Today in London riotous history, 1795: king George III attacked by angry crowds.

As related in our previous post, the reforming London Corresponding Society (LCS) held a rally in Copenhagen Fields, Islington, on October 26, 1795, called to protest against the widespread hunger and poverty in the country, and demand that the king and government implement a program of political reform to bring in universal male suffrage and end the expensive and disastrous war with revolutionary France.

With the LCS at the peak of their influence, the speakers threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster three days later, when the king would go to open the houses of parliament… This climate of rebellion and anger led to a riot and an attack on the king.

An angry crowd to march to Whitehall on the 29th October, determined to confront the king.

King George was traveling to open Parliament, but his coach was surrounded by the angry crowds demanding change. There was a crush around the coach, and as it travelled between St James Palace and Carlton House, there was a sudden rush, and the coach was separated from its guards by demonstrators. Constables tried to secure the gates of Horseguards, but the crowd poured in and over-ran them from different entrances, following after the coach.

As the coach drew into Great George Street, the thick glass of the coach window was suddenly punctured – by a stone? A bullet? A marble?  – which, was never established. It created a smooth round hole in the window; most onlookers thought it had come from an upstairs window in neighbouring Margaret Street, and that it had been fired from a gun. This despite the fact that no one present even pretended to have heard a shot. The coach was finally hauled into the entrance to the House of Lords.

While the government and its favoured newspapers asserted this was an attempt to assassinate the king with some form of airgun, radical commentators dismissed this as yet another ploy to discredit the movement for political reform and opposition to the war against France. No-one had been arrested at the scene (given the sheer size of the hostile crowd, the guards thought it would backfire), and nothing was found when the house in Margaret Street was searched.

However, if the coach trip TO Parliament had been worrying, the return journey was to be worse. Leaving the House of Lords at 3pm, as signal guns sounded out, the king was confused by the ‘silent indifference’ of the massed crowd. Soon, however, the indifference was replaced by a hooting crowd, and a gang of about 30 men moved rapidly toward the coach, groaning and shouting, and gurning at the king. The Life Guards struggled to hold them off.

Then, again, the coach came under bombardment – a volley of stones smashed into the woodwork as it drew level with Spring Gardens Terrace, splintering part of the frame. The crowd gathered more missiles and pelted the coach, the constables and guards; king George waved his arms at the soldiers to keep the mob away. Just in time the guards ushered the coach into the gates of St James’s Palace, as a large stone shattered a coach window and the king’s face was showered with splinters. As he walked to the palace door, a crowd surrounded the coach and all but demolished it.

With the king safe, a group of constables ran out to try to arrest some of the assailants. They grabbed George Gregory and Edward Collins, but witnesses later testified that these men had not throne the last big rock, as accused, but that this had been lobbed by another man who had strolled off. Kyd Wake was grabbed by Carlton Gardens, and John Dinham was arrested showing people shards of glass from the broken windows. Robert Bryant, a shoemaker, was also picked up nearby at the Rose Inn.

However, the king’s nightmare journeys were not yet over for the day. He was determined to join his family a Buckingham Palace, and set out again by a back door, in a smaller coach, with just two footmen. The Guards had accidentally been sent back to their barracks. Very soon after he left, a crowd spotted him and surrounded the king again, hooting and booing, and showering the new coach with stones; then, 16 men halted the coach and pulled its wheels off, shouting ‘Bread! Bread! Peace, Peace!’ One man grabbed the door handle. This group was only scared off by a civil servant who pushed his way through with a pistol to keep them back, while someone else ran of to get the guards, who finally turned up to escort him to Buck House.

This was not an end to the riots. The following day, as the royal family went to Covent Garden to the theatre, a huge crowd gathered again, estimated at 10,000 people, surrounding the theatre, though they were prevented from entering by 200 cavalry, 100 foot guards and 500 constables. Despite keeping people well away from the king’s coach, there was more stone throwing. Several people were nicked for hissing the king, and a number were lifted in the days following for uttering ‘treasonable expressions’. There was some uproar even in the theatre, although it had been carefully packed with loyalists.

The prisoners arrested on the 29th were questioned by the bow Street magistrates over the next two days, with the aim of building a case for a charge of high treason. Kyd Wake maintained he had merely hissed at the king, to show his ‘dissatisfaction with the war’. No-one could say he had thrown anything. John Dinham, a baker, and Robert Bryant were charged with making a riot and throwing stones at the empty coach. George Gregory denied everything and was discharged. The rest were refused bail. Collins was eventually charged with high treason for throwing a stone, but the case was dropped in the following year. However, Kyd Wake was tried and convicted and sentenced to five years hard labour in February 1796.

John Ridley, a London Corresponding Society member, was thought to have been the man who grabbed hold of the coach handle during the final attack on the 29th. The moderate reformer, tailor Francis Place, said he had recognised Ridley but that he had grabbed the handle to steady himself after being pushed in the crowd… Not very convincing, (but then Place was a slippery character, later to spend many years informing to the government on radicals). Another LCS member also claimed to have been the man who grabbed the handle. [Ridley was later to take part in some of the Old Price Riots against theatre price rises in 1809.]

The government and its supporters aimed much of their fury at the LCS. It was a’ mischievous club, where treason is hatched and thoughts of royal massacre rendered familiar’, according to the St James’s Chronicle. The riots and attacks on the king brought to mind only too strongly the last six years of revolution in France, which had seen the royal family and aristocracy largely execute or imprisoned. That movement too had begun with the crowd taking control of the streets, and the government were determined to nip any similar process in the bud. The LCS and the movement for political reform was not that strong or numerous, but it had tapped into the widespread frustration with war, rising food prices and hardship; its influence was not anything like as insidious as the authorities made out – and they really should have known, since the whole organisation was heavily penetrated by informers paid by the government and magistrates, who reported back on meetings and speeches from its many London branches. However, the king and his ministers were determined to prevent their influence from growing. So while they did in fact begin to investigate and ameliorate the conditions of hunger and hardship in the country, they also got underway with repressive measures. Two Acts of Parliament were quickly drawn up and passed to silence the radicals; the moderate ‘Foxite’ Whig opposition’s criticism of the war against France was also muted.

The broader based movement for political reform that had been building was split by the riots and attacks on the king. LCS leaders chose to distance themselves from the assaults, not that this prevented the law from censoring their publications and restricting their meetings.

The scared authorities banned meetings of more than 50 people, & strengthened the powers of magistrates to repress radicals publications, arrest individuals and hold them regardless of the courts. Despite widespread protest around the country these measures would lead to the decline of the democratic movement. Many potential supporters were put off joining. Also at this time, divisions developed in the LCS over the question of religion, with a growing trend of deism influenced by Paine’s Age of Reason. An attempt to publish a magazine in 1796 failed, increasing the Society’s debts. Disillusion was also setting in with revolutionary France, as it became clear that with the fall of the Jacobins in 1794, the most corrupt sections of the bourgeoisie had taken power.

Thomas Evans, (later a founder of the Spencean Philanthropists), became secretary of the LCS in 1796: more radical than many of the members…Scared by the navy mutinies at the Nore & Spithead, the authorities attempted to prove the LCS had been involved, without turning up much evidence. John Bone, an LCS member, was busted with copies of a ‘seditious’ handbill distributed to soldiers at Maidstone. As a result July 31st 1797 the platform was nicked at an LCS public meeting by Middlesex magistrates. On its last legs, as members dropped off, the whole committee was nicked at an April 19th 1798 meeting, and the Society was banned, along with other radical groups. This was the effective end of the Society: their dreams of a representative parliament, elected MPs truly representing all the people of the nation, would have to wait… But many of their former members would carry their ideas into the new century, and new radical movements…


Attacks on royalty continue. Funnily enough the above is a rare example of a collective attack on a British monarch, (King Charles I’s instant weight loss program from 1649 counts, maybe?) though individuals have had a number of (more or less serious) attempts at offing or doing injury to various crowned heads. I think queen victoria holds the record for attempted assassinations entered into; though George III also had some close shaves with lone angry constituents as well as this October 1795 royal audience in the Westminster streets. Our favourite two are probably James Hadfield trying to rewrite the kings script in the theatre a few years later, and Edward Oxford’s having a pop at Victoria in 1840. The latter because one of our happiest moments at past tense was Oxford’s great-grand neice coming across our 2015 Lindon Rebel History Calendar which contained an entry celebrating him, and she gleefully informed us how proud the whole family are still of him. And why not!?

Another great collective shindig that still warms the cockles: rioting students accidentally bump into Prince Charles & Camilla in Regent Street in November 2010 and try to engage him in a serious discussion on public transport, ie how he’ll get to the palace if his limo gets turned over. Sadly it remains a theoretical discussion, bar the odd bounce on the bonnet. We know riotous attacks on royal parasites are no substitute for collective community class struggle yada yada. Still, every now & again having a go at a privileged poodle is better than a poke in the eye with s sharp stick.

Till the next time…


Appendix: Gillray’s engraving of the attack on the king’s coach (at the head of this post)

“At a glance, Gillray’s cartoon appears to side with the government’s version of events. But look again. In the bottom right, the figure of Britannia has been trampled under the horses’ hooves. This is a hit and run, and at the reins of the carriage is none other than William Pitt who drives his administration on blindly and ruthlessly, insensible to the irreparable damage he is inflicting. The nation is the casualty here, not the royal passenger. The government, not the protesters, are the real hooligans.” (David Francis Taylor)


An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1795: a monster rally for political reform, Islington

The London Corresponding Society (LCS) was an important political movement that fought for political reform in the 1790s, that increasingly became more radical, and involved more and more working class men, and faced vicious repression by a government that felt threatened by its ideas.

The Society had been founded in January 1792, by nine ‘wellmeaning, sober and industrious men’ called together by shoemaker Thomas Hardy, who became its first secretary. Its early membership consisted of working men, was politicised by economic hardship & influenced by the movements for reform of the electoral system in Britain, as well by the American & French Revolutions. The LCS was not new as a political debating club: what was new was that its subscription fees were low enough to allow working people to get involved. The emphasis on corresponding with likeminded groups in other towns was crucial: “It was a definite step forward in the rise of the political consciousness of the masses when they no longer felt that they were engaged in an isolated effort” (Robert Birley) The LCS was in contact with similar groups in Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Derby, Leicester, Coventry, Newcastle & Norwich, Bath, Rochester, Hertford, among others.

Their basic demands were aimed at Parliamentary reform: universal suffrage & annually elected parliaments. They attacked the system of rotten boroughs with few or no residents being represented by MPs, while large developing industrial towns were not represented at all. These last were reasonably widespread complaints among more moderate reformers. But they also developed ideas well ahead of their time: eg MPs to be paid & recallable by their electorate…

But beyond that the LCS also recognised class antagonism: their demands for reform were aimed at the working class & lower middle class, because they knew the aristocratic elite had a vested interest in obstructing change. The class basis of the organisation was described as “tradesmen, mechanics & shopkeepers.”

The LCS expected that an ‘honest parliament’ elected under the system they proposed would enact popular legislation: notably an end to enclosure of land by the wealthy & the throwing open of common land already enclosed, as well as legal reform to make justice cheaper & more available to the poorer classes.

The LCS was split into divisions throughout London, sending two delegates each to a General Committee. The divisions & the General Committee met weekly. The divisions contained between 16 and 45 members; they divided into two on reaching 45. In September 1792 the Society was said to have 5000 members.

The Society, together with other reform-minded groups, sent messages of fraternity & support to the Convention in France, which was pushing forward the French Revolution. Though they drew back from some of the ‘excesses’ like the massacres of aristocrats in Paris in September 1792, they supported the Revolution against the foreign armies intervening to restore absolute monarchy in France.

The LCS & the Constitutional Society co-operated in rallies against the threat of harsh repressive laws. However the government’s legion of spies & informers were at work, putting together a picture of a revolutionary society prepared to overthrow the state…

In 1794, Government spies reported LCS members making speeches at meetings presented as seditious & republican: and the government acted. Parliament backed repression against LCS meetings, and three Society notables, Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were all arrested and charged with treason. Hardy’s house was also attacked by an officially-backed ‘loyalist’ mob – his wife died in childbirth as a result.

Many LCS members were frightened off by the increased repression, but others joined out of solidarity, Hardy, Tooke & Thelwall were tried in November 1794, but the evidence was weak & they were acquitted: of treason: charges were dropped against several other radicals. There were great celebrations, but Hardy & Tooke both largely dropped out of activity after this however.

But the Society was growing again: from 17 divisions in March to 70 or 80 in October. In 1795, a failed harvest led to rising food prices and massive hunger throughout the country, which resulted in growing anger against the class of landlords which working people perceived as caring little whether they lived or died and denying them any voice in how society was run. (bearing in mind that massive enclosure of common fields, woods and marginal land, running at a record pace, was depriving thousands of bare subsistence and impoverishing the rural poor,,, driving many into the cities to look for work). This merged with an increased resentment against Britain’s war against revolutionary France, which had not only pulled in thousands of men to fight as soldiers and sailors, but also led to steep rises in taxes which were seen to impact heavier on the poorest folk. The Corresponding Society’s stand against the war and the power of the landlords chimed in with the general resentment – they pointed out that the people benefitting from both high food prices were the same people sitting in Parliament, the same people in whose interests the war was being fought…

One of the LCS’ main organising tactics was holding monster rallies, mass meetings to show the strength of the movement for reform, inspire others, and undoubtedly to demand the attention of the government and persuade it that it needed to make concessions. In 1795 they held several massive rallies in London, centring their demands to the government ministers, that the war be stopped, that a program of parliamentary reform be put in place, and that attention be paid to the hunger in the country.

The king and the government ignored their petitions.

On 21st October the LCS issued an advertisement for a general meeting on 26th October, to be held on Copenhagen Fields, the grounds of Copenhagen House, which stood on the hill to the west of Islington; a well-known place for political meetings to be held.

They listed the business of the meeting – to vote on an address to the nation on the state of public affairs, a remonstrance to the king on the disregard shown toward the address of 29 June… Admission was free; members were urged to ‘exert their usual efforts with strangers to preserve that order and decorum’ which had placed the LCS above the intrigues of their enemies…

This was a very large meeting, possibly the largest of the era, with somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 or more attending. This meeting, addressed by LCS leaders John Gale Jones, Richard Hodgson, radical lecturer John Thelwall and John Ashley, a shoemaker, was possibly the one caricatured by Gillray in cartoon (see above), though alternatively this could represent the monster rally held in the same fields a few weeks later in November that year.

The government had been alarmed by the plans for the June monster meeting, but the 26th October rally seems to have appeared less threatening to them. Nevertheless, the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, directed John King to issue orders to Lt. Col Herries of the Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, to the Lord mayor and to Col Brownrigg to have their military forces in readiness: and to the police magistrates to retain extra constable and to send an observer to the meeting.

The LCS published two accounts of speeches made at the rally shortly afterwards, the following is taken from both these accounts.

Proceedings of a General Meeting of the London Corresponding Society,
Held on Monday October the 26th, 1795, in a field adjacent to Copenhagen-House, in the County of Middlesex

The Indifference with which the late Address from this Society to the King was treated; the rapid approximation of National destruction, thro’ the continuation of the present detestable War;- the horrors of an approaching Famine;- and above all, the increased Corruption, and Inquisitorial measures pursued and pursuing, by those who hold the Country in bondage – obliged this Society to appeal once more to their fellow Countrymen… [Accordingly a meeting was advertised.]

Previous to this meeting, the London Corresponding Society, had taken into consideration numerous Communications from different parts of the Country, suggesting the utility that would result from more active and direct communications between the people in those several places, and this Society, by the appointment of Members on deputation to open and regulate Societies for Parliamentary Reform; which was likewise a measure submitted to the public Meeting.

About half an hour after twelve o’clock, the People assembled on the Ground, according to the concurring calculations of several persons, amounted to more than one hundred and fifty thousand persons, at the same time that the Roads in all directions were still covered with people thronging to the meeting.

John Gale Jones opened the meeting by announcing that Citizen John Binns, ‘a well known and long tried Patriot, and an Honest Man’, had been nominated as chairman. After being unanimously approved, Binns took the chair and addressed the meeting, stating that he hoped the contempt shown to their last address would not provoke them,

“… but that you will now coolly and deliberately determine upon a further notice of proceeding, which shall enforce those Ministers, that when the voice of a United People goes forth, it is their duty to attend to it: and if they do not they will be guilty of HIGH TREASON against the PEOPLE…

Three points will be brought forth for rejection, amendment or unanimous approbation: an address to the nation, a remonstrance to the king on the contempt shown to the LCS address presented to his ministers, and resolutions applicable to the present crisis.

Address to the nation

Once more, dear friends and fellow citizens, in defiance of threats and insults – of base suggestions  and unmanly fears – are we met in the open face of day, and call the heavens and earth to witness the purity of our proceedings. Amidst the dreadful storms and hurricanes which at present assail the political hemisphere of our country, with firm and unabated vigour we pursue our avowed and real purpose – the grand and glorious cause of PARLIAMENTARY REFORM!

The rude gales of opposition, and the howling blasts of persecution have served only to assist our career; and where we might have lingered, from choice or indulgence, we now steadily from the heavy pressure of inevitable necessity!

With anxious minds and agitated hearts, we are again compelled to address you, and to solicit your patient attention. There was a time, when we might, perhaps, have been startled at the idea of rendering ourselves so conspicuous, and have fought for refuge under the veil of obscurity. When the timid apprehensions of our friends, the loss of our most valuable interests and connections, the threats of guilty Ministers, and the hostile preparations of armed associations, might have forcibly urged us to remain in silence, and to retreat from the eye of observation. But, alas, it is now too late! When the welfare of society is at stake, what private consideration ought to avail? We have been severely persecuted, it is true, but is our cause became lss clear? We have been cruelly and unjustly treated, but has the majesty of Truth suffered in the shameful contest? No. Away then with the lifeless apathy and pale-faced fear; let every friend of liberty must boldly deliver his real sentiments; and while he professes the virtuous principles of a patriot, assert his independence like a man!

Four months ago we peaceably assembled to deliberate upon the best and most probable of recovering our rights, and redressing our numerous grievances: we addressed you, and we petitioned the king. We believe, if we may judge from the rapid increase in our numbers from the last public meeting, that our sentiments and conduct experienced almost general approbration. From one particular quarter, however, we have not received that attention and regard which as Britons and Freemen, we might not have expected. The late Address to the king has either been artfully and prematurely suppressed, or passed over with contempt. If the former, we hesitate not to say, that HIS MINISTERS have proved themselves GUILTY OF HIGH TREASON against the Lives and Liberties of the Nation! If the latter, his Majesty should consider the sacred obligations he is bound to fulfil, and the duties he ought to discharge; he should recollect, that when he ceases to consult the interests and happiness of the people, he will cease to be respected, and that justice is a debt which the nation hath a right to demand from the Throne!

IN vain do we boast of a Constitution, if its genuine principles be not actively alive in our bosoms; in vain do we talk of rights, if we want courage and firmness to assert them. The true Constitution of a country is the undaunted spirit of its people! The principles of liberty must be established on the solid basis of rational conviction, and the virtues of patriotism cherished and supported by continual exertion! When once the citizens of Britain are become careless and indifferent about the preservation of their rights, or the choice of their representatives, from that moment arbitrary power is essentially introduced, and the utter extinction of individual liberty, and the establishment of general despotism, are inevitable and certain.

To delineate a faithful portrait of the awful situation of our poor distracted country, would only be to exhibit a scene of misery and desolation; a frightful picture of horror that would sicken the imagination, and appal the stoutest heart. The history of the last few months presents indeed to our view, a rapid succession of ill-fated mismanagement, unexampled calamities, and unparalleled disgrace! Baffled and defeated in every miserable project, they have either designed or undertaken, Ministers seem determined to display their pre-eminent power of doing mischief, and as they cannot compass the ruin of France, to contrive at the least, the destruction of England. Emigrant armies and foreign expeditions have been hastily planned and equipped, to ensure only to the one, an horrible and undistinguished carnage; and to the other, a premature and untimely grave! The manufacturer has been seduced from his loom – the militia man swindled from his domestic employment – and the humble cottager kidnapped from the plough. The bread that should support the industrious poor has been exported, either to be abandoned on a foreign shore, or consigned to the bottom of a fathomless ocean – while the helpless widow and orphan are consoled for their irreparable loss, by the scanty allowance of an insolent donation, or a charitable bribe!

The comfortable and pleasing prospects resulting from an abundant harvest have turned out to be vain and fallacious – and were probably held up only to lull the public mind into a delusive and fatal security! The approach of famine seems to be inevitable, and we have almost the melancholy and indubitable assurance of being soon in want of bread.

What is the cruel and insatiate that thus piecemeal tears and devours us? – Wherefore in the midst of apparent plenty are we thus compelled to starve? – Why, when we incessantly toil and labour, must we pine in misery and want? – What is this subtle and insinuating poison which thus vitiates our domestic comforts and destroys our public prosperity? – It is Parliamentary Corruption, which like a foaming whirlpool swallows the fruit of all our labours, and leaves us only the dregs of bitterness and sorrow.

Those whose duty it is to watch over the interests of the Nation, have either proved themselves indifferent to its welfare, or unable to remove the pressure of these intolerable grievances. Let them however be aware in time – Let them look to the fatal consequences – We are sincere friends of Peace – we want only Reform: Because we are firmly and fully convinced, that a thorough Reform would effectually remedy those formidable evils: but we cannot answer for the strong and all-powerful impulse of necessity, nor always restrain the aggravated feelings of insulted human nature! – IF EVER THE BRITISH NATION SHOULD LOUDLY DEMAND STRONG AND DECISIVE MEASURES, WE BOLDLY ANSWER – “WE HAVE LIVES!” AND ARE READY TO DEVOTE THEM, EITHER SEPARATELY OR COLLECTIVELY, FOR THE SALVATION OF OUR COUNTRY.

We trust, however, that Reason and Remonstrance are alone sufficient to produce the desired effects. We have laboured long, and we hope not unsuccessfully. Our Numbers have increased beyond all human expectation: and many who once professed themselves our most inveterate Enemies are now converted into sincere and faithful Friends. A little more Patience, and a little Perseverance, Fellow Citizens, the business will be accomplished, and out Triumph complete. The LONDON CORRESPONDING SOCIETY SHALL BE THE POWERFUL ORGAN TO USHER IN THE JOYFUL TIDINGS OF PEACE AND REFORM; AND UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE AND ANNUAL PARLIAMENTS SHALL CROWN OUR SUCCESSFUL EXERTIONS!

JOHN BINNS, Chairman.
JOHN ASHLEY, Secretary.”

LCS member and longtime moderate radical activist/government informer, Francis Place, in hindsight labelled this address ‘an absurd declaration… filled with commonplace topics’. In terms of its language he though the speakers ‘did little more… than copy from their betters’ meaning Parliament.

“The Reading of this Address was, from time to time, interrupted by such loud applauses as are but seldom heard, even in public places – and being ended amidst the warmest and most unanimous acclamations of approbation, the Chairman proceeded next to read


To the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.

The humble and earnest Remonstrance  of Two Hundred Thousand, and upwards , faithful, though greatly aggrieved, Subjects, associated ad assembled  with the CORRESPONDING SOCIETY of London, in a constitutional manner, in behalf of themselves and others.


When the treacherous duplicity, and intolerable tyranny of the House of STUART had roused the long-enduring patience of the British People, the expulsion of one restored into their hands into their hands the primitive right of chusing another, as their Chief of many Magistrates.

[At that period the privilege of remonstrating with the Chief Magistrate was established. When Queen Anne died without heirs, the pubic called to kingly office the head of the house from which you are descended. The preservation of the rights, reconfirmed at the Revolution, then became part of the obligations of George I. In spite of the smallness of the majority which established the Hanoverian succession, the nation has supported the decision of their representatives on that occasion. The people of this country hoped that an eternal gratitude would bind your house (transplanted from poverty and obscurity to dignity and opulence) to support the freedom and happiness of this country.

Our present object is to renew a complaint delivered in an address to you, which we put into the hands of the Duke of Portland on 15 July. In that address we expressed our belief that your ministers have plunged the nation into its present calamities and should be dismissed; and that only a reform in representation can restore this country to vigour and happiness.

Our address was not attended to by your majesty’s servants as it should have been. Are we to suffer and not complain? What have we not to fear if there is an impenetrable barrier between the oppressed and the magistrate? Alas, we hoped to find the third sovereign of the Brunswick line an example of royal virtue. We wished you to consider whether your duty to your royal progeny and to your people, whose industry provides the funds for their princely support, will be accomplished by pursuing the measures of odious ministers or by giving the people liberty, peace and reform.

“Listen then, Sire! To the voices of a wearied and afflicted people, whose grievances are so various that they distract, to enormous that they terrify. Think of the abyss between supplication and despair! – The means of national salvation are in your own hands – it is our right to advise as well as supplicate: and we declare it to be our opinion, that a Reform in the Representation of the people, the removal of your present Ministers, and a speedy PEACE, are the only means by which this country can be saved, or the attachment of the People secured.”

Signed by Order of the Meeting,

  1. BINNS, Chairman
  2. ASHLEY, Secretary.

 This being received with an equally unanimous approbation, the Chairman then read the following RESOLUTIONS.


1st. That the present awful and alarming state of the British Empire, demands the serious attention of our fellow countrymen.

2nd. That its unexampled distresses call for immediate and effectual redress.

3rd. That we are fully persuaded the present exorbitant price of the necessaries of life, (notwithstanding the late abundant harvest) is occasioned partly by the present ruinous war; but chiefly by that pernicious system of monopoly, which derives protection from the mutilated and corrupt state of the Parliamentary Representation.

4th. That the enormous load of axes, under which this almost ruined country groans, together with its unparalleled National Debt, (which has been and will be greatly encreased by the present war) threatens the British Nation with total ruin.

5th. That the inflexible obstinacy of Ministers, in continuing the present cruel, unjust, and disgraceful war – a war which was has stained the earth and seas with so much human blood – calls aloud for the execration of every friend of humanity.

6th. That the present Government of France, is capable of maintaining the accustomed relations or peace and amity with the King of Great Britain, as with the Elector of Hanover.

7th. That we remain fully convinced that the permanent peace, welfare and happiness of this Country, can be established only by restoring to our fellow Countrymen their natural and undoubted right; Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments.

8th. That we are determined at the next general Election, to support such candidates only as will pledge themselves to a radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament.

9th. That the evasive conduct of His majesty’s Ministers, respecting our late Address, convinces us that our fellow countrymen have little to hope from the Executive part of our Government.

10th. That the only hope of the people is on themselves.

11th. That the period is not far distant, when Britons must no longer depend upon any party of men for the recovery of their liberties.

12th. That the publicity of our conduct evinces the purity of our intentions, and is a testimony of our love of peace, and of the sacrifices we would make to spare the blood of our fellow countrymen.

13th. That the events of every day are clearly proving, that we have gained the good opinion of our fellow countrymen, notwithstanding the opposition of our persecutors and calumniators.

14th. That, in order the more effectually to obtain the co-operation and assistance of the whole country, deputies shall be sent from the Society to the principal towns in the kingdom, for the purpose of explaining to our fellow countrymen the necessity of associating, as the only means of procuring a parliamentary reform.

15th. That strong in the purity of our intentions and the goodness of our cause – regardless of the calumny and threats of our enemies – we again solemnly pledge ourselves to the British nation, never to desert the scared cause in which we are engaged, until we have obtained the grand object of our pursuit.

The chairman having left the chair, a motion was made and seconded, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to the Chairman, which was accordingly put and carried into motion.

A motion was also moved and passed, that the thanks of the meeting should be given to Citizen Jones, Thelwall, Hodgson &c for their exertions this day.

Both these Motions were unanimously passed, amidst the greatest acclamations. A little after Five o’clock the Meeting broke up, when the immense Company that was present separated, and proceeded to their respective homes: the utmost harmony, regularity and good order prevailed during the whole time, each and every individual seeming to be impressed with the Idea, that it was a Day SACRED TO LIBERTY.”


However peaceful and amicable the account above makes the end of the meeting sound, the language used certainly contains veiled threats. The address to the king, for instance, informs George III that his kingship is subject to the approval of the whole people of the nation, and this is a compact than can be revoked unless he wins the people’s approval; also that all the ‘inherited’ wealth of the king and the luxurious living he and his family enjoy is based on the labour of the lower orders… Despite the protestations of loyalty, and appeals to the old trope that the king is being betrayed in his duty to his subjects by the evil ministers that surround him (a well-versed theme going back to the Peasants Revolt), there is a passive-aggressive threat contained in almost every line. And the authorities cannot have missed the use of the title ‘Citizen’ – the term the French Revolutionaries had used, a title that in its very nature implied a people NOT subject to kingly authority, that threatened the guillotine without even mentioning it.

The speakers also threw out hints that the mob should surround Westminster on the 29th, when the king would go to the houses of parliament, to protest the king and government ignoring their petitions. This suggestion would directly lead to a riot and an attack on the king.

We will cover more on the Corresponding Society In October 1795, on October 29th

Today in London’s legal history: Kyd Wake found guilty of heckling the king, 1796.

“In the kings bench came on the trial of Kyd Wake, indicted for a misdemeanor in hissing and booing the king as his majesty was going to the parliament-house, on the first day of the present sessions, and likewise crying “down with George, no war,” &c. Mr Stockdale, the bookseller, and Mr Walford, the linen draper, who acted as constables on the day, were examined, and fully proved the facts charged in the indictment; upon which the jury without hesitation, found a verdict, guilty. A great number of person attended on the part of the prisoner; but as they could only speak to his general character, and not to the case in point, Mr Erskine, the prisoner’s counsel, declined calling upon them, reserving their testimony to be offered in mitigation of the punishment, on the first day of next term, when the prisoner will be brought up to the king’s bench to receive judgment…

Kyd Wake, who was convicted at the sittings… of having… insulted his majesty in hos passage… received the judgment of the court; viz ‘That he be imprisoned, and kept to hard labour in Gloucester gaol, during the tem of five years; that during the first three months of his imprisonment, he do stand for one hour, between the hours of eleven and two, in the pillory, in one of the public streets in Gloucester, on a market-day; and that, at the expiration of his sentence, he do find security for £1000 for his good behaviour for ten years.” (Annual Register, 1796.)

The early days of England’s long wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France coincided with a growing movement for radical political reform in Britain. As the 1790s wore on, the war brought hardship and recession, and resentment from the lower orders mingled with calls for political change. There were riots against the activities of the ‘crimpers’, who kidnapped men for the armed forces; food riots, and general tumults against war, the government and the king. In response, the government engaged in charging leading radicals with treason, and targeted printers who published anything questioning the status quo – and anyone caught expressing opposition…

In October 1795, while riding to Parliament in a glass-enclosed royal carriage, King George III became the target of a crowd protesting the war and demanding bread. “Like Charles, Prince of Wales and heir to the U.K. throne, and his consort, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, riding to the theatre in the glass-enclosed Rolls Royce, royalty embodies the sovereignty which led to war and hardship.” Kyd Wake, a bookbinder, hissed and grimaced at the King shouting, “No George, No War!” while the carriage windows became subject to a barrage of pebbles and sticks from a hungry and protesting crowd. Wake was sentenced to five years hard labour – a severe sentence for a moment of angry protest. An example was being set. Wake may have had some background of association with reformers and attending radical meetings.

In prison Wake “had his head shaved, and wore the prison dress, consisting of a blue and yellow jacket and trousers, a woollen cap, and a pair of wooden shoes.”

Kyd Wake’s wife made an engraving to raise money to provide extra food for her husband who was imprisoned in Gloucester Penitentiary. This was captioned with Kyd Wake’s plea against solitary confinement:

Five years’ confinement, even in common gaols must surely be a very severe punishment; but if Judges or Jurors would only reflect seriously on the horrors of solitary imprisonment under penitentiary discipline!! If they would allow their minds to dwell a little on what it is to be locked up, winter after winter.. for 16 hours out of the 24, in a small brick cell -without fire -without light -without employment and scarcely to see a face but those of criminals or turnkeys. No friend to converse with when well; or to consult with or to complain to when indisposed. Above all -to be subjected to a thousand insults and vexations, almost impossible to be described, and therefore scarcely to be remedied; but by which continual torment may be, and often is, inflicted. If they would but consider what an irreparable misfortune it is to have a considerable portion of life so wearisomely wasted; they would surely be more tender of dooming any man, for a long time, to such wretchedness. It is a calamity beyond description, more easily to be conceived than explained.

Wake survived his sentence to become a printer again, but died tragically in 1807, being crushed to death between a post and the wheels of a wagon in St Paul’s churchyard. In his obituary it was suggested that he possibly only served two years. A much more reasonable sentence for heckling, methinks… Not.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London radical history: William Stone tried for treason, 1796.

During the French Revolution, when paranoia gripped the British government that something similar could erupt here, those radicals identified as sympathetic to the revolutionary ideals were marked out for surveillance. Their meetings were infiltrated by spies, harassed, banned from pubs; they were arrested and a number were tried for treason.

William Stone was a Unitarian radical accused of being a French agent. He was tried at the Old Bailey, after nearly two years’ incarceration, on January 28 and 29, 1796, for “treacherously conspiring with his brother, John Hurford Stone, then in revolutionary France, to destroy the life of the King and to raise a rebellion in his realms.”

William Stone’s brother, John Hurford Stone, was said to have been present at the 1789 storming of the Bastille, (though he can’t be positively proved to have been in Paris till three years later). He and William worked with their uncle, a coal merchant. John Stone was considered very clever and cultured, and had advanced far beyond the Unitarian doctrines of his family. He joined Dr. Richard Price’s radical congregation in London. In October 1790 he presided at a dinner given by the Society of Friends of the Revolution to a French deputation from Nantes.

In September 1792, John Stone was in Paris, and presided at a dinner of British residents in Paris to celebrate French victories. Thomas Paine was present, as also Irish rebel leader Lord Edward Fitzgerald, whom Stone introduced to his future wife, Pamela. He was however later included in a wholesale arrest by the French revolutionary authorities of British subjects in October 1793, though was released after seventeen days. He was again arrested, together with his wife, in April 1794, but liberated next day on condition of leaving France. He could not safely return to England, for his brother was in Newgate on a charge of treason, and he himself was described in the indictment as the principal. He went to Switzerland.

His brother William Stone had been arrested by 1794, but had to wait until 1796 to be tried for treason. The law of conspiracy was developed rapidly by the judges in these years, and in Stone’s 1796 trial, justices Sir Nash Grose and Sir Soulden Lawrence, also on the bench, persuaded Chief Justice Lord Kenyon to accept evidence of conspiracy that he was at first inclined to exclude.

The truth was, however, that William had “urged his brother, “that seditious and wicked traitor, “as Sir John Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon) styled him, to dissuade the French from invading England, inasmuch as they would find none of the sympathy they expected, but were doomed to failure. Scott argued, indeed, that by warning the French against a hopeless enterprise William Stone had acted as their friend and as the King’s enemy; but Erskine and Adair, his counsel, urged that if promoting an invasion was treason, warding it off must be the reverse. It must, however, be acknowledged that the collecting of opinions on the chances of a French invasion, however openly done, and however adverse those opinions, was sailing very near the wind of treason. The prisoner, too, had sheltered his brother’s emissary, the Irish Presbyterian minister Jackson; had corresponded with Jackson in Ireland, signing his name backwards way (Enots), and had forwarded to the Government garbled extracts from his brother’s letters; but Lord Lauderdale, Sheridan, and William Smith, M.P., testified that he was merely a weak enthusiast, anxious to give himself airs, yet sincerely desirous of a peace with France. Rogers, called as a witness for the prosecution, and asked as to the prisoner’s loyalty to the King and regard for his country, evasively answered that he had always thought him a well-meaning man, and he was not pressed to say more. The prisoner was acquitted, and, after a fortnight’s detention for debt, retired to France, where he became steward to an Englishman named Parker, at Villeneuve St. George.”

His brother John was unlikely to have been acquitted, for in a document read at the trial he spoke through – out of the French as “we,” and of the English as “you,” thus identifying himself, as Chief Justice Kenyon remarked, with France. In a published letter to Dr. Priestley, he made some caustic comments on the prosecution, incidentally extolled the Girondins, and declared his dissent from Paine’s religious views and his belief in an enlightened Christianity. By November 1796 he had returned to France. He later became a publisher, dying in France in 1818.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London history: Duke of Bedford closes his private road, 1798.

“The Duke of Bedford… has stopped up the road from Southampton-row to Somers-Town. This, though called a private road, and as such, not open to carriages, has been a footway from time immemorial. It is hoped therefore, that the Duke, without waiting for a legal process, will restore that privilege…”
(Annual Register, 29th September 1798)

The fourth Earl of Southampton first started to develop the area around his mansion in modern Bloomsbury in the 1650s, pioneering a trend for hereditary landlords to develop new London streets and whole neighbourhoods by employing speculative builders; new houses for Lords, knights and other worthies began to spring up. By 1665 the Bloomsbury area was already described as “A fit place for the nobility and gentry to reside”. The 1666 Great Fire of London brought well-to-do refugees seeking new, safer housing out of the City – the next twenty years saw houses spread along what is now Great Russell Street.

According to local resident J. P. Malcolm,  “Squares, and spacious streets of the first respectability are rising in every direction; and the north side of the parish will, in a few years, contain an immense accumulation of riches, attracted by the grand structures in Russell Square now almost complete….”

Inheriting the estate in 1669, the Russells, the Earls of Bedford, named the new streets of their estates after their various titles and estates, and banned the building of pubs and shops, which they thought would lower the tone of the neighbourhood. Even a genteel bookshop was apparently closely screened before being allowed to open. In fact they not only attempted to control the atmosphere of their streets: they imposed barriers on who could even pass through it. Upper Woburn Place, originally a private road for the Dukes, had gates in the eighteenth century. By 1798 this road was closed off to traffic, and from the early 19th Century, parts of the Bedford Estate had gates at all entrances. In 1826, gates at the northern edge were erected so as to “shut out the low population” of the working class neighbourhood of Somers Town.

Uniformed gatekeepers were employed by the Russells to keep out undesirables; only those with tickets issued by the Estate, (silver discs, embossed with the Bedford coat of arms, obtainable by tenants or certain other privileged people for a guinea deposit), could pass down the roads. Empty cabs, or carts, drays, wagons, cattle and exercising horses were banned from entering; gentlemen’s carriages, cabs with fares and persons on horseback were allowed through. For decades the Bedford Estate managed to prevent trams and omnibuses from being run through their streets, even main streets like what was then Hart Street (now Bloomsbury Way). Private Acts of parliament banned hackney cabs from ‘standing for hire’ within 300 feet of some of the Estate’s poshest squares.

The gates stood at the north end of Gordon Street, half way down Taviton Street, (then called Georgiana Street, after the wife of the sixth Duke) and Endsleigh Street, and Upper Woburn Place, and at Torrington place near the corner of Torrington Square. Lodges built for the gatekeepers can still be seen on the west side of Endsleigh Street.

The Bedford Estate’s continued attempts to maintain the wealthy and ultra-respectable character of Bloomsbury must have been to some extent influenced by the sharp (and growing) contrast of this prosperous island with the neighbourhoods that surrounded it. St Giles to the south-west, Holborn to the south-east, Clerkenwell to the east, ‘Fitzrovia’ to the west, and, later, parts of St Pancras and Agar Town, to the north, all had an overwhelmingly working class population by the 19th Century; many of their streets were labeled as slums, rookeries or criminal haunts by the better-off classes. No doubt the increasing sense of being surrounded by the poor, desperate and possibly rebellious must have had some bearing on the gradual flight of the rich westward, to areas further from the dark threat of mob violence. The successive invasions of Bloomsbury in 1765, 1780 and 1815 by riotous crowds may only have been the sharp reminder of a deeper held fear and loathing… The increased control over open spaces, building on fields used for rowdy recreation, fencing off of squares’ gardens, can be seen partially as responses to both the class violence of the London Mob, AND the widely perceived ‘immoral’ nature of unlandscaped space – two sides of the same coin to the wealthy. The gates were popular with the mainly up-market tenants of the Bedfords; in fact some residents were pushing the Estate to toughen up the social control. Around 1750 a petition to the Duke from Silver Street, (roughly where Barter Street is now) complained that an alley running behind their street through to High Holborn, was frequented by “wicked and disorderly people of both sexes”, and called for it to be bricked up at both ends. This area, around the now-disappeared Bloomsbury Market (under the eastern end of present-day New Oxford Street), was increasingly lowering the tone of the Russells’ vision: although we couldn’t discover if this petition was acted on, the building of New Oxford Street through the St Giles Rookery would later obliterate some of these unrespectable streets.

Gradually opposition to the Dukes’ gates built up: they were obviously unpopular with cabbies and poorer folk, and even some local official bodies. The St. Pancras Vestry, under whose administration part of the Estate fell, became fed up with applying for permission to the Duke to enter the streets for works, cleaning etc. However the two other Vestries covering the area, St Giles and St George’s, defended the gates, mainly because removing them would lower rateable values and increase pavement costs, thus hitting the Vestry and wealthy ratepayers hard in the pocket.

The private road built for the duke’s personal use alone, Woburn Place, led to disputes even with other local nobility. It was originally laid in the 1750s, to connect to the spanking New Turnpike Road (now Euston Road) to the north so the duke could travel between his London pad and his country estates in Bedfordshire. At the edge of his land, however, to reach the new thoroughfare, it had to cross land owned by the Duke of Grafton, who wasn’t keen to allow it to bisect his property. For a while in 1759 there was a mini-civil war between the respective servants of the dukes, with Grafton’s men building barricades with instructions to block anyone coming over the border between the two estates; barriers repeatedly broken down by lackeys of Bedford (the words ‘hoist’ and ‘own petard’ springing to mind), but they settled in the end, with Bedford’s road being permitted to cross Grafton’s estate to meet the Turnpike road.

Eventually in slightly less forelock-tugging times, private gates across streets in a busy capital became unsustainable. Barring the majority of traffic from a strategically placed area just south of two main London railway stations had become economically anomalous. Even the prime minister complained in 1890 about the inconvenience of having to travel around the estate: “I am a constant passenger of the Great Northern Railway… and I must say that I have never passed the Sacred Gates in going to the Great Northern Station without mental imprecations against the persons who originally set them up and the persons who have since maintained them there.” (Which is interesting – was even the prime minster considered not respectable enough to pass through?)

Legislation ended this restriction of access, in 1893, and the gates came down. The Duke’s posh tenants, still keen to keep the riffraff out, campaigned for the gates’ retention, writing letters of protest, but happily in vain.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel past: Irish and English revolutionaries locked in the Tower of London, 1798

On 7th March 1798, insurrectionary leaders of planned Irish and English uprisings were jailed in the Tower of London, having been arrested while travelling to France to invite French help…

In 1798, the United Irishmen were in the final stages of planning an uprising against Britain’s brutal rule in Ireland. But there were also plans afoot for a radical insurrection in England. The plans were based among remnants of democratic movement that had flourished in the 1790s, inspired partly by the French Revolution; most notably the London Corresponding Society, a working class grouping that had formed to agitate for political reform and an extension of the franchise, but had quickly become more radical. It members had been spied on, banned and repressed by government agents, and noted activists had been arrested and charged with treason (though they were acquitted). Frustrated with the heavy repression and with getting nowhere through peaceful agitation, debates and propaganda, factions of the LCS had begun to put together secret cells (usually under the name of United Englishmen or United Britons) to begin plans for revolution…

Many of the Irish and British radicals looked to France, and hoped they could persuade the French revolutionary government to send military support to aid the projected uprisings.

To this end a number of representatives from the United Irishmen and the United Britons, including Arthur O Connor, Father James O’Coigley, and John Binns, formerly of the radical London Corresponding Society, started to secretly make their way to France to open negotiations. O’Connor had already been in touch with the French a year or two previously. Another United Irishman, John Allen, and O’Connor’s personal servant, Jerry Leary, accompanied them.

Arriving in London, O’Connor made contact with the London radicals, though he took a dim view of them (being an Irish aristocrat, he had a sniffy view of many of the Irish revolutionaries a well). O’Connor travelled to the Kent coast to arrange a boat to France, and the group met up in Margate.

However, on 28th February 1798, they were arrested in their inn. Although Binns and O’Connor had despaired of Father O’Coigley as a terrible co-conspirator, being a bit of a blabbermouth and talking too much, they had in fact been betrayed by a spy in the United Irishmen, Samuel Turner. However O’Coigley had been daft enough to carry an address in his greatcoat pocket, from the grandly titled ‘Secret Committee of England’, appealing to the French government to invade England.

The group were taken to London, and imprisoned in Coldbath Fields Prison; on March 7th they were transferred to the Tower, being charged with high treason. They remained there a month; but in April they were moved to Maidstone for their trial. The government was afraid to try them in London, where some sympathy for the radicals, but even more, a hatred of the use of police spies, had resulted in acquittals in the LCS treason trials just a few years before.

Their fears may well have been well-founded, since O’Connor, Binns, Leary and Allen were found not guilty in any case, due to some fancy footwork in the courtroom from good lawyers and heavy character references from O’Connor’s friends and connections in the Foxite party (moderate reform-minded politicos). O’Coigley, having had the treasonable paper on him, was found guilty and hanged. Undoubtedly their case was helped by a certain amount of distancing themselves from him.

The British government, however, was not prepared to let O’Connor, who they feared was a capable opponent, go free; he was immediately re-arrested in the courtroom (despite an attempt to smuggle him away which led to a riot in the court), and detained, later in Ireland. By the time he arrived there, in May 1798, the rebellion he had been part of planning had largely been defeated with savage repression. Without adequate French military support, which may well never have truly been on the cards, it was pretty much doomed. The English uprising never happened; the rest of the plotters, also betrayed by spies, were rounded up and detained. Which didn’t stop some of them trying again in 1802, as Irish rebels were once again trying to organise revolt.

One good book about Arthur O’Connor has a good account of the arrest and trial: Arthur O’Connor: The Most Important Irish Revolutionary You May Never Have Heard Of, by Clifford D. Conner is online here


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: striking tailors riot in the City, 1792.

The journeymen tailors had a history of solidarity dating back at least to the early 15th century.  What nowadays would be called trade unions were then in existence, under the names of ‘clubs’ or ‘combinations’, although they were much more at the local level than trade unions are today.  They met in ‘houses of call’, which were usually public houses. 1721 was a notably militant year: the master tailors of London presented a petition to the House of Commons, complaining that the journeymen in the trade had formed a combination and gone on strike.  The tailors’ combinations seem to have been quietly in existence for some years, perhaps starting as friendly societies, for them to have achieved by this time the power to challenge their employers in this way.  On five occasions between 1702 and 1720 the masters had appealed to Parliament, but the journeymen were never mentioned in these appeals.  In February 1721 the master tailors of London and Westminster complained that the combination of journeymen numbered 15,000, and that they were striking for better pay and shorter hours.  The result was a Bill passed in June, 1721, which supported the masters and made it lawful for journeymen striking or found to be part of a combination to be fined or imprisoned.  The effect of this act was to suppress overt activity in the combinations for twenty years. But the eighteenth century in the London tailoring trade was a tale of journeymen forming intermittent organisations to struggle for shorter hours and higher pay, and the masters enlisting their class allies in Parliament to repress these combinations.

In 1744, the master tailors again petitioned Parliament in a similar vein, that the journeymen had again organised combinations and were refusing to work for the legally enforced wage levels.  The Government response was to target the publicans on whose premises the ‘houses of call’ met, and to prosecute them for harbouring the members of the combinations.  No further action was taken by the Government, but the effect was that much public sympathy was generated for the plight of the journeymen.   Eventually, in July, 1751, the journeymen secured from the Court of Quarter Sessions in the County of Middlesex an order fixing their wages at “2s.6d. per day from Lady Day till Michaelmas and 2s. per day from Michaelmas to Lady Day, in addition to the allowance of three half-pence for breakfast.  The hours of work, however, were not altered and remained at 6 am to 8 pm with an hour off for dinner.”  The journeymen appeared happy with this, but there was soon further agitation, which gained them an hour’s reduction in their working day.  The masters attempted to undo these reforms on several occasions, but without success.  In November, 1763 the journeymen secured a further small daily wage increase, but the combinations continued to fight for better wages, bringing their activities more before the public gaze.

The masters evaded some of the restrictions of the legal rates of pay by moving some manufacturing out of London and Middlesex, and sometimes by secretly paying their best journeymen additional amounts in cash. The London combination again appealed to the Court in 1772 and received a further wage increase of 6d. per day, and 1s. per day during general mourning (see my ‘General Mourning’ blog).

In this context, another combination was formed, and a strike took place in 1792, both in London, and also in some other tailoring areas, such as Oxford. During this dispute, there was some riotous trouble in the City on February 25th.

In 1795, after further appeals, the Government fixed the journeymen’s pay at 27s. per week, with double during general mourning.   Further disputes over wages and hours ensued during the years.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel past: a plot to blow up the King’s Bench Prison, 1793

In the eighteenth century, imprisonment for debt was a regular part of London life. If you owed anyone any money, and they had enough to go to court, they could have you locked up until you could pay off what you owed. Since being inside isn’t necessarily a recipe for scraping cash together, such internments could last for years… The system was kind of loaded against you… This built up a lot of anger and resentment. While some went to court to try and argue that imprisonment for debt should be outlawed, others decided on more radical measures…

From the Newgate Journal, comes a tale of four men who plotted to free debtors banged up in the Kings Bench Prison:


Convicted of a Conspiracy to set fire to the King’s Bench Prison, February, 1793

ON the trial of these conspirators the Attorney-General said he flattered himself it would be found that he had done no more than his duty in bringing the several defendants before the Court. The offence with which they were charged was of the utmost importance to the peace and safety of the capital, for it not only had for its object the demolition of the King’s Bench Prison, but involved the burning of other houses, bloodshed and murder.

He lamented that five persons, all of education and respectable families, should, by their folly and imprudence, to call it by the softest name, bring themselves into such an unfortunate situation. One was a reverend divine, another an officer in the army, another had been in the profession of the law, and the others were of respectable parents, and with fair prospects of being honourable and useful members of the community.

The Attorney-General further said that this case was pregnant with the most alarming circumstances, which would be better detailed by the witnesses than described by him.

The prisoner Burgh was private chaplain to the Duke of Leinster, and a relation to a Speaker of the Irish House of Commons.

The first witness was Mr Justice Buller’s clerk, who produced a record to prove that the prisoner Burgh was lawfully confined in the King’s Bench Prison for debt.

Evidence was produced to prove that the other prisoners were also confined in the same prison for debt.

Edward Webb said he knew all the prisoners. About the beginning of May he was introduced into a society called “The Convivials” held in a room in the King’s Bench Prison, of which the prisoners were members.

M’Can expressed himself very freely upon the subject of Lord Rawdon’s Bill, then pending, respecting insolvent debtors, and said if that Bill did not pass into a law he and others were determined to do something to liberate themselves; that there was a scheme in agitation for that purpose, but that the parties were sworn to secrecy, and therefore he could not divulge it. The witness said he might safely communicate the business to him. The prisoners Cummings and Davis were present at the time.

M’Can afterwards opened the business to the witness. He said the plan in which he and the other prisoners were concerned was to effect their own enlargement by demolishing the walls of the prison, as they were determined not to be confined within those walls for debt. The execution of this plan would, however, depend upon the rejection of Lord Rawdon’s Bill. After they had effected their escape, by setting fire to the prison, they would then go to the Fleet Prison and liberate the prisoners; after which they would proceed to the houses of Lords Thurlow and Kenyon, which they would destroy.

Davis said he would not hesitate to blow out the brains of those noble Lords. The witness saw the other defendants, who conversed upon the subject, and it was proposed to procure some sailors to assist them. This scheme was, however, defeated by the vigilance of the marshal, who sent for the guards, and had the prison searched throughout.

Shortly afterwards the witness saw M’Can, Cummings and Davis again, who said that, though they were defeated in the former scheme, they were determined to put some other plot into execution. The next day Cummings (who was called the Captain) said to the witness: ” I have discovered the best plan that could be conceived for blowing up these d–d walls. I’ll show you the place.” He then took the witness to the end of the bakehouse and pointed out to him a place where the drain had been opened. Then he described the force necessary to blow up the walls, and said he had studied the scheme upon his pillow, and that it would be necessary to have a box about ten inches wide and as many deep, and described the tubes that were to convey the fire to the box, which he said must contain about fifty pounds’ weight of gunpowder, and requested the witness would get it made. In the evening of the same day the witness saw M’Can and Davis come out of the coffee-room, and, alluding to the plot, they said it was a glorious plan, and they would support it to the loss of their lives. They said no other person should be privy to it, excepting Mr Bourne, who was concerned in the former scheme, and who had got a large quantity of gunpowder ready. The witness observed to them that the neighbouring bakehouse and coffee-room would be in danger, and that poor Martin, who had a large family, would be killed. They replied that it did not matter if they or a dozen more were killed, provided it procured the prisoners’ freedom.

A day or two afterwards, when the witness was walking on the parade with Cummings, M’Can and Bourne, he asked if Mr Bourne knew of the plot; they said he did. Bourne said they should have the powder, and that Mrs Bourne should bring it to the witness’s house in small quantities. M’Can then proposed that, in order to raise money to purchase the gunpowder, a motion should be made in the club of Convivials for a subscription of five shillings each, under pretence of feeing counsel to know whether the marshal had a right to enter his prisoners’ apartments when he pleased. This proposal was agreed to, and the motion was accordingly made.

After several other consultations, at which all the prisoners were present, it was agreed that the gunpowder should be deposited in a hole in the floor of Burgh’s room — where it was afterwards found.

It was also agreed that, on the day the plot was to be carried into execution, M’Can and Bourne were to have a sham fencing-match for a great deal of money. This was so as to collect together all the prisoners at the time the gunpowder was set fire to, and thereby afford them a chance of making their escape.

At length the day was fixed for a Sunday, about seven o’clock in the evening, being a time at which a number of strangers were likely to be in the prison.

Cummings had the sole management of this plot. Burgh said that the noise and confusion it would create would, he hoped, bring about a revolution in this country.

T. Hendacre confirmed the substance of the evidence of the last witness, as did Mr Battersley. These witnesses stated, by way of addition, that Davis gave half-a-guinea to purchase some gunpowder; that the prisoners carried on a correspondence with a society in the borough of Southwark; that Mr Dundas’s house was one that was fixed on for destruction; that the prisoners had two schemes in contemplation to effect their escape — the one was to tie down all the turnkeys, the other the gunpowder plot in question, of which Cummings had the sole conduct, he being considered the engineer.

Lord Kenyon summed up the whole of the evidence in the most able and impartial manner; after which the jury found all the prisoners guilty.

On Tuesday, 12th of February, 1793, the prisoners were brought to receive judgment of the Court.

The prisoner Cummings produced a petition, in which he stated that he had been for several years an officer in his Majesty’s service, and had then two sons in the army, who, in consequence of the calamitous situation of the prisoner, were deprived of the education and support necessary to their station and rank. He stated several other circumstances in mitigation of punishment.

The prisoner Townley M’Can produced an affidavit, in which he stated that he was a student of law, and had formed an opinion from several writers that imprisonment for debt was illegal; he disclaimed any criminal intention, and positively denied that he or his fellow-prisoners had carried on a correspondence with the Revolution Society in the Borough, or ever had a design to kill the two great law lords — as alleged by a witness at the trial. The prisoners were severally sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, but in different prisons.”


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online