The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was an important political movement that fought for political reform in the 1790s, that increasingly became more radical, and involved more and more working class men, and faced vicious repression by a government that felt threatened by its ideas.
The Society had been founded in January 1792, by nine ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious men’ called together by shoemaker Thomas Hardy, who became its first secretary. Its early membership consisted of working men, was politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the movements for reform of the electoral system in Britain, as well by the American & French Revolutions. The LCS was not new as a political debating club: what was new was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. The emphasis on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns was crucial: “It was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley) The LCS was in contact with similar groups in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle & Norwich, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.
Their basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But they also developed ideas well ahead of their time: eg MPs to be paid & recallable by their electorate…
But beyond that the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”
The LCS expected that an ‘honest parliament’ elected under the system they proposed would enact popular legislation: notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.
The LCS was split into divisions throughout London, sending two delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly. The divisions contained between 16 and 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. In September 1792 the Society was said to have 5000 members.
The Society, together with other reform-minded groups, sent messages of fraternity & support to the Convention in France, which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though they drew back from some of the ‘excesses’ like the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they supported the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.
The LCS & the Constitutional Society co-operated in rallies against the threat of harsh repressive laws. However the government’s legion of spies & informers were at work, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state…
In 1794, Government spies reported LCS members making speeches at meetings presented as seditious & republican: and the government acted. Parliament backed repression against LCS meetings, and three Society notables, Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were all arrested and charged with treason. Hardy’s house was also attacked by an officially-backed ‘loyalist’ mob – his wife died in childbirth as a result.
Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined out of solidarity, Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried in November 1794, but the evidence was weak & they were acquitted: of treason: charges were dropped against several other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of activity after this however.
But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions in March to 70 or 80 in October. In 1795, a failed harvest led to rising food prices and massive hunger throughout the country, which resulted in growing anger against the class of landlords which working people perceived as caring little whether they lived or died and denying them any voice in how society was run. (bearing in mind that massive enclosure of common fields, woods and marginal land, running at a record pace, was depriving thousands of bare subsistence and impoverishing the rural poor,,, driving many into the cities to look for work). This merged with an increased resentment against Britain’s war against revolutionary France, which had not only pulled in thousands of men to fight as soldiers and sailors, but also led to steep rises in taxes which were seen to impact heavier on the poorest folk. The Corresponding Society’s stand against the war and the power of the landlords chimed in with the general resentment – they pointed out that the people benefitting from both high food prices were the same people sitting in Parliament, the same people in whose interests the war was being fought…
One of the LCS’ main organising tactics was holding monster rallies, mass meetings to show the strength of the movement for reform, inspire others, and undoubtedly to demand the attention of the government and persuade it that it needed to make concessions. In 1795 they held several massive rallies in London, centring their demands to the government ministers, that the war be stopped, that a program of parliamentary reform be put in place, and that attention be paid to the hunger in the country.
The king and the government ignored their petitions.
On 21st October the LCS issued an advertisement for a general meeting on 26th October, to be held on Copenhagen Fields, the grounds of Copenhagen House, which stood on the hill to the west of Islington; a well-known place for political meetings to be held.
They listed the business of the meeting – to vote on an address to the nation on the state of public affairs, a remonstrance to the king on the disregard shown toward the address of 29 June… Admission was free; members were urged to ‘exert their usual efforts with strangers to preserve that order and decorum’ which had placed the LCS above the intrigues of their enemies…
This was a very large meeting, possibly the largest of the era, with somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 or more attending. This meeting, addressed by LCS leaders John Gale Jones, Richard Hodgson, radical lecturer John Thelwall and John Ashley, a shoemaker, was possibly the one caricatured by Gillray in cartoon (see above), though alternatively this could represent the monster rally held in the same fields a few weeks later in November that year.
The government had been alarmed by the plans for the June monster meeting, but the 26th October rally seems to have appeared less threatening to them. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, directed John King to issue orders to Lt. Col Herries of the Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, to the Lord mayor and to Col Brownrigg to have their military forces in readiness: and to the police magistrates to retain extra constable and to send an observer to the meeting.
The LCS published two accounts of speeches made at the rally shortly afterwards, the following is taken from both these accounts.
“Proceedings of a General Meeting of the London Corresponding Society,
Held on Monday October the 26th, 1795, in a field adjacent to Copenhagen-House, in the County of Middlesex
The Indifference with which the late Address from this Society to the King was treated; the rapid approximation of National destruction, thro’ the continuation of the present detestable War;- the horrors of an approaching Famine;- and above all, the increased Corruption, and Inquisitorial measures pursued and pursuing, by those who hold the Country in bondage – obliged this Society to appeal once more to their fellow Countrymen… [Accordingly a meeting was advertised.]
Previous to this meeting, the London Corresponding Society, had taken into consideration numerous Communications from different parts of the Country, suggesting the utility that would result from more active and direct communications between the people in those several places, and this Society, by the appointment of Members on deputation to open and regulate Societies for Parliamentary Reform; which was likewise a measure submitted to the public Meeting.
About half an hour after twelve o’clock, the People assembled on the Ground, according to the concurring calculations of several persons, amounted to more than one hundred and fifty thousand persons, at the same time that the Roads in all directions were still covered with people thronging to the meeting.
John Gale Jones opened the meeting by announcing that Citizen John Binns, ‘a well known and long tried Patriot, and an Honest Man’, had been nominated as chairman. After being unanimously approved, Binns took the chair and addressed the meeting, stating that he hoped the contempt shown to their last address would not provoke them,
“… but that you will now coolly and deliberately determine upon a further notice of proceeding, which shall enforce those Ministers, that when the voice of a United People goes forth, it is their duty to attend to it: and if they do not they will be guilty of HIGH TREASON against the PEOPLE…
Three points will be brought forth for rejection, amendment or unanimous approbation: an address to the nation, a remonstrance to the king on the contempt shown to the LCS address presented to his ministers, and resolutions applicable to the present crisis.
Address to the nation
Once more, dear friends and fellow citizens, in defiance of threats and insults – of base suggestions and unmanly fears – are we met in the open face of day, and call the heavens and earth to witness the purity of our proceedings. Amidst the dreadful storms and hurricanes which at present assail the political hemisphere of our country, with firm and unabated vigour we pursue our avowed and real purpose – the grand and glorious cause of PARLIAMENTARY REFORM!
The rude gales of opposition, and the howling blasts of persecution have served only to assist our career; and where we might have lingered, from choice or indulgence, we now steadily from the heavy pressure of inevitable necessity!
With anxious minds and agitated hearts, we are again compelled to address you, and to solicit your patient attention. There was a time, when we might, perhaps, have been startled at the idea of rendering ourselves so conspicuous, and have fought for refuge under the veil of obscurity. When the timid apprehensions of our friends, the loss of our most valuable interests and connections, the threats of guilty Ministers, and the hostile preparations of armed associations, might have forcibly urged us to remain in silence, and to retreat from the eye of observation. But, alas, it is now too late! When the welfare of society is at stake, what private consideration ought to avail? We have been severely persecuted, it is true, but is our cause became lss clear? We have been cruelly and unjustly treated, but has the majesty of Truth suffered in the shameful contest? No. Away then with the lifeless apathy and pale-faced fear; let every friend of liberty must boldly deliver his real sentiments; and while he professes the virtuous principles of a patriot, assert his independence like a man!
Four months ago we peaceably assembled to deliberate upon the best and most probable of recovering our rights, and redressing our numerous grievances: we addressed you, and we petitioned the king. We believe, if we may judge from the rapid increase in our numbers from the last public meeting, that our sentiments and conduct experienced almost general approbration. From one particular quarter, however, we have not received that attention and regard which as Britons and Freemen, we might not have expected. The late Address to the king has either been artfully and prematurely suppressed, or passed over with contempt. If the former, we hesitate not to say, that HIS MINISTERS have proved themselves GUILTY OF HIGH TREASON against the Lives and Liberties of the Nation! If the latter, his Majesty should consider the sacred obligations he is bound to fulfil, and the duties he ought to discharge; he should recollect, that when he ceases to consult the interests and happiness of the people, he will cease to be respected, and that justice is a debt which the nation hath a right to demand from the Throne!
IN vain do we boast of a Constitution, if its genuine principles be not actively alive in our bosoms; in vain do we talk of rights, if we want courage and firmness to assert them. The true Constitution of a country is the undaunted spirit of its people! The principles of liberty must be established on the solid basis of rational conviction, and the virtues of patriotism cherished and supported by continual exertion! When once the citizens of Britain are become careless and indifferent about the preservation of their rights, or the choice of their representatives, from that moment arbitrary power is essentially introduced, and the utter extinction of individual liberty, and the establishment of general despotism, are inevitable and certain.
To delineate a faithful portrait of the awful situation of our poor distracted country, would only be to exhibit a scene of misery and desolation; a frightful picture of horror that would sicken the imagination, and appal the stoutest heart. The history of the last few months presents indeed to our view, a rapid succession of ill-fated mismanagement, unexampled calamities, and unparalleled disgrace! Baffled and defeated in every miserable project, they have either designed or undertaken, Ministers seem determined to display their pre-eminent power of doing mischief, and as they cannot compass the ruin of France, to contrive at the least, the destruction of England. Emigrant armies and foreign expeditions have been hastily planned and equipped, to ensure only to the one, an horrible and undistinguished carnage; and to the other, a premature and untimely grave! The manufacturer has been seduced from his loom – the militia man swindled from his domestic employment – and the humble cottager kidnapped from the plough. The bread that should support the industrious poor has been exported, either to be abandoned on a foreign shore, or consigned to the bottom of a fathomless ocean – while the helpless widow and orphan are consoled for their irreparable loss, by the scanty allowance of an insolent donation, or a charitable bribe!
The comfortable and pleasing prospects resulting from an abundant harvest have turned out to be vain and fallacious – and were probably held up only to lull the public mind into a delusive and fatal security! The approach of famine seems to be inevitable, and we have almost the melancholy and indubitable assurance of being soon in want of bread.
What is the cruel and insatiate that thus piecemeal tears and devours us? – Wherefore in the midst of apparent plenty are we thus compelled to starve? – Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want? – What is this subtle and insinuating poison which thus vitiates our domestic comforts and destroys our public prosperity? – It is Parliamentary Corruption, which like a foaming whirlpool swallows the fruit of all our labours, and leaves us only the dregs of bitterness and sorrow.
Those whose duty it is to watch over the interests of the Nation, have either proved themselves indifferent to its welfare, or unable to remove the pressure of these intolerable grievances. Let them however be aware in time – Let them look to the fatal consequences – We are sincere friends of Peace – we want only Reform: Because we are firmly and fully convinced, that a thorough Reform would effectually remedy those formidable evils: but we cannot answer for the strong and all-powerful impulse of necessity, nor always restrain the aggravated feelings of insulted human nature! – IF EVER THE BRITISH NATION SHOULD LOUDLY DEMAND STRONG AND DECISIVE MEASURES, WE BOLDLY ANSWER – “WE HAVE LIVES!” AND ARE READY TO DEVOTE THEM, EITHER SEPARATELY OR COLLECTIVELY, FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR COUNTRY.
We trust, however, that Reason and Remonstrance are alone sufficient to produce the desired effects. We have laboured long, and we hope not unsuccessfully. Our Numbers have increased beyond all human expectation: and many who once professed themselves our most inveterate Enemies are now converted into sincere and faithful Friends. A little more Patience, and a little Perseverance, Fellow Citizens, the business will be accomplished, and out Triumph complete. The LONDON CORRESPONDING SOCIETY SHALL BE THE POWERFUL ORGAN TO USHER IN THE JOYFUL TIDINGS OF PEACE AND REFORM; AND UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE AND ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS SHALL CROWN OUR SUCCESSFUL EXERTIONS!
JOHN BINNS, Chairman.
JOHN ASHLEY, Secretary.”
LCS member and longtime moderate radical activist/government informer, Francis Place, in hindsight labelled this address ‘an absurd declaration… filled with commonplace topics’. In terms of its language he though the speakers ‘did little more… than copy from their betters’ meaning Parliament.
“The Reading of this Address was, from time to time, interrupted by such loud applauses as are but seldom heard, even in public places – and being ended amidst the warmest and most unanimous acclamations of approbation, the Chairman proceeded next to read
“THE REMONSTRANCE TO THE KING.
To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.
The humble and earnest Remonstrance of Two Hundred Thousand, and upwards , faithful, though greatly aggrieved, Subjects, associated ad assembled with the CORRESPONDING SOCIETY of London, in a constitutional manner, in behalf of themselves and others.
When the treacherous duplicity, and intolerable tyranny of the House of STUART had roused the long-enduring patience of the British People, the expulsion of one restored into their hands into their hands the primitive right of chusing another, as their Chief of many Magistrates.
[At that period the privilege of remonstrating with the Chief Magistrate was established. When Queen Anne died without heirs, the pubic called to kingly office the head of the house from which you are descended. The preservation of the rights, reconfirmed at the Revolution, then became part of the obligations of George I. In spite of the smallness of the majority which established the Hanoverian succession, the nation has supported the decision of their representatives on that occasion. The people of this country hoped that an eternal gratitude would bind your house (transplanted from poverty and obscurity to dignity and opulence) to support the freedom and happiness of this country.
Our present object is to renew a complaint delivered in an address to you, which we put into the hands of the Duke of Portland on 15 July. In that address we expressed our belief that your ministers have plunged the nation into its present calamities and should be dismissed; and that only a reform in representation can restore this country to vigour and happiness.
Our address was not attended to by your majesty’s servants as it should have been. Are we to suffer and not complain? What have we not to fear if there is an impenetrable barrier between the oppressed and the magistrate? Alas, we hoped to find the third sovereign of the Brunswick line an example of royal virtue. We wished you to consider whether your duty to your royal progeny and to your people, whose industry provides the funds for their princely support, will be accomplished by pursuing the measures of odious ministers or by giving the people liberty, peace and reform.
“Listen then, Sire! To the voices of a wearied and afflicted people, whose grievances are so various that they distract, to enormous that they terrify. Think of the abyss between supplication and despair! – The means of national salvation are in your own hands – it is our right to advise as well as supplicate: and we declare it to be our opinion, that a Reform in the Representation of the people, the removal of your present Ministers, and a speedy PEACE, are the only means by which this country can be saved, or the attachment of the People secured.”
Signed by Order of the Meeting,
- BINNS, Chairman
- ASHLEY, Secretary.
This being received with an equally unanimous approbation, the Chairman then read the following RESOLUTIONS.
1st. That the present awful and alarming state of the British Empire, demands the serious attention of our fellow countrymen.
2nd. That its unexampled distresses call for immediate and effectual redress.
3rd. That we are fully persuaded the present exorbitant price of the necessaries of life, (notwithstanding the late abundant harvest) is occasioned partly by the present ruinous war; but chiefly by that pernicious system of monopoly, which derives protection from the mutilated and corrupt state of the Parliamentary Representation.
4th. That the enormous load of axes, under which this almost ruined country groans, together with its unparalleled National Debt, (which has been and will be greatly encreased by the present war) threatens the British Nation with total ruin.
5th. That the inflexible obstinacy of Ministers, in continuing the present cruel, unjust, and disgraceful war – a war which was has stained the earth and seas with so much human blood – calls aloud for the execration of every friend of humanity.
6th. That the present Government of France, is capable of maintaining the accustomed relations or peace and amity with the King of Great Britain, as with the Elector of Hanover.
7th. That we remain fully convinced that the permanent peace, welfare and happiness of this Country, can be established only by restoring to our fellow Countrymen their natural and undoubted right; Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments.
8th. That we are determined at the next general Election, to support such candidates only as will pledge themselves to a radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament.
9th. That the evasive conduct of His majesty’s Ministers, respecting our late Address, convinces us that our fellow countrymen have little to hope from the Executive part of our Government.
10th. That the only hope of the people is on themselves.
11th. That the period is not far distant, when Britons must no longer depend upon any party of men for the recovery of their liberties.
12th. That the publicity of our conduct evinces the purity of our intentions, and is a testimony of our love of peace, and of the sacrifices we would make to spare the blood of our fellow countrymen.
13th. That the events of every day are clearly proving, that we have gained the good opinion of our fellow countrymen, notwithstanding the opposition of our persecutors and calumniators.
14th. That, in order the more effectually to obtain the co-operation and assistance of the whole country, deputies shall be sent from the Society to the principal towns in the kingdom, for the purpose of explaining to our fellow countrymen the necessity of associating, as the only means of procuring a parliamentary reform.
15th. That strong in the purity of our intentions and the goodness of our cause – regardless of the calumny and threats of our enemies – we again solemnly pledge ourselves to the British nation, never to desert the scared cause in which we are engaged, until we have obtained the grand object of our pursuit.
The chairman having left the chair, a motion was made and seconded, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to the Chairman, which was accordingly put and carried into motion.
A motion was also moved and passed, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to Citizen Jones, Thelwall, Hodgson &c for their exertions this day.
Both these Motions were unanimously passed, amidst the greatest acclamations. A little after Five o’clock the Meeting broke up, when the immense Company that was present separated, and proceeded to their respective homes: the utmost harmony, regularity and good order prevailed during the whole time, each and every individual seeming to be impressed with the Idea, that it was a Day SACRED TO LIBERTY.”
However peaceful and amicable the account above makes the end of the meeting sound, the language used certainly contains veiled threats. The address to the king, for instance, informs George III that his kingship is subject to the approval of the whole people of the nation, and this is a compact than can be revoked unless he wins the people’s approval; also that all the ‘inherited’ wealth of the king and the luxurious living he and his family enjoy is based on the labour of the lower orders… Despite the protestations of loyalty, and appeals to the old trope that the king is being betrayed in his duty to his subjects by the evil ministers that surround him (a well-versed theme going back to the Peasants Revolt), there is a passive-aggressive threat contained in almost every line. And the authorities cannot have missed the use of the title ‘Citizen’ – the term the French Revolutionaries had used, a title that in its very nature implied a people NOT subject to kingly authority, that threatened the guillotine without even mentioning it.
The speakers also threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster on the 29th, when the king would go to the houses of parliament, to protest the king and government ignoring their petitions. This suggestion would directly lead to a riot and an attack on the king.
We will cover more on the Corresponding Society In October 1795, on October 29th…