It's my pleasure to welcome Charlotte Russell to the salon to discuss the Hampden Clubs!
The Hampden Clubs
Regency gentlemen do love their clubs, don’t they? However, the Hampden Clubs weren’t a typical gentleman’s club.
In 1812, Major John Cartwright—former naval officer, Nottinghamshire militiaman, supporter of American independence and parliamentary reform—founded the first Hampden Club in London. Named for a 17th century parliamentary leader, the club was meant to be a haven for weekly readings of pamphlets and discussions of various ideas for political reform. The Hampden Club had no permanent location and though you might find the rare aristocratic member such as Lord Byron, its membership mainly drew from the ranks of moderate middle class reformers and slightly lower class radicals. When Cartwright took off for the north of England to spread his views on political reforms, Hampden Clubs began to spring up in his wake throughout the Midlands and the north country.
Cartwright himself advocated for universal male suffrage, secret ballots, reformed electoral boundaries and annual parliaments. However, the members of the Hampden Clubs held such disparate reform views—from moderates who still wanted only landed men to hold the vote to working class radicals who were more interested in improving their own living and working conditions than government reform—that the meetings often devolved into internal arguing that lead to no resolutions whatsoever and ensured that the government kept a close eye on the Hampden Clubs.
All of this sounds so dry, doesn’t it? However, as the sociopolitical climate heated up during 1816-1817 with the Spa Field Riots, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, and the passing of the Seditious Meetings Act, the Hampden Clubs fell under heavy suspicion from Lord Liverpool’s government, who thought they were the prime breeding ground for fomenting unrest and insurrection. Most of the clubs turned to meeting in secret.
Now this sounds more like the perfect recipe for intrigue, yes? It’s here, in this time of mistrust, fear, and galvanizing reform, that I set my novel A Spy’s Honor.
When the government gets wind of a plot to assassinate the prime minster, my hero, Lord John, is charged with ferreting out the homegrown conspirators. After five years of spying on the continent he returns to England in the hope of completing his mission and winning back the woman he gave up. Unfortunately, Claire is newly engaged to Lord Kensworth, who just happens to be John’s number one suspect. Lord Kensworth, from a humbler background than his title indicates, is a secret member of the (fictional) Hertfordshire Hampden Club and he invites John to one of their clandestine meetings. Here’s a short excerpt of my fictionalized version of a Hampden Club meeting.
Kensworth pulled open the heavy oak door and waved John through. Robert and David were already inside the low-ceilinged room, greeting acquaintances with smiles and handshakes. All the tables had been shoved up against stucco walls. Men of various ages either reclined in the chairs that had been crowded into the center of the room, or sat atop the tables, their booted feet hanging down.
As his gaze roamed the crowd, John noted how diverse it was. There was Kensworth, of course, the local peer, but also tradesmen, field laborers, a blacksmith, and even two of Kensworth’s footmen. In all John counted forty-five people, a number perilously close to the fifty that would have violated the Seditious Meeting Act.
Kensworth nodded at a few people but didn’t speak directly to anyone as he made his way over to a table near the bar and hitched himself up. John smiled freely at anyone who would look at him, hoping such friendliness would dissolve any suspicions regarding his presence. By the time he slid up next to Kensworth his jaw ached from the unaccustomed work. Across the room, Robert and David sat on opposite sides of a wiry fellow with shoulder-length brown hair. Were they distancing themselves from John, the newcomer?
The publican banged a tankard on the bar as an older man with loose wrinkles and a thatch of white hair rose and stood in front of the oak divider. “Hear ye, hear ye. This meetin’ of the Hertfordshire Hampden Club is called to order.” His sharp gaze cut directly to Kensworth. “We’ve a full house tonight and his lordship appears to have brought a companion. Care to introduce us?”
Kensworth tilted his head toward John. “Mr. Boyd, this is my cousin, Mr. Donner. He’s visiting from London, and knowing how similar his views are to ours, I invited him to accompany me.”
John smiled and nodded toward various parts of the room, all the while observing reactions. Most regarded him with suspicion while murmuring amongst themselves. He noticed the man in between the Cahill brothers was speaking vehemently into David’s ear.
The publican thumped the tankard against the oak again and a hush fell over the room. “Welcome, Mr. Donner,” he said grudgingly. Then Mr. Boyd turned to business. “Last month Mr. Carley had the notion of printing up a pamphlet to distribute around the county.” Mild cheering interrupted this announcement. “However, that devil Sidmouth—” The cheers turned instantly to shouts and curses. Mr. Boyd held up a hand to quiet everyone and then continued, “—has ordered harsh punishments for the printers and writers of such things, so we’ll have to forgo it.” He quickly abandoned his defeated tone, though, and raised his voice. “That does not mean we can’t spread our beliefs by word of mouth. We have got to speak up. Wherever you go, find someone to enlighten! Speak for equality! Declare for reform! Denounce those who have taken Liberty prisoner!”
The room erupted with hearty cheers, fist-pounding and boot-stomping. Most aristocrats would not have engaged in something so vulgar as shouting encouragement, but Kensworth did. Then again, most aristocrats would not have been at such a meeting in the first place.
John hammered his fist against the table, not only to fit in, but also in admiration of Mr. Boyd’s speech. He had no idea who the man was, but he wouldn’t have been out of place in the House of Commons. Who was to say he shouldn’t be there? That was the rub.
This is what I think makes history and writing fiction so fascinating: you can take a dry subject and turn it into something much more exciting. For instance, this meeting of the Hampden Club ends up getting raided!
About the Author
Charlotte Russell didn’t always know she wanted to be a writer. At one point she had grand plans to be an architect, until she realized she couldn’t draw anything more complicated than a stick figure. So, she enrolled at the University of Notre Dame and studied her first love—history. Now she puts all that historical knowledge to good use by writing romances set in Regency England. When not pounding on the keyboard, she watches sports with her husband (yes, he’s lucky!), chauffeurs her three kids around, volunteers for too many things, and entertains two cats. (Of course there are cats; she’s a writer.)
A Spy’s Honor is available at:
Written content of this post copyright © Charlotte Russell, 2015.