On 6th September 1802, 200 soldiers gathered in several houses near the Tower of London. They were armed, but not in the service of king and country. They were waiting for a signal to size the Tower, as part of a desperate plot for a revolutionary coup d’etat, organised by the remnants of a movement for radical political reform, which had been reduced to an underground network of cells working for an insurrection.
The central figure in this plan, as it was later set out at his trial, was Colonel Edward Despard. As recounted in an earlier post on this blog, Despard was a former soldier, who had become radicalised, after seeing the effects of British colonialism in the West Indies and in Ireland.
His experience of the intermixing of race, class, slavery, and colonial conflict in the Caribbean led to his dismissal as crown representative in Belize, for opposing wealthy planters and slave owners and supporting black and mixed race and lower classes. Marrying an African-american woman in the Caribbean, they arrived in London to appeal for his re-instatement, in time to be drawn into struggles for liberty here.
After ending up in jail for debt, he mixed in Jacobin and democratic circles in London in the 1790s, joining the London Corresponding Society (LCS). As Britain’s war with revolutionary France hotted up, the democratic movement in Britain, which had celebrated the French Revolution and embraced its ideals, was repressed by a government which saw it is a potential fifth column and its ideas as dangerous to the rule of the established ruling classes. The LCS and other reforming groups were driven underground; elements among them made links to the United Irishmen, planning uprising against England’s colonial rule in Ireland.
Some of these former radical agitators planned an insurrection of their own in 1798 to coincide with the Irish rebellion, and Irish, English and Scottish radicals alike sought support from France, in the form of an invasion that would support their efforts to overthrow ‘Old Corruption’.
Colonel Despard was mixed up in these events, though it is uncertain to what extent. He became closely associated with a prominent member of the United Irishmen, William Duckett, who was also a French spy. Through Duckett, Despard became aware of the unfolding plans for an uprising in 1798 in Ireland and the involvement of Wolfe Tone and a potential French fleet of ships. Despard was keen to extend the rebellion to Britain and he negotiated with the United Englishmen, a small secret society with similar ideals to the United Irishmen, to organise an uprising on English soil to coincide with the landing of the French fleet in Ireland.
However, two United Englishmen were captured at the late stages of planning. The large-scale French invasion didn’t happen, the Irish rebellion of 1798 was repressed with thousands of deaths and the English uprising never got off the ground. Both Irish and English movements were hampered by being shot through with government spies; the mass support they were relying on didn’t materialise in Ireland, and possibly didn’t exist in England.
Despard was jailed with other insurgents, spending time in various prisons until March 1801, when a public campaign for his release organised by his wife Catherine and supported by prominent reformers won his freedom. Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh identify his spell inside as being the germination of the 1802 conspiracy; in Coldbath Fields Prison he met navy mutineers from the 1797 Nore events, Spencean communists, artisans, Irish rebels…
If on his release he had initially intended to give up his involvement with radical politics (as some assert), his resolve lasted less than a year. Following the rebellion the United Irishmen were reduced to a small centralised military body who had been pushed even further underground than before. One of the most senior members of the depleted Society was William Dowdall. It was Dowdall who convinced Despard to return to London to see if another attempt to ferment a popular uprising in England could be achieved.
When he returned to London he found conditions he thought ideal for a revolution; food shortages were common and there were huge levels of industrial unrest, not to mention huge numbers of disaffected Irish labourers who were bearing the brunt of both of these problems. Despard met with Irish soldiers stationed in Windsor and London, with Irish and French emissaries as he formed his plot.
The conspirators met in working class pubs around the poor districts of the capital – ‘The Ham and Windmill’ in the Haymarket, ‘The Brown Bear’ and ‘The Black Horse’, in St Giles’s, ‘The Bleeding Heart’ in Hatton Garden, and the Flying Horse in Newington. The core of the movement they expected to rise up in revolt in London lay in the East End, in the almost lawless poor rookeries of St Giles, and in Southwark. Other plotters besides Despard had been involve in the LCS and the abortive plans for an English rising in that year. Involved in the plan, or mentioned as being supportive, were labourers, carpenters, shoemakers, hatters, builders. There were a high proportion of Irish, some of them veterans of the 1798 rebellion. 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 neighbourhood clearances.
Notably though there were a number of soldiers and sailors – especially soldiers stationed at the Tower and Irishmen “who had served on board the Kings Ships & had been used to Cannon.”
It was alleged that Jacobin guardsmen at both the Chatham and London barracks had enrolled a considerable number of followers, bound to the conspiracy by secret oaths. Papers found on the prisoners gave the ‘constitution’ of their society:
- “The independence of Great Britain and Ireland
- An equalization of civil, political, and religious rights
- An ample provision for the families of the heroes who shall fall in the contest.
- A liberal reward for distinguished merit.
These are the objects for which we contend, and to obtain these objects we swear to be united.”
Soldiers had been invited to join this ‘Constitution Society’ in order ‘to fight, to burst the chain of bondage and slavery’. The organization (it was alleged) had no fewer than seven divisions and eight sub‑divisions in Southwark alone, with further divisions in the Borough, Marylebone, Spitalfields and Blackwall, principally among ‘day‑labourers, journeymen, and common soldiers,’ discharged sailors, and Irish dockers. It was a paramilitary organisation, with ‘ten men in each company, and when they amounted to eleven, the eleventh took the command’ of a new company. Each company was commanded by a ‘captain’, each group of five companies amounted to a ‘deputy division’, commanded by a ‘colonel’.
The 1797 mutinies of the British fleet showed that “a revolutionary organization in the Army was by no means inconceivable. No less than the Navy, the Army seethed with grievances – as to pay, food and accommodation, the care of dependents, discipline and floggings. The soldiers, who included many Irish, were allowed to don mufti in the evenings and ‘to mingle with labourers and artisans in the London taverns. There were few security precautions, and Jacobin emissaries might easily gain access to the soldiers’ quarters in the barracks… It may seem unlikely today that a Grenadier Guardsman should christen his son ‘Bonaparte’; but such is the case with one of Despard’s associates. The Crown’s allegation that no fewer than 300 soldiers in the 3rd Battalion of the Guards, and thirty or forty in the 1st Battalion were involved in the conspiracy may appear far‑fetched; but the six victims who were selected for trial and execution with Despard were all guardsmen, and such an example suggests that the Government was seriously perturbed by the extent of the conspiracy.” (EP Thompson)
While maintaining a regular political organization in London was seen as impossible under the government’s beady eye, Despard mentioned Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Manchester, and Chatham as ‘country’ centres where such organisation existed, with which he claimed to be in touch. It has been speculate that the fledgling movement was linked to secret cells of rebellious industrial workers in the north of England (grouped together as the ‘Black Lamp’).
Despard thought that “the people were every where ripe and anxious for the moment of attack.” This is clearly debateable. If Despard was in touch with hungry (and angry) London labourers and craftsmen Irish insurgents, Black Lampers, Jacobins in other cities, the plot was not just the deluded brainchild of an embittered soldier and a few hotheads; but neither was there the mass will to overthrow the power of the aristocracy and emerging capitalism.
Plans for a rebellion on 6 September 1802 were formed, but were postponed. A police spy later claimed that this was because Despard called it off, “he expected some money and news to come from France.” The implication is that this financial support from France (now ruled by an increasingly dictatorial Napoleon, though still the heartland for many radicals at that point) never arrived. Other accounts have Despard holding back those eager to launch the revolution before he thought they were ready; `and urging them to wait for a more spectacular offensive. However, Charles Pendrill, a leading member of the pot, later told another police agent that not enough of the expected forces had shown up on the day: “He admitted that the soldiers were very deeply implicated, and very staunch… the Tower might have been very easily taken at that time, and given up by the soldiers, had they mustered anything like the intention; but the numbers that appeared were too contemptible.” (Narrative of Oliver the Spy).
Instead the conspirators plotted a full scale coup d’état on the day of the opening of parliament in November 1802. The plot involved the assassination of King George III as he travelled to Westminster the seizing of key sites around the city such as the Tower of London and the Bank of England.
But the scheme was foiled. The plan postponed in 6th September was set for November. But on the 16th of November, “in consequence of a search warrant, a numerous body of police officers went to the Oakley Arms, Oakley Street, Lambeth, where they apprehended Colonel Despard, and nearly forty labouring men and soldiers, many of them Irish.”
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 scenes 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, Roger Wells. Available from http://www.breviarystuff.org.uk/roger-wells-insurrection/
- The Trial of Edward Marcus Despard, Esquire: For High Treason, at the Session House, Newington, Surry, on Monday the Seventh of February 1803, Joseph Gurney, William Brodie Gurney
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online