Cox, Walter (c.1770–1837), journalist and informer, was the son of a Co. Meath or Westmeath blacksmith and his wife, a Dease of Summerhill. He was apprenticed in turn to – or at least worked as an ‘inlayer’ for – two Dublin gunsmiths, Daniel Muley and Benjamin Powell, and may for a time have carried on the trade of gunsmith in Bedford Row, though he did not appear in Wilson's Dublin Directory until 1813, when he is described as a printer in Abbey St. If we are to believe an informant of W. J. Fitzpatrick (qv), he commanded a corps of Volunteers. According to Francis Higgins (qv), he was in 1797 a Freemason. In the summer of 1797 he produced and circulated a periodical broadside, the Union Star, printed on one side only (for pasting up on walls), which supported the United Irishmen (without their approval) and advocated the assassination of named loyalists. At the end of the year he responded to an offer of a reward for information leading to the arrest of the proprietor by presenting himself to the under-secretary, Edward Cooke (qv), negotiating a safe passage abroad and then revealing himself as the culprit as well as giving information on subversive activity. Over three years later, however, Higgins stated that Cox ‘holds an employment about the Ordnance stores’, having ‘at the period of the rebellion’ repaired ‘pistols, blunderbusses &c. for the rebels’ (Bartlett, 317). Another source states that he was in America working as a tallow chandler at Baltimore (1801–2) and that after returning to Dublin during the peace of Amiens (1802–3) he worked as a rectifying distiller.
Cox achieved fame (or infamy) by starting the Irish Magazine (November 1807), of which he was the chief contributor until its demise (December 1815). The new monthly was entertaining, scurrilous and extremist; it was informative on Irish affairs, miscellaneous in content and had much popular appeal. Its circulation (said to be 5,000) was larger than any other Irish periodical at that time or before. It brought Cox a conviction for libel for which he was sentenced to 12 months’ imprisonment, a fine of £300, to give sureties of £3,000 and ‘to further imprisonment until such fine be paid and such security given’ (25 May 1811). During Cox's time in Newgate (1811–14) his friend Thomas Finn, a son of Edmund Finn (qv), did much of the editorial work. In 1816, the chief secretary, Robert Peel (qv), writing to J. W. Croker (qv) on the seditious influence of Cox, stated that one ‘Keogh who was hanged the other day for heading the attack on the barrack at Ballagh had a box half full of Cox's magazine, which were found on searching his room’ (Croker papers, i, 89–90). In that year Cox accepted a government pension of £100 on condition that he leave Ireland for America and a bonus of £400 on arrival. Peel even mentioned the Irish Magazine in parliament (26 April 1816). Though the views expressed in Cox's newspaper were deeply hostile to the government, Cox was open on at least two occasions (July 1807 and January 1809) to accepting payment from the government for information on seditious activity.
After landing again in America, he started a journal, the Exile (New York), similar in character to the Irish Magazine but unsuccessful (it only ran 1817–18). He may also have worked there as a pawnbroker, chandler, dairyman and whiskey dealer. He also published a pamphlet, The snuff box (1820), satirising American institutions. In June 1821 he was in France and by July 1822 back in Ireland. In February 1821 he was paid £30 ‘for withdrawing his publication’; more payments followed, usually made in instalments, always through William Corbet (qv), amounting to c.£100 p.a. Between 1823 and 1833 he published some pamphlets. In 1835, for whatever reason, his pension was forfeited. He died 17 January 1837 at 12 Clarence St., Dublin, and was buried at Glasnevin.
Cox married twice. Of his first wife nothing is known save that she was a methodist. He married (July 1797) Benjamin Powell's widow (probably the Isabella Powell who continued Powell's business at 159 Abbey St.), thereby acquiring some money and property, notwithstanding which he treated her badly. Their only son, also Walter, died in January 1814 aged 12. There is a definitive list by Séamus Ó Casaide (qv) of Walter Cox's literary productions, which included much of the verse published in the Irish Magazine. Much of what is known of ‘Watty’ Cox is uncertain, contradictory or difficult to explain. What is clear is that, though of little means and never in the confidence of the political extremists whose cause he promoted, he caused alarm at the highest levels of the Irish administration. John Pollock (qv) found him ‘by far the most formidable man that I know in Ireland’ (Well. corr., 535). But, as one ‘old ‘98 man’, William Murphy (qv), judged him, he ‘played fast and loose, betraying his own party and the government alternately’ (Fitzpatrick, Secr. serv., 71).