In the last three decades of the eighteenth century, pressure for reform of the political system grew throughout Britain. The electoral system was entirely designed to reinforce the power of the dominant class, the aristocracy; only a tiny fraction of the population had the vote, mostly wealthy, all men; constituencies were designed so as to get the favoured candidates of the powerful landowners elected. Many towns and cities had no MP. Many constituencies had tiny electorates; some had literally no residents.
From the 1760s on, a growing and broad movement gradually evolved, campaigning for changes to this corrupt and loaded political system. The main demands were for a wider franchise, more representative constituencies, secret ballots (to prevent the wealthy and powerful openly influencing the vote), and more regular elections to parliament.
In its origins this movement was based largely on the now economically confident middle class, often well-educated and wealthy, but excluded from social status, from political power and influence nationally, and dependent on the political patronage of the nobility. Political power denied them, they faced heavy taxation, as the aristocratic parliament increasingly targeted the middle class for revenue raising.
A political culture of debate, discussion of ideas and grievances, and a growing and noisy press, helped solidify resentments into a movement for reform. Hostility to the blatantly corrupt and self-serving elite built steadily through the 18th century, voiced by muckraking journals, in the coffeehouse clubs and discussions, through a century punctuated by riotous eruptions.
The middle class movement for reform expressed its campaign for reform through a rhetoric of rights and liberty, often couched in the language of traditional English freedoms, lost rights being denied by the monarchy and aristocracy, ‘freeborn Englishmen’ should be free from arbitrary tyrannical government…
While this reform movement was based in the rising middle class, much of its rhetoric chimed with the grievances of classes and castes lower down the ladder, who had their own issues, many of them economic and social… Among the artisans, workmen, shopkeepers of London and other British cities, the reform movement helped trigger the beginnings of a self-organised political culture, which would help form a nineteenth century working class movement. However, for many of the leading reformers, the economic needs of political enfranchisement of the labouring classes was never really a priority.
The reform movement ebbed and flowed through the 1760s, 1770s 1780s; demagogues and spokesmen like John Wilkes attempted to direct it, partly in their own interests. A six-point program was drawn up which summed up the demands of the reform movement:
- Universal manhood suffrage
- Constituencies to have equal population
- Annual Parliaments
- Payment of MPs
- Abolition of the property qualification to become an MP
- The secret ballot.
This program would remain at the central core of the movement for political reform for decades. Another development that would help alter the direction of the reform movement was the emergence of the philosophical doctrine of natural rights, originating in the thinking of John Locke – the idea that all men were born with inalienable rights to life, liberty and property. Locke’s philosophy was drawn on by radicals like Richard Price to develop a political program of civil liberties for all, a voice in the government of the country for all. (Obviously ‘all’ still meaning ‘only blokes’ at this stage…)
External political developments would jack the reform campaigns onto new levels. The American War of Independence ended in a political settlement which seemed to embody many of the ideals the middle class reformers were striving for – representative government, political equality, but by responsible men of wealth and property, free from the shackles of aristocracy.
And then the French Revolution of 1789 added a whole new spice to the pressure for reform. The French Third Estate’s early success in curbing the power of their monarchy won them many admirers among British reformers, who saw a common cause; the formation of the National Assembly and subsequent proclamations of the universal Rights of Man aroused great enthusiasm among some elements of the reform movement.
At the same time, the increasing violence of the struggle between the revolutionaries and the aristocracy in France provoked increasing fear and loathing among the British monarchy and establishment; they not only supported the French aristos, but took more and more of a dim view of their own home grown reformers, reasoning that those campaigning for social change might take a leaf out of the neighbours’ book and end up challenging, even deposing, their own king George…
The French revolution had sparked furious and wide-ranging debate and discussion among British reformers, from the dinner parties and salons of the more refined, to the debating societies of London’s taverns and coffee houses.
From this ferment, from the reform campaigns, the sympathy for the French Revolution, the artisans and workers beginning to combine and question their own position, emerged a network of radical organisations, particularly in the growing cities of an industrialising Britain; at the heart of this network was the London Corresponding Society.
The initiative to form the London Corresponding Society came from shoemaker Thomas Hardy; he and several ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious’ friends had been politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the American & French Revolutions as well as the reform pamphlets of the Constitutional Society. Meeting at The Bell Inn, on Exeter Street, off the Strand on 25 January 1792, they had initially gathered to talk about the poverty and hardship facing working men in their daily life; however, they also discussed plans Hardy had drawn up for a London reform society. Their discussion led them to the conclusion that fundamental political reform in Britain, opening up the franchise to the lower orders, was necessary before any government was ever going to seriously consider measures that would improve working people’s lives. Reform was the route to social and economic change.
On the suggestion of Hardy the organisation adopted the name the London Corresponding Society. Hardy and eight others of those present joined up immediately; a ninth joined the following week. Hardy who became secretary and treasurer.
The founder and first Secretary, Thomas Hardy, later recalled the first meeting:
“After having had their bread and cheese and porter for supper, as usual, and their pipes afterwards, with some conversation on the hardness of the times and the dearness of all the necessaries of life … the business for which they had met was brought forward – Parliamentary Reform – an important subject to be deliberated upon and dealt with by such a class of men.”
Hardy (who was also Treasurer) went back to his home at No. 9 Piccadilly with the entire funds of the organisation in his pocket: 8d. towards paper for the purpose of corresponding with like-minded groups in the country (hence the group’s name).
Political debating clubs were not new: there had been an increasing number springing up through the 18th century. But what made the new Society groundbreaking was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. From the first, their emphasis was on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns (hence the name): “..Its was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley)
Within a fortnight twenty-five members were enrolled and the sum in the Treasurer’s hands was 4s. ld. Six months later more than 2,000 members were claimed.
Similar groups grew up in Manchester, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.
The Corresponding society’s basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But the LCS also developed ideas well ahead of their time: proposing that MPs should be recallable by their electorate.
And crucially the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”
The LCS saw parliamentary reform as partly a step towards legislating for a more just society: an ‘honest parliament’ would enact popular legislation, notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.
The Society organised carefully. As new members joined, the Society would split into new divisions, which spread around the capital, meeting in pubs and coffee houses. The divisions contained between 16 & 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. Each division sent 2 delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly.
By September 1792 the Society claimed to have 5000 members. However, active membership was much smaller than the numbers often claimed on paper, and membership would ebb and flow massively through the 1790s, as divisions lapsed or broke up, through repression by the state, both overt in terms of arrests and trials, and covert, through constant penetration by Home Office spies, and regular pressure put on landlords and coffee house owners to bar the reformers from meeting in their premises (often with the threat of loss of their licence if they refused.)
The Society’s main source of support was drawn from London’s artisans – Spitalfields silk weavers, shoemakers, watchmakers, tailors and cabinet makers being particularly noticeable. But membership varied widely in class and background, many being lawyers, booksellers, printers, shopkeepers, clerks and some doctors. If anything, many of the leading voices in the LCS were not artisans, though some of the founders and better known activists were from an artisan background. If the LCS did have a substantially artisan focus, its ideas did not represent or emerge from the capital’s labouring poor, though the large Society events like the monster meetings of the mid 1790s may have attracted some of this class.
On a day to day local level, LCS branches focussed primarily on education and discussion of ideas; weekly meetings often consisted of books being read out loud and discussed.
In this form the LCS represented part of the birth of the autodidactic working class club culture that would dominate the politics of the ‘lower orders’ for the next century. The Society was also crucial to the development of forms of protest and communication, through its mass meetings and outdoor speaking – following the example of religious preachers like the Methodists.
In March 1792, the LCS issued a manifesto, written by its first president, the lawyer Maurice Margarot (who was later arrested and sentenced to be transported to the penal colonies for his radical activities); this manifesto inspired the forming of other like-minded societies outside London.
The Society sent messages of fraternity & support to the revolutionary Convention in France, the elected assembly which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though the LCS were divided as to whether they supported for the ‘excesses’ of the Revolution, such as the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they championed the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.
The initial popular interest in the ideas of the LCS, and the radical turn the French Revolution took (with the deposing of the monarchy and terror launched against the aristocracy) scared the British establishment into launching vicious repression against the reformers. The influence of the LCS, other pro-reform groups, and the radical writings of Thomas Paine and other reformers, seemed to many in the establishment to indicate a growing potential for a revolutionary movement arising from the democratic groupings in Britain. The more radical the direction the French Revolution took, the more paranoid the British government became.
The ruling class’s counter-measures took several forms – overt and covert, official and unofficial. There were threats to introduce repressive laws that restricted liberties; LCS divisions were subject to comprehensive spying by paid informers, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state… (in many cases exaggerating the threat to make it look like they were combatting an existential threat – you gotta earn your pay somehow when you’re a spycop, huh?); magistrates threatened the licences of publicans in whose premises the democratic or reformist groups usually met
In 1791 and 1792, and again in 1794, ‘loyalist associations’, reactionary groups supported by the authorities in most cases, campaigned against reformers and attacked those suspected of supporting pro-reform organisations. Patriotic ‘Church and King’ mobs attacked houses or radicals and non-conformists. Many towns & rural areas saw witch hunts against individuals suspected of ‘disloyal’ attitudes.
LCS delegates Maurice Margarot & Joseph Gerrald were sent to a British Convention in Edinburgh in December 1793: an attempt to unite democratic societies, & step up activities towards achieving universal suffrage & reform. The Convention was broken up by force by the authorities, and Gerrald, Margarot, & three Scots, Muir, Palmer & Skirving, were arrested, and sentenced to transportation to the Penal Colonies. Publishers printing radical tracts were prosecuted. Thomas Paine was outlawed and his writings banned.
Increasing repression and the workings of agent-provocateurs combined to push some elements of the Corresponding Society into more extreme positions. In April 1794, a spy visited the rooms of a LCS-linked radical group, the Lambeth Loyal Association, and found that they seemed to be drilling in military formation, possibly getting ready for an uprising…
On May 2nd 1794, a Constitutional Society dinner hosted some members of the LCS: John Horne Tooke & others present made speeches which the government later presented as seditious & republican. This sparked repressive moves by the government. Ten days later, Thomas Hardy was arrested. On May 15th a Secret Committee of both Houses of Parliament was elected, which suspended the law of Habeas Corpus on May 23. John Horne Tooke and LCS lecturer John Thelwall were shortly also nicked. All three were charged with treason.
In June 1794, Hardy’s house was attacked by a ‘church and king’ mob: his wife Lydia died in childbirth as a result of the attack.
Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined the organisation out of solidarity. Britain had entered the war against revolutionary France; this quickly became unpopular. In the summer of 1794 there were riots against military recruitment, and attacks on ‘crimp houses’ (recruiting centres) which the LCS in reality had little or no part in, but added to the sense of paranoia among the ruling class.
Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried for treason in November 1794, but the evidence was weak, feeling against government spies was high & they were all acquitted, to popular rejoicing: charges were dropped against other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of political activity after this.
The LCS, whose membership and influence had been suffering under the repression, began to revive in late 1794 and early ‘95. A journal, the Politician, was started in December 1794: it wasn’t a success & they abandoned it in the spring. But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions across London in March to 70 or 80 in October. The unpopularity of the war gained them increasing influence.
In 1794 and 1795 the Corresponding Society began to hold monster meetings, huge rallies calling for reform, an end to the war and to repression, on the open spaces at London’s edge – Marylebone Fields, Copenhagen Fields, and St George’s Fields…
On the 26th 1795 a mass meeting on Copenhagen Fields in Islington saw them at the peak of their strength: as many as 150,000 people attended. The scared authorities banned meetings of more than 50 people, & strengthened the powers of magistrates. Despite widespread protest around the country these measures would lead to the decline of the democratic movement, and encouraged local repression by magistrates. Many potential supporters were put off joining. Also at this time, divisions developed in the LCS over the question of religion, with a growing trend of deism influenced by Paine’s Age of Reason. An attempt to publish a magazine in 1796 failed, increasing the Society’s debts. Disillusion was also setting in with revolutionary France, as it became clear that with the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, the most corrupt sections of the bourgeoisie had taken power.
Thomas Evans, later the founder of the Spencean Philanthropists, became secretary of the LCS in 1796: he and other leaders at this point proved more radical than many of the membership…
Scared by the almost unprecedented navy mutinies at the Nore & Spithead in 1797, the authorities attempted to prove the LCS had been involved in inspiring the revolts – without turning up much evidence. But John Bone, an LCS member, was busted with copies of a ‘seditious’ handbill distributed to soldiers at Maidstone. As a result, on July 31st 1797 at an LCS public meeting the platform of speakers was nicked by Middlesex magistrates. On its last legs, as members dropped off, the whole LCS committee was nicked at its April 19th 1798 meeting – this marked the effective end of the Society.
The onslaught of government repression from 1794 to 1798 drove many of the Society’s members and supporters into inactivity, exile, into keeping away from meetings and keeping their heads down. 1000s had attended meetings and joined over six years, but the LCS had been reduced in its last days to a handful.
The arrests of 1797 not only put the fear into the majority; a number of the Society’s leading activists were imprisoned.
Some, however, were determined to continue with radical activity, and if organising legally and openly was now impossible, then they would meet in secret. And a number had come to the conclusion that peaceful campaigning for what they saw as their rights was not going to win them any reforms; the only open road was insurrection and revolution.
Small groups of ex-LCS activists and members of other radical societies around the country began to meet in groupings under the name of United Englishmen or United Britons. The name was partly inspired by the United Irishmen, Irish nationalist republicans who had been organising towards freeing Ireland from British control, with who the British radicals were now increasingly co-operating. Irish and British rebels now began to discuss plans for a co-ordinated uprising against the British government.
However the Irish insurrection erupted, without a corresponding insurrection in England. Support for the Irish rebellion did not materialise as the United Irishmen had hoped; but support in England was even thinner on the ground, and revolution was never on the cards. The small groups of United Englishmen were also penetrated (as the LCS had been) by spies backed by magistrates and the Home Office, and any plots were completely monitored and the plotters quickly rounded up. Many of the UE members and former Corresponding Society campaigners were detained, some without any charge, from 1798, and detention for most lasted months or a couple of years.
And some of the LCS detainees became involved in the abortive revolutionary plots of Colonel Despard…
The political reforms the London Corresponding Society formed to fight for were not won in the lifetime of the organisation. Many came only decades later. But former LCS members carried the torch into the 19th century, and were involved in campaigning down the years. Ex-LCS activists were central to the post-Napoleonic War agitation for change, in the extreme radical groups like the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, and much more. Crucially, the ideas the LCS and the radical and reforming societies of the 1790s promoted spread wider and wider, as the industrial revolution forged a new working class in Britain, a class that increasingly became conscious of itself, the exploitation it faced, and the possible solutions… The legacy of the London Corresponding Society echoed down the decades, into the auto-didactic working class radical club scene, the unstamped press agitation, the National Union of the Working Classes, Chartism, and beyond…