Radical Rogues and Blackmailers in the Regency Period
Iain McCalman discusses how politically motivated was the blackguarding by low life of high society in the Regency period.
On March 14th 1813, the prosperous Charing Cross tailor and moderate political reformer, Francis Place, addressed an anonymous letter to the Treasury Solicitor's office claiming to have become the latest victim of a 'gang' of fellow radicals who were running a blackmail and extortion racket. He alleged that the gang had launched a smear campaign against him in muckraking radical newspapers like the Independent Whig and in pothouse cellars all over London. They accused him of having taken bribes from the government as a spy on fellow-Jacobins during the 1790s and, more recently, as foreman of a coroner's jury which had quashed information potentially devastating to a member of the Royal Family. In 1810 Joseph Sellis, valet to the unpopular royal prince, the Duke of Cumberland, had died from a razor cut to the throat. The official verdict was suicide, but neither opposition circles nor the truculent 'crowd' was satisfied.
The metropolis hummed with rumours: of mysterious inconsistencies in the evidence; of Cumberland's previous sexual intimacies with Sellis; of possible blackmail, given that Sellis had himself been a political radical. And although the published accusations of a cover-up were pseudonymous, a stroke of luck enabled Place to identify the authors and – so he claimed – to discover their motives: a combination of political malice and criminal greed. He believed that some of the 'gang' comprised former Jacobin colleague - who, having degenerated into social unrespectability and revolutionary extremism, were jealous of his contrasting prosperity, respectability and political moderation. At their head he listed Thomas Evans, a braces maker and former London Corresponding Society official who had subsequently become a leader of the revolutionary underground wing; of the London Jacobin movement. In league with these fanatical revolutionaries was a group of professional criminals who hoped to profit from blackmail. He named them as Jonathan 'Jew' King, a moneylender, swindler and receiver; Patrick Williarn Duffin, a convicted swindler and gamester; Davenport Sedley, a professional extortionist imprisoned in 1812 for conspiracy to steal bills of exchange; and another Newgate prisoner, S.C. Graves, the swindler son of an admiral.
Place stressed that this blackmail attempt was not an isolated incident. Elsewhere in his papers he made other similar accusations against these individuals and. at the same time attempted a broader social-historical explanation of their relationship to the radical movement. Essentially he saw them as radical roughs and rogues – or, in his own words, 'old blackguards' – a sector of former Jacobin tradesmen and lesser professionals whose social lives, work patterns and political methods had remained fixed in the dissolute patterns of the eighteenth century, encompassing drunkenness, profligacy, promiscuity, violence, mendacity and outright criminality. The retrospective and self-justificatory bias of Place's papers makes it easy to dismiss such claims, but in this instance the Treasury Solicitor's and Home Office files corroborate many details of his account.
During the 1790s 'Jew' King had befriended leading Jacobins – including Evans – lending them money, purchasing their goods, entertaining them at his Fitzroy Square home and encouraging their revolutionary schemes. Place claimed that opinion had been divided as to whether the mysterious money-'lender was a genuine revolutionary or a scavenging opportunist. Either way, there is no doubt that King's activities shaded into the criminal. Even his friendliest chronicler admitted that he associated with a shady set of Irish noblemen. Amongst other things, he was prosecuted for a fraudulent banking scheme, a matchmaking racket and perjury. The pro-Tory newspaper, Scourge, described him as 'an atrocious villain', willing to adopt any disguise to promote avarice. Patrick Duffin, known as King's 'retainer', looked after his gambling and lottery interests and worked for him as a journalist. King was probably the financial backer, and Duffin the nominal co-founder, of the Independent Whig, which became a major organ of their political opinions.
Sedley and Graves were also journalists of a type, although they specialised in using muckraking material for outright blackmailing and extortion purposes. When Sedley was convicted in 1812, his papers revealed:
... a series of fraudulent and swindling transactions practised upon persons of the first distinction and character in the country in which by misrepresentations and intimidation Mr. Sedley appears in some instances to have succeeded in obtaining money and in others appointments or promotion for his family and friends.
His victims included three royal princes, the Prime Minister (Spencer Perceval), senior law officers, government and admiralty officials, and various noble families. His favourite technique was to provide victims with extracts from a projected book, offering to suppress production or expurgate compromising material for a price. To a man of his vulpine instincts the Sellis affair must have promised rich pickings.
All this raises fascinating and previously unexplored questions about the relationship between radical politics and crime in the early nineteenth century, particularly since they are generally regarded as separate spheres. However biased, Place's claims about 'blackguard' or unrespectable radicalism deserve the same kind of detailed attention that historians have given to the better-known phenomenon of respectable radicalism.
Place regarded Thomas Evans as a typical 'old blackguard' radical, even though the two men had been close personal and political friends until the mid 1790s when their careers and politics began increasingly to diverge. Place resigned from the LCS in the face of the government repression of 1795-98, concentrating his energies during the war years on financial, social and moral self- improvement.
He and other similar LCS colleagues became prosperous entrepreneurs attracted to the ideas of Benthamite philosophical radicalism and to the reforming electoral politics of Westminster. By contrast, Evans and his associates stayed in the LCS, immersed themselves in armed republican-revolutionary conspiracy alongside the French and Irish, were imprisoned for lengthy periods under suspicion of treason, and, on release, moved into a shadowy, tavern underground led by the millenarian and agrarian revolutionary, Thomas Spence. On Spence's death in October 1814, Evans became leader of this underground which he formalised as the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.
Place castigated these Jacobin-Spenceans for their social unrespectability, as well as their religious and political extremism. He described them as tradesmen low in skill and status, often ill-educated, feckless, desperately poor and addicted to tavern conviviality, who were willing to use profligate or criminal methods for political and financial gain. As illustration he pointed out that Evans – once a baker – earned his living in the 1790s by colouring bawdy prints, and in 1806 made 'dishonest' use of a large sum of money he had borrowed from Place. He claimed that Evans also fraternised with outright criminals like 'Jew' King, and introduced a new set of desperate, unprincipled conspirators into Spencean circles. Typical examples included 'Captain' Arthur Thistlewood, a violent, reckless gambler and blood-money informer; Thomas Preston, a garrulous, alcoholic shoemaker; and 'Dr' James Watson, a bitter, failed surgeon-apothecary.
In spite of the obvious malice in Place's account, he was probably right that the Jacobin-Spencean underground of 1801-19 attracted casual or lowly sectors of the declining handicraft trades, such as weavers, tailors and shoemakers, as well as a scattering of marginal, lower-middle-class intellectuals, such as apothecaries, bill brokers, dissenting ministers, law clerks, journalists and ex-servicemen. It seems to have been true, too, that economic and social marginality often isolated such men from self-improving agencies and sometimes tempted them into unrespectable or criminal ways of making their livings, using their leisure and practising their politics. Spence himself eked out a living by selling pamphlets from a barrow in the environs of Oxford Street and, like other popular prophets of his day, was happy to recruit from London's lowliest social elements – including criminals and blacks.
This was probably why Robert Wedderburn, a dissenting preacher and Soho tailor, became a follower in 1813. Wedderburn was also a near- illiterate West Indian mulatto who had seen action as a naval rating, and 'done time' for theft on more than one occasion. After becoming a leading Spencean orator and conspirator, he was to serve two further prison sentences, one for blasphemy and the other for involvement with a bawdy house. His close friend and collaborator in the Spencean Society, George Cannon, boasted an equally colourful career. A solicitor, dissenting minister and cultured freethinking publisher who generally called himself Reverend Erasmus Perkins, he seems to have been attracted to the clandestine Spencean underworld both by economic marginality and a love of intrigue, traits which were to serve him in good stead after the 1820s when he began a new career as a pornographic publisher. He was to be rivalled in this seedy trade during the mid-nineteenth century by William Dugdale, an ex-Quaker tailor and basket-weaver who moved into London's ultra-radical circles in 1818. He was joined there in the same year by another radical rogue, Samuel Waddington or 'Little Waddy', a tiny effervescent shoemaker who became legendary for radical buffoonery and rough lecherous behaviour, which included convictions for brawling and rape.
All this would seem to confirm Place's claims about the blackguard character of the Spencean-Jacobin underground of Regency years. But his vantage-point of prosperity and respectability during the 1830s can lead us to misunderstand the character and significance of such radicals. That they displayed many rough characteristics is undeniable, but the Spenceans were also a fluid, socially ambiguous group who reflected the many faces of respectability in the first half of the nineteenth century. Some of these same men were also to conform to Place's most cherished canons of political and social self-improvement. Spence, in spite of poverty, was a talented self-taught scholar who ran debating clubs, produced literary and philosophical journals and made substantial contributions to linguistics and orthography. Cannon's literary talents were so impressive that Shelley gave him several original freethinking works to publish. And Thomas Evans managed to combine his Spencean underground activities with participation in the respectable arena of Westminster reform politics, even ousting Place from committee office on one occasion.
Another of Place's benchmarks of radical respectability was the trans- mission of education to one's children. Here Evans and his clever, ambitious wife, Janet, were so successful that Plare himself was eventually to become patron to their journalist son, Thomas John Evans. Young Evans' educational achievements were matched, too, by those of the poor Spencean shoemaker, Allen Davenport, who made a name for himself in early Victorian years as a poet, journalist and Chartist in the educational mould. Clearly poverty – and even criminality – did not necessarily eliminate respectable aspirations and characteristics. Place himself experienced several fluctuations of fortune and moral resolve before reaching a plateau of prosperity and respectability.
At the other extreme, Arthur Thistlewood displayed a contradictory mixture of blackguard and genteel values when prescribing a course of moral and social guidance for his son from Horsham Gaol in '1818. The boy was urged to stay away from one of his father's former friends because he was an incompetent thief – 'tell him whatever you learn you are determined to be taught by a man who knows his business'. Other criminal associates, however, were encouraged as sources of social and educational improvement:
I hope you will always speak French with Mr. Faggs. You must when you go to the Kings Bench again get the address of Mr. Askam junior... You must correspond with him once or twice in the week. You must also go to Mr. Lawsons and learn to play the flute. I would also have you begin and read through Gibbons Roman History... Your mother tells me you are a good boy.
Spencean ultra-radicals of this kind who failed or refused to improve themselves – financially, socially and morally – cannot automatically be discounted as political radicals. Wedderburn and Waddington, for all their poverty, obscurity and roughness, were courageous and influential figures on the revolutionary wing of British popular radicalism during the early nineteenth century. Their leadership of 'fighting radical' underground sections, their treasonous and anticlerical rhetoric, and their flamboyant burlesqueing of establishment offices and rituals attracted the personal attention of both the Prince Regent and the Home Secretary, as well as a flotilla of government spies and informers. It was feared that the black rascal preacher and the shoemaker dwarf, dregs of society, might turn the world upside down like their counterparts of the seventeenth century. Both men were prosecuted repeatedly until, notwithstanding several unexpected acquittals, they eventually received lengthy prison sentences, thereby narrowly escaping execution alongside their Cato Street colleagues in 1820.
Wedderburn died in obscurity around 1835, although not before he had influenced new generations of radical free-thinkers with his brand of ribald, blasphemous radicalism. Waddington went on in the 1830s to become a leader of the militant East London Democratic Association, one of the crucibles of London Chartism. During the early Chartist years spies reported that the tiny, irrepressible rogue was still brawling at meetings, plotting violent assassinations of government ministers, advocating republicanism and agrarian reform, and convulsing Owenite and Chartist audiences with his oratory and antics. The lame cobbler, Preston, also illustrates how blackguard ways might enhance political appeal. Spies often described him as a drunken buffoon, yet his political trajectory runs from Jacobinism to Chartism and beyond, surviving several periods of radical repression, quiescence and change. It was because he was so garrulous and convivial, because he loved to drink, sing and carouse in rough alehouse free-and- easies, because he used the traditional populist rhetoric of the London crowd, because he was willing to involve himself again and again in wild and futile plots that he won the admiration of the declining East End artisans who made up the backbone of militant London Chartism. To Place's disgust 'old blackguard' Spenceans like Preston underwent a revival of prestige during the 1830s and 1840s which enabled them to leave a significant impress on the shape of nineteenth-century popular radicalism.
But what of Jonathan King and his gang of professional blackmailers? Even here the story is more nuanced than Place indicated. For a start King had some surprising social credentials. The very respectable Monthly Repository described him in an obituary as a model self-improver who had risen from shoe-black to attorney by his own talents. He married into the aristocracy, wrote learned treatises on a wide range of subjects and cultivated brilliant men from all walks of' life. He also displayed a lifelong commitment to oppositionist and radical causes. As a Sephardic Jew of Portuguese extraction whose real name was Jacob Rey, King loathed the English ruling class because – he revealed in a tract of 1817 – of bitter early experiences of anti-Semitism.
His companions, Duffin and Sedley, Irishmen with United Irish allegiances, could claim similar kinds of grievance. And Duffin at least had a substantial radical track record: in 1798 he, Evans and other LCS prisoners in Coldbath Fields orchestrated a fierce campaign against the corruption and cruelty of the prison administration; in 1802 he worked to elect the radical baronet, Sir Francis Burdett, to the seat of Middlesex, and in 1809 he and King led the radical press attack on the Duke of York for allowing his mistress to run an army promotions racket.
Even Sedley showed a political dimension by blackmailing members of the government and aristocracy who were particularly hostile to opposition and reforming causes. When a government official visited him in 1810 to discuss one of his blackmail attempts, Sedley swore 'vehemently', saying 'The King, Queen and Prince might as well be d...d, us were possessed of a secret which put them in our power and which if disobeyed would compel the entire Royal Family to quit the Kingdom'. He, Duffin and Craves are reminiscent of the alienated Grub Street-style hacks from Paris' underworld who lived by writing political pornography against the ruling class on the eve of the French Revolution.
When trying to evaluate this phenomenon of nineteenth-century radical blackmail, we need to beware of anachronism. Blackmailing methods seem to have been commonplace at a time when influence and patronage still informed most spheres of government, and politics was still conducted on an intimate personal scale. For example, there is substantial evidence in the Treasury Solicitor's files that the pious evangelical, Spencer Perceval, used methods very like those of Sedley to lever his way into government office around 1807. He also paid a desperate Newgate hack, Thomas Ashe, large sums to manufacture smut against political opponents, and – when Prime Minister – used personal bribery as well as state intimidation to silence political predators like Sedley. During the Regency years both radicals and government officers seem to have regarded compromising information as a form of property which the owners were bound, if not entitled, to exploit. Such information gave the powerless some kind of purchase against their otherwise untouchable rulers. Government law officials generally advised victims to pay up unless the blackmailers were, like Sedley, seen as incorrigible.
Blackmailing methods also came naturally to marginal journalists at a time when the press had yet to develop substantial, let alone mass, circulations, and when London's garrets were crammed with poverty-stricken would-be writers. Prints, newspapers, squibs and tracts were often laced with personal innuendo in the hope that the targets would pay to have the material withdrawn from sale. Such bribes usually far exceeded the profits that could be made from sales. The Duke of York's mistress, for example, was given 10,000 pounds in 1809-10 for suppressing her embarrassing memoirs. Radical pressmen had the additional satisfaction of locating their scurrility within a wider, emerging critique of 'Old Corruption', or state parasitism. The private and public muckraking of men like Evans, King and Duffin during the Regency years needs to be set in this context. Making Place a target of blackmail was natural enough in the circumstances. His close links during the 1790s with the Jacobin James Powell (someone whom we now know to have been a government spy), his penchant for backroom manipulation, and his contingent rise to prosperity, combined with genuine medical discrepancies in the coroner's evidence of the Sellis inquiry: all appeared to substantiate their suspicions.
The practice of using scandal for both personal gain and the political discomfiture of ruling-class enemies remained part of the popular radical tradition at least until the 1840s. During the popular uproar of 1820-21 over George IV's attempt to divorce his estranged wife, Princess Caroline, the anti-establishment scurrility of London pressmen attracted suppression bribes from Carlton House totalling at least 1,250 pounds. William Benbow, an ultra-radical shoemaker who had taken up publishing after working for William Cobbett, benefited handsomely. Benbow's pro-Caroline publications – prints, pamphlets and posters – were especially devastating because they blended gutter obscenity, libertarian populism and radical exposes of financial corruption. He was also fortunate in his employees, particularly J.L. Marks, a print publisher who specialised in gross, excremental caricatures, and Jack Mitford, an alcoholic ex-naval commander of aristocratic lineage with a flair for composing biting verse satires on royal immorality. One of their most successful joint productions, a shilling pamphlet entitled A Peep into W – – – r Castle after the Lost Mutton, lampooned George's ram-like appearance and sexual behaviour so mercilessly that it was 'bought up' by the Palace for 35 pounds, which did not stop Benbow from republishing brazenly under the subtitle of Suppressed Poem.
Throughout the decade of the 1820s, often represented as a period of radical hiatus and respectable self-improvement, publishers like Benbow, Cannon, Dugdale, John Fairburn and Edward Duncombe continued to ply a fine line between anti-establishment scurrility and outright blackmail. In 1822 they were quick to exploit the piquant irony and sensational news value associated with the arrest of a morally crusading bishop, Clogher, for committing a sexual act with a guardsman in an alehouse back room. Four years later the publication of the memoirs of a notorious royal courtesan, Harriette Wilson, promised good profits, as well as opportunities to embarrass the ruling class. Wilson and her seedy commercial publisher, J.J. Stockdale, made a fortune out of excision fees at 200 pounds a time. Radical publishers shaved in the bonanza mainly through pirated or fictitious editions of the memoirs, all harping on the well-tried theme of an innocent orphan girl seduced into prostitution by royal libertines.
The exposure and blackmail of actual royal libertines also featured in the radical journalism of the 1830s and 1840s. Cumberland was once again a favourite target of both old and new generations of radical pressmen, particularly in risque anti-establishment periodicals like the New Rambler's Magazine, Quizzical Gazette, Paul Pry, and Satirist. Memories of the Sellis affair resurfaced in 1830 when Lord Graves, the husband of Cumberland's latest lover, cut his own throat with a razor. One of the most outspoken radical squibs accused Cumberland of plotting against democracy and perpetrating 'fiend-like' sexual crimes. It seems to have come from the pen of Barnard Gregory, a hack reputed to have made a good deal of money from blackmail fees. Another much less successful hack, Thomas Ashe, made an explicit blackmail approach which resulted in a prison sentence for threatening to murder the duke. Murder was also the theme of Gregory and other radical journalists when in 1839 Cumberland and/or the Duke of Brunswick once more fell under popular suspicion of a sexual crime, this time the murder of a Lambeth prostitute, Eliza Grimwood. Gregory's broad hints on the subject earned him a six month jail sentence, but a much more subtle and elaborate link with royal princes was made in a novel Eliza Grimwood, issued in parts by a young radical pressman, Benjamin Cousins. It included realistic portraits of quasi-criminal Grub Street hacks who made their livings by composing sensationalist anti-establishment copy. However the novel was probably a reflection, as well as an analysis, of radical black- mailing practices, for it promised menacingly to reveal who really did kill the young prostitute, using genuine newspaper excerpts to implicate a high-born libertine. Significantly, it closed abruptly on the brink of the final revelation, suggesting perhaps that the bait for a suppression bribe had been taken. In any event it was fitting that the same unprepossessing royal figure, Cumberland, should have linked the radical roguery of the Regency and Victorian eras.