piece of history... So I love visiting places, I love going to see places where history happened. I love walking the corridors, climbing the mountains, but I also love the objects. I love the parchment. I love seeing the signatures of King George III on an Act of Parliament. I love handling the objects which have passed through so many hands.

NARRATOR: The item that Dan Snow has brought out of the archives is one such object. And the hands that it has passed through don't belong to just anyone.

 DAN SNOW: The object in question is a red leather-bound wooden briefcase or box. It has a fancy brass handle. It has a very battered appearance, but the class, the kind of expensiveness of the object, you can't really doubt. It's covered in faded red leather which is worn away. It feels like a kind of sacrificial outer protective layer. And then you turn it on its side and you see the almost magical words ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ etched in gilt - sort of gold writing - reminding us that the Prime Minister's real title in Great Britain is The First Lord of the Treasury.

NARRATOR: It's those words that tell us the purpose of this battered red leather box. It belonged, at one time, to a British prime minister. And its contents were for his eyes, and his eyes only.

DAN SNOW: It's much chunkier than you might expect. It's heavyweight. It's definitely a box, I think, almost a lockbox rather than just a briefcase, even though it's in briefcase form. And it's got a big lock on it, making it clear this was something solid, designed to keep things safe, and designed to keep people out.

NARRATOR: This item is what's known as a Despatch Box, which is exactly what it sounds like.

DAN SNOW: Dispatches are a kind of fancy word for messages. A dispatch comes from an official source. So you might get a dispatch from an ambassador in a foreign country, a dispatch from the sovereign or their advisors, reaching you and ordering you to do something or suggesting a course of action. And so a Despatch Box is a carrying case, a box of suitable grandeur and security for a message of that importance. If it comes from the sovereign, if it comes from a military commander in the field, it's likely to have great sensitivity. It's likely to contain intelligence, information of huge importance, and secrecy.

NARRATOR: The tradition of the Despatch Box can be traced to the second part of the 16th century and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I - but this particular box belongs to a different chapter of British history. Its service was likely carried out under the premierships of [Sir Robert] Peel, Lord John Russell, the Earl of Derby, and the Earl of Aberdeen. We know this, in part, because of another inscription in its red leather.

DAN SNOW:  Looking at this box, it's got Queen Victoria's Royal Cipher on it. It's got VR on it. So, I think we can assume it's from the Victorian period. Well, that was a time when there were a lot of dispatches flying around. This was a time also, actually, when communication itself was changing. We see the introduction of the telegraph, but initially, in Queen Victoria's early reign - although there was some interesting work with mechanical telegraphs - most messages, nearly all messages were written down on bits of paper, some encoded, and then they would be sent all over the world. There were ships that carried dispatches. Carrying dispatches was an incredibly important job. The fastest ship would be sent with dispatches. For example, the Trafalgar Dispatch, slightly earlier in this period, was sent back on HMS Pickle, and it arrived in Britain bringing news of the great victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, but also the death of Nelson. 

NARRATOR: This specific box can be dated to the period between 1841 and 1854, a no less turbulent period for the British government. When Dan Snow holds it in his hands, it's all too easy to imagine the secrets that it once contained.

DAN SNOW: A Despatch Box in the 1840s -1845 to the early 1850s -  would have, coming from Ireland, would have contained harrowing details of the Great Famine, a period of starvation, appalling disease, and loss of life, That resulted from a failure, or multiple failures, of the potato harvest on which most Irish people depended for their sustenance. So the British government was desperately working out how to balance the needs of its Irish subjects with its desire, well, not to go bankrupt at home. And there were many ministerial back and forths on the consequences and solutions to the Great Famine.

NARRATOR: During its service, this box would have overflowed - not just with dispatches on the domestic situation, but intelligence from further afield as Britain tried to glean all that it could from the political atmosphere in the neighboring continent.

DAN SNOW: So in the Victorian period, these dispatches would have contained the diplomatic correspondence of a certain network of diplomats working right across Europe. In the case of Victorian Britain, mostly trying to kind of keep the peace, keep the balance of power in Europe, trying to manage the imperial rivalries on the European continent. But also in 1848, for example, trying to manage the revolutionary upsurge that swept many traditional monarchs and governments from office.

NARRATOR: And the contents of this box were not merely passive. The fates of armies and nations would have been decided by the documents within.

DAN SNOW: In the 1850s, slightly later, there might have been documents in there about Britain's decision to go to war with Russia in what is now Ukraine, the Crimean War. Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire, the Turks, negotiating with each other, deciding with each other to try and stem Russian ambition in the Balkans around the Black Sea towards the Dardanelles [Strait]. The Russians look like they're in danger of conquering much of southeast Europe, dominating the Dardanelles, dominating the Caucasus, and perhaps even Turkey. And so, Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire allied to stop that happening.

NARRATOR:  Hearing Dan recount the geopolitics of the past, you'd be forgiven for feeling a sense of history repeating. More striking, perhaps, than how much has changed since this battered old box was in service is how much has remained the same.

DAN SNOW:  Britain has very traditional politics in many ways. Britain is, I think, unique in the world powers for having an unbroken history of constitutional change but not revolution in the last 300 years. Other nations have radically rewritten their constitutions. They've been overthrown. They've been invaded, occupied, and gone through massive internal upheavals. Britain, during that period, has experienced evolution and that's why the titles and the trappings of many of our politicians and leaders have changed but not radically so, and often date back something like 300 years.

NARRATOR: The Despatch Box in Dan Snow's hands may be long retired, but its descendants are still carried through the halls of Westminster guarding the secrets of today from prying eyes. Some things simply never change.

DAN SNOW: The Prime Minister still has ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ written on the door of No 10 Downing Street, just as his forebear Sir Robert Walpole would have done in the early 18th Century. Again, 10 Downing Street itself is a house gifted by the Crown to Sir Robert Walpole. So you can see the continuities here. And in the same way, these Despatch Boxes that still exist today - these big red boxes that ministers carry around into which sensitive documents are placed by their civil servants and their staff - those Despatch Boxes, they've evolved but they are of direct descent from the mighty Despatch Boxes like the one here from the mid-Victorian period.

NARRATOR: All of which suggests that this rather quaint British tradition will continue for as long as there are secrets to be kept or until revolution renders it a forgotten relic of a time long since passed - and neither of those outcomes appears imminent. I’m Alice Loxton. More secrets await in the next episode of A History of the World in Spy Objects.

Guest Bio

Award-winning TV presenter, historian, and podcaster Dan Snow is also the founder of the streaming service History Hit.

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