Today in London radical history: William Stone tried for treason, 1796.

During the French Revolution, when paranoia gripped the British government that something similar could erupt here, those radicals identified as sympathetic to the revolutionary ideals were marked out for surveillance. Their meetings were infiltrated by spies, harassed, banned from pubs; they were arrested and a number were tried for treason.

William Stone was a Unitarian radical accused of being a French agent. He was tried at the Old Bailey, after nearly two years’ incarceration, on January 28 and 29, 1796, for “treacherously conspiring with his brother, John Hurford Stone, then in revolutionary France, to destroy the life of the King and to raise a rebellion in his realms.”

William Stone’s brother, John Hurford Stone, was said to have been present at the 1789 storming of the Bastille, (though he can’t be positively proved to have been in Paris till three years later). He and William worked with their uncle, a coal merchant. John Stone was considered very clever and cultured, and had advanced far beyond the Unitarian doctrines of his family. He joined Dr. Richard Price’s radical congregation in London. In October 1790 he presided at a dinner given by the Society of Friends of the Revolution to a French deputation from Nantes.

In September 1792, John Stone was in Paris, and presided at a dinner of British residents in Paris to celebrate French victories. Thomas Paine was present, as also Irish rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, whom Stone introduced to his future wife, Pamela. He was however later included in a wholesale arrest by the French revolutionary authorities of British subjects in October 1793, though was released after seventeen days. He was again arrested, together with his wife, in April 1794, but liberated next day on condition of leaving France. He could not safely return to England, for his brother was in Newgate on a charge of treason, and he himself was described in the indictment as the principal. He went to Switzerland.

His brother William Stone had been arrested by 1794, but had to wait until 1796 to be tried for treason. The law of conspiracy was developed rapidly by the judges in these years, and in Stone’s 1796 trial, justices Sir Nash Grose and Sir Soulden Lawrence, also on the bench, persuaded Chief Justice Lord Kenyon to accept evidence of conspiracy that he was at first inclined to exclude.

The truth was, however, that William had “urged his brother, “that seditious and wicked traitor, “as Sir John Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon) styled him, to dissuade the French from invading England, inasmuch as they would find none of the sympathy they expected, but were doomed to failure. Scott argued, indeed, that by warning the French against a hopeless enterprise William Stone had acted as their friend and as the King’s enemy; but Erskine and Adair, his counsel, urged that if promoting an invasion was treason, warding it off must be the reverse. It must, however, be acknowledged that the collecting of opinions on the chances of a French invasion, however openly done, and however adverse those opinions, was sailing very near the wind of treason. The prisoner, too, had sheltered his brother’s emissary, the Irish Presbyterian minister Jackson; had corresponded with Jackson in Ireland, signing his name backwards way (Enots), and had forwarded to the Government garbled extracts from his brother’s letters; but Lord Lauderdale, Sheridan, and William Smith, M.P., testified that he was merely a weak enthusiast, anxious to give himself airs, yet sincerely desirous of a peace with France. Rogers, called as a witness for the prosecution, and asked as to the prisoner’s loyalty to the King and regard for his country, evasively answered that he had always thought him a well-meaning man, and he was not pressed to say more. The prisoner was acquitted, and, after a fortnight’s detention for debt, retired to France, where he became steward to an Englishman named Parker, at Villeneuve St. George.”

His brother John was unlikely to have been acquitted, for in a document read at the trial he spoke through – out of the French as “we,” and of the English as “you,” thus identifying himself, as Chief Justice Kenyon remarked, with France. In a published letter to Dr. Priestley, he made some caustic comments on the prosecution, incidentally extolled the Girondins, and declared his dissent from Paine’s religious views and his belief in an enlightened Christianity. By November 1796 he had returned to France. He later became a publisher, dying in France in 1818.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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