As related in our previous post, the reforming London Corresponding Society (LCS) held a rally in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, on October 26, 1795, called to protest against the widespread hunger and poverty in the country, and demand that the king and government implement a program of political reform to bring in universal male suffrage and end the expensive and disastrous war with revolutionary France.
With the LCS at the peak of their influence, the speakers threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster three days later, when the king would go to open the houses of parliament… This climate of rebellion and anger led to a riot and an attack on the king.
An angry crowd to march to Whitehall on the 29th October, determined to confront the king.
King George was traveling to open Parliament, but his coach was surrounded by the angry crowds demanding change. There was a crush around the coach, and as it travelled between St James Palace and Carlton House, there was a sudden rush, and the coach was separated from its guards by demonstrators. Constables tried to secure the gates of Horseguards, but the crowd poured in and over-ran them from different entrances, following after the coach.
As the coach drew into Great George Street, the thick glass of the coach window was suddenly punctured – by a stone? A bullet? A marble? – which, was never established. It created a smooth round hole in the window; most onlookers thought it had come from an upstairs window in neighbouring Margaret Street, and that it had been fired from a gun. This despite the fact that no one present even pretended to have heard a shot. The coach was finally hauled into the entrance to the House of Lords.
While the government and its favoured newspapers asserted this was an attempt to assassinate the king with some form of airgun, radical commentators dismissed this as yet another ploy to discredit the movement for political reform and opposition to the war against France. No-one had been arrested at the scene (given the sheer size of the hostile crowd, the guards thought it would backfire), and nothing was found when the house in Margaret Street was searched.
However, if the coach trip TO Parliament had been worrying, the return journey was to be worse. Leaving the House of Lords at 3pm, as signal guns sounded out, the king was confused by the ‘silent indifference’ of the massed crowd. Soon, however, the indifference was replaced by a hooting crowd, and a gang of about 30 men moved rapidly toward the coach, groaning and shouting, and gurning at the king. The Life Guards struggled to hold them off.
Then, again, the coach came under bombardment – a volley of stones smashed into the woodwork as it drew level with Spring Gardens Terrace, splintering part of the frame. The crowd gathered more missiles and pelted the coach, the constables and guards; king George waved his arms at the soldiers to keep the mob away. Just in time the guards ushered the coach into the gates of St James’s Palace, as a large stone shattered a coach window and the king’s face was showered with splinters. As he walked to the palace door, a crowd surrounded the coach and all but demolished it.
With the king safe, a group of constables ran out to try to arrest some of the assailants. They grabbed George Gregory and Edward Collins, but witnesses later testified that these men had not throne the last big rock, as accused, but that this had been lobbed by another man who had strolled off. Kyd Wake was grabbed by Carlton Gardens, and John Dinham was arrested showing people shards of glass from the broken windows. Robert Bryant, a shoemaker, was also picked up nearby at the Rose Inn.
However, the king’s nightmare journeys were not yet over for the day. He was determined to join his family a Buckingham Palace, and set out again by a back door, in a smaller coach, with just two footmen. The Guards had accidentally been sent back to their barracks. Very soon after he left, a crowd spotted him and surrounded the king again, hooting and booing, and showering the new coach with stones; then, 16 men halted the coach and pulled its wheels off, shouting ‘Bread! Bread! Peace, Peace!’ One man grabbed the door handle. This group was only scared off by a civil servant who pushed his way through with a pistol to keep them back, while someone else ran of to get the guards, who finally turned up to escort him to Buck House.
This was not an end to the riots. The following day, as the royal family went to Covent Garden to the theatre, a huge crowd gathered again, estimated at 10,000 people, surrounding the theatre, though they were prevented from entering by 200 cavalry, 100 foot guards and 500 constables. Despite keeping people well away from the king’s coach, there was more stone throwing. Several people were nicked for hissing the king, and a number were lifted in the days following for uttering ‘treasonable expressions’. There was some uproar even in the theatre, although it had been carefully packed with loyalists.
The prisoners arrested on the 29th were questioned by the bow Street magistrates over the next two days, with the aim of building a case for a charge of high treason. Kyd Wake maintained he had merely hissed at the king, to show his ‘dissatisfaction with the war’. No-one could say he had thrown anything. John Dinham, a baker, and Robert Bryant were charged with making a riot and throwing stones at the empty coach. George Gregory denied everything and was discharged. The rest were refused bail. Collins was eventually charged with high treason for throwing a stone, but the case was dropped in the following year. However, Kyd Wake was tried and convicted and sentenced to five years hard labour in February 1796.
John Ridley, a London Corresponding Society member, was thought to have been the man who grabbed hold of the coach handle during the final attack on the 29th. The moderate reformer, tailor Francis Place, said he had recognised Ridley but that he had grabbed the handle to steady himself after being pushed in the crowd… Not very convincing, (but then Place was a slippery character, later to spend many years informing to the government on radicals). Another LCS member also claimed to have been the man who grabbed the handle. [Ridley was later to take part in some of the Old Price Riots against theatre price rises in 1809.]
The government and its supporters aimed much of their fury at the LCS. It was a’ mischievous club, where treason is hatched and thoughts of royal massacre rendered familiar’, according to the St James’s Chronicle. The riots and attacks on the king brought to mind only too strongly the last six years of revolution in France, which had seen the royal family and aristocracy largely execute or imprisoned. That movement too had begun with the crowd taking control of the streets, and the government were determined to nip any similar process in the bud. The LCS and the movement for political reform was not that strong or numerous, but it had tapped into the widespread frustration with war, rising food prices and hardship; its influence was not anything like as insidious as the authorities made out – and they really should have known, since the whole organisation was heavily penetrated by informers paid by the government and magistrates, who reported back on meetings and speeches from its many London branches. However, the king and his ministers were determined to prevent their influence from growing. So while they did in fact begin to investigate and ameliorate the conditions of hunger and hardship in the country, they also got underway with repressive measures. Two Acts of Parliament were quickly drawn up and passed to silence the radicals; the moderate ‘Foxite’ Whig opposition’s criticism of the war against France was also muted.
The broader based movement for political reform that had been building was split by the riots and attacks on the king. LCS leaders chose to distance themselves from the assaults, not that this prevented the law from censoring their publications and restricting their meetings.
The scared authorities banned meetings of more than 50 people, & strengthened the powers of magistrates to repress radicals publications, arrest individuals and hold them regardless of the courts. Despite widespread protest around the country these measures would lead to the decline of the democratic movement. Many potential supporters were put off joining. Also at this time, divisions developed in the LCS over the question of religion, with a growing trend of deism influenced by Paine’s Age of Reason. An attempt to publish a magazine in 1796 failed, increasing the Society’s debts. Disillusion was also setting in with revolutionary France, as it became clear that with the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, the most corrupt sections of the bourgeoisie had taken power.
Thomas Evans, (later a founder of the Spencean Philanthropists), became secretary of the LCS in 1796: more radical than many of the members…Scared by the navy mutinies at the Nore & Spithead, the authorities attempted to prove the LCS had been involved, without turning up much evidence. John Bone, an LCS member, was busted with copies of a ‘seditious’ handbill distributed to soldiers at Maidstone. As a result July 31st 1797 the platform was nicked at an LCS public meeting by Middlesex magistrates. On its last legs, as members dropped off, the whole committee was nicked at an April 19th 1798 meeting, and the Society was banned, along with other radical groups. This was the effective end of the Society: their dreams of a representative parliament, elected MPs truly representing all the people of the nation, would have to wait… But many of their former members would carry their ideas into the new century, and new radical movements…
Attacks on royalty continue. Funnily enough the above is a rare example of a collective attack on a British monarch, (King Charles I’s instant weight loss program from 1649 counts, maybe?) though individuals have had a number of (more or less serious) attempts at offing or doing injury to various crowned heads. I think queen victoria holds the record for attempted assassinations entered into; though George III also had some close shaves with lone angry constituents as well as this October 1795 royal audience in the Westminster streets. Our favourite two are probably James Hadfield trying to rewrite the kings script in the theatre a few years later, and Edward Oxford’s having a pop at Victoria in 1840. The latter because one of our happiest moments at past tense was Oxford’s great-grand neice coming across our 2015 Lindon Rebel History Calendar which contained an entry celebrating him, and she gleefully informed us how proud the whole family are still of him. And why not!?
Another great collective shindig that still warms the cockles: rioting students accidentally bump into Prince Charles & Camilla in Regent Street in November 2010 and try to engage him in a serious discussion on public transport, ie how he’ll get to the palace if his limo gets turned over. Sadly it remains a theoretical discussion, bar the odd bounce on the bonnet. We know riotous attacks on royal parasites are no substitute for collective community class struggle yada yada. Still, every now & again having a go at a privileged poodle is better than a poke in the eye with s sharp stick.
Till the next time…
Appendix: Gillray’s engraving of the attack on the king’s coach (at the head of this post)
“At a glance, Gillray’s cartoon appears to side with the government’s version of events. But look again. In the bottom right, the figure of Britannia has been trampled under the horses’ hooves. This is a hit and run, and at the reins of the carriage is none other than William Pitt who drives his administration on blindly and ruthlessly, insensible to the irreparable damage he is inflicting. The nation is the casualty here, not the royal passenger. The government, not the protesters, are the real hooligans.” (David Francis Taylor)
An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar