right to resist watermarked.jpg
right to resist watermarked.jpg


There were three Spa Fields Meetings in London in the winter of 1816-17: 15 November, 2 December 1816, and 10 February 1817.

They represent a major change in the strategies of the reformers, as they faced increasing government intransigence. The path to reform, prior to this, was one in which Sir Francis Burdett and Major John Cartwright provided leadership to those hoping for reform through cooperation with Whigs in Parliament, and with a rather passive form of representation from the provinces. At the 15 November meeting, Henry Hunt seized the initiative and launched a new approach of mass meetings designed to exert moral pressure on parliament through the mass platform. They faced obstacles in the form of an elite and a press that was increasingly fearful of a mass uprising and could be easily persuaded of the treasonous intentions of those marshaling the crowds both in London and the North and West, and the existence of an insurrectionist wing among the reformers, led by Thistlewood, Watson, and others, which sought to rouse people to attack the institutions of power and finance in the City. Hunt successfully steered the 15 November meeting to agree to petition the Prince Regent to enlist his sympathies and support in seeking reform and the alleviation of distress. He called for a national campaign of mass meetings as soon as Parliament was recalled, but was outflanked by the Young Watson who set the next meeting for 2 December when they anticipated receiving an answer from the Prince Regent.

At the 2 December meeting, while Hunt held the main crowd to the mass platform campaign, a break-away group, led by Thistlewood and his collaborators, split off from the meeting and headed off to attack a gun-shop to secure arms, and then the Tower, where they found troops firmly on the side of the government, despite their earlier efforts to lubricate their allegiance in local pubs. Hunt, meanwhile, effectively ridiculed the Prince Regent's one response, to donate £4,000 to the Spitalfield's Soup Kitchen, and effectively swung the people behind the mass platform as a means of securing reform.

The third Spa Fields meeting was held on 10 February, while the parliamentary special committees were still sifting the evidence collected from the events of 2 December, at which Hunt called for universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and the secret ballot and consolidated his position as leader of the extra-parliamentary reform movement, setting him in opposition to both the moderates, led by Burdett, and the 'enragés' led by Thistlewood and Watson.

One of the documents seized in December is shown here: it comes from the extreme wing and testifies to the radicals' contemplation of armed resistance to what they perceived as government oppression. It uses a question and answer strategy to discuss the key issues - the role of soldiers is given a good deal of attention.

TS 11/ 203 873 746 Found at Old Watson’s Lodgings in Hyde Street by J Vickery 2 December 1816
Questions Answers
Q. How long can a Nation endure oppression
A. Till distress is universal, and parents and children see each other starving

Q. When interested men have caused universal distress what is the probably consequence
A. Vengeance

Q. Can the arm of power prevent vengeance
A. No!!! Men will not obey oppressors the laws of nature forbid it

Q. Is it unjust to destroy oppression
A. Oppression is unnatural and ought to be destroyed

Q. What can justify oppression to Men in power
A. Their insolence and injustice

Q. When ought men to usurp power
A. When rulers by obstinacy have ruined their country and the people are starving

Q. How long ought soldiers to obey their commanders
A. As long as the orders of Commanders are founded in justice

Q. Can any conduct of commanders tolerate disobedience of orders
A. When orders are given to support tyranny oppression and increase distress contrary to the will and interest of a nation

Q. Ought soldiers to be the judges of their country’s wrongs
A. When they (sic) command[s] are unjust and injustice ought never to be obeyed. Soldiers are men and have feelings in common with their Brethren

Q. When Rulers are oppressors and have ruined a country is it right in soldiers to disobey commands
A. Soldiers ought no (sic) to be mercenaries, they are a part of the people, they ought not to add to the miseries of their starving and industrious brethren – they are paid to cherish and protect them and not to destroy them

Q. Are soldiers less benevolent and just than other men
A. Soldiers have feeling in common with their countrymen – they take up arms to oppose enemies they have a right to be well paid for their dangers – brave spirits always commiserate [their] brethren

Q. Ought soldiers ever to join their countrymen against oppressors
A. When these rulers have enslaved themselves and their nation under foreign control The soldiers and people ought to have but one feeling.