21st February 1803: Colonel Edward Despard & six others are executed for planning a radical uprising.
According to newspaper accounts, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard, “dressed in boots, a dark brown great co,, his hair unpowdered,” ascended the gallows “With great firmness.” He had played an important role in clandestine efforts in England and Ireland to organize a revolutionary army, whose goal was to seize power in London and declare a republic. He now faced hanging and beheading as a traitor. The sheriff had warned that the platform would drop instantly if he said anything “inflammatory or improper.” Facing the assembled twenty thousand with “perfect calmness,” Despard spoke these words:
“Fellow Citizens, I come here, as you see, after having served my country, faithfully, honourably, and usefully served it, for thirty years and upwards, to suffer death upon a scaffold for a crime of which I protest I am not guilty. I solemnly declare that I am no more guilty of it than any of you who may be now hearing me.
But, though his MAJESTY’S Ministers know as well as I do, that I am not guilty, yet they avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty, and to justice. [At this, one newspaper reported, “the crowd issued forth loud huzzas.”] Because he has been a friend to the poor and oppressed. But, Citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will soon follow me, that the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice’ will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny, and delusion, and every principle inimical to the interests of the human race.”
At this significant phrase – “the human race” – the sheriff admonished him for using such incendiary language. “I have little more to add,” Despard continued, “except to wish you all health, happiness, and freedom, which I have endeavoured, as far as was in my power, to procure for you and for mankind in general.” As his fellow conspirator John MacNamara was brought up to the scaffold, he said to Despard, “I am afraid, Colonel, we have got into a bad situation.” Despard’s answer, the newspapers noted, was characteristic of the man: “There are many better, and some worse.” His last words were, “Tis very cold, I think we shall have some rain.” Undoubtedly, he had looked up hoping to behold that little patch of blue which the prisoner calls the sky.
A former soldier, who had served with Nelson, Despard had became radicalised, after seeing the effets of British colonialism in the West Indies and in Ireland. After ending up in jail for debt, he mixed in Jocobin and democratic circles in London. He had been arrested on November 16, 1802, as he attended a meeting of forty workingmen in the Oakley Arms tavern in Lambeth. Those arrested included eight carpenters, five laborers, two shoemakers, two hatters, a stonemason, a clockmaker, a “plaisterer not long from the sea,” and “a man who cuts wood and sells it in penny bundles.” Many of them also
worked as soldiers. These men had organized among common laborers, dockworkers,.soldiers, and sailors-especially soldiers stationed at the Tower and Irishmen who had served on board the Kings Ships & had been used to Cannon.” Several of the Irish labourers had been involved in the Irish rebellion in 1798. Five thousand workers recently discharged from the wet docks were expected to join the cause: despite a period of intense shipping, they had been rendered either unemployed, as a direct result of hydraulic civil engineering, or homeless, by neighborhood clearances.
Despard described the revolutionary force as comprising “Soldiers, Sailors, and Individuals.” They had been recruited in the pubs of the slums of London: in St. Giles’-in-the-Fields, virtually an autonomous zone of the motley proletariat; south of the river, where the soldiers were concentrated; and in the East End river parishes, the neighborhood of sailors and dockers. These men had joined the movement in order “to burst the chain of bondage and slavery” and “to recover some of those liberties which we have lost.” They called Parliament the “Den of Thieves” and the government the “Man Eaters.” One thought “Windsor Castle was fit to teach the Gospel and maintain poor people’s Children in”. During their trial, the lord chief justice and presiding judge, Ellenborough, explained that “instead of the ancient limited monarchy of this Realm, its established free and wholesome laws, its approved usages, its useful gradations of rank, its natural and inevitable as well as desirable inequalities of property,” Despard and his fellow revolutionaries had sought “to substitute a wild scheme of impracticable equality.” We’ll drink to that!
Despard thought that “the people were every where ripe and anxious for the moment of attack.” The insurrectionary plan was to fire upon the king’s carriage with cannon shot as he made his annual way to Parliament, then to seize the Tower, the Bank of England and Parliament, and to stop the mail coaches at Piccadilly as a signal for the rest of the country to rise. Despard was expert in ordnance and military strategy and tactics. But the scheme was foiled by the arrests at the Oakley Arms. Fifteen men were indicted for treason, on the grounds that they “did conspire, compass, imagine, and intend” the king’s death. Eleven were found guilty. Although the jury recommended mercy, Despard and six others were executed on February 21st, 1803.
Some good accounts of the Despard Conspiracy, the social and political context, and the turbulent economic and international dislocations that it emerged from, can be found in:
The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, Peter Linebaugh & Marcus Rediker, (Beacon Press 2002)
Insurrection: the British Experience 1797-1803, Roger Wells.
Available from http://www.breviarystuff.org.uk/roger-wells-insurrection/
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online