Born at Cottingley Hall October 1761,in Yorkshire, England, William Wickham attended Harrow School and Oxford University before taking a law degree in Geneva, Switzerland in 1786. He married a Swiss lady in 1788. He then entered the diplomatic service. Because of his knowledge of Switzerland, Wickham was sent to that country in 1794 as assistant to the British ambassador. A year later he himself was named ambassador. His duties were chiefly that of a spymaster.
By 1795, England was openly combating the French revolutionaries who had usurped and beheaded King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette. Wickham established a spy network in Switzerland and in France and directed his agents to plan invasions of France by royalists for even foreign powers who might be able to restore the French monarchy of King Louis XVIII who was then living in exile.
Wickham's agents at every turn attempted to discredit French Revolutionaries, foment rebellion against their rule, and disable the workings of an already shattered government. To accomplish those goals, the British government secretly endowed Wickham with an enormous amount of money. A good deal of that money was spent in a complex plot to bring French General Charles Pichegru, then a revolutionary general, into the royalist camp with all of his troops.
Pichegru had become disenchanted with the revolution because of its excessive violence and had indicated that he was willing to abandon its cause, going over to the ranks of Louis Joseph de Bourbon, prince de Condé who maintained an army on the Rhine. Condé's agent was Comte de Montgaillard who used a Swiss printer named Louis Fauche-Borel as the contact with Pichegru. Fauche-Borel, a born intriguer, gave Pichegru £8,000 which Wickham advanced to feed and supply Pichegru's troops.
Once the French general received this payment, however, he vacillated, then reported that the time was not right for him to make his move. Pichegru would make his move in 1804, but his revolt against Bonaparte was short-lived. Joseph Fouché's agents quickly detected his plot and he was arrested and imprisoned, found mysteriously murdered in his cell a short time later.
Wickham nevertheless went on spying against the French, successfully reporting their troop positions, armaments and operations. French spies, however, learned of his network. France pressured Swiss authorities to oust the British spymaster and he resigned, returning to England. He returned to Switzerland in 1799 where he again directed his spy network for another three years, this time applying his espionage against Emperor Napoleon I. Again the French caused his ouster from Switzerland and this time William Wickham remained at home. In 1802 he was named chief secretary for Ireland, a post he held for five years until retiring.
Substantial additions were received to two collections which have been in the Record Office for some years. One of the office's most important holdings is the papers of William Wickham, Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs in the late 18th century, in which capacity he organised the English spy service during the war with revolutionary France, and later Chief Secretary of Ireland after the 1798 rebellion. The archive relates also to his grandson, another William Wickham, who was Vice-Chairman on the first County Council. To these papers have been added several more. Most are personal and estate papers, but they include grants of full powers to Wickham in 1799 and 1801; also poll books for the election of members of parliament representing Oxford University in 1801 and 1809, a plan showing the arrangement of wine in the cellars, and papers about Wickham's success in growing fig trees, which continue to flourish at his home in Binsted.