Wickham, William (1761–1840), chief secretary for Ireland and British spymaster, was born November 1761 in England, first son of Henry Wickham, lieutenant-colonel in the British army, and Elizabeth Wickham (née Lamplugh). Educated at Winchester and Harrow, he entered Christ Church, Oxford (1779), where he became close friends with William Wyndham Grenville (qv), later chief secretary for Ireland and British foreign secretary. Deciding to study law in Switzerland, Wickham entered Geneva University (1782) and Lincoln's Inn, London, and was called to the bar (1786). At Geneva he married Eléonore, daughter of Prof. Louis Bertrand, and this provided him with useful Swiss connections for his work in the 1790s.
Poor health forced Wickham to abandon his career as a barrister in 1791, but he was soon employed by his old friend, Lord Grenville, who recognised his potential as a spy. With the outbreak of war with France, he was appointed superintendent of aliens in July 1794 and became a key figure in the alien office, a shadowy sub-section of the home office, which was in reality a fully functioning British secret service. Wickham had responsibility for monitoring foreigners in Britain, but in the autumn was sent to the Continent on a secret mission to negotiate with French royalist factions. The leading British intelligence agent on the Continent, he was in charge of enormous secret-service funds, which he channelled into various conspiracies and counter-revolutionary schemes. He also gave Lord Castlereagh (qv) useful advice during the passing of the act of union (1800). At the beginning of 1801 Wickham urged the home secretary, Portland (qv), to explain to the prime minister how ‘government possess here the most powerful means of observation and information, as far as their objects go, that ever was placed in the hands of a free government’ (Sparrow, 248). With the publication of papers detailing his activities on the Continent in the summer of 1801, his diplomatic service came to an abrupt end.
On 13 February 1802 Wickham was appointed chief secretary for Ireland under Lord Hardwicke (qv). He chose Charles Flint, one of his agents on the Continent, to accompany him to Dublin as his private secretary. Because he no longer had access to the resources of the alien office he turned the Irish office, ostensibly the place where the chief secretary could work while in London, into a second intelligence organisation. In July 1803 he visited London, joking that there was little chance of a rebellion in Ireland. The abortive insurrection of Robert Emmet (qv) on the night of 23 July shattered his complacency and he was forced to return to Dublin. It was unfortunate for Emmet that the leading intelligence expert in the British establishment was in Ireland to investigate the conspiracy and direct the moves to capture its leaders. Highly critical of how Henry Fox, the commander-in-chief, had bungled the affair, Wickham set about compiling evidence of the United Irishmen's preparations for the rebellion. Emmet was arrested in August and Wickham took part in his interrogation at the end of the month. Convicted of treason, Emmet was executed on 20 September 1803, but his final act before leaving prison was to write the chief secretary a deeply personal letter; Wickham was profoundly moved by the gesture. In the following months he was embroiled in the dispute between the new commander-in-chief, Lord Cathcart, and Hardwicke. In December, disillusioned with the government's Irish policy, he decided to resign. In a private letter to his friends he revealed that he could not continue to support an administration which opposed catholic emancipation and had forced Emmet to rebel. He admitted that ‘no consideration upon earth could induce me to remain after having maturely reflected on the contents’ of Emmet's letter (PRONI T.2627/5/Z/18).
On the formation of Grenville's ministry in 1806, Wickham was appointed a lord of the treasury, but he resigned with the government the following year and never held office again. Haunted by Emmet's letter, he admitted in 1835 that it had been his ‘constant companion’ for thirty-two years and gave him optimism that prejudice and intolerance could be overcome. By the end of his life he had come to believe that Emmet was attempting to save Ireland from ‘a state of depression and humiliation’ and he revealed that ‘had I been an Irishman, I should most unquestionably have joined’ him (PRONI T.2627/5/Z/25). Wickham died 22 October 1840 at Brighton; he had one son.