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