Today in London radical history: Spa Fields reform demo erupts into uprising, 1817.

“In consequence of an advertisement which was placarded throughout the metropolis, stating that a meeting of manufacturers, artisans, etc., would be convened in these fields, to take into consideration the propriety of petitioning the prince regent upon the present distressed state of the country, an immense concourse of people was on Friday assembled.”

Two hundred years ago, Spa Fields, Clerkenwell, described then as “a wild uninclosed space”, was, for a while, a favourite gathering point for radical mass meetings; some of which became riotous demonstrations, and one of which, on December 2nd 1817, erupted into a riot, an abortive attempt at a revolutionary uprising.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, there was an upsurge in demands for political reform and the extension of the vote. This was also fuelled by the collapse of the war economy into recession and mass unemployment; thousands of soldiers and sailors were being discharged with little prospect of work, too – a dynamic common to large-scale wars: compare the pressures for social change after World Wars 1 and 2 (many sailors and soldiers were also being demobbed unpaid – it was common for navy and army pay to be owed years in arrears then). On top of this a rampant succession of new laws, abolishing old protections for workers and the poor, in the interests of the factory owners, merchants and employers, was introducing unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, with devastating consequences for the lower classes.

Mass radical agitation – for political reform, but also for improvement in the lives of working people – revived for the first time since the heady days of the London Corresponding Society in the 1790s. Major movers in organising public meetings and mass rallies were the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, followers of agrarian communist Thomas Spence (died 1814), radicals and revolutionaries who were constantly agitating for an uprising of the poor against their masters. Co-operating with them was a more moderate wing pressing for peaceful change; this uneasy alliance had fallen in and out for many years, and would continue to tentatively co-operate for decades to come.

Although a small remnant of Spa Fields still exists, they were once much larger. Originally known as the Ducking-pond Fields, they later went by Clerkenwell Fields or Spa Fields, and later still acquired the nickname of the Pipe Fields, from the wooden pipes (hollowed-out elm-trees) which radiated from here, dispersing the water from the reservoirs at New River Head to various customers. The small remnant that exists by that name now is a pale survival of a much larger space that stretched across what is now Farringdon Road, and up the hill around what is now Amwell Street to the north.

On the 15th of November 1816, the famous moderate reformer Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt spoke to an enormous crowd of 20,000 demanding reform, from a window in the Merlin’s Cave Tavern, on the edge of Spa Fields (where Merlin Street now stands). The mass meeting was ‘adjourned’ for two weeks until 2 December 1816; on which occasion the third mass radical protest meeting of the year on the Fields ended in a riot.

“Hand-bills were afterwards diligently distributed, and a large concourse of people accordingly took place on the 2nd December, and is supposed to have consisted of at least 10,000 persons.”

The massive turnout on 15th November encouraged the committee organising December 2nd – possibly it led some of them to think the poverty and hardship the working classes were facing could be overturned in one fell swoop. A fair number of leaders and some of the crowd were prepared for a revolutionary uprising; not, fatally, the majority of them, however.

Rumours had spread that ‘something would happen’ at the rally; with some leaders talking of taking control of the Bank of England, the Tower of London and the prisons, police spies riddling the committees and planting weapons, and a genuine climate of rage and desperation, plots were clearly afoot.

“As a prelude to the scene that followed, a coal waggon, filled with persons of mean appearance, was stationed, shortly after 12 o’clock, at that part of the Spafields next the House of Correction. The waggon had two tri-coloured flags borne by its company: on one was inscribed, in large letters, the following inflammatory sentences:

‘The brave Soldiers are our Brothers, treat them kindly.’

On the other were these words:

‘Nature Feeds the Hungry,
   ‘Truth Protects the Oppressed,
   ‘Justice Punishes Crimes.’

Mr Hunt then came forward amid the most tumultuous applause, and addressing the crowd by the usual title of ‘Friends and fellow-countrymen,’ exhorted them in the usual joke to keep silence, by holding their tongues, and not by calling out silence. He then harangued them as before for a considerable time, and in the course of his speech read his correspondence with lord Sidmouth, on the subject of the late petition.”

James Watson, one of the Spencean leaders, addressed the crowd from the cart, then leapt off, and led a crowd to attack the Tower. “Those actually engaged in the excesses, about 200 in number, separated from it about or a little before the arrival of the orator, and proceeded in a tumultuous manner through the streets of the metropolis.” Other groups “surged off in different directions. Several gunsmiths’ shops were looted. Some of the rioters reached the Tower and a man… climbed on the wall and called on the troops to join the people. In the Minories there was rioting for several hours…” But the government was forewarned by spies, and constables were stationed at prisons and other targets. However the majority of the crowd remained at Spa Fields to listen to Hunt, then dispersed.

Many discharged sailors from the wars took part, in the trouble, including a large number of ‘blacks and mulattoes’ (who made up huge chunks of the navy). Black sailor Richard Simmons “harangued the crowd for half an hour”.

The following March, prisoners arrested after the riot were tried for treason, but it collapsed, after the activities of government spies in the crowd and infiltrating radical meetings and pro-reform groups were exposed. However Irish sailor William Cashman was hanged for taking part in the looting of a gun shop in Skinner Street, (on the edge of the Fields) during the riot.

Cashman had, according to his evidence, been discharged from the navy, virtually destitute, owed five years pay, which he had repeatedly tried to chisel out of various Admiralty departments, to no avail… As EP Thompson points out, this contrasts sharply with the huge sinecures and awards to naval bigwigs and army generals in the wake of the victory over Napoleon. When Cashman was hanged in March 1817, in Skinner Street, a huge popular demonstration gathered in support of him: : “the mob expressed the strongest feelings of indignation; groans and hisses burst from every quarter, and attempts were made to rush forward…   When the executioner advanced to put the rope round his neck, the tumult increased to an alarming degree…”

The scaffold had to be defended by barricades and “an immense force of constables”.

Mass meetings continued on Spa Fields in February and March 1818, but the riots triggered vindictive government repression; severe laws restricting the right to gather and suspending other rights were passed, and many leading radicals were interned. But several of the Spenceans and other agitators involved in the Spa Fields affray would go on to take part in future plots and plans for uprisings, culminating in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820.

The summer’s evening resort

The modern London Borough of Islington has now been built over now, and these days counts as part of the ‘inner city’; in fact it has the lowest ratio of open green space to built up areas of any London borough. At one time though Islington was well-known for open space, much of it famous for pleasurable gatherings and rowdy political meetings. The area between Clerkenwell and Angel, known as Islington Hill, once teemed with pleasure gardens, resorts and spas. Spa Fields was the most famous – and infamous.

200 years ago, apart from being briefly the epi-centre of a growing movement for political reform, Spa Fields was also notorious for its rowdy and immoral pleasures…

The Fields had a long history.

To Clerkenwell Fields, on 15th June 1381, king Richard II led many of the rebels who had flocked to London during the Peasants’ Revolt, after the murder of Wat Tyler at Smithfield – they were then surrounded by royal troops. After days of disorder, of rebels imposing their will on the authorities, the government now had the upper hand, and executions followed…

“In former times,” according to William Pinks, “the district around the chapel known as Spa Fields, or the Ducking-pond Fields, now intersected by streets of well-built houses, was the summer’s evening resort of the townspeople, who came hither to witness the rude sports that were in vogue a century ago, such as duck-hunting, prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and others of an equally demoralising character. We are informed by an old newspaper that in 1768 ‘Two women fought for a new shift, valued at half a-crown, in the Spaw Fields, near Islington. The battle was won by a woman called ‘Bruising Peg,’ who beat her antagonist in a terrible manner.’ In the summer of the same year ‘an extraordinary battle was fought in the Spa Fields by two women against two taylors, for a guinea a head, which was won by the ladies, who beat the taylors in a severe manner.’ On Saturday, the 28th August 1779, ‘a scene of fun and business intermixed took place in Spa Fields, to which no language can do justice. Bills had been stuck up and otherwise circulated, that an ox would be roasted whole, and beer given to the friends of their king and country, who were invited to enlist; that two gold-laced hats should be the reward of the two best cudgel-players; that a gown, a shift, and a pair of shoes and stockings should be run for by four old women; and that three pounds of tobacco, three bottles of gin, and a silver-laced hat, should be grinned for by three old men, the frightfullest grinner to be the winner.”

Spa Fields became notorious; for centuries it was thought dangerous to cross them “in the dusk of evening, robberies being frequent, and the persons filched were often grievously maltreated by the villains who waylaid them.” Especially in the mid-eighteenth century, footpads (an old name for muggers), knocked down pedestrians passing to and from London, and made off with their hats, wigs, silver buckles, and money. The well-to-do visiting the popular local theatre of Sadler’s Wells hired ‘link boys’ to light them home.

Spa Fields also hosted popular fairs, such as the Whitsuntide “Welsh Fair” or “Gooseberry Fair” (a field in old maps is marked as “the Welsh Field”); specialising in horse and donkey racing. This fair was later moved to Barnet, becoming the Barnet Fair (of cockney rhyming slang fame). This Fair was noted by the Middlesex County Justices (who met at Hicks Hall, in nearby St John Street) as one of a number of places, resorts and events that were guilty of encouraging disorder, in 1744.

Also in 1779, there appeared in the Clerkenwell Chronicle the following notice of sports which took place in Spa Fields: “On Friday, some bricklayers enclosed a piece of ground ten feet by six, for roasting the ox; and so substantial was the brickwork that several persons sat up all night to watch that it did not fall to pieces before the morning. An hour before sunrising the fire was lighted for roasting the ox, which was brought in a cart from St. James’s Market. At seven o’clock the ox was laid over the fire in remembrance of the cruelty of the Spaniards in their conquest of Mexico. By nine o’clock one of the legs was ready to drop off, but no satire on the American colonies was intended; for if it had fallen there were numbers ready to have swallowed it. At seven o’clock came a sergeant and a number of deputy Sons of the Sword. The sergeant made an elegant speech, at which every one gaped in astonishment, because no one could understand it. At half-past two the beef was taken up, slices cut up and thrown among the crowd, and many and many a one catched his hat full to fill his belly.

“Instead of four old women to run for the gown, &c., there were only three girls, and the race was won without running; for two of the adventurers gave out before half the contest was over, and even the winner was a loser, for she tore off the sleeve of her gown in attempting to get it on. Only one man grinned for the tobacco, gin, &c. But it was enough. Ugliness is no word to express the diabolicality of his phiz. If the king had ten such subjects he might fear they would grin for the crown. Addison tells us of a famous grinner who threw his face into the shape of the head of a base viol, of a hat, of the mouth of a coffee-pot, and the nozzle of a pair of bellows; but Addison’s grinner was nothing to the present, who must have been born grinning. His mother must have studied geometry, have longed for curves and angles, and stamped them all on the face of the boy. The mob was so immense that, though the tide was constantly ebbing and flowing, it was supposed the average number was 4,000 from nine in the morning till eight at night; and as this account is not exaggerated, 44,000 people must have been present. All the ale-houses for half a mile round were crowded, the windows were lined, and the tops and gutters of the houses filled. The place was at once a market and a fair; curds and whey were turned sour, ripe filberts were hardened, and extempore oysters baked in the sun. The bread intended for the loyal was thrown about the fields by the malcontents. The beer was drunk out of pots without measure and without number; but one man who could not get liquor swore he would eat if he could not drink His Majesty’s health; and observing an officer with a piece of beef on the point of his sword, he made prize of it, and ate it in the true cannibal taste.

“The feast, on the whole, was conducted with great regularity; for if one got meat another got bread only, and the whole was consumed; but to add to the farce a person threw a basket of onions among the bread-eaters. Some men were enlisted as soldiers, but more were impressed, for the bloodhounds were on the scent, and ran breast-high. If not spring-guns, it might fairly be said that mentraps had been fixed in the Spa Fields. The beef was good of its kind, but like the constitution of Old England, more than half spoiled by bad cooks.”

The number of spas and resorts that grew up on the Spa Fields area had, by the eighteenth century, multiplied and branched out into an astonishing number of taverns, tea houses and gardens, drinking establishments and places of entertainment.

Work Is the Ruin of the Drinking Classes

Open spaces remain areas of contestation. Spa Fields’ long reputation for unruliness has continued long after most of the open land that bore this name was built over. A tiny remnant of Spa Fields has survived the last two centuries of building; of the small area that remains, one half has been turned into a brilliant kids’ adventure playground. The other section is still a park, although extremely landscaped, and heavily controlled. The park is subject to an alcohol control order that allows police to stop you from drinking alcohol, on penalty of a £500 fine if you refuse. This method of dealing with ‘problem drinking’, and the rowdiness that can arise, has been in vogue for 15 years or so.

But the urge to gather, to hang out with your mates, get off your head, is older than all the control orders, temperance movements and moral panics. Open space, in the dark, far from bounced and CCTVed bars and high streets, out of sight of parents and uniforms, the hidden pleasures of the unlit; when so much space is subject to absolute control, restriction and hemming us in, monitoring our movements, tagging us and following our transactions, the struggle for uncontrolled space is a very human one. There’s no doubt booze and other substances have their risks, or that teen dodginess can become turned on other folk for fun or profit; but much of the control on youth, on open space, on our movements, is more about keeping people in line, treading the correct paths of work, obeying the status quo, not challenging the life we’re supposed to lead. Politicos of left and right have fought for centuries to reform our immoral urges; by force, through religion, through uplifting social activities… Still many of us stick two fingers up to all that. Have another drink.

Today, one small and brilliant remnant of Spa Fields history as a gathering point for pleasure continues to sparkle: the Clerkenwell Festival, held every August, a lovely little bash with lots of great live rockabilly and punk, great junk and secondhand clothes stalls, and lots of other fun stuff… Well worth a visit!

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An entry in the 2014 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

A short pamphlet we published and gave away at the Clerkenwell Festival 2016 is available from the past tense publications page

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