Wolverhampton BTW

Mary Tonkin

Tonkin, Mary, previously Adams [?], fl. 1781—1800

by Benjamin Colbert

Mary Tonkin’s date of birth and parentage are unknown, although she is likely to be a relation of William Tonkin, resident of Lisbon, whose children are all recorded in the British Factory Chaplaincy records (including another Mary Tonkin, bap. 17 April 1768, too young to be confused with the Mary whose adventures are the subject of this entry).

Tonkin was a self-professed spy for the British government during its war with the American colonies, reporting on coastal activities in France, then an American ally. According to her pamphlet, she was shipwrecked on the Normandy coast in July 1781 and returned to England the following year with details on French naval vessels and troop movements, offering to return to France to gather further sensitive information. Eventually Charles James Fox agreed, and she sailed for France again on 18 May 1782 posing as an American en route to Boston. She was arrested at Saint-Malo for spying and brought before a magistrate to whom she produced a letter from her husband, Zachariah Adams, ‘authenticating’ her story. After being released, she carried out her mission, visiting the strategic port of Brest before travelling to Paris where she obtained a passport from Benjamin Franklin. Upon her return to England on 6 July 1782, she submitted her journal notes to Lord Keppel, Fox being no longer in government after the death of Rockingham and fall of his administration.

Her pamphlet, the sole (and unreliable) source of all of the above information, was published in 1783 as a response to government’s refusal to remunerate her services. A third expanded edition was published in 1785, suggesting that her remonstrations continued to be ignored, and in 1800 it was reported by one who knew her that she continued to nurse the grievance against Fox: ‘on that subject she sometimes uses this expression "The Rogue still owes me near £500 for those services"' (William Jenkin to A.M. Hunt, 31 Oct. 1800).

As Jenkin’s letter attests, Tonkin (a Cornish name) resided for a time near Penzance in Cornwall, but had relations in Portugal. She reputedly earned her living through ‘smuggling Brandy, Gin, Teas, etc.’, and continued to travel frequently to France as well as Guernsey to obtain goods (Cornish-Breton linguistic and trade connections were well established). It is almost certainly this Tonkin who is noticed in the London Packet (15-18 Aug. 1794) as having been taken by the French in the Hampden packet ‘from Lisbon bound for Falmouth’, ‘carried into Brest’, and ‘effect[ing] her escape, by concealing herself in a corn-field, and at night getting on board an American vessel’. The article goes on to mention her comments on ‘ships of the line’ in Brest harbour and the presence of captured merchantmen, observations that indicate that ‘the female spy’ had not entirely renounced her calling.


Jenkin, A. K. Hamilton. News from Cornwall: with a Memoir of William Jenkin. London: Westaway Books, 1951. 82-83. Print.

London Packet or New Lloyd’s Evening Post, no. 3901 (15-18 Aug. 1794): [p. 3, col. 3]. Gale Databases: 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers. Web. 20 May 2017.


Title Published
The Female Spy 1783

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