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

On This Day: The Clerkenwell Outrage, 13th December, 1867

Clerkenwell has been the focus of a large amount of turbulence over its history, even for an area of London. During the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 the priory of St. John was burnt down because of its wealth and connections with Sir Robert Hales, a hated tax collector. Lenin moved into 37a Clerkenwell Green in 1902, and published 16 issues of Iskra, a pre-Bolskevik newspaper from there. The house is now the Marx Memorial Library. The area has also harboured religious nonconformists, such as the Lollards and early Methodists. Clerkenwell Green, historically an open, grassy area, has played host to many political meetings and demonstrations, some more peaceful than others. But on the 13th December 1867, Clerkenwell was rocked by an explosion that shocked even this contentious neighbourhood.

victorian Clerkenwell

A map of Victorian Clerkenwell, drawn by Adam Dant for Spitalfields Life.

The story begins in America in 1858. A group of Irish expatriates founded a secret society called the Irish Republican Brotherhood, known to most as the Fenians. Their aim was to free Ireland from British rule by any means necessary, including attacks on the British establishment in Ireland, other colonies, and even the mainland itself. By the middle of the 1860s, there were Fenian groups in Soho and Finsbury. By 1867, they were proving quite troublesome to the authorities. After a failed attempt to steal over 10,000 rifles from Chester Castle in February to arm an Irish uprising and the breakout of two prominent Fenians from a prison van in Manchester that resulted in the death of a Police Sergeant in September, tensions were running high.

Manchester prison van breakout 1867

An image showing two Fenian leaders being broken out of a prison transport van in 1867 in Manchester (Source: Getty Images).

Richard O’Sullivan-Burke was largely thought to be the man who led the Manchester prison van breakout. He was arrested in London in November along with another man called Joseph Casey. To avoid a repeat of Manchester the men were quickly transferred to the Clerkenwell House of Detention, just to the North of Clerkenwell Road. The prison was formidable, surrounded by a wall 25ft high and over 2ft thick. The men obviously had friends in London—every day cooked food was brought to them by a woman named Anne Justice, and rumours of an escape attempt soon reached the authorities.

Extra guards and uniformed police were posted in and around the prison in response to the warning. Despite this, an attempt was made to break out O’Sullivan-Burke and Casey on the 12th of December. A man wheeled a large barrel up the prison wall by the exercise yard, and attempted to light a fuse on the barrel twice before he gave up, and wheeled the barrow off. A policeman watched the entire thing, but did not think it suspicious. The next day, another, similar attempt was made. This time, a firework was used as a fuse, and it turned out to be much more reliable. The resulting explosion was heard all over London. It levelled 60ft of the prison wall, and the front of a row of houses across the street in Corporation Row. 12 people were killed, and 120 others were injured.

Clerkenwell bombing

Engravings of the Clerkenwell bombing from the ‘Illustrated Police News’.

“Britain’s first terrorist bombing” (Webb, 2012; p53) was an unmitigated disaster. Because of the failed attempt the day before the prisoners were not even in the exercise yard at the time of the explosion. Which was lucky in a way, as the Fenians had used far too much gunpowder (548lbs of it to be exact), and the explosion would have killed anyone in the yard. It sparked hysteria across the capital; it was said that twenty babies were killed in the womb by the blast, and that the explosion was a signal to begin a whole wave of terrorist attacks across the city. There were calls for new laws and emergency powers which would not be unfamiliar to us today. Any sympathy that there had been for the Irish cause amongst Londoners evaporated, and the government set up the first Secret Service Department, with the goal of gathering intelligence and anticipating future Fenian attacks. It was the forerunner of today’s Special branch and MI5. 5 people were charged with murder, including Anne Justice, but a man named Michael Barrett was the only one convicted. He has the dubious distinction of being the last person to ever be publicly executed in Britain.

Sadly, London is no stranger to terrorism. The Clerkenwell Outrage may have been Britain’s first terrorist bombing, but it was not the first terrorist plot, with conspiracies going back as far as the 1605 Gunpowder Plot and beyond.  In light of everything that has been going on recently, it can be helpful to remember that this is not the first time London has faced vague and shadowy threats; the city has always continued to survive and thrive.

Sources and Further Reading

German, Lindsey and John Rees. A People’s History of London. London: Verso (2012).

Hunt, Nick. “History and Politics.” Plunging into History. No date, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at http://www.plungingintohistory.com/ir-area-historyandpolitics

Merat, Aaron. “Clerkenwell’s Hidden Communist History.” Islington Now. Last modified 11th March 2010, accessed 21st November 2015. Available at   http://islingtonnow.co.uk/2010/03/11/clerkenwells-hidden-communist-history/

Webb, Simon. Dynamite, Treason and Plot: Terrorism in Victorian and Edwardian London. Stroud: The History Press (2012).

White, Jerry. London in the 19th Century: A Human Awful Wonder of God. London: Vintage (2007).

On This Day: The Hyde Park Railings Affair, 23rd July 1866

The Hyde Park Railings Affair is a little-known protest that took place 149 years ago today in Hyde Park. When the Home Secretary banned a rally organised by the Reform League from taking place in Hyde Park, the League decided to question the legality of the ban by marching to Hyde Park anyway. Demonstrators managed to break into the park, which led to scuffles with police and several days of rioting. The protest questioned the nature and control of public space in London, and contributed to Hyde Park’s radical legacy.

The Reform League was an organisation formed in 1865 to campaign for universal manhood suffrage in Britain. They had their origins in the Chartist movement, but they were not as radical. After the failure of the 1866 Reform Bill, controversy over which brought down the government in June, the Reform League decided to step up their campaigning by organising mass meetings. Meetings on the 29th of June and 2nd of July in Trafalgar Square were relatively peaceful, but the League’s next meeting was destined to be more controversial.

Edmond Beales, President of the Reform League (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

Edmond Beales, President of the Reform League (Source: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography).

The Conservative Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, banned the planned meeting in Hyde Park. Edmond Beales, the president of the Reform League, argued that the Home Secretary had no right to ban the demonstration, as the park either belonged to the people or the monarchy. Spencer Walpole was neither, therefore he had to right to dictate what was allowed to happen in the park. The protest became about more than electoral reform; it was now also about who had the right to use, control, and police public space. The Reform League decided to challenge the legality of the ban by marching to Hyde Park anyway.

On the afternoon of the 23rd of July, the League and their supporters set out from their headquarters in Adelphi Place towards Hyde Park. When they got to Marble Arch, they found the gates locked and guarded by the police. Edmond Beales requested to be allowed entry, but he was not prepared to start a violent confrontation, so he withdrew when he was refused permission to enter. Beales and the Executive Committee of the Reform League led the march to Trafalgar Square, where they had a peaceful meeting.

A contemporary illustration of the Hyde Park Railings Affair (Source: Illustrated London News).

A contemporary illustration of the Hyde Park Railings Affair (Source: Illustrated London News).

Not everyone followed Beales and the Reform League however. A group of protesters stayed behind, and soon discovered that if the railings surrounding Hyde Park were rocked back and forth, they could be pulled from their foundations and toppled over. This happened at several locations around the park, leading to clashes with police as demonstrators poured into Hyde Park. There were injuries on both sides, but no deaths, and 40-70 people were arrested. The Police used Marble Arch as a temporary holding cell.

Rioting continued in the park for several days, which resulted in a lot of damage to the park. The stump of one oak tree which the protesters burnt down became known as the Reformers’ Tree. It became a focus point for radical activity in the park, and is commemorated by a mosaic. In 1872 the right of assembly and free speech was officially recognised in the northeastern corner of Hyde Park by the Royal Parks and Gardens Act. Speaker’s Corner is now a world famous site of public speech and debate.

The memorial to the Reformer's Tree, near the site where the tree was thought to be located (Source: Royal Parks).

The memorial to the Reformer’s Tree, near the site where the tree was thought to be located (Source: Royal Parks).

The Hyde Park Railings Affair is one of several protests in London that escalated because of government attempts to suppress protest, and Londoner’s determination to assert their rights; Bloody Sunday is another. Access to public space and the right to assembly is something many of us take for granted, but it is not a given. It has been fought for by generations of Londoners, and still needs to be defended.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon., “History and Architecture,” Royal Parks. No date, accessed 28th September 2014 https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/about-hyde-park/history-and-architecture.

Tames, Richard. Political London: A Capital History. London: Historical, 2007.

On this Day: The Nore Mutiny, 12th May 1797

A caricature of the Nore Mutineers (Source: Wikipedia).

A caricature of the Nore Mutineers (Source: Wikipedia).

On this day 208 years ago a mutiny started at the Nore anchorage in the Thames estuary that would last for a month and would come to threaten the beating heart of London, they city’s incredibly lucrative trade economy. Great Britain was at war with revolutionary France, which put a huge strain on the nation’s navy, and also meant that the government could not afford to have the navy mutinying. Discontent had been brewing within the navy since the start of 1797; the men were poorly treated, their wages had not changed for over a century, and high rates of inflation were severely eroding their value. As well as this, the French revolution had badly scared Britain’s ruling elites, and they feared a similar uprising here.

In April the ships at the Spithead anchorage near Portsmouth mutinied, demanding better pay and working conditions. They won their demands, and everyone who took part was pardoned. The seamen at Nore took inspiration from those at Spithead, but their mutiny was not destined to be so successful, for a number of reasons.

The crew of the Sandwich were the first to mutiny, on the evening of the 12th of May 1797. They were joined by other ships, but some ships left the Nore to avoid taking part in the mutiny. Organisation was difficult amongst the sailors at Nore, as the ships were spread out, and they didn’t belong to a single fleet, as was the case at Spithead. Nevertheless delegates were elected from every ship, and a man named Richard Parker was elected ‘President of the Delegates of the Fleet.’

On the 20th of May (which also happens to be my birthday!), the mutineers presented a list of 8 demands to Admiral Charles Buckner. The demands started off fairly average, including pardons for the mutineers and increased pay. However the demands soon took on a more radical turn, as the mutineers demanded that the King dissolve Parliament, and immediately make peace with France. This turn outraged the Admiralty, who offered the Nore sailors only the same concessions they had given to the men at Spithead.

The mutineers blockaded the Thames, and tried to prevent any ship from entering or leaving London. Had they been successful for any great length of time, they would have crippled London’s booming economy. They also made plans to sail to France, a plan which alienated many of the sailors, causing more ships to abandon the mutiny. The government and Admiralty didn’t want to make any further concessions, especially as they were wary of the political aims of some of the more radical leaders.

The mutineers were denied food, and eventually so many ships slipped away, despite being fired on by those that remained, that the mutiny collapsed. Richard Parker was swiftly convicted of treason and piracy and hanged from the yardarm of the Sandwich, where the mutiny started. 29 leaders were also hanged, and others were flogged, imprisoned or transported to Australia.

An engraving of Richard Parker's hanging from the Newgate Calendar (Source: Wikipedia).

An engraving of Richard Parker’s hanging from the Newgate Calendar (Source: Wikipedia).

The men at Nore were fighting for better conditions and pay, but their more radical demands meant they the government and Admiralty could not be seen to back down. The mutineers also threatened London’s economy, which the authorities could not allow to stand. The seamen’s status as members of the navy put them in a different position to civilians when it came to their working rights. Members of the armed forces do not have the same rights as the average worker; to this day, they are not allowed to join a union or go on strike. These restrictions make the actions of the sailors at Nore all the more admirable. They faced dire consequences to stand up for themselves, and Richard Parker and many others paid the price when the mutiny collapsed.

Sources and Further Reading

Anon. ‘Research Guide B8: The Spithead and Nore Mutinies,’ National Maritime Museum. Last modified April 2008, accessed 15 April 2015 http://www.rmg.co.uk/researchers/library/research-guides/the-royal-navy/research-guide-b8-the-spithead-and-nore-mutinies-of-1797

Anon. ‘Spithead and Nore Mutinies,’ Wikipedia. Last modified 13 February 2015, accessed 15 April 2015. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spithead_and_Nore_mutinies

Anon. ‘The Naval Mutinies at Spithead and the Nore,’ Socialist Appeal. Last modified 15 January 2008, accessed 15 April 2015. http://www.socialist.net/the-naval-mutinies-at-spithead-and-the-nore.htm

Moore, Richard. ‘Mutiny at the Nore,’ Napoleonic Guide. No date, accessed 15 April 2015. http://www.napoleonguide.com/navy_nore.htm