On This Day: The Cato Street Conspiracy, 23rd February 1820

The early nineteenth century was a turbulent time. Economic depression was exacerbated by returning soldiers flooding the job market after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, and the Industrial Revolution was causing food shortages and new patterns of employment. One radical group was called the Spencean Philanthropists, after the radical speaker Thomas Spence. Led by Arthur Thistlewood, they were a revolutionary group involved in unrest and propaganda, with the ultimate goal of starting a revolution. They wanted to assassinate the cabinet, seize key buildings, overthrow the government and establish a Committee of Public Safety to oversee a radical revolution.

Cato Street Plaque

The plaque in Cato Street commemorating the conspiracy being discovered (Photo: Simon Harriyott).

The death of King George III on the 29th of January sparked a political revolution. The Spencean Philanthropists planned to take advantage of the confusion, and assassinate the Prime Minister (Lord Liverpool) and all the cabinet ministers when they gathered for a dinner at the home of Lord Harrowby. However, George Edwards, the groups’ second in command, was a police spy, and there was never any risk of the plot succeeding. Thanks to Edwards, the Home Office knew about the entire thing, and the cabinet dinner was a fiction designed to entrap the group.

We will probably never know how many people were involved in the conspiracy—there were a lot of groups sympathetic to the aims of the Spencean Philanthropists—but 13 men were arrested in a dramatic showdown in the groups’ rented headquarters in Cato Street. The rented building was a stable and hayloft, close to Lord Harrowby’s House in Grosvenor Square. On the 23rd of February Richard Birnie, the Bow Street magistrate, waited in a pub across the road with 12 members of the Bow Street Runners, predecessors of the Metropolitan Police. They were waiting for promised reinforcements from the Coldstream Guards, but at 7:30pm they decided to go in alone.

Cato Street

A contemporary sketch of the moment the Bow Street Runners confronted the conspirators in the hay loft Cato Street. Arthur Thistlewood has just killed Richard Smithers.

In the resulting scuffle Arthur Thistlewood killed Richard Smithers, one of the Bow Street Runners, and escaped out a back window with 3 others. They were arrested a few days later. Some of the conspirators gave evidence on the others to avoid conviction, so on the 28th of April 10 men were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered for high treason. This barbaric punishment was commuted for all 10, but that’s not as good as it sounds—5 men were hung and beheaded, and the other 5 were transported to Australia. Thistlewood and 4 others were executed at the infamous Newgate jail on the 1st of May 1820.

Edwards did not give evidence during the trial. Police spies were controversial at the time, and Edwards was accused of being an agent provocateur—he had suggested targeting the dinner in the first place, and he had even provided money to help the conspirators buy weapons. Some people questioned whether the group would ever have gone so far if it wasn’t for the spy who was supposed to be trying to stop them.

cato street execution

A contemporary image of the gory execution of the 5 conspirators. Arthur Thistlewood’s head is being held up for the crowd to see.

What would have happened if the Cato Street Conspiracy had succeeded? Whether it would have sparked the uprising Thistlewood hoped for, or merely put new faces in the same old positions of power is impossible to predict. Nevertheless, it was a bold and desperate attempt to cause change, and although I can’t approve of the Spencean Philanthropists’ methods, I can’t help but admire their vision.


Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Cato Street Conspiracy.” Wikipedia. Last modified 12th December 2015, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cato_Street_Conspiracy

Anon. “The Cato Street Conspiracy.” The National Archives. No date, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/blackhistory/rights/cato.htm

Bloy, Marjie. “The Cato Street Conspiracy: 23 February 1820.” The Victorian Web. Last modified 30th August 2003, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://www.victorianweb.org/history/riots/cato.html

Marjie, Bloy. “The Cato Street Conspiracy: 23 February 1820.” A Web of English History. Last modified 12th January 2016, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://www.historyhome.co.uk/c-eight/distress/cato.htm

Simpkin, John. “Cato Street Conspiracy.” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 22nd January 2016. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/PRcato.htm

Turbulent Londoners: Ellen Wilkinson, 1891-1947

Turbulent Londoners is a series of posts about radical individuals in London’s history who contributed to the city’s contentious past. My definition of ‘Londoner’ is quite loose, anyone who has played a role in protest in the city can be included. Any suggestions for future Turbulent Londoners posts are very welcome. Today I’m looking at Ellen Wilkinson, a radical politician who became the Minister for Education.

Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Wilkinson (Source: Catherine McKinnell MP).

Ellen Cecily Wilkinson was an impressive woman. Rebellious and outspoken from a young age, she was a founding member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. As she aged, she either mellowed or suppressed her more radical side, rising through the Labour Party to become the Minister of Education in 1945, only the second woman to ever gain a place in the British cabinet.

Wilkinson was born on the 8th of October 1891 to a working-class family in Manchester. Her father encouraged her to read and learn, and she was academically accomplished. She got involved in politics young, joining the International Labour Party when she was 16. She also campaigned for the suffragist cause, handing out leaflets and putting up posters. She started teacher training college, but her unconventional teaching style was not appreciated and she left, deciding that teaching was not for her.

Teachings’ loss was politics’ gain. In 1910 Wilkinson won a scholarship to Manchester University, where she joined the Fabian Society and Manchester Society for Women’s Suffrage. She met many leaders of the radical left during this period, including the indefatigable Charlotte Despard. In her first year at university, she joined the executive committee of the University Socialist Federation, which was formed to unite socialist students across the country.

When she left university in 1913, Ellen got a job working for the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.  She was also active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and strongly opposed the First World War. The Suffrage movement was divided by the war, so in 1915 Ellen became National Women’s Organiser for the Amalgamated Union of Cooperative Employees (AUCE). She was the first woman they employed as an official. Here she fought for equal pay and rights for unskilled workers, which were often actively opposed by the better-off craft unions. Her time working for unions made her a skilled speaker and organiser.

A big demonstration in support of the International Labour Policy on Spain was held in Trafalgar Square. Ellen Wilkinson, Member of Parliament, addressing the huge meeting in Trafalgar Square in London, on July 11, 1937. (AP Photo)

Ellen Wilkinson addresses a crowd in Trafalgar Square in 1937 (Source: flashbak.com)

As with many of her contemporaries, Ellen was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and in 1920 she was a founding member of the Communist Part of Great Britain. She also remained in the Labour Party, but it 1923 the Labour Party stopped allowing membership of both, and Ellen chose to stay with Labour, criticising the Communist Party’s dictatorial methods. By this point the AUCE had merged with another union to become the National Union of Distributive and Allied Workers (NUDAW), who sponsored Ellen to run for Parliament. After several failed attempts, she was elected the Labour MP for Middlesborough East in 1924, under a Conservative government. She was the only female Labour MP in the 1924 Parliament.

In Parliament Ellen fought for women’s rights, opposed imperialism, and was a vocal supporter of the May 1926 General Strike. She was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive in 1927, which gave her a say in Party policy. She campaigned for the voting age for men and women to be equalised, which was achieved in 1928. As the Great Depression struck Ellen continued to fight for worker’s rights, although she lost her Parliamentary seat in 1932.

She continued to campaign whilst out of office, and in 1935 she was elected as the MP for Jarrow, a small town in Tyneside which is known for the Jarrow March, which took place in 1936. Despite criticism, even from within the Labour Party, Ellen supported the marchers, and joined them for some stretches of the march. On the 4th of November she presented the marchers’ petition to Parliament, which contained 11,000 signatures. Although not immediately successful, it is thought that the march helped shaped future attitudes and policies towards unemployment.

The female marcher in the Spirit of Jarrow carrying a bundle that is probably a baby.

A statue in Jarrow commemorating the Jarrow March. As Wilkinson was the only woman permitted to join the march, I assume this is supposed to be her (Source: Hannah Awcock).

During the 1930s Ellen travelled Europe attempting to combat fascism, and was critical of the government’s policy of non-intervention in the Spanish civil war. She was also strongly opposed to appeasement as a method of dealing with Hitler. She supported the declaration of the Second World War in 1939, but disapproved of the way Chamberlain conducted the war. When Churchill took over the government, Ellen was put in charge of air raid shelters and civil defence. During the war she became less radical, and was accepted by the Labour Party mainstream.

In 1945, Ellen Wilkinson became only the third woman to be made a privy councillor. After Labour’s landslide election victory, Atlee made her the Minister for Education. She focused on implementing the 1944 Education Act, which provided universal free secondary education and raised the school leaving age from 14 to 15. She was criticised as the system of the 11+ exams, and grammar, technical, and modern schools was seen as elitist. She stuck by her guns, arguing that the Education Act was the only realistic way of achieving positive change. As well as this, she also increased the amount of university scholarships and part time adult education, both positive steps forward.

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson had to fight hard to succeed in the male-dominated world of politics (Source: Parliament.uk).

Ellen Wilkinson died in office on the 6th of February 1947. She had always suffered from bronchial asthma, and this killed her, exacerbated by heavy smoking, overwork and an overdose of medicine. Her death was declared accidental, but some still suspect that she committed suicide. Ellen was well known for her fiery hair and matching temperament, and even when her politics mellowed, her passion and conviction did not. She is particularly interesting in the light of the Labour Party’s shift to the left with the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Party Leader, and it will be interesting to see if he too moves towards the centre as his career progresses. Regardless, Ellen was an inspiring woman who carved her own political path in a world dominated by men, often in the face of heavy opposition. She fought hard for what she believed in, and proved that politicians can have principles.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Wikipedia. Last modified 13th September 2015, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Wilkinson

Harrison, Brian. “Wilkinson, Ellen Cicely (1891–1947)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Last updated 2004, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36902 (Not free to access)

Simkin, John. “Ellen Wilkinson,” Spartacus Educational. Last modified August 2014, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at http://spartacus-educational.com/TUwilkinson.htm 

Stevenson, Graham. “Glossary of People: Ellen, Wilkinson,” marxists.org. No date, accessed 2nd October 2015. Available at https://www.marxists.org/glossary/people/w/i.htm#wilkinson-ellen

Book Review: ‘Londonopolis- A Curious History of London’

Londonopolis Front Cover

Londonopolis: A Curious History of London by Martin Latham.

Martin Latham. Londonopolis: A Curious History of London. London: Batsford, 2014.

To call Londonopolis: A Curious History of London a ‘history’ of London is, I think, a bit of a misnomer. It is a well presented book, full of fascinating facts about the city, but it is not a comprehensive narrative of London’s story. It is arranged chronologically, but if this was the only book you ever read about the city’s past then your knowledge would be patchy at best. To be fair, Latham doesn’t claim to be comprehensive; he has tried to “open a magic casement or two onto different moments of London’s past” (Latham, 2014; 11).

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Londonopolis. It makes a refreshing change from some of the other books about London’s past, which can be a little dry and repetitive. The facts Martin Latham has included are very interesting; for example, did you know that the British practice of driving on the left comes from London Bridge? During Tudor times it was decided that people would enter London on the left, and leave on the right, to reduce the chaos on London’s only bridge across the Thames.

As a boy, London was a fairy-tale city to me. The other tenants in my house (apart from us eight kids and my parents) were a female spy, a fading actress, a newly arrived Irish family and the mysterious Miss White, a Dickensian spinster… I used to walk for hours randomly across London and it never disappointed…History was all around in such a way that I got temporal vertigo, that sensation of suddenly seeing the past as a reality.

(Latham, 2014; 10)

Latham’s love for the city is infectious. In fact, I feel that the best sections of the book are the ones where he talks about his own life in London. The paragraphs about the various bookshops he has worked in, and his father’s skill as a water diviner, are lovely. Latham captures beautifully the magic of living in London.

Like A.N. Wilson’s London: A Short HistoryLatham spends a lot of time talking about individuals who have shaped London, focussing especially on creative types- writers and artists. Latham does a better job than Wilson of including London’s notable women however. Turbulent Londoners like Eleanor Marx, Annie Besant, and Sylvia Pankhurst get a whole chapter to themselves. Virginia Wolff, and Dorothea Bate and Joan Proctor (both dedicated scientists at the National History Museum) are also featured. There is also a chapter dedicated to the pioneering fashion designers Mary Quant, Barbara Hulanicki, Lee Bender, and Vivienne Westwood.


One of the simple but effective illustrations from Londonopolis. 

Londonopolis: A Curious History of London is different to the books I normally review on  Turbulent London. It is not necessarily supposed to be read cover to cover, Latham himself says “You can read this book in any order, or leave it in the lavatory for the occasional reverie” (Latham, 2014; 11). In fact, reading it cover to cover feels a bit disjointed. I would recommend the book however, particularly if you like obscure but interesting facts, or need a gift for a London-lover. It takes an irreverent but affectionate approach to London, which I like.

London’s Protest Stickers: Anti-Fascism

00_26-9-15 Walworth Road

Anti-fascism is one of the most common topics of protest stickers. This photo was taken on the Walworth Road on 26/09/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

If you start looking out for protest stickers as you move around a British city, you will quickly notice that anti-fascists are particularly prolific sticker-ers. I’m not sure why, but anti-fascism is one of the most frequent themes of protest stickers, aside from anarchism. Most large towns and cities have an anti-fascist group, and as the largest of the lot London is home to several groups, as well as drawing in groups from elsewhere.

01_05-05-15 Aylsebury Estate (10)

Unsurprisingly, one of the most common groups represented in London anti-fascist protest stickers are London Antifascists. This picture was taken on the Aylesbury Estate on 05/05/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

02_13-08-15 Mile End Road (1)

The logos employed by anti-fascist groups can vary, but an image with a circle is a common feature. This logo features Emily the Strange, a popular gothic character who began life on stickers advertising the clothing line Cosmic Debris. She has since featured on clothing, stationary, and all kinds of objects, but here she comes full circle, appearing on stickers once again. This photo was taken on the Mile End Road on 13/08/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

03_25-02-15 Embankment (1)

Although stickers which just feature a group’s logo and website are common, some are more complicated, like this one photographed on the north bank of the Thames near the City on 25/02/15. This sticker is still quite general in terms of focus however, it doesn’t specify what to fight back against (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

04_28-05-15 Elephant and Castle

Two flags (one red, one back) enclosed in a black circle is the most common and recognisable anti-fascist logo. This sticker points to the complex interconnections between anti-fascism and class politics, suggesting that London Antifascists only care about working-class communities. Or perhaps they are implying that racism and Nazism are only to be found amongst the middle- and upper-classes? This photo was taken at Elephant and Castle on 28/05/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

08_10-03-15 Camden

The double flag logo is so recognisable that I can be quite sure that this sticker is by an anti-fascist group, even though I cannot read the words. This photo was taken near Camden Underground Station on 10/03/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

05_13-04-15 Elephant and Castle

This sticker, photographed at Elephant and Castle on 13/04/15, is also focusing on racism, and has the familiar image surrounded by a circle logo. I must admit that the imagery and font confused me at first, at first glance I thought that this sticker was defending white pride rather than condemning it (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

06_12-03-15 Gordon Street, Bloomsbury (2)

When anti-fascist groups go travelling, they often leave evidence of their presence in the form of protest stickers. This sticker was produced by Brighton Antifascists, although I found it in Gordon Street, Bloomsbury, on 12/03/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

07_14-09-15 Elephant and Castle

The 161 Crew are a Polish antifascist group that has a strong presence in London (the sticker in the previous photo is also one of theirs). This sticker appeared in Elephant and Castle on 14/09/15. I thought it was incredibly brave, as this was during a period of the refugee crisis where the debate around immigration was particularly vicious. Immigrants are supposed to be grateful and loyal to their host country, not encouraging cross-border class-based networks of dissent (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

10_05-05-15 Flint Street SE1 (4)

Unusually, this sticker does not feature an anti-fascist logo, which leads me to suspect it was not made by a specifically anti-fascist group. This photo was taken on Flint Street, near the occupied Aylesbury Estate on 05/05/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).

11_25-02-15 Cable Street (5)

Location can be integral to the meaning of protest stickers. I found this sticker in Cable Street, one of the sites of the famous demonstration known as the Battle of Cable Street, which has gone down in anti-fascist collective memory as a rare victory. No Pasaran is Spanish for ‘They Shall Not Pass’, one of the slogans of the Battle which was taken from the Spanish Civil War. The Battle is an important event in British anti-fascist history, a key source of pride and hope (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 25/02/15).

12_25-02-15 Cable Street (9)

This photo was also taken in Cable Street, next to the mural which memorialises the Battle of Cable Street. The double flag logo is present, although within a heart rather than a circle. Not surprisingly, Cable Street has a high concentration of anti-fascist stickers of various types, making it feel almost shrine-like (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 25/02/15).

20_29-05-15 Borough High Street (2)

Not every Londoner is an anti-fascist supporter. The word ‘Antifascists’ and the website has been scratched off this sticker very deliberately. Someone clearly took exception to London Antifascists publicising themselves. This photo was taken on Borough High Street on 29/05/15 (Photo: Hannah Awcock).