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  • Writer's pictureJames McGee

Elizabeth Sparrow

I'm rather ashamed to say that it's only today that I came across the Daily Telegraph's obituary for Elizabeth Sparrow who, very sadly, passed away in July.

The obituary heading states that Elizabeth was an historian of espionage, which is a bit like saying that that Jimmy Greaves bloke wasn't a bad kicker of a ball.

I came across her brilliant book - Secret Service: British Agents in France 1792 - 1815 - when I was researching my novel Rebellion. To say I found it invaluable would be, like the above pronouncements, something of an understatement.

The Telegraph called it a 'ground-breaking history of British espionage'. It's impossible to disagree. What's remarkable is that the idea of the book came to her when she was researching, of all things, Cornish history (Elizabeth was born in Cornwall). She happened to meet a former SOE (Special Operations Executive) officer - the wonderfully named Bickham Aldred Cowan Sweet-Escott - who remembered being told back in 1940 by the SOE's Chief of Staff - George Francis Taylor - that the organization was being set up “to do to Europe what [William] Pitt did to France before 1807.”.

Intrigued, she set out to discover the history behind Britain's Secret Service. Her travels around Europe, visiting archives in Switzerland, Germany and France, unearthed an astonishing story which dated back to the Napoleonic Wars and the shadowy department that we now know was called The Alien Office.

Not bad for someone who held no academic qualifications.

Among her many admirers is John le Carré who regarded the book as 'a tour de force'.

Her follow up to Secret Service was Phantom of the Guillotine, the story of a French secret agent at the time of the Revolution - Louis Bayard - whom she believed was the inspiration for Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel.

It's impossible to do her justice in the space of a few lines in a blog, so if you would like to read her full obituary, you can link to it here or by clicking on either of the book jackets:

Elizabeth Sparrow, born September 14 1926, died July 17 2016

Picture Credit: Phil Monckton

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