Hear me! Ye oppressors! ye who live sumptuously every day! Ye, for whom the sun seems to shine and the seasons change, ye, for whom all human and brute creatures toil, fighting, but in vain, for the crumbs, which fall from your overcharged tables. . . . Your horrid tyranny, your infanticide is at an end. . . . the new creation, at the breaking of the iron rod of aristocratic sway, and at the rising of the everlasting sun of righteousness. — Thomas Spence, Rights of Infants, 1797
“Parliament is filled with the dissolute and the reprehensible. Our regent is a disgrace, and his behaviour makes us all a mockery. There are people dying in the streets of London, starving, desperate for a crumb of bread while he wastes fortune upon fortune.” — The Best Part of Love
Regency England is an undeniable source of fascination for many of us in modern times. What else would explain the enduring popularity and abundance of books, movies, and television shows based on that time? It was an era of romance, a time of elegance in dress and manners where beautiful ladies were courted by fine gentlemen in cities like London and Bath or in country estates. What none of us likes to consider is that if we lived in that era, it is more likely that we would have been part of the 95% of people who were not part of the world of the landed gentry. For that group of people, the era was not so romantic.
The landed gentry and titled nobility of England but this was a minor proportion of the overall population — less than 5%. However, although they were small in number, they were absolute in their control of the socioeconomic aspects of the country. Not only were they the lawmakers and enforcers, but they also controlled the economy. Servants and tenant farmers depended on them for wages and land, and many a tradesman was sunk by a gentleman who did not or could not pay his bills or did not pay them in a timely fashion.
It would be easy to see why those within the lower classes were discontent with their lots in life, particularly as it was difficult for people to substantially improve their station. Many people in the lower classes had neither the time nor ability to educate themselves and, though some could elevate themselves, most were consumed by mere survival. The average person, born into poverty, would remain there until they died. Such circumstances as these are ripe for rebellion.
In my book, The Best Part of Love, there is a group of radicals which is based loosely on the followers of a man named Thomas Spence. Born at the end of the 18th century, Spence believed in the common ownership of the land. He believed England should do away with the aristocracy and the landlords, and instead distribute equal parcels to every man, woman and child for their existence. He also believed the national government should have limited authority and limited resources.
Although he had radical ideas, Spence wasn’t a violent person and did most of his work through the printing of various pamphlets and books designed to spread his ideas. It didn’t, however, keep him from being arrested and imprisoned several times and it was in prison that he died in 1814.
In the later years of his life, he had attracted a band of followers, and in the years after his death, these followers began to meet in various locations around London where they discussed Spence’s ideas and began to make plans for a revolution of sorts.
One of their first attempts at large-scale rebellion — in what some believe to be a test-run of sorts — was the Spa Field Riot of 1816. Two assemblies were held at Spa Fields, the first a peaceful gathering in which two men were elected to carry a petition to the Prince Regent, asking for relief from economic distress and parliamentary reform.
The second gathering was less peaceful. The petition and the men who carried it were denied the interest of the Prince Regent, and once the populace was assembled, the Spencean Philanthropists took charge, encouraging unrest and dissent and eventually a movement on the Tower of London with the intent to seize control of the government.
The effort failed as many of the assembled ran away, and the four leaders of the rebellion (Arthur Thistlewood, James Watson, Thomas Preston and John Hoppe) were arrested and, eventually, tried for high treason. They were acquitted on the basis that the only person who was able to attest to the fullness of their plans was a spy with a criminal record. Arthur Thistlewood was jailed later, from 1818-9 for challenging Viscount Sidmouth to a duel.
Following his release, Arthur Thistlewood was quick to resume his radical activities. Again meeting with his former friends, they planned a mass execution of the entire cabinet of Parliament along with Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister at that time. In 1820, a dinner was planned at the home of Lord Harrowby on Grosvenor Street and, according to another of the conspirators, the plan was that Thistlewood would enter the dining room bearing a pair of pistols, a cutlass and a knife. He intended to behead every man therein and carry away the heads of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth to display on Westminster Bridge.
Fortunately for those men, the Spencean Philanthropists were discovered before they were successful. They had been, by this time, infiltrated by several men who acted as spies, and it was these governmental agents who arranged for a police presence at the site of the would-be massacre. The main conspirators were apprehended and although some were sentenced to transportation, Arthur Thistlewood, Richard Tidd, James Ings, William Davidson and John Brunt were sentenced to death. They were hanged on 1 May 1820.
Parssinen, TM. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1973), pp. 135-141.Alan Smith, "Arthur Thistlewood: A 'Regency Republican'." History Today 3 (1953): 846-52Wilkinson, George Theodore An authentic history of the Cato-Street Conspiracy. Thomas Kelly, London, c.1820
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