Today in London’s rebel past: Irish and English revolutionaries locked in the Tower of London, 1798

On 7th March 1798, insurrectionary leaders of planned Irish and English uprisings were jailed in the Tower of London, having been arrested while travelling to France to invite French help…

In 1798, the United Irishmen were in the final stages of planning an uprising against Britain’s brutal rule in Ireland. But there were also plans afoot for a radical insurrection in England. The plans were based among remnants of democratic movement that had flourished in the 1790s, inspired partly by the French Revolution; most notably the London Corresponding Society, a working class grouping that had formed to agitate for political reform and an extension of the franchise, but had quickly become more radical. It members had been spied on, banned and repressed by government agents, and noted activists had been arrested and charged with treason (though they were acquitted). Frustrated with the heavy repression and with getting nowhere through peaceful agitation, debates and propaganda, factions of the LCS had begun to put together secret cells (usually under the name of United Englishmen or United Britons) to begin plans for revolution…

Many of the Irish and British radicals looked to France, and hoped they could persuade the French revolutionary government to send military support to aid the projected uprisings.

To this end a number of representatives from the United Irishmen and the United Britons, including Arthur O Connor, Father James O’Coigley, and John Binns, formerly of the radical London Corresponding Society, started to secretly make their way to France to open negotiations. O’Connor had already been in touch with the French a year or two previously. Another United Irishman, John Allen, and O’Connor’s personal servant, Jerry Leary, accompanied them.

Arriving in London, O’Connor made contact with the London radicals, though he took a dim view of them (being an Irish aristocrat, he had a sniffy view of many of the Irish revolutionaries a well). O’Connor travelled to the Kent coast to arrange a boat to France, and the group met up in Margate.

However, on 28th February 1798, they were arrested in their inn. Although Binns and O’Connor had despaired of Father O’Coigley as a terrible co-conspirator, being a bit of a blabbermouth and talking too much, they had in fact been betrayed by a spy in the United Irishmen, Samuel Turner. However O’Coigley had been daft enough to carry an address in his greatcoat pocket, from the grandly titled ‘Secret Committee of England’, appealing to the French government to invade England.

The group were taken to London, and imprisoned in Coldbath Fields Prison; on March 7th they were transferred to the Tower, being charged with high treason. They remained there a month; but in April they were moved to Maidstone for their trial. The government was afraid to try them in London, where some sympathy for the radicals, but even more, a hatred of the use of police spies, had resulted in acquittals in the LCS treason trials just a few years before.

Their fears may well have been well-founded, since O’Connor, Binns, Leary and Allen were found not guilty in any case, due to some fancy footwork in the courtroom from good lawyers and heavy character references from O’Connor’s friends and connections in the Foxite party (moderate reform-minded politicos). O’Coigley, having had the treasonable paper on him, was found guilty and hanged. Undoubtedly their case was helped by a certain amount of distancing themselves from him.

The British government, however, was not prepared to let O’Connor, who they feared was a capable opponent, go free; he was immediately re-arrested in the courtroom (despite an attempt to smuggle him away which led to a riot in the court), and detained, later in Ireland. By the time he arrived there, in May 1798, the rebellion he had been part of planning had largely been defeated with savage repression. Without adequate French military support, which may well never have truly been on the cards, it was pretty much doomed. The English uprising never happened; the rest of the plotters, also betrayed by spies, were rounded up and detained. Which didn’t stop some of them trying again in 1802, as Irish rebels were once again trying to organise revolt.

One good book about Arthur O’Connor has a good account of the arrest and trial: Arthur O’Connor: The Most Important Irish Revolutionary You May Never Have Heard Of, by Clifford D. Conner is online here


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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