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 about the threat the Spenceans and their allies posed, 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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3 comments

  1. Pete Rose · February 24, 2019

    Surely the man depicted in the cartoon “wearing a black mask, and with a bloodstained knife in his mouth” is the same man mentioned in your article – “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.” and not one of the men who turned King’s evidence?

    Like

  2. Stuart Butler · February 27, 2019

    I’m thinking about some sort of small scale commemorative and performative walk around the sites of the radical pubs and coffee houses of London on June 21st, Thomas Spence’s birthdate. Please have a look at http://www.radicalstroud.co.uk – the About Us section – and contact us if you fancy having a chat about the idea. Great piece here, btw.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Today on repressive history: habeas corpus suspended in goverment crackdown on radicals, 1817. | past tense

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