Today in London insurrectionary history, 1820: Cato Street conspirators arrested, plotting to assassinate the cabinet & launch revolution

Great periods of social unrest which contain a strand of revolutionary politics, when faced with heavy repression, often end in clandestine terror plots or furtive conspiracy… Something to do with the great hopes aroused, dashed and imprisoned…

Witness the remnants of the Leveller movement in the 1650s, conspiring with royalists to assassinate Cromwell… More recently, the civil rights/student/anti-war radical eruptions of the late 1960s/early 70s led in various countries to the development of armed guerrilla groups… Baader Meinhof, the US Weather Underground & Symbionese Liberation Army, the Italian Red Brigades…

Movements which seem to have a potential to make large scale social change, which then are beaten off the streets… the frustration, disappointment, rage can lead to the back street plots, the insurrectionary dreams…

The radical movement in Britain partly inspired by the French revolution, partly by the home grown pressure for political reform (a movement roughly spanning the 1790s to the 1820s?) was pushed into plots for uprisings in three main periods – 1798-99, 1802, and 1819-1820.

The last of these three, culminating in the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’, saw probably the harshest state response – but was, itself, largely a product of state infiltration.

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, and munitions suppliers laying workers off. The unemployment and deprivation led thousands to begin to listen to movements calling for social reform – 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, had for a decade been 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. Spence, a schoolteacher born in Newcastle, was strongly influenced by the writings of Thomas Paine. Moving to London in late 1792, he sold Paine’s writings on street corners, for which he was arrested. Later he opened a shop in Chancery Lane, selling radical books and pamphlets.

In 1793 Spence started a periodical, Pigs Meat. He wrote in the first edition: “Awake! Arise! Arm yourselves with truth, justice, reason. Lay siege to corruption. Claim as your inalienable right, universal suffrage and annual parliaments. And whenever you have the gratification to choose a representative, let him be from among the lower orders of men, and he will know how to sympathise with you.”

By the early 1800s Thomas Spence had established himself as a leader among those Radicals who advocated revolution: many of these had been supporters of the London Corresponding Society in the previous decade. Spence encouraged the formation of small groups or discussion groups, which often met in public houses. At the night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as “Spence’s Plan and Full Bellies” and “The Land is the People’s Farm”. In 1800 and 1801 the authorities suspected that Spence and his followers were the instigators of bread riots in London…

Thomas Spence died in September 1814. His disciples founded the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, which met in small groups all over London, discussing the best way of achieving an equal society.

Pubs used by the Spenceans included the Mulberry Tree in Moorfields, the Carlisle in Shoreditch, the Cock in Soho, the Pineapple in Lambeth, the White Lion in Camden, the Horse and Groom in Marylebone and the Nag’s Head in Carnaby Market.

Arthur Thistlewood

The small Spencean scene, mingling with ultra-radicals like the Watsons, father and son, disaffected soldiers and ex-soldiers, and other malcontents, were growing more and more enraged. A leading light of the group was Arthur Thistlewood, a former militia lieutenant, who had come to radical ideas after travelling France and the US. Another notable figure was ex-slave Robert Wedderburn, a fiery blasphemous preacher, former Methodist, angry critic of both slavery in his native West Indies and of the nascent capitalism in England… Wedderburn could be found ‘twice weekly preaching blasphemy and sedition’ in his run-down chapel in a loft on the corner of Hopkins Street and Brewer Street in Soho.

But the Spenceans and the other radical groups were under the eye of the government. A number of spies paid by the Home Secretary were employed join the Spenceans and report on their activities.

The pressure for reform led to cataclysmic events. The Spenceans and ultra-radicals formed an uneasy alliance with more moderate reformers like Henry Hunt, and organized large-scale demonstrations demanding reform; in London this led to the Spa Fields riot; government spy John Castle had been deep in the plans for an uprising, and subsequently gave evidence against several of the radical leaders including James Watson, Arthur Thistlewood, and Thomas Preston, on their charge of high treason – but they were acquitted after their defence discredited Castle in court.

There were other spies among the radicals however…

A few months later, a huge reform rally for political reform in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, addressed by Henry Hunt, was violently attacked by armed yeoman cavalry. The ‘Peterloo Massacre’, in which at least 15 people were killed and hundreds injured, infuriated reformers, radicals and much of the population. In London, the ultra-radicals began planning an uprising. At one meeting a spy reported that Arthur Thistlewood said: “High Treason was committed against the people at Manchester. I resolved that the lives of the instigators of massacre should atone for the souls of murdered innocents.”

Before Peterloo, Thistlewood, Wedderburn and Watson had already began to build a revolutionary organisation, with ‘divisions’ at Seven Dials, Cripplegate, St James, Shoreditch, Clerkenwell, Lambeth and Soho. The last of these, based at Wedderburn’s Hopkins Street Chapel, was the most insistent on immediate revolt, angrily calling for revolution at meetings, so openly that Wedderburn was in prison at the time of Peterloo, on a charge of seditious libel.

Peterloo galvanised the ultra-radicals. They began making pikes, buying ammunition, and secretly drilling with arms at night. The Soho branch attended a radical rally on 25th August 1819 in Smithfield armed… Radicals from Manchester came to London to assure the Londoners that there was much support in the north. Thistlewood was corresponding with sympathisers in Derby, Nottingham, and visited Leicester to collect money for arms. But despite plans being drawn up to persuade or bribe soldiers to join them, numbers were just too small; a planned date for possible uprising, 1st November, when simultaneous protest meetings were to be held, passed off without violence… Several groups who had intended to hold meetings in other towns backed out. The chance of Insurrection began to fade.

In the meantime, the government, alarmed by the fierce reaction to Peterloo and the clear intention of some of the radicals to attempt rebellion, quickly passed the ‘Six Acts’, whose main objective was the “curbing radical journals and meeting as well as the danger of armed insurrection”: these were

(i) Training Prevention Act: A measure which made any person attending a gathering for the purpose of training or drilling liable to arrest. People found guilty of this offence could be transported for seven years.

(ii) Seizure of Arms Act: A measure that gave power to local magistrates to search any property or person for arms.

(iii) Seditious Meetings Prevention Act: A measure which prohibited the holding of public meetings of more than fifty people without the consent of a sheriff or magistrate.

(iv) The Misdemeanours Act: A measure that attempted to reduce the delay in the administration of justice.

(v) The Basphemous and Seditious Libels Act: A measure which provided much stronger punishments, including banishment for publications judged to be blasphemous or seditious.

(vi) Newspaper and Stamp Duties Act: A measure which subjected certain radical publications which had previously avoided stamp duty by publishing opinion and not news, to such duty.

Many of the country’s radical leaders-Henry Hunt, James Wroe, Samuel Bamford, John Saxton, Sir Francis Burdett, Richard Carlile, and Major John Cartwright-found themselves either on trial or in prison in the aftermath of Peterloo and the passing of the Six Acts.

Robert Wedderburn was among the first victims. He was arrested in December and charged with blasphemous libel; he would later be convicted and imprisoned for two years. Ironically, however, this arrest may have unintentionally saved his life, as, if left free, he would undoubtedly have been heavily involved in the plot of February 1820 that was developed by the group around Thistlewood. They had determined that if a mass uprising wasn’t on the cards, they would have to assassinate the cabinet and seize power…

Still worried that the Spenceans and their allies, John Stafford, who supervised various spies at the Home Office, recruited George Edwards, George Ruthven, John Williamson, John Shegoe, James Hanley and Thomas Dwyer to spy on them.

Of these, Edwards was to become the most notorious. Born in Clerkenwell in 1788, he became a statue maker in Smithfield. According to people who knew him from this period, Edwards was very poor and often went about barefoot. In the 1790s, Edwards was making plaster of Paris busts of famous people and selling them on street-corners. Briefly moving to Windsor where he rented a small shop in Eton High Street, Edwards made the acquaintance of Major-General Sir Herbert Taylor, who recruited him as a Home Office spy.

Edwards moved back to London, establishing himself in radical journalist William Hone’s former premises in Fleet Street. Here, from January 1819, the radical journalist and publisher Richard Carlile was his next-door neighbour. Carlile commissioned Edwards to make a full-length figure of Thomas Paine and also a likeness of Carlile himself, which Edwards completed while Carlile was incarcerated in the king’s bench prison. Edwards may have been tasked with spying on the radical booksellers who thronged Fleet Street, and to see how they linked to the more active agitators, among them the Spenceans.

In 1818 Edwards met John Brunt, a member of the Spencean Philanthropists. Edwards apparent radical political views and talk, including wanting to kill members of the government, led Brunt to introduce Edwards to other friends – he was soon attending Spencean meetings. But Edwards reported everything he heard to the authorities. His accounts of the meetings, preserved in the Public Record Office, were written on narrow strips of paper that were then folded into a small square and passed to John Stafford, Chief Clerk at Bow Street Police Station.

Some among the Spencean scene, however, were suspicious of Edwards, and suggested he might be a spy. On one occasion Edwards tried to give one member, William Tunbridge, a pistol that he could use against the government, but Tunbridge refused replying: “Mr. Edwards, you may tell your employers that they will not catch me in their trap.” However, Arthur Thistlewood liked Edwards, and was convinced he was genuine. In December 1819, he made him his aide-de-camp.

At meetings Edwards constantly called for an armed uprising to overthrow the government. It was Edwards’ idea to start the revolution by assassinating Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth. The plot that followed was cooked up by Edwards from the start, though the desperate naivety of Thistlewood and his fellows played directly into the hands of Edwards and his masters.

Thistlewood’s group convinced themselves the country was on the verge of revolution and that all it needed was one strong leader to rise up to guide them. The time for action came when they received news of death of King George III, who died on January 29, 1820. Thistlewood believed that all of the troops would be at Windsor for the funeral of the king and would be unable to return to London to stop any attack on the city, and reckoned he and his colleagues could further disable the troops by destroying their barracks with grenades; this would keep the troops busy putting out fires rather than attending to the insurgents…

On Tuesday 22nd February 1820, Thistlewood’s group met John Brunt’s home; it was here, that Edwards pointed out to Arthur Thistlewood an item in a newspaper that said several members of the British government were going to have dinner at Lord Harrowby’s house at 39 Grosvenor Square the following night. This story had, in fact, been planted by the home office, in order to draw out the plotters, after Edwards had alerted his bosses to their intentions. Thistlewood argued that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for. The Spenceans decided to attack Harrowby’s house, kill all the government ministers, place the heads of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth on poles and then march around the slums of the capital. Thistlewood was convinced that this would incite an armed uprising that would overthrow the government. This would be followed by the creation of a new government committed to creating a society based on the ideas of Spence. By this time the group, especially Thistlewood, were clearly somewhat deluded as to what effect their actions would likely have; despite the widespread unpopularity of the government, their attentat, even if it had succeeded, would probably not have led to a general revolution… Driven to rebellion by desperation and rage, the conspirators were east to manipulate by the government spies among them.

Over the next few hours Thistlewood attempted to recruit as many people as possible to take part in the plot. Unsurprisingly, given the slightly fantastic plan, and the widespread suspicion of police spies, a number of the ultra-radicals declined to join the attack. According to Edwards, only twenty-seven people agreed to participate. This included William Davidson, John Brunt, Richard Tidd, James Ings, John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange, Charles Copper, Robert Adams and John Monument.

Many of the conspirators were poor working men, living in some of London’s skintest and most rebellious corners…

Richard Tidd

Richard Tidd, a shoemaker, lived at 4 Hole-in-the-wall Passage, Brooks-market (off Brooke Street in Holborn. Like Thistlewood a native of Lincolnshire, he had been involved in the 1802 insurgent plot for which Colonel Despard and others were executed; though he had dodged being arrested. During the Napoleonic war he made a living by enlisting into more than half the regiments of the crown, then deserting immediately after being given his ‘bounty’ for signing on (this was a widespread scam at this time!).

John Brunt

John Thomas Brunt was born off Oxford-street; where his father carried on business as a tailor. Like Tidd, he became a shoemaker. Brunt lived with his son and apprentice in 4 Fox Court, Grays Inn Lane. So both Tidd and Brunt resided on the edge of the notorious Baldwin’s Gardens Rookery.

James Ings

James Ings, originally a butcher in Portsmouth, came to London when his business failed, and opened a coffee-house in Whitechapel, where he sold, besides coffee, political pamphlets; and having read the different Deistical publications, from being a churchman he became a confirmed Deist.

Ings’ coffee shop became a meeting point for the radical group that eventually hatched the Cato Street plot. Edwards, Adams, Thistlewood, and Brunt, visited the shop regularly. Edwards in fact supplied money to Ings in the months before the assassination plot was developed, as Ings was nearly out of funds… Later Edwards paid for Ings to hire a room, where Ings lived, but which was large enough to contain some of the arms and ammunition amassed by the plotters.

William Davidson

William Davidson was mixed race, the son of West Indies Attorney-General Davidson, and a woman of colour. Sent to England when very young, he rebelled against the life mapped out for him, went to sea, and became a cabinet-maker in Liverpool.

Davidson had worked for Lord Harrowby in the past and knew some of the latter’s staff at Grosvenor Square. He was instructed to find out more details about the cabinet meeting – but when he spoke to one of the servants he was told that the Earl of Harrowby was not in London. This could have put a kybosh on the plot, but when Davidson reported this news back to the group, Thistlewood insisted that the servant was lying and that the assassinations should proceed as planned.

The groups rented a small two-story building in Cato Street, round the corner from their target in Grosvenor Square: the building consisted of a stable with a hayloft above. Arms were brought here by Brunt, including sabres, swords, guns, pistols, and – allegedly – a kind of hand grenade.

On the evening of the 22nd February, the conspirators held another  meeting at Brunt’ lodging, finalising plans for the assassination of the cabinet ministers, and the subsequent steps they would take – including storming or setting fire to the principal barracks and various public buildings.

At this point, Thistlewood wrote two proclamations for distribution after the initial attack. The first was an address intended for public dissemination: “Your tyrants are destroyed – the friends of liberty are called upon to come forward – the Provisional Government is now sitting.”

The second was a proclamation to the soldiers, calling upon them to join their friends in liberty, and promising that they should be rewarded with full pay and a pension for life.

Edwards had kept his handler John Stafford informed at every stage of the plan. Richard Birnie, a Bow Street magistrate, was put in charge of arresting the plotters. Lord Sidmouth instructed Birnie to use men from the Second Battalion Coldstream Guards as well as police officers from Bow Street in the operation. George Ruthven, a police officer and a former spy, who knew most of the Spenceans, was ordered to the Horse and Groom, a pub opposite the stable in Cato Street; twelve constables were also stationed here.

On 23rd February, as the conspirators gathered in the stable, Birnie decided he had enough men to capture them, although no Coldstream Guards had arrived. Birnie ordered Ruthven to storm the building

Inside the stable the police found James Ings on guard, but he was quickly overpowered, and George Ruthven led his men up the ladder into the hayloft:

“On the officers going up the steps they demanded entrance, which they were refused. Wescot [Westcott], one of the officers, went up first, and was followed by several others, on which the persons assembled made a most desperate resistance, and the officers were fired on. Wescot received three shots through his hat, and Smithers, an active officer, received a stab in his right side, and he was carried away quite dead. A desperate affray took place, in which several of the officers were wounded, some most seriously. Gill, one of the officers [Ellis], upon going up the steps was met by a man of colour, named Davison, who was armed with a loaded gun, which after threatening the officer he fired off, but fortunately missed his object, on which Gill took out his staff and belaboured him over the wrists until he let go. Davison then seized a sword, which he was prevented using. In consequence of this resistance most of the officers were prevented from entering the loft in which these persons were, but were obliged to remain below while some of the party escaped by means of a ropeladder, [actually, it did not exist] which they (it appeared) had cautiously placed out of a back window in case (it is supposed) they were detected. As they escaped the resistance became less, and the whole of the officers, except those injured, endeavoured to enter the place, and to secure nine of the offenders, who had received much injury…”

Thistlewood was identified as the one who had stabbed constable Smithers, who died soon afterwards. Several of the gang attempted to fight but were quickly seized; Thistlewood, John Brunt, Robert Adams and John Harrison escaped out of a back window, but were arrested within a few hours due to Edwards’ detailed information.

According to Ruthven, in the loft at Cato Street, they found a large cache of bayonets, pistols, boxes of ammunition, and other items. Searching John Brunt’s lodgings, the constables also uncovered

“Nine papers with rope yarn and tar in different papers, and some steel filings; in another basket there were four grenades, three papers of rope yarn and tar, two flannel bags of powder, one pound each, five flannel bags, empty, one paper with powder in it, and one leather bag with sixty-three balls in it – this was all that was in the basket; an iron pot and pike handle…  a box about two feet and a half long, full of ball cartridges. I counted them – there were 965. I also found ten grenades, and a great quantity of gunpowder. I also found in a haversack 434 balls, 171 ball cartridges, 69 ball cartridges without powder, about three pounds of gunpowder in a paper, the ten grenades which I spoke of before, they were in a brown wrapper, tied up, eleven bags of gunpowder, each containing one pound, which were in flannel bags, and ten flannel bags, empty; a small bag with a powder flask, sixty-eight musket balls, four flints, and twenty-seven pikehandles…”

Ten men were eventually charged with being involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy; their trial was held on 28th April 1820.

Having been burned once trying to use the evidence of spies in court against the Spenceans (after the Spa Fields riot), Sidmouth decided not to produce Edwards in court as a witness. Instead, two of the conspirators, Robert Adams and John Monument, were persuaded to turns king’s evidence and implicate the others, in return for charges being dropped against them. Their evidence was enough to convict the rest.

The plotters were charged with
1. Conspiring to devise plans to subvert the Constitution. 2. Conspiring to levy war, and subvert the Constitution. 3. Conspiring to murder divers of the Privy Council. 4. Providing arms to murder divers of the Privy Council. 5. Providing arms and ammunition to levy war and subvert the Constitution. 6. Conspiring to seize cannon, arms and ammunition to arm themselves, and to levy war and subvert the Constitution. 7. Conspiring to burn houses and barracks, and to provide combustibles for that purpose. 8. Preparing addresses, & c. containing incitements to the King’s subjects to assist in levying war and subverting the Constitution. 82 9. Preparing an address to the King’s subjects, containing therein that their tyrants were destroyed, &c., to incite them to assist in levying war, and in subverting the Constitution. 10. Assembling themselves with arms, with intent to murder divers of the Privy Council, and to levy war, and subvert the Constitution. 11. Levying war.

…among other charges…

In court, however, the defendants claimed that Edwards had been an agent provocateur, the initiator of the plot. According to Ings:

“The Attorney-General knows Edwards. He knew all the plans for two months before I was acquainted with it. When I was before Lord Sidmouth, a gentleman said Lord Sidmouth knew all about this for two months. I consider myself murdered if Edwards is not brought forward. I am willing to die on the scaffold with him.

I conspired to put Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth out of this world, but I did not intend to commit High Treason. I did not expect to save my own life, but I was determined to die a martyr in my country’s cause.”

Davidson wavered between claiming innocence and defending the group’s actions, stating: “It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny… And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword… Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards?”

Thistlewood tried to justify his assassination attempt against the Privy Council but the Lord Chief Justice would not let him finish, interrupting that such “incendiary treason was not allowed in the courtroom.”

John Brunt declared in court before sentence was passed, that he had, “by his industry, been able to earn about £3 or £4 a-week, and while this was the case, he never meddled with politics; but when he found his income reduced to 10s. a-week, he began to look about him. And what did he find? Why, men in power, who met to deliberate how they might starve and plunder the country. He looked on the Manchester transactions as most dreadful. … He had joined the conspiracy for the public good. He was not the man who would have stopt. 0 no: he would have gone on”

On 28th April 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange and Charles Copper were also found guilty but their original sentence of execution was subsequently commuted to transportation for life.

More than one of the prisoners composed defiant verses while awaiting sentence, including a poem with the lines:

Tyrants. Ye fill the poor with dread
And take way his right
And raise the price of meat and bread
            And thus his labour blight

You never labour, never toil,
But you can can and drink;
You never cultivate the soil,
            Nor of the poor man think …

Facing death, James Ings wrote to his wife: “My dear Celia… I must die according to law, and leave you in a land full of corruption, where justice and liberty has taken their flight from, to other distant shores. . . – Now, my dear, I hope you will bear in mind that the cause of my being consigned to the scaffold was a pure motive. I thought I should have rendered my starving fellow-men, women, and children, a service…”

On May 1st, 1820, Thistlewood, Davidson, Ings, Tidd, and Brunt were taken to Newgate Prison, where they were publicly hanged. Soldiers were stationed nearby, out of sight of the crowd, and large banners had been prepared with a painted order to disperse, to be displayed to the crowd if trouble caused the authorities to invoke the Riot Act. In the event there was no trouble.

John Hobhouse attended the execution, and later wrote: “The men died like heroes. Ings, perhaps, was too obstreperous in singing Death or Liberty” and records Thistlewood as saying, “Be quiet, Ings; we can die without all this noise.”

After their hanging, the men were decapitated. After the bodies had hung for half an hour, they were lowered one at a time and an unidentified individual in a black mask decapitated them against an angled block with a small knife. Each beheading was accompanied by shouts, booing and hissing from the crowd and each head was displayed to the assembled spectators, declaring it to be the head of a traitor, before placing it in the coffin with the remainder of the body.

The remaining defendants, James Wilson, John Harrison, Richard Bradburn, John Shaw Strange, and Charles Cooper were forced to witness the executions of their comrades, then quickly taken to Portsmouth and put on board the transport ship, the Guildford, which sailed on May 2nd, arriving in New South Wales, Australia on September 20, 1820. A letter from Under-Secretary for War and the Colonies, Henry Goulburn, was sent to the Governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, warning him to keep watch over the men because of their involvement with revolutionary activities. The men were sent to work at the Jail Gang at Newcastle but there is no record of the five men continuing with radical activities; in fact Strange eventually became the chief constable at Bathurst.

During the trial, Edwards was concealed by the government on the island of Guernsey. However, questions were soon being asked about his role in the affair. The day after the execution, Matthew Wood stated in the House of Commons that he had information that revealed that Edwards was an agent provocateur who had organised the conspiracy himself and then betrayed it for ‘Blood Money’. Joseph Hume complained that Edwards was one of several spies that the government had used to incite rebellion in an effort to smear the campaign for parliamentary reform.

The government decided Edwards needed to be removed from the scene permanently and arranged for him to obtain a new identity, and to be resettled in South Africa (a favourite place for rehousing UK government spies for many years). Edwards died there in 1843.

The atmosphere of suspicion and bitterness among the London radicals is illustrated in the sad letter of Richard Carlile to William Davidson’s wife Sarah, after the execution. Carlile had suspected Davidson of being a police spy, after the latter had offered to spring Carlile from Dorchester Jail, where he was imprisoned. Carlile had even accused Davidson of being a nark in his journal, The Republican, shortly after the arrests at Cato Street… In May he apologised to Sarah:
“Little did I think that villain Edwards was the spy, agent, and instigator of the government, and Mr. Davidson his victim. I now regret my error, and hope that you will pardon it as an error of the head, without any bad motive. Be assured that the heroic manner in which your husband and his companions met their fate, will in a few years, perhaps in a few months, stamp their names as patriots, and men who had nothing but their country’s weal at heart. I flatter myself as your children grow up, they will find that the fate of their father will rather procure them respect and admiration than its reverse.”

That the Cato Street Conspiracy was linked to some kind of national plan for an uprising seems likely, though the 23rd February plot was possibly entered into earlier than some previously discussed date – possibly 1st April.

There were several attempted risings in the weeks following the arrest of the conspirators – in Scotland, and Yorkshire. All were small, confused and easily defeated, as they had also been heavily penetrated by spies – in fact, like the Cato Street plot, spies had largely orchestrated the events to entrap the ultra-radicals. To be fair, the radicals walked right into it, as they were up for revolt anyway…

[There’s a good account of the Scottish insurrection in The Radical Rising: the Scottish Insurrection of 1820, by Peter Beresford Ellis & Seumas Mac a’ Ghobhainn
and this article discusses the way the various attempts at revolt in 1820 were viewed and portrayed in writing at the time.

The abortive attempt to organise revolution in 1820 was almost certainly doomed from its inception; even without the actions of informers, such coup attempts are hard to pull off, and no substitute for mass movements. Whatever the links of the Spenceans to groups in Scotland, Yorkshire and elsewhere, there were just not enough in terms of numbers to succeed. As in the late 1790s, 1802 and the later Chartist uprising attempts in 1839 and 1848, it was desperation in the face of a wider movement that had disappointed, that led to conspiracy.

 

Ministers and others, holding hands, caper in a ring round a pole to which are symmetrically attached the decollated heads of the Cato Street conspirators executed on 1 May, see No. 13707, &c. Between Sidmouth and the smiling Castlereagh is a man wearing a black mask, and with a blood-stained knife in his mouth, perhaps one of the two who turned King’s evidence. On the right, taking Castlereagh’s left hand, is the Attorney-General, Gifford, grinning diabolically. Holding Sidmouth’s left hand is Vansittart (in his gown). Facing these two are Canning and Chief Justice Abbott in his robes. Four others are poorly characterized. They dance to a fiddle played by Edwards who sits on a grassy mound (right), with an empty gibbet behind his head. He says: “Dance away my Friends, I have been the cause of all this fun by your Help and Money. “Edwards the Instigator!!!”

 

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

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Today in London radical history: Chartist socialist George Julian Harney born Deptford, 1817.

George Julian Harney was a central figure in London’s Chartist movement, as well as playing a significant part nationally, and became an early socialist.
The following text gives a brief account of his life, concentrating on his Chartist days.

Deptford’s Red Republican: George Julian Harney, 1817-1897
By Terry Liddle

As well as being dedicated to the memory of George Julian Harney, this text is also dedicated to the memory of Albert Standley, a pioneer of modern Republicanism.

In 1840, Harney stated: “Be ours the task to accomplish by one glorious effort the freedom of our country.” Let’s do it!

GEORGE JULIAN HARNEY was born in Deptford, then an important maritime centre, in February 17, 1817. As early as the end of the 18th century ship builders in the area had starled to organise trade unions and from the 1830s onward there would be an active Charlist movement. Harney’s father had served as an able seaman in the wars with France. Orphaned early in life. Harney’s education was rudimentary until at the age of 11 he entered the Boys School at Greenwich. Three Years later he went to sea as a cabin boy visiting Portugal and Brazil. Physically unsuited to the hard seafaring life, after six months at sea he returned to London, taking up various jobs ashore. At this time the agitation around the Reform Bill, with both the new industrial middle class and the more numerous working class struggling for the vote, was at its zenith and Harney soon became involved.

In 1832. he look a job as shop boy at the Poor Man’s Guardian. Published by Henry Hetherington, a Freethinker and Owenite Socialist, it had a circulation of 16,000. The Publications Act of 1819 had imposed on newspapers a stamp duty of sixpence which placed them beyond the pocket of working class readers. The Radicals of the day saw this as an unjust tax on knowledge and defiantly published unstamped papers. Hundreds of sellers of the unstamped press were imprisoned for the right to read and sell their own publications. Harney served his political apprenticeship in this struggle being imprisoned three times between the years 1831 and 1836.

HARNEY AND O’BRIEN

On release from Derby prison, Harney became friends with the Poor Man’s Guardian editor Bronterre O’Brien. O’Brien was a keen student of the French Revolution, translating Buonarroti’s history of Babeuf’s conspiracy and writing a biography of Robespierre. Harney followed his example. Of their friendship, O’Brien’s biographer, Alfred Plummer, wrote: “These two spirited young men, filled with revolutionary fervour, were united in conviction that given universal suffrage and the dispersal of mass ignorance… the march of regeneration would be swift and sure, all that was oppressive would be overthrown and triumphant justice would take the place of extirpated wrong.”

The London Mercury of March 12, 1837 noted the formation of the East London Democratic Association noting: “We admire the objects and principles of this new society and shall not fail to give it all the support and encouragement in our power.” Leading figures were Harney, Charles Neeson, a Painite tailor, and Allen Davenport, a shoemaker and follower of Thomas Spence. On June 11, 1837, the ELDA met to consider a motion put by Harney urging the formation of a Central National Association as the only rational means of not only obtaining universal sufflage but also the overthrow of the moneyed tyrants who grind the sons of labour into the dust.

The Central National Association was duly formed and met to consider a motion from Harney and O’Brien advocating physical force as the means to radical reform. However, the CNA was short lived, being wrecked by a dispute resulting from Harney’s attack on the conduct of the Irish MP Daniel O’Connell. Hamey and his followers formed the London Democratic Association. With a solid base among Spitalfields silkweavers and other London trades, its membership was 4,000. Its aims as stated by Harney included universal suffrage, abolition of newspaper taxes and the Poor Law, the 8 hour day and support for trade unions.

At Christmas 1838 Hamey visited Newcastle which had elected him a delegate to the forthcoming Chartist National Convention. Thousands turned out on Christmas day to listen to, and applaud, his call for physical force. Harney continued his speaking tour in Yorkshire and Lancashire, men armed with muskets and pikes attending mass torchlight meetings. Harney at the time was so poor he had to wait in a tailor’s shop while his one pair of trousers was being repaired. The mood was one of revolution, thousands coming to see the forthcoming Convention as the country’s real government.

A week before the Convention gathered in London, Harney addressed a mass meeting in Derby. He proclaimed: “We demand universal suffrage because it is our right and not only because it is our right but because we believe that it will bring freedom to our country and happiness to our homesteads, we believe it will give us bread and beef and beer.”

The convention met on February 4, 1839. An absent delegate was George Loveless who had been transported to Australia for his trade union activities in Tolpuddle. The Convention decided to seek the support of MPs for a petition with over a million signatures supporting the People’s Charter. For Harney this was an absurd waste of time. The LDA attempted to place before the Convention a motion stating that every act of oppression should be answered with immediate resistance. This was rejected. A mass meeting on March 11 addressed by Harney and O’Brien advised the Chartists to arm themselves. The Convention began to discuss the people’s right to arm. Harney again underlines his position in the pages of the London Democrat: “…there is but one means of obtaining the Charter and that is by insurrection.”

An alarmed government began mobilising the military and a new police, Armed gatherings were banned and magistrates given the power to prohibit meetings.

With things reaching crisis point, at Harney’s suggestion the Convention relocated to Birmingham on May 13. The police raided the LDA’s offices, but Harney escaped arrest having already left for Birmingham. A warrant for his arrest was sworn out on May 17. In Birmingham, serious rioting broke out when the police attacked a small meeting. It was only at the urging of Chartist leaders that the rioters dispersed. The authorities reacted by arresting Taylor and several other Chartist leaders. More riots broke out in Birmingham and elsewhere when parliament rejected the Charter on July 15. The Convention’s leaders, unable or unwilling to head a revolution, issued a call for a general strike only to reverse their decision when it became clear that it lacked support. Finally, at the urging of Harney and Taylor the Convention dissolved itself.

The authorities caught tip with Harney at Bedlington near Newcastle, their aim being to return him to Birmingham via Carlisle. In Carlisle he had to be smuggled out of the back door of an inn, an angry crowd demanding his release surrounding the front. When news of his arrest became known in Newcastle the town, was plastered with posters calling the people to action. Miners in the area struck and started marching on Newcastle. A ban on meetings was defied and rioting broke out. Once again it was the Chartist leaders who defused the situation,

By the Spring of 1840 over five hundred Chartists were in prison. Harney was held in Warwick Castle but later released. A rising in Wales had failed and its leaders had suffered transportation. Some died behind bars. In 1842 Harney spoke at the graveside of Sheffield Chartist Samuel Holberry who had died in prison aged twenty seven. “He is numbered with the patriots who have died martyrs for the cause of liberty…”, proclaimed Harney. Harney’s own trial collapsed when the Crown withdrew its case. Scotland was the only place where Chartist leaders were still at liberty and after his trial Hamey went there for a lecture tour which lasted a year. It was there that he met and married Mary Cameron, a weaver’s daughter, to whom he was greatly devoted. His activities in Scotland he reported himself in the pages of the Northern Star. Selling at fourpence halfpenny, it had a circulation of thirty thousand

A STRIKE DEFEATED

While his politics remained the same he was a Jacobin cast in the mould of Marat, the tone of his oratory altered considerably. He now stressed national organisation instead of immediate insurrection. There was now a line of caution and moderation in his speeches. During the Plug Plot Riots of 1842, when the Chartists again tried to win their demands by means of a general strike and troops fired on strikers in Blackburn, Halifax and Preston. Harney, feeling that the strike lacked real mass support, urged moderation much to the dismay of many of his supporters. Harney felt that the strike had been provoked by the manufacturers in a bid to secure repeal of the Corn Laws. Basing his analysis on the situation in Sheffield, where after a mass meeting had supported the strike, several trade union secretaries then opposed it, he wrote in the Northern Star of September 3, 1842: “I would have joined into it heart and soul but no sane man could come to any other conclusion than that the great mass of the people of Sheffield Trades were deadly hostile to any such scheme”. At a conference in Sheffield he pointed out that strikers had returned to work two days after being fired on by troops.

By the middle of August, 1842 the strike had been defeated. The government celebrated by arresting over one thousand five hundred Chartists. Of these, in excess of six hundred were put on trial, forty being transported. Peter M’Douall, a prominent strike leaders, fled to France. The strike, however, was instrumental in ending the Corn Laws, the Home Secretary in 1842, giving the strike as the reason for their abolition. Harney may well have been right.

Harney had settled in Sheffield in 1841 having been appointed full time Chartist organiser for the West Riding. The strength of Chartism in this part of Yorkshire can be judged from the facts that over fifteen thousand people turned out to celebrate the French Revolution of 1848 and that by the following year Chartists held nearly half the seats on Sheffield Town Council. He also became local correspondent for the Northem Star. His political ideas remained unchanged and his opposition to union between the middle class reformers of Joseph Sturge’s Complete Suffrage Union and the Chartists brought him into conflict with his old mentor O’Brien. Hamey, and the Northem Star with him, took the view that even if the Union’s reform proposals were adopted the working class would still be left prostrate before capitalists and speculators. The project fell apart when after a conference in 1842 adopted the Charter in name, an earlier conference having adopted its six points, Sturge withdrew. The whole sorry episode, however, had as its legacy further divisions within the Chartists ranks.

One charge thrown at the Chartists was that of infidelity. Hamey was himself an infidel. In Derby he aided the secularist booksellers Finlay and Robinson and when Holyoake was imprisoned for blasphemy Harney acted as agent for his Oracle of Reason. In a letter to Holyoake dated April 22, 1844, Harney made it plain that he was “war with all priesthoods and priestcrafts” along with republicanism and communism as part of Chartism’s future. However when the Reverend John Campbell again hurled the charge of infidelity Hamey replied: “There is nothing concerning infidelity in the Charter… The Charter promises to confer on all men… the rights of citizenship…”

In 1843 Hamey became sub editor of the Northem Star moving to Leeds where it was published. From then until 1850 the paper was under Harney’s effective control. he taking the editorial chair in 1845. During this period Harney often found himself out of step with much mainstream Chartist thinking. In particular he opposed the Land Plan a scheme whereby Chartists would buy land and settle it as smallholders. While the first estate named for Chartist leader Feargus O’Connor worked well for a while in the end the plan failed. As the historian of Chartism, Reg Groves put it: “… it was an attempt to circumvent historical development; to find a way to escape from industrial development, instead of seeking the way forward through the utilisation of the new production power”.

A striking feature of the Northern Star was Harney’s reports of international events. In this he drew on an international tradition that went back to the Civil War. Early in his political career, Harney had come into contact with Polish refugees from the failed uprising of 1831 and had later joined the Polish Democratic Association. In 1844 the Northem Star moved to London bringing Hamey into contact with the various groupings of political refugees. Within this milieu were French, Germans and Italians as well as Poles.

The Poles were organised in the Polish Democratic Association and Lud Polski. The French had been in contact with English Chartists since 1840. That year Karl Schapper, Heinrich Bauer and Joseph Moll had founded the German Workers Education Society. Schapper and Bauer were members of the League of the Just founded in Paris in 1836, members fighting in an abortive uprising In 1839. The Italians were mostly followers of Mazzini who aimed for a united Italian Republic. Together with some English Chartists they founded an International Peoples League in 1847.

0ut of this gathering of hardline republicans there arose, following a banquet in celebration of the French Revolution, the Fraternal Democrats. Its slogan “All Men are Brothers” was that of the League of the Just. The Fraternal Democrats can truly be said to be a forerunner of the First International of which Harney would become a member. Its statement of aims stated: “Convinced… that national prejudices have been, in all ages, taken advantage of by the people’s oppressors to set them tearing the throats of each other, when they could have been working together for their common good, this Society repudiates the term ‘foreigner’, no matter by, or to whom applied.” Hamey was a fervent member. appealing in the Northern Star “… to the oppressed of every land for the triumph of the common cause.” This did not stop Marx sending Hamey what he called “a mild attack on the peacefulness of the Fraternal Democrats.”

FRANCE AND IRELAND

It was at a banquet to celebrate the 1848 French Revolution that Harney and O’Brien were reconciled, O’Brien speaking in favour of a union of Chartists and Socialists. When the Fraternal Democrats met on Robespierre’s birthday, Harney was in the chair and according to the Democratic Review O’Brien’s vindication of the character of the victim of Thermidor was enthusiastically applauded. O’Brien proposed a toast to Harney and other toasts were to the memory of Robert Ernmett and the health of Smith O’Brien and other Irish patriots. Paine, Washington and Ernest Jones were also honoured. Soon afterwards O’Brien was the main speaker at a meeting held to protest the suppression of electoral reform in France. He bitterly attacked the money class in France who sought to keep the people poor by robbing them of the fruits of their labours.

O’Brien, also spoke at a meeting to protest the treatment of William Smith O’Brien, an Irish nationalist who had been transported on a flimsy charge of high treason. In 1838 over one hundred Chartists and workers organisations had signed an address to the Irish people which stated: “… seeing that the productive classes of the two islands have the same wants and the same enemies; why should they not look forward to the same remedy and make common cause against the same oppressor …” Harney was also a friend of Ireland, speaking from the Irish platform at the Kennington Common demonstration of 1848 and writing in the Red Republican: “It is high time the proletarians of Great Britain and Ireland came into possession of their rightful heritage…”

The Fraternal Democrats’ politics can be judged from a speech delivered by Harney in 1846 to the German Democratic Society for the Education of the Working Class. Said Harney: “The cause of the common people of all countries is the same the cause of labour… In each country the slavery of the many and the tyranny of the few are variously developed, but the principle in all is the same… Working men of all nations are not your grievances the same? Is not. then, your good cause one and the same also? We may differ as to the means … but the great end the veritable emancipation of the human race must be the aim and the end of all May the working classes of all nations combine in brotherhood for the triumph of their common cause.”

The Fraternal Democrats’ programme as outlined by Harney, declared: “We renounce, repudiate and condemn all hereditary inequalities and distinctions of caste. we declare that the present state of society which permits idlers and schemers to monopolise the fruits of the earth, and the productions of industry, and compels the working class to labour for inadequate rewards. and ever condemns them to social slavery, destitution and degradation is essentially unjust…”

MARX AND ENGELS

Harney and Engels first met in 1843, Harney wrote of their encounter: “…he came from Bradford to Leeds and inquired for me at the Northern Star office. A tall, handsome young man… whose English… was even then remarkable for its accuracy. He told me he was a constant reader of the Northern Star and took a keen interest in the Chartist movement. Thus began our friendship …” Engels started writing for the Northern Star in 1844. Despite Harney’s later split with Marx, his friendship with Engels endured. And fifty years later when Engels died Hamey contributed a moving obituary to the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle.

Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor looked fondly upon the years of friendship between Harney and Engels. In 1887 she wrote in the Democratic Review: “…it has been my good fortune to know as a child George Julian Harney … only a few months ago 1 heard Harney and Engels talking of Chartist times.”

Harney first met Marx in 1845 during a short visit by the latter to England. The following year Marx and Engels were suggesting that Harney act as the link between the London Communists and their group in Brussels. Harney, who had joined the League of the Just in 1846, was closer to Marx’s critics who looked on the group in Belgium as “literary characters” guilty of “intellectual arrogance”. Marx and Engels toyed with the idea of ending relations with the London exiles and making a private deal with Harney but it was fruitless. Meanwhile the Northern Star reported greetings from the Belgium Communists to O’Connor who has stood as a Chartist in a by election.

In 1847 Harney stood for election in Tiverton where he opposed Lord Palmerston. ln his election address, Harney stated: “I would… oppose all wars and interventions except those which the voice of the people might pronounce absolutely indispensable for self defence, or the protection of the weak against the powerful. I would labour to put an end to the alliance of this country with despotic governments…” So worried was Palmerston by Harney’s attack that his reply filled five columns of The Times. On a show of hands Harney was overwhelmingly elected but declined to go to the poll in protest at an undemocratic franchise.

That year Marx returned to London to attend the second conference of the Communist League. While there he addressed a gathering of the Fraternal Democrats in celebration of the 1830 Polish Revolution. The Northern Star reported: “Dr. Marx… was greeted with every demonstration of welcome. The Democrats of Belgium felt that the Chartists of England were the real Democrats and that the moment they carried the six points of their Charter, the road to liberty would be opened to the whole world.” “Carry your object then”, said the speaker, “and you will be hailed as the saviours of the whole human race.”

In the course of his speech, Marx pointed out that the downfall of the established order is no loss for those having nothing to lose in the old society and this is the case in all countries for the great majority. They have, rather, everything to gain from the collapse of the old society which is the condition for the building of a new society no longer based on class oppression.

REVOLUTION!

Europe in 1848 was aflame with revolution. In France the monarchy of Louis Phillipe was overthrown and a republic proclaimed. The French Provisional Government invited Marx to France and even offered him money to start a newspaper. The Chartists welcomed the upheaval which saw the tricolour everywhere next to the red flag. The National Charter Association, the London Chartists and the Fraternal Democrats addressed the Parisian people in these words: “…you have exhibited a spectacle of unparalleled heroism, and thereby set an example to the enslaved nations of the earth … the fire that consumed the throne of the royal traitor and tyrant “I kindle the torch of liberty in every country of Europe.”

Harney, together with Emest Jones and Phillip McGraith, was sent to France to deliver this address to the Provincial Government. At the Hotel de Ville in Paris he assured France of the support of the British people, presenting Ledru Rollin with the original of the address adorned with the tricolour. This was hung over the presidential chair in the hall of audience. Hamey and Jones then went to meet with Marx.

When British intervention against France looked likely, the Fraternal Democrats issued a manifesto which stated: “Workingmen of Great Britain and Ireland, ask yourselves the question: why should you arm and fight for the preservation of institutions in the privileges of which you have no share … why should you arm and fight for the protection of property which you can only regard as the accumulated plunder of the fruits of your labour? Let the privileged and the property owners fight their own battles.” Jones assured the Fraternal Democrats that “the Book of Kings was fast closing in the Bible of Humanity.” The Northern Star editorialised: “…as France has secured her beloved Republic, so Ireland must have her parliament restored and England her idolised Charter.”

A banned meeting in Trafalgar Square proclaimed support for the Charter and the French Revolution. A riot ensued with lamps near Buckingham Palace being smashed to the alarm of Frau Guelph. Town after town held monster rallies under the tricolour hailing France and the Charter; a joint Irish and Chartist meeting in Edinburgh sung The Marseillaise. At Kennington Common twenty thousand gathered with the tricolour in the face of armed police.

In London a Chartist Convention assembled on April 4. Harney reported that his constituents had resolved that the forthcoming petition would be the last presented to the Commons as presently constituted. All delegates reported growing willingness to use physical force if the Charter was again rejected.

A march on parliament to present the petition was banned. Harney replied that the Chartists shouldn’t meet at all unless they were prepared to fight for the demonstration. Government buildings were barricaded, clerks armed and specials sworn in. The Empress decamped for the Isle of Wight. Troops were deployed and heavy guns brought up from Woolwich. As the Chartists prepared to demand their rights, the government, mindful of events in France, prepared for war!

On April 10, the Chartists assembled to hear O’Connor beg them to call things off claiming he would be shot. By 10am the Chartists with banners calling for “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” and “Ireland for the Irish” were on the march. In their midst was a carriage carrying the petition with over five million signatures. It was followed by another carriage with Hamey in the front seat. Eventually one hundred and fifty thousand gathered on Kennington Common. There O’Connor said he made a deal with the police they would allow the meeting if the march was called off. Various platforms were set up with Harney among the speakers. By 2pm the crowd was starting to disperse. Apart from a few scuffles there was no violence. Britain was not France!

The National Convention reconvened on May 1. Harney had been forbidden by O’Connor, his employer, to attend. The Convention became a short lived National Assembly. The National Charter Association was reorganised and links with the Irish Republicans (Ireland in the grip of the Great Hunger was ill prepared as Britain for revolution). There was talk of an uprising in the summer. In Bradford thousands marched with pikes. Northern Chartists resolved to form a National Guard and there were riots in Manchester. At London’s Bonner’s Fields, Jones assured his audience that the Chartist green flag would fly over Downing Street. This was not to be so.

The state struck first, the Irish heading the list. John Mitchell, editor of the United Irishman was transported being held en route in the Woolwich hulks. He was followed by Smith O’Brien whose rising in Tipperary failed. Next came the Chartists. London Chartists were found guilty of conspiring to levy was against Victoria. In Liverpool two were sentenced to death and five transported. Jones got two years.

Somehow, Harney remained at liberty. Amongst Chartists not behind bars the mood became one of despair and defeatism. Many now repudiated revolution and sought an alliance with middle class advocates of a limited extension of the franchise. Splits occurred and rival organisations were set up. Harney was on both the executive of the NCA and a provisional executive set up by London Chartists.

If some moved Right, Harney moved Left. As the Red Republican put it: “they have progressed from the idea of a simple political reform to the idea of Social Revolution.” For the Left, Chartism was now “… the cause of the producers, and the battle of this enslaved class is now the battle we fight, but it must be fought under the red flag… the task given to us at present is to rally our brother proletarians en masse around the flag, by means of a democratic and social propaganda, an agitation for the Charter and something more.”

Harney was now removed from the Northern Star by O’Connor who accused him of advocating murder, a charge repudiated by the NCA. Unity moves in the form of a National Charter and Social Reform Union was stillborn. The Chartist Convention of 1851 issued a statement emphasising that Chartism should be the protector of the oppressed and should recognise that a political change would be useless unless accompanied by a social change. The Red Republican appealed for reports from trade unions and co operative societies. By the end of the 1850s Chartism was a spent force.

Fired from the Northern Star, Harney started publication of the monthly Democratic Review. This carded articles from a wide range of Radicals including Engels. It also republished articles by Marx.

The Democratic Review was followed by the Red Republican which appeared on June 22, 1850. At its masthead was the bonnet rouge and the red flag. Articles advocated the expropriation of docks, canals and railways and even the abolition of money. In its pages was published the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto.

Faced with a booksellers’ boycott, the name was changed to the Friend of the People. It was published from 1850 to 1852 when it merged with the Northern Star, then the Vanguard, to become the Star of Freedom. Harney’s final publication was the Vanguard which ceased publication in 1853.

AN UNWELCOME VISITOR

In 1850 there came to Britain the Austrian general Haynau, notorious for his activities in Hungary and Italy including the flogging of women. On a visit to the Barclay brewery in Southwark, workers answered Harney’s call for protests by grabbing Haynau, cutting off his moustache and flogging him. Chased through the brewery, he hid in a dustbin until tile police rescued him. The rest of his visit was spent in bed recovering. The event was the subject of a popular song.

By this lime Harney and Jones had fallen out, hurling accusations of dictatorship. Determined to defeat Harney, Jones called a convention in Manchester. There he was triumphant but he was powerless to halt Chartism’s decline. Unity moves, opposed by Hamey, again failed. The last Chartist Convention met in 1858. It was the end.

Hamey had also fallen out with Marx who was now living in London. The cause of the breach was Harney’s willingness to open the pages of his publications to a wide range of exiles including those with whom Marx was engaged in fractional strife.

At a Fraternal Democrats event in 1848 Marx had met with the followers of the French revolutionary Blanqui. Out of this there was organised the Universal Society of Communist Revolutionaries. Among those signing its statutes were Marx, Engels and Harney.

Early in 1851 Harney spoke at a meeting to commemorate the Polish patriot Bem, organised by French followers of Blanqui and Louis Blanc. That year he managed to be at rival events celebrating the 1848 French Revolution. The first was organised by the European Central Democratic Committee organised by Mazzini and others. Its statements ‘were regular features in the Red Republican and the Friend of the People.

The other was presided over by Schapper, an opponent of Marx. During the course of the meeting, two of Marx’s followers, Schram and Pieper, were accused of being spies and roughed up. Despite Harney’s defence of Schram, in the Friend of the People of March 15, 1850, Marx, now broke off cordial relations with Harney attacking him as an “impresionable plebeian”. Some months later they met again at a tea party celebrating Robert Owen’s 80th birthday. They did not meet again for 25 years a chance encounter on Waterloo Station. Harney, however, continued to hold Marx in high esteem even offering to set up a fund to spread his ideas among British workers.

Increasingly politically isolated, Harney suffered a severe blow with the death of his wife in 1853. At the end of the year he moved to Newcastle where he tried to organise a Republican Brotherhood with Joseph Cowan. Two years later he moved to Jersey continuing to work as a journalist, resigning from his paper when it supported the Confederates in the American Civil War. In 1863 he emigrated to America.

There he worked as a clerk continuing to write articles for the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle, now his only contact with the political world. When Charles Bradlaugh visited America in 1873, Harney acted as his guide.

In 1881 Harney returned to England. Living in Richmond, despite worsening health he continued working as a Journalist. Unlike some veteran Chartists he did not join H.M. Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation. He did, however, send greetings to the striking dockers in 1889 and was present at the May Day demonstration in 1890.

Shortly before his death Hamey was interviewed for the SDF’s Social Democrat by Edward Aveling. Aveling wrote: “I see in this old man a link between the years and the years. I know that long after the rest of us are forgotten the name George Julian Harney will be remembered with thankfulness and tears”. There can be no better epitaph!

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This text was originally published as a pamphlet by the Friends of George Julian Harney, in 1997, to commemorate the 100th annversary of Harney’s death. Republished in a slightly revised edition, 2002.

In memory of the author, Terry Liddle, libertarian socialist, freethinker, working class historian, and dedicated southeast Londoner, who died in 2012.

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

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Today in London’s radical history, 1834: Reformer & bookseller ‘Clio’ Rickman dies, Fitzrovia.

Thomas ‘Clio’ Rickman (1761–1834), bookseller and reformer, was born in Lewes, on 27 July 1761. Both his parents were quakers. He was originally apprenticed to an uncle practising as a doctor at Maidenhead, with a view to a career in medicine.

But when he was about seventeen years old, there came meeting that was to set his life on a different course. Revisiting his old home of Lewes, he met Thomas Paine, the freethinker, who was living in the town, working as an exciseman, in the late 1760s.
Both men joined the Headstrong Club, a debating society, which met at the White Hart Inn in Lewes. Due to Rickman’s precocious penchant for poetry and history, he acquired the nickname of ‘Clio’, which he used as a pseudonym in his later writing. Rickman, like Paine,  also dabbled in invention and mechanical innovation…

His friendship with the by-then notorious Paine, as well as his marriage to a non-quaker, got Rickman expelled from the Society of Friends in 1783. He left Lewes and moved to London, setting up as a bookseller, at first at 39 Leadenhall Street, in the City, and later at 7 Upper Marylebone Street, where he spent the remainder of his life. (This building was demolished, but stood on the site of what is now 148 New Cavendish Street.)

Tom Paine stayed at Rickman’s house in 1791 and 1792; it was there that he completed the second part of his classic book, ‘The Rights of Man.’ (Rickman later fixed a small commemorative plaque on the small table at which Paine wrote; the desk was exhibited, with many other relics of Rickman, at a Paine exhibition, in December 1895). Rickman mingled in the London radical, reforming and literary circles that Paine also moved in around this time, and his house hosted dinners and discussion that attracted figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Romney, and John Horne Tooke, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley, and William Blake…

Rickman later wrote an account of Paine and his associates at this time:

‘Mr. Paine’s life in London was a quiet round of philosophical leisure and enjoyment. It was occupied in writing, in a small epistolary correspondence, in walking about with me to visit different friends, occasionally lounging at coffee-houses and public places, or being visited by a select few. Lord Edward Fitzgerald [supporter of the United Irishmen rebellion]; the French and American ambassadors, Mr. Sharp the engraver, Romney the painter, Mrs. Wollstonecraft, Joel Barlow [American diplomat and poet], … Mr. Christie [Scottish republican pamphleteer], Dr. Priestly [scientist and dissenting preacher],…the walking Stewart [so named for having walked from India to Europe via Russia], Captain Sampson Perry [editor of The Argus, a Republican journal], … Mr. Horne Tooke [leader of the Society for Constitutional Information] &c. &c were among the number of his friends and acquaintance…

… at a dinner party with several of the above, and other characters of great interest and talent, Horne Tooke happened to sit between Mr. Paine and Madame D’Eon [French transvestite and spy]; for this character was, at this time, indisputably feminine. Tooke, whose wit and brilliant conversation was ever abundant, looking on each side of him, said, “I am now in the most extraordinary situation in which ever man was placed. On the left of me sits a gentleman, who, brought up in obscurity, has proved himself the greatest political writer in the world, and has made more noise in it, and excited more attention and obtained more fame, than any man ever did. On the right of me sits a lady, who has been employed in public situations at different courts; who had high rank in the army, was greatly skilled in horsemanship, who has fought several duels, and at the small sword had no equal; who for fifty years past, all Europe has recognised in the character and dress of a gentleman.” – “Ah!” replied Madame D’Eon, “these are very extraordinary things, indeed, Monsieur Tooke, and proves you did not know what was at the bottom.”

— Thomas ‘Clio’ Rickman Life and Works of Thomas Paine 1819

Rickman was later to include biographical notes on many of these characters in his ‘Life of Paine,’ which he published in 1819, the major work of his life.

But his association with Paine continued to get him into trouble, especially as Paine became more notorious and his ideas more suspect, in the context of the French Revolution (which Paine had both supported and later helped to inspire/worked for) accelerated and became more radical. Rickman was often in trouble for selling Paine’s books. At the close of 1792, he was forced into hiding as he was targeted for this.

In 1794 he was again in trouble with the authorities, for publishing and selling the ‘Rights of Man’; in 1802, he was forced to flee to France for a while.

Paine was by then living in Paris; Rickman accompanied him to Le Havre, as Paine set off on his final trip to America. This was in September 1802: they would never meet again.

In 1804 Clio was arrested once again; although he was bailed, all his books and papers were confiscated.

In 1812, Clio was again involved in the publication of Daniel Eaton’s edition of Paine’s “Third Part” of The Age of Reason, in 1812, a book which directly questioned the place of organised religion in any civilised society, and provided an introduction to the publication by Eaton, for which he went to prison in 1812. In 1822 he was again arrested on a charge of selling subversive literature, and spent a week in the Fleet prison.

Rickman possessed a vein of satirical humour, and from the age of fifteen wrote much in verse and prose. Some pieces later appeared in the ‘Black Dwarf’ newspaper (1817-19) and other weekly journals. He also wrote republican songs, which were published as broadsides, often with music.

Rickman also influenced Shelley’s radicalism. Shelley may have been drawn to him by his eagerness for information on Paine, as Rickman was then preparing his life of his former lodger, and was well-known to have been his friend. In September 1812 Shelley was writing his first major work, the Spenserian allegory: Queen Mab. His background reading for the poem was prodigious. To obtain some of it he called upon the services of the veteran radical, poet, singer and bookseller. In a letter to Rickman, Shelley told him; “I prefer employing a countryman, and a man of liberal and enlightened mind to a stranger”.

Rickman fathered several children from his two marriages – they were named Paine, Washington, Franklin, Rousseau, Petrarch, and Volney, testifying to his enthusiasm for liberal ideas.

Rickman died at 7 Upper Marylebone Street on 15 February 1834. He was buried as a quaker at Bunhill Fields cemetery in Finsbury. He was twice married, but outlived both his wives and most of his children.

Part of his biography of Paine can be read here

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London philosophical history, 1793: William Godwin’s Political Justice, first published.

Though largely forgotten now, William Godwin’s tract, ‘Enquiry Concerning Political Justice’, was very widely read and hugely influential when it appeared in 1793, raising philosophical arguments aroused by the French Revolution to whole new levels. Involved in the late 1780s-early 1790s in reforming circles, around groups both inspired by the French Revolution and working for radical reform in Britain, (such as the Revolution Society, the circles around Thomas Paine and the London Corresponding Society), Godwin took a different radical and philosophical direction. Though he expressed a  solid belief in education and its power to free people, he came to doubt the use of organisations and oppose all government, or political effort of any kind.  “A man surrenders too much of himself” in political organisations or associations, he asserted… In some ways he foreshadows both anarchism and extreme laissez faire capitalism… though there’s no evidence he directly influenced any later thinkers of the 19th Century libertarian movement.

Historians and Godwin: AL Morton said that Political Justice “concentrated all the typical ideas of the time into a single work permeated with utopian feeling” – though in fact he ended up widely at variance with many of his contemporaries politically.

Godwin’s background was in hardline Calvinism, and though he discarded the Calvinist doctrine, he retained the way of thinking: logical, deductive, disdaining of sentiment and experience; he also took from this upbringing his ardent belief in the perfectability of humankind. Its obvious too that the history of persecution of dissenters influenced his view on links between state and church… Mark Philp , who made a study of Political Justice, also identifies many of the central ideas of the book as emanating from Godwin’s background in the rational Dissenting movement, to the point where disagreeing with many traditional views of Godwin, he frames his ideas in that context, rather than that of the philosophical debate arising from the French Revolution. Interestingly,  some of Godwin’s philosophical cul-de-sacs, like that concerts and theatrical performances would die out in a free rational society, arrive via ostensibly opposite motives at very similar conclusions to puritanism, which does seem to chime somewhat with Philp’s conclusions.

After a failed early career as a dissenting minister, Godwin became a journalist and writer; while he was immersed in the ideas and way of life of the Rationalist Dissenters, he also came under the influence of french philosophers.

Godwin was on the fringes of movements for electoral and social reform at home, as well as groups in sympathy with the ideals of the French Revolution. While his inclinations were not really towards activism, but to discussion and change through development of ideas, his close friends like Thomas Holcroft and Joseph Gerrard were targeted by government repression of the reformers. He intervened in the trials of London Corresponding Society leaders Thomas Hardy, Horne Tooke, Thelwall and others, accused of treason, in 1794, writing a powerful article in the Morning Chronicle which exposed the attempt to widen the high treason charge to mean any attempt to change society. Godwin’s article was credited by many with influencing the jury’s decision to acquit all those charged: a heavy defeat for the authorities.

But a combination of observation of the repression of the reformists, his own philosphical thinking, and disillusion at the violent turn the French Revolution took, led Godwin to not only theorise that government was an unnecessary evil, but also to extend this to assert that all political combinations were counter-productive. Temporary combinations may be necessary for a time and specific purposes, but left to exist they would foster cabal, party spirit, tumult, demagoguery. He also came to dismiss the possibility of true lasting social change coming from revolutionary upheavals…

‘Political Justice’ was begun in 1791, though not finished till January 1793. Successive editions later in the decade revealed changes in his ideas; though some historians have attributed this to the times growing less radical, or fear of government persecution, it’s also true that his ideas evolved. The book is a hymn to progress, opposition to war, despotism, monarchy, religion, penal laws, patriotism, class inequality; in its place he exhorts the “human will to embark with a conscious and social resolve on the adventure of perfection.” He argues for absolute freedom in political and speculative discussion, against any prosecutions for blasphemy or sedition; for abolition of established religion; he dismisses monarchy, aristocracy, elective dictatorship in the US style (new then). The book also condemned luxury, ostentation, wealth; the pursuit of them he saw as corrupting virtue and degrading others, and thus ourselves; those who live in luxury are parasiting on the labour of others, and claiming that property is bequeathed by their ancestors as a justification is a “mouldy patent”. It is immoral for one man to have power to dispose of produce of another’s toil, and wrong for one to live in ease unless its available to all. Godwin opposed colonialism, advocating universal free trade in its place. Economics was his achilles heel though, He did lack any analysis of economics, or its role in social change; as historian AL Morton pointed out, criticising Godwin’s economic proposals as sketchy Liberalism. Holding that on the one hand its wrong for one man to have superfluous wealth while others go hungry, but equally wrong for anyone to deprive anyone of their property or wealth, takes no account of how wealth is acquired. Godwin thought property should remain sacred, not only so as to emphasise the personal virtue of giving it away, but also because for the poor to take the property of the rich by force would infringe the self-determination of the wealthy.

In opposition to then widely held theories that people are determined by factors such as heredity, social position and environment, and are unable to change themselves, Godwin asserted that man IS a creature of ‘his’ environment, but of conditions ‘he’ can change – education, religion, government and social prejudice. In Godwin’s generation, for the first time, the idea was developing that people are made SOLELY by nurture; an exciting thought, with powerful and radical implications. Godwin recognised that social inequalities and hierarchies ‘poison our minds’ from birth; these ideas he saw as the result of political and social institutions…

Godwin elevated education to supreme importance. Education and its possibilities dominating enlightened thinking then; but in contrast to other reforming thinkers of the time, eg the French philosophers, he argued against national standards of education: state-regulated institutions would stereotype knowledge and lead to beliefs that cease to be perceptions and become prejudices… No government should be entrusted with power to create and regulate opinions.

English writers from Locke to Paine saw government as negative, but relatively uninfluential… Godwin though saw its malign influence everywhere, and thought its abolition would open up exciting chances… Government was wrong as a concept. Out of step with 18th century philosophers, or even the beginnings of 19th century liberalism in Condorcet’s plan for a national education scheme, and Paine’s ideas for pensions; Godwin dismisses all such schemes as infringement and constraint of the individuals’ will and virtue.

Godwin saw the true unit of society as being the parish, a limited area where people would all know each other and each other’s concerns, and ambition couldn’t thrive (he’d obviously never been to a Tenants Association meeting). In this environment, public opinion was to be the supreme authority, acting through juries. He utterly dismissed voting as the enemy of debate: a majority vote or consent does not turn wrong into right.

Godwin developed a dogma of perfection  – a popular sport among late nineteenth century radicals. The voluntary actions of individuals come from their opinions, so it’s vital to show the rational course and teach people to act consciously and rationally; logic and truth would triumph over vice and moral weakness, inevitably! Duty (to the general benefit of all) and sincerity are the highest virtues.

Often out of step in the radical circles of the time: not only in doubting the role of government or political co-operation, he also dismissed the big idea of the era, the ‘natural rights’ of man, holding that we have no ‘right’ to do as we want; either actions are ‘reasonable’ and benefit mankind, or not. There’s no ‘right’ to actions that harm human happiness.  BUT only a virtuous society can create equality of property; laws etc to enact it are futile till men are virtuous.

He attacked the sacredness of the family – not only was cohabitation an evil in itself, but marriage was a mistake, binding people with promises that contradicted general welfare. He thought most people would freely choose one person; but for a child to know who its father was unnecessary, its mother would care for kids with the help of community. Bit of a Dead beat dad’s charter there! The father’s ‘virtuous work’ is more important than the mothers’?

Godwin thought authority would gradually decay as education and reason triumphed. He was opposed to abrupt changes, seizures of power etc, revolutionary upheavals. Change must be based on informed and reasoned consensus and desire. He thought it ‘wrong’ to incite an ‘ill-informed’ mass to revolt – better to wait for virtuous ideas to spread than risk uncertain bloody uprising by ‘non-perfect’ people. There was a moral hierarchy in his world-view; those with essentially virtuous, ‘valuable’ minds are more worthy people. Rational hierarchy should prevail.

Morton says Godwin’s problem is, how do men change: man is shaped by his environment; and thus a contradiction: how do unchanged men (products of this society) change or even imagine change in society… ? Only dialectics, seeing man as part of a class, resolves this, and Godwin never got it, so his ideas were “academic and harmless”…

His individualism was taken to fantastic levels: there was no room in the early editions for personal affection (though he softened on this later); he also almost comes out against performances of music or theatre because the co-operation of musicians, like all co-operation, was an offence against one’s own sincerity. He even thought we could end sleep, sickness and death if we put our minds to it.

His opposition to state action did, (as HN Brailsford sarkily notes) “excuse him from attempting the more dangerous exploits of civic courage”: he escaped the repression that bore down on more active radicals. Although his attacks on monarchy were just as uncompromising as Tom Paine’s, tory Prime Minister William Pitt said Godwin should be left alone, as unable to influence the poor and inflame radical crowds – because “a 3 guinea book could never do much harm among those who had not 3 shillings to spare.” Though in fact ‘Political Justice’ sold for less then three guineas, this was a damning verdict: it was still a learned book for the educated, in contrast to the electric effect that Paine’s book had among the nascent working and artisan classes. In fact 4000 copies of Political Justice were sold, a fair amount, a testament to the middle class eagerness for revolutionary and philosophical ideas at that time.

When Willie met Mary

Godwin’s relationship with Mary Wollstoncraft seems to have been a meeting of equal minds, according to his both own account, and others’; neither dominated the other, they experienced “friendship melting into love”. Initially they lived, seemingly happy, respecting each others minds and intellects and regarding each other with reverence and pride. They lived together unmarried (daringly unconventional then), in accordance with their principles in house in the Polygon, Somers Town (then right on the edge of London), leading partly separate lives, as they frequented different social circles and friends, but overlapping, occasionally meeting by chance at the same social events! 
Only when Mary became pregnant did they reluctantly marry in March 1797. Tragically Mary then died giving birth to their daughter. Around this time Godwin did revise his idea of universal benevolence slightly, putting care for your family first… THEN others, as being the most effective way of securing general good.

Mary W hadn’t had much time for ‘universal benevolence’ – she more practically claimed that “Few have much affection for mankind, who first did not love their parents, their brothers, sisters and the domestic brutes who they first played with.” In other words, radical ideas come from love close to home, from emotional ties. To some extent Godwin’s harsh purity altered under her influence, for a while.

After Mary’s death Godwin’s life went downhill – not only was he often personally unhappy but after the flush of revolution and philosophical ferment, political reaction was triumphing, and his ideas were increasingly attacked and silenced, or became irrelevant, as working class radicalism evolved, based on co-operation and organisation, on class antagonism, and working on the whole practically rather than dithering in the abstract. Many of Godwin’s associates had been transported, jailed, persecuted, others drifted to the right. In later years he ran a  publishing firm and library that went eventually bust and ended up relying on the charity of his friends and dwindling sympathisers, especially his son-in-law, the poet Shelley.

‘Political Justice’ did for a few decades from the 1790s influence a younger generation, most famous among them the romantic poets, Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth (for a while), and most of all Shelley. They were inspired by his vision of a “free community from which laws and coercion had been eliminated, and in which property was in a continual flux actuated by the stream of universal benevolence.” Though the historian HN Brailsford claimed they lacked the bottle that turned others into agitators, and even welched out of their grand plan to form an ideal Godwin-inspired commune (or ‘pantisocracy’) in the USA. Coleridge later said this plan saved them from doing anything more dangerous and radical, in the meantime they gradually aged and became respectable, disassociating themselves from their youthful enthusiasm for social change. But Godwin’s ideas also lent themselves to the aristocratic romantics, able to see themselves as well on the way to being perfect beings, above the distasteful masses; Political Justice gives plenty of ammunition to those looking to stand aloof, refuse to get involved in the complex daily reality of struggle for social change.

Shelley: Straight Outta Godwin

Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley fell under the influence of William Godwin’s ideas since he read ‘Political Justice’ at Eton, and was captivated by it, as had been Wordsworth, Southey Coleridge before him. For him though this affiliation lasted, until his untimely death. Shelley began to correspond with Godwin in 1811, met him, and gradually started to support his impoverished guru financially. HN Brailsford thought Shelley’s ideas very much derived from Godwin (as well as the French philospher Condorcet), and his poetry belonged entirely to world of politics. To him, ‘Political Justice’ was the “milk of paradise” – his work, from 1812’s Queen Mab to Hellas (1821) was often an imaginative expression of its ideas. To Shelley, thought, ideas , passion, were more real than things of earth and flesh; he lived in philosophy and guided himself by it.

In Hellas, he preaches perfectability, non-resistance, a kind of anarchist individualism, the power of reason, the superiority of persuasion over force, universal benevolence, and that moral evils come from political institutions: straight outta Godwin, basically. Under Godwin’s influence, he asserted, sometimes, that change would come through education and gradual elimination of error, not revolution. As with Coleridge and Southey, Political Justice persuaded him to do nothing political, that action is futile, ideas and spreading them everything. (In fact Godwin himself actually talked Shelley out of forming a radical association in Dublin in 1812); he preached passive non-violent resistance to oppression, in the Mask of Anarchy, and Revolt of Islam, to the point of portraying rebels as living sacrifices, humane missionaries for redemption of man.

But he differed from his mentor, in expression as much as anything: what are cold intellectual ideas in Godwin are emotional and heartfelt in Shelley’s work, and abstract ideas became calls for action. He also didn’t see of change in society as entirely a gradual process of discarding of error, he did believe a sudden emotional conversion or revelation would occur.

Relations between philosopher and his romantic pupil took a rocky turn when the poet met Godwin and Mary Wollstoncraft’s daughter, Mary and they fell in love. Shelley had already eloped with one schoolgirl, Harriet Westbrook, to whom he was still married. So despite his ideas about free individuals, marriage, etc, Godwin played the conventional father, banning them Mary and Percy from meeting, leading to THEIR elopement. Only after the unhappy Harriet’s suicide in 1816 he was reconciled. BUT he continued to take Shelley’s money throughout this estrangement. (Is that unprincipled? He could probably have justified it in terms of rational benevolence and so on.) Shelley never criticised him for this attitude, but he was on weak ground really. Another question for Godwin’s views on freedom to act, how does Shelley’s ability to take up and discard women with little thought for the effect on them fit in; but when they kill themselves its ok because now it can all be made respectable with marriage…? All leaves a bit of a sour taste.

By Godwin’s death in 1836 Political Justice‘s initial fame had already declined and he was almost forgotten.

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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Today in London riotous history, 1886: unemployed riot in the West End

On Monday, February 8, (sometimes called Black Monday), the West End was briefly swept by a riot, which began in Trafalgar Square, after two rival public rallies had been held there. The Fair Trade League (a kind of Tory working class front group) had announced they were going to hold a public meeting – in response H.F. Hyndman’s Marxist-jingoist Social Democratic Federation also decided to hold a counter-demo. This was at a time of high unemployment and great hardship among London’s working class – the two organisations had very different solutions to the plight of the thousands on the dole… The Fair Trade League was calling for protectionist measures to ‘protect British jobs’. The SDF argued for the “Right to Work” and making demands for the establishment of state-directed co-operative colonies on under-utilised lands.

Although the Metropolitan Police vaguely recognised that there might be fighting between some of the rowdier elements of both rallies, there was a complacent attitude from the authorities, who allowed both to go ahead without significant police presence.  There had been little serious public order problems in London since the Hyde Park Reform Riots in 1866-7. So both meetings were given permission to meet in different parts of the square; with arrangements for a small force of constables to police the square, (though a reserve of 563 more cops were standing by). District Superintendent Robert Walker, 74 years old, was in charge, though he may have been somewhat past it – he went in plain clothes to observe the meetings, lost touch with his men and wandered into the crowd, where he had his pockets picked.

The SDF managed to take over the Free Traders platform, where were some fiery speeches from SDF leaders, which led to some fighting in the Square.

One of the SDF leaders, John Burns, allegedly waving a red flag, gave a rousing speech, and was said by a few witnesses which included a phrase that later got him charged for incitement: “Unless we get bread, they must get lead.” Many others, however, later gave evidence that they had never heard this phrase used.

John While, a reporter to the Times newspaper, gave an account of the SSF leaders’s speeches in the Square at their later trial for incitement. His evidence was challenged t the trial, and may have been, er, a load of bollocks… According to While, John Burns spoke first (in a “stentorian voice… which could be heard distinctly at a great distance”): “He declared that he and his friends of the ‘Revolutionary Social Democratic League’ were not there to oppose the agitation of the unemployed, but they were there to prevent people being made the tools of the paid agitators who were working in the interests of the Fair Trade League. He went on to denounce the House of Commons as composed of capitalists who had fattened upon the labour of the working men, and in this category he included landlords, railway directors and employers, who, he said, were no more likely to legislate in the interests of the working men than were the wolves to labour for the lambs. To hang these, he said, would be to waste good rope, and as no good to the people was to be expected from these ‘representatives,’ there must be revolution to alter the present state of things. The people who were out of work did not want relief but justice. From whom should they get justice?—from such as the Duke of Westminster and his class, or the capitalists in the House of Commons and their classes? No relief or justice would come from them. The unemployed too, the working men, had now the vote conferred upon them. What for? To turn one party out and put the other in? Were they going to be content with that, while their wives and children wanted food? When the people in France demanded food the rich laughed at those they called ‘the men in blouses,’ but the heads of those who laughed soon decorated the lamp-posts. Here the leaders of the Revolutionary Democratic League wanted to settle affairs peaceably if they could, but if not they would not shrink from revolution.” The crowd had increased amazingly by this time; I should think there were 1,500 people there—a very large part of the crowd were of the orderly working class who were certainly men out of work, but the large part were very violent in their expressions—the rougher part cheered and applauded the speeches—Burns asked those who were out of work to hold up their hands, and nearly all the hands were held up—then the speaker took up another strain, dwelling on their right to work and their right to live, and warning them not to give ear to the Fair Traders who were having a meeting for heir own purposes; that was the three o’clock meeting—Mr. Champion spoke next—the defendants were in the hearing of each other when they spoke. (Reads.) Mr. Champion “declared that the Government which had now come into power were able in 24 hours, when they thought they personally needed protection from Dynamitards, to carry a measure. Now was needed a measure to protect lives more valuable and of more importance than any of the governing classes, lives which had to be dragged out in miserable homes, and it behoved this Government to set on foot at once remedial measures for the existing state of things. The speaker demanded the provision of work and the enactment of laws limiting labour to eight hours a day, and insisting upon the erection of better homes for the labouring classes at a rent within the means of workers. He also called upon the crowd not to be made the tools of the flair Trade Leaguers, who wished the people to pay more for their food and necessaries of life, in rich men’s interests, and then proceeded to say that if the demands of the workers were not granted the people must be contented to go back to their starvation and to bear quietly in the future, or else they must bring home in a practical way responsibility to those who had made it impossible for something to be done.” Mr. Williams next addressed the meeting. “He now said he was not contented to clamour any more for work, and advised his hearers as men in want of work to regard the position from his point of view. He quoted words from Shelley, ‘We are many, they are few.’ The many were workers in want, the few were owners of wealth. The few were organised, while the many were not organised, and if the many organised and banded themselves together, the wealth of the country would change hands. The people should not care for Liberal or Tory, but should seek to benefit their own class. They must put the fear of man in the hearts of the rich and so obtain what they wanted.” Mr. Hyndman next spoke. “He said the people out of work were asked to be moderate, but how could they be moderate when they were out of work and starving? If the thousands there had he courage of a few they would very soon alter the existing system of things. But what happened? They went away from meetings like that and forgot all about what they had heard. He and his friends would lead if they would follow, and even 500 determined men out of the thousands present could very soon make a change. It depended upon them whether they would drive the middle classes to bay, and if they did they would soon win.” Mr. Burns then spoke again, “he observed that the next time they met it would be to go and sack the bakers’ shops in the west of London. They had better die fighting than die starving, and he again asked how many would join the leaders of the Socialists, a question in reply to which many hands were held up. The men over there, Mr. Burns added, referring to the speakers at the rival meetings, were paid agitators, who were living on the poverty of the working classes. Those whom he was addressing he said pledged themselves to revolutionary doctrines, which elicited cries of ‘No, no.’ He concluded by asking the question, ‘When we give the word for a rising will you join us?’ to which a large number of the audience replied that they would, and almost as large a number declared they would not.” Besides these speeches other speeches were made—Mr. Burns was constantly, waving the red flag—I heard something said which I did not take down; I heard Mr. Burns make one observation which struck me very much, and that was, “We must have bread or they must have lead”—the speaking at that part of the square went on, I think, till about ten minutes past three, as far as my memory will serve; it might have been a little later—at that time I turned my attention to the other meeting—I did not see the end of the meeting at which the defendants were present; the speaking had finished where they were and the people went away, and I went to the Fair Trade meeting at the Nelson Column.”

By this time “the meeting was getting of a changeful character, and the crowd had very much increased—where I was standing the crushing was not felt—the crushing was on the outskirts of the crowd, 50 or 100 feet from me—there was a roar of voices in the distance, but they did not interrupt my hearing—there was considerable noise and crushing in the square—when there was a noise the speaker turned round and stopped and then went on again… when I left Trafalgar Square I left a very large crowd there—the rough element came on the scene then—there was a very large number of real unemployed people there; people of fustian and with stains of labour upon them—the roughs kept very much together, and so did the working class…”

In the event, there was little fighting between the two demonstrations. Instead, large crowds, made up possibly of a mix of the two, ended up rushing through parts of the West End, looting shops, attacking symbols of class power like the posh clubs of St James, and generally ran amok.

A massive crowd (estimated around 10,000) set off to march towards Hyde Park, planning to hold another meeting. The crowd was later described as being a mix of artisans and working men, with what was described as ‘roughs’ and ‘loafers’. Garbled reports misled the police to believe there was trouble brewing in The Mall instead of Pall Mall, and they panicked the royal family were to be targeted, and reinforcements were sent to protect Marlborough House and Buckingham Palace. Only half a mile away a mob rushed unhindered along Pall Mall and St James’s, smashing the local club windows along the way, provoked when toffs leaning out of the windows shouted abuse & threw stuff out of the windows at the crowd.

Hooted by Tories at the Carlton Club, the marchers jeered in return. In St James St metal bars and loose paving stones were employed to smash Club windows. The ultra-Tory Carlton Club windows got put in, as another red flag was supposedly waved on its steps…

Another ‘fiery speech’ speech was delivered opposite the Reform Club, and “three cheers were given for the Social Revolution.” Some posh carriages were also stopped, and stones thrown at the occupants. In Piccadilly people started looting shops, some nicking posh clothes then taking them off to nearby Green Park and Hyde Park to try them on.

When the SDF leaders and entourage arrived at Hyde Park they gave another round of speeches, from the steps of the statue of Achilles, after which groups of rioters marched off back East, some via North Audley Street and Oxford Street, breaking windows and looting as they went. “the crowd moved towards Stanhope Gate… through Dean Street into South Audley Street; a lot of windows were broken in both those streets – Minton’s china shop windows were smashed and the goods thrown about…shop fronts were smashed in and a lot of things stolen—I saw a lot of bread and some rabbits, and all sorts of things; I did not notice any jewellery—I went with the crowd across Grosvenor Square into North Audley Street, and saw shops smashed in, and then into Oxford Street, where there were some constables, I do not know how many, but the crowd dispersed…”

Though the SDF had used fiery invective from the platform, there was little real link between their ideas and the rioters more immediate class resentment and willingness to get stuck in, hassle the poshos, and maybe grab a bit of loot into the bargain.

During much of the riot, the SDF leaders in fact tried to persuade the crowd to stop most of what they were doing. They protected a number of MPs and other upper class men who blundeed into the demo and were roughed up or robbed, and blamed anyone breaking windows for bringing the demo into disrepute… This abject behaviour did however get four of the SDF bigwigs acquitted at their subsequent trial

In addition, they, like the authorities, were slightly afraid of what they had partly unleashed:

“The steps taken by the authorities are an eloquent testimony to the alarm created by the riots in the minds of the middle and upper classes. But they had by no means a monopoly of alarm at the moment.   The leaders of the Social Democratic Federation were genuinely afraid of the Frankenstein that had been raised. It was no part of their plan that rioting should take place.”

The rioting in the West End of London, 8 February 1886: Looting shops in Piccadilly, London; from The Graphic, 13 February 1886

At Hyde Park Burns had told the crowd that they intended to submit the resolutions of the meeting to the Government, and asked them if they would be satisfied with that – getting cries of “No!”, “Oxford-street!” and “Shoot the aristocracy!” in response.

But, almost contradictarily, the SDF also clearly let the idea that they had ‘unleashed’ the crowd go to their heads a bit, imagining that this heralded the opening salvo of a popular uprising…

The riot did put the wind up the authorities and many of the upper classes. Although the disturbances lasted only a few hours, and did not herald anything like popular insurrection, or even mass support for the SDF’s socialist program, it did reveal a widespread class hatred and anger that many of the well-to-do were just not aware of.

The following day there was panic in London, as rumours spread that a crowd of unemployed rioters were on their way to Elephant and Castle and Borough smashing shops on their way. Shops were boarded up and extra police sent down the Old Kent Road. A telegram was sent to The Times from the Old Kent Road: “Fearful state all round here in south London. 30,000 men at Spa Road moving to Trafalgar Square. Roughs in thousands trooping to the west. Send special messenger to the Home Office to have police in fullest force with fullest military force to save London”.

There was no 30,000 strong mob. There was a crowd gathered in Deptford Broadway – but no riot. In fact in Deptford the rumours were of a crowd heading towards them from the Elephant and Castle!

The more concrete results of the riot were in fact threefold: a plethora charity schemes for the unemployed (including some work for your dole building programs), a determination among some worthy middle class folk to study and understand poverty as a motivator for violent events, so as to head it off in the future, and last, increased repression of socialist meetings and groups. The next few years saw a concerted police attempt to batter socialist meetings off the streets, peaking with Bloody Sunday in November 1887.

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

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