May day Garland 1820.png
May day Garland 1820.png

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On May 1st 1820, four men, Arthur Thistlewood, John Thomas Brunt, William Davidson, James Ings and Richard Tidd, were hanged and then decapitated by the public executioner in punishment for a conspiracy to attack the Cabinet at dinner on 23 February, earlier that year. Five others had their sentences commuted, and a further man was given a free pardon and released. Several other men went into and remained in hiding and escaped arrest. Six others turned king’s evidence, and still others, such as the radicals Robert Wedderburn and Thomas Preston were suspected of involvement and arrested but not tried. The leader of the conspiracy, Thistlewood, was a tenant farmer’s son, who had been active in the Spa Fields Riots in 1816, and although arrested then his trial collapsed alongside others because of the evidence that the spies providing the evidence had also incited the actions. He subsequently served a year in prison for challenging the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, to a duel in 1818. A great deal of the forestalling of the attack and the capture and conviction of the conspirators was the result of infiltration of their organization by Home Office spies. The experience of the trials following the Spa Fields Riots had to some extent been learned, but there were still concerns about the contribution of the spies to the events. For example, the dinner was a lure, advertised in the press, but intended only ever as bait for the government’s quarry.

It does, nonetheless, seem clear that there was a concerted conspiracy, involving a number of seemingly ordinary working people, living in the warrens of London, and renting a meeting space above a stable in Cato Street, at which they planned the elimination of the Cabinet and the subsequent seizure of the Bank of England, the Royal Exchange and the Tower of London, and then the calling to arms of the radical movements in the North. This is, as Vic Gatrell’s forthcoming book The Cato Street Conspiracy 1820 argues, the first insurrection uprising planned since Guy Fawlkes, and it was not repeated until the activities of the IRA in the 1970s. It is not difficult to see how reformers might have turned desperate. Peterloo in August 1816 was followed in October by Richard Carlile’s near six-year imprisonment for blasphemous libel for publishing the works of Tom Paine, in November by the launch of the Six Acts strengthening the government’s hands against reformers, and the preparations of the trials of the victims of Peterloo were underway. This was a moment in which government seemed most determined to silence extra-parliamentary opposition, and in which the customary forms of petitioning, meetings, and organization were both ignored and, increasingly, persecuted.

The tactics of opposition in the late 1810s were, for the most part, essentially traditional. Nonetheless, the number and size of meetings called to deliberate and advocate for reform, the emergence of a strong strand of industrial radicalism, the mobilization against poverty and hardship by the victims themselves, as in ‘Blanketeers march’ to London in March 1817 (disrupted by arrests almost before it had started), and the on-going Spencean undercurrents of millenarian and radical reform, were all developments of aspects that had been in evidence in the 1790s. There was increasing anger and frustration as post-war hardship intensified and as the government took no action, save against those who challenged it. In his Reminiscences Samuel Bamford emphasizes how he always sought to air his views in public – that he feared secrecy for the opportunities it provided for infiltration by spies whose accounts of proceedings were potentially fatal, and it is difficult to believe that was not a shared fear. Perhaps only the size and press of London, with its labyrinths of alleys and lodgings, and the possibilities it offered of anonymity, could have fostered such a plot, but it also needed a tradition, which the Spencean societies provided. The mood in 1819, even before Peterloo, had become more belligerent , there was disaffection with Hunt’s leadership for its failure to countenance more active measures after Peterloo, and strands of radicalism in London, with the Spenceanism led by Dr Watson and with Wedderburn offering a new radicalism in his Hopkins Street debating chapel, fueled both the participation of lower ranks of society and their willingness to consider other measures. The measures contemplated were largely for armed resistance – not for assassination and insurrectionary plotting – although resistance moved from self-defence at meetings to reacting actively to the proposed ‘Six Acts’. The key issues for those involved were to avoid detection, and to feel confident that they would be much more widely supported throughout the country, rendering their action of lasting effect. But as plotting became thicker, and as concerns about spying were constant, the opportunities for assuring themselves of wider support were very much diminished. The revolutionary cell both accelerated people’s commitments, and cut them off from the rest of those they hope to lead. The Cato Street Conspiracy has been under-researched – a neglect to be rectified by Gatrell’s forthcoming work – although the world from which it grew is a central element in Iain McCallman’s Radical Underworld: Prophets, Revolutionaries and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840 (Cambridge, 1988). These works demand attention because they demonstrate a depth of anger and frustration emerging among members of the working classes in the late 1810s which the more traditional histories of the period tend to underplay. In Britain, as in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Greece, the late 1810s and early 20s opened a new era of protest and dissention. And, in all of these cases, one relatively new factor is the conspiratorial society and the mustering of arms.