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The Cato Street Conspiracy

In 1820, a plot to assassinate the British Prime Minister and his cabinet was exposed.

At 7.45 am on May 1st 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, James Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd stepped on to the scaffold newly erected outside the Debtors’ Gate of Newgate Prison to expiate their crime of treason. It was an occasion long remembered by all who witnessed it. From the early hours sightseers had been streaming in and occupying points of vantage. Shortly before the execution part of the railing of St. Sepulchre’s Church, on which a great number of people had climbed, collapsed, resulting in the injury of many. Certain observers affected surprise at the extraordinary number of women, some of them well dressed, who had joined the crowds waiting 'for this most awful exhibition.'

The sentence on all the prisoners had been that they should be dragged on a hurdle to the place of execution and hanged, their heads cut off and bodies quartered. (Only seven years previously, the sentence would have included the tearing of the heart and bowels from the body while yet alive). However, the Privy Council had consented, out of deference to humanitarian sentiment, to omit the hurdles and the quartering.

The prisoners were pinioned and hooded. A journalist had vainly endeavoured to get some final statement or request from Thistlewood. The crowd was tense with emotion-then came an agitated cry from a roof-top opposite, 'God bless you, God Almighty bless you!'

The hangman’s work was soon done. The bodies remained suspended for half an hour, then were cut down and laid in coffins while the heads, were severed. That of Thistlewood was removed first and held up with the cry, 'This is the head of Arthur Thistlewood, the traitor.' A groan came from the crowd. The edge of the knife employed had been turned into one of Thistlewood’s vertebrae and an assistant was hurriedly sent into the prison governor’s dining room to bring out a carving-knife to be used on the other bodies.

An incident related by Thackeray adds the last touch of horror to this narrative. The executioner dropped the head of Brunt while displaying it – thus bringing forth the cry of 'Yah butterfingers!' from a member of the crowd. The public reaction to this brutality is said to have been a turning point in the reformers’ campaign to abolish the grisly sentence of decapitation.

In the streets an hour later a different atmosphere prevailed. Princess Lieven, in a letter, wrote,

The conspirators were hanged an hour ago, and at the moment the streets are full of music, of drums and of people wearing masks. It is the festival of the chimney sweeps and they are dancing at every comer. It makes me sad. Why did Brunt die crying, 'Long live liberty’? Why did that emotion dominate him at the moment of saying goodbye; even in him the emotion is not criminal.

The execution of Thistlewood and his associates marks the end of a phase in English radicalism. The French Revolution had been accompanied in England by an upsurge of liberal sentiment, which persisted even after the tide of revolution had receded in France itself. In England, Parliamentary reform, the rights of man, agrarian law were all subjects of debate. In association with the Irish, illegal associations for the overthrow of the Government were formed. Economic distress provided these groups with eager audiences. On behalf of the Government, agents-provocateurs were active. By the spring of 1812 some 12,000 troops were needed to hold down the disturbed Midlands. There was widespread anticipation of a general insurrection. This never materialised because the distressed people had no clear revolutionary aims and because there was no revolutionary leadership capable of joining a thousand limited discontents into one united movement for social change. The English Revolution remained a 'might have been' because the middle class felt no cause to assume the role of Jacobins. English Enragés were not lacking, they were merely ineffective.

The next years of crisis were 1816-17, but by then the possibility of successful revolution had passed. The main armies were back at home and the demand for a limited Parliamentary reform was becoming the dominant note of radicalism. But between 1812 and 1816 a new element had appeared on the scene. Around Arthur Thistlewood, formed a group of convinced revolutionary republicans advocating armed insurrection as the only workable means of bringing about the reforms that England so sorely needed. The group saw their revolutionary hopes, once so high, slowly fading. Only a revolutionary coup could save the situation. There is in this, as in certain other respects, a curious parallel to the case of Baboeuf.

The Government spent a great deal of time and money in ascertaining and recording the views and activities of the Thistlewood group. From (at least) 1816 to 1820 they plotted continuously, seeking to exploit old grievances and point-out new ones. Many of the tactics devised and employed by Thistlewood and his associate Preston have since become standard in the agitator’s repertory. For this, and many other reasons, Thistlewood and his circle are not without interest for both the student and the general reader.

Much has been written about Thistlewood’s background, for the most part as prefatory matter to contemporary accounts of the Cato Street Conspiracy, the subsequent trials and the executions, and even by 1820 much legend had gathered about his name. He was said to have travelled in America and the West Indies, to have been in Paris during the Terror, to have fought for the French at Zurich in 1799. Some facts can be retrieved from these romances, others can be independently established from public records.

It is reasonably certain that he was born as Arthur Burnett, illegitimate child of William Thistlewood of Bardney, Lincolnshire, who farmed land belonging to the Vyner family. His baptism was registered on December 4th, 1774 at Horsington, his mother being the daughter of a small shopkeeper of that place. It seems that his father adopted and educated him and he next appears in 1795 as 'Arthur Thistlewood of Tupholme, grazier,' as surety for a marriage bond now in Lincoln Diocesan Records. The War Office records next take up the story and show him as an Ensign in the 1st Regiment of the West Yorks Militia, from July 1798 to February 1799. On February 24th he resigned his commission. Between July and November 1803, he was a lieutenant in the Royal Third Lincs. Regiment of Militia. In 1804 he married a Miss Worsley of Lincoln, a lady much older than himself, and possessed of considerable wealth. After a short time his wife died and her fortune reverted to her own people. In 1808 he married again, this time to Susannah Wilkinson of Horncastle, daughter of a butcher.

A mutilated letter in Marylebone Public Library tells us that in 1811 he was staying in the Edgware Road, not far from the Cato Street he was later to make notorious. When peace was concluded in 1814 he made a short visit to Paris, and immediately on his return came under the notice of the authorities as a dangerous man. His sudden entry into radical politics appears to be quite unmotivated. True, he was illegitimate and he had been disappointed of a large fortune, but this, hardly accounts for his transformation from an undistinguished rural militia-man into the murderous fanatic he undoubtedly became. Contemporary writers insisted on his link with France, maintaining he had been in Paris during the Terror. John Alger, writing in 1889, placed Thistlewood’s stay in France from 1799 to 1802. Mr. Gilbert Armitage asserts that Thistlewood was involved in Despard’s assassination plot of 1802, but as neither author indicates the sources of this information the reliability of these interesting statements cannot yet be pronounced upon.

In October 1814 Thomas Evans had instituted 'The Society of Spencean Philanthropists' to propagate the ideas of the agrarian reformer Thomas Spence, who had died in September of the same year. The Spenceans had been increasingly active since 1812, a reflection of the revolutionary temper of that time. The Society was organized in four sections, meeting in different places on different evenings. Evans in so organizing the society was reproducing the structure of the old London Corresponding Society of which he had once been secretary. Evans was a convinced republican of long standing who had also been active in promoting the Society of United Englishmen, after the Irish model. Evans himself was now of a pious turn of mind, but the Society attracted to itself the most radical of the disaffected. The London “Hampden Clubs” came under Spencean influence and the Spenceans became the spearhead of the working class reform movement. “Spencean” had then something of the same connotation as the word Bolshevik has had for many in our own day. It was into these circles that Thistlewood drifted and there where he met the two Watsons, Thomas Preston, Hooper and the others who were to form his immediate circle.

On October 30th 1816, John Harriot of the Thames Police Office communicated to Addington the contents of a leaflet handed in by a watchman. It ran thus:

Britons strike home!

The whole country awaits the signal from London to fly to Arms! — Haste — break open Gunsmiths and all likely places to find Arms — Run all constables through who touch a man of us. — No rise of Bread — No Regent! No Castlereagh! No Placeman, Tythes or Enclosures — Stand true or starve in Slavery!

This manifesto seems to be the first fruits of Thistlewood’s influence on the London reformers. It immediately strikes certain characteristic notes—his tone of urgency, his fixed idea that once London gave the lead the whole country would rise. The references to economic grievances seem to be of rural rather than of urban concern.

The Watson-Thistlewood group hoped to bring about their aims by means of the more moderate reformers and accordingly Henry Hunt was invited to organize a meeting on November 15th at Spa Fields to consider Parliamentary reform. Placards addressed to

“distressed tradesmen, manufacturers and mariners” called them “to meet and adopt measures with a view to their relief.” As early as ten o’clock the crowds began to gather and the Morning Chronicle account estimated the number present as twenty thousand. Hunt arrived at one and addressed the crowd from the top of his coach and then from an upper window of Merlin’s Cave, a tavern adjacent to the fields. The meeting adopted a form of petition to be presented to Parliament by Mr. Hunt and Sir Francis Burdett. A meeting to receive the answer to the petition was proposed for February, but the younger Watson protested at the delay and moved that December 2nd should, be the chosen day. This motion was carried and the meeting then broke up.

Immediately the extremist group pushed on their plans. Placards were posted, calling the meeting for December 2nd in these terms:—

“Four millions in distress! Half a million live in spendid luxury! The Nation’s wrongs must be redressed.”

“An Address to Suffering Britons” from the “Tri-coloured Private Committee” found its way into the London prisons—and thence to the Home Office! Its opening phrases were:

“On Monday December 2nd, the flag will be unfurled! Your liberty is planned and you will be restored to your country under a new Government.”

Operations on December 2nd were to be controlled by a committee of five—Thistlewood, the two Watsons, Preston and Castles, a government agent. The group had previously been active among the soldiers, a small quantity of explosives and pikes had been collected. The Bank was to be attacked, the Tower seized, the prisons opened. A list was drawn up of the names of those who would serve on the Committee of Public Safety—though this was probably done without the consent of most of those named. Some celebrities on the list included Burdett, Cochrane, Hunt, Cartwright and Alderman Wood. Thistlewood’s view at this stage seems to have been that these reformers were not so much opposed to revolution as hesitant and timid, awaiting and ready to follow the resolute action of such a bold man as himself. He was speedily disillusioned.

The meeting was held as arranged. Before Hunt arrived the Watsons addressed the crowd, roused some of them to fighting pitch and led them, behind a tri-colour of Red, White and Green, to attack a gunsmith’s shop. Here, arms were seized and the mob moved, firing, towards the Royal Exchange. Meanwhile, another party, under Preston and Thistlewood, made for the Tower. The revolutionary élan of the rebels rapidly dwindled. The Lord Mayor and a handful of constables dispersed the first group, and when, Thistlewood and Preston scaled the Tower wall and called upon the soldiers to surrender, they were merely laughed at. Meanwhile, Hunt was addressing the greater part of the crowd which was still at Spa Fields.

While out on bail, the conspirators discussed new ways of bringing about their aims. A “snowball” scheme was devised whereby “ten men were to buy a pair of pistols each and each man was to recruit ten again, similarly armed. All to stand ready for emergencies.” Evans, at the Spencean meetings, now openly called for revolution and the old committee set about convening yet another meeting in Spa Fields. Uniforms were to be made for the leaders and groups of young women were to be organized to impede the activity of soldiers who might be present. This scheme had originally been devised for the December meeting, but had not been put into operation.

A trial for High Treason in the spring of 1817 led to an acquittal for all the prisoners, excepting only a certain Cashman, an Irish sailor unconnected with radicalism but befuddled with drink, who, ignorant of the niceties distinguished by lawyers, suffered the death penalty for displaying the French tri-colour. The English tri-colour, displayed by Watson, being a recognized emblem, was adjudged not treasonable. The acquittal prompted further activities by the faction. Preston was unrepentant. “Another twenty minutes and we should have had the Tower and carried everything before us,” he is declared to have said.

Every month now, new efforts were being reported to the Government. The conspirators spawned plots as a cod spawns eggs, and by the summer they began to see some results. “Reformers’ Banquets” were organized for apparently quite innocent purposes, but in reality as a cover for recruitment to the group and for the discussion of further plans. The word “assassination” began to come to the fore.

At this time ThistleWood’s opinions took a sharp turn to the left and a second manifesto appeared. 

Liberty! Equality! Humanity! Emancipation from slavery and oppression! Church and Crown lands to be vested in the people!

Useful institutions to be preserved.

A Convention is to be chosen and the Committee of Public Safety to act (pro tempore). All officers to be chosen from the people and not one of the rich, with the exception of Hunt and Cobbett. No Burdens, Waithmans or any hypocritical patriots. The Lords and Commons and all Aristocrats are to be executed. No Bishops or hired Ministry. Unreserved toleration is to be allowed. There is to be no distinction of countries or of counties. People to be distinguished as Northern Britons, Western Britons!

Spies regularly reported the group’s discussions. Public ownership of the land was to be their panacea. Further, they held it to be “a shame that the High Man should have so much out of the Poor Man’s labour.” Unemployed weavers were now beginning to fall under Thistlewood’s spell and it was planned to assemble a body of these, as for a supper, in Smithfield during Bartholomew’s Fair. They were to seize artillery from the park in Grays Inn Lane and the Bank was to be attacked. The scheme hung fire for lack of men skilled to work the great guns and in the end the plot was rendered completely abortive by the presence of large bodies of troops during the critical days of the fair.

The execution of Brandreth, ringleader in the “Derbyshire Rebellion,” gave Preston the idea of a mourning campaign that might give the reformers some idea of the support they enjoyed. Later, Preston went up to Birmingham to sound opinion there, but within a few days he was back again, having had no success. In London, the fortunes of the group were varied. In early December, Sherwin, the radical printer, placed his press at their disposal, but on the other hand, unemployment was rapidly decreasing. “I wish,” said Thistlewood, “there were not one bit of work in Spitalfields for one month.”

In January 1818, Hooper, a member of the group, died. Rather despised by his comrades when alive, in death he was cast by them for an important role. His funeral, it was hoped, might provide a chance for a show of strength, but once again the authorities were forewarned and troops stood by until Hooper had been quietly buried. By now Thistlewood was growing desperate. He was resolved to act, if necessary, alone. Perhaps as a result of this frame of mind he challenged Lord Sidmouth to a duel. He was promptly arrested, charged with behaving in a manner likely to cause a breach of the peace, and in May was sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. This he served at Horsham, under very uncomfortable conditions.

Once released, he immediately resumed activity. He appeared in the North, speaking on the same platform as Henry Hunt. The “Manchester Massacre” of August 1819 reduced his already limited programme to one word—revenge! He returned to London and forsaking his old associates he began to organize a new group.

By November a spy had managed to track down this new organization. Thistlewood’s manoeuvre had failed and he was now well set on the road to destruction. On February 23rd 1820 the conspirators were surprised whilst arming themselves-in a loft in Cato Street near the Edgware Road. They had planned to break in on a Cabinet dinner being held at Lord Harrowby’s, massacre all those present—and proclaim the Republic.

At his trial at the Old Bailey Thistlewood pursued a vacillating course—first a martyr to the cause of liberty, next the victim of a vile plot. The general theme of the defendants was to suggest that the spy had himself organized the plot from start to finish. In view of Thistlewood’s record this was not very convincing.

The outcome was never seriously in doubt. Five were sentenced to death, five to transportation for life. Another group, of whom Preston was one, were discharged for lack of evidence.

In his final speech, Thistlewood was calm and resolved, if somewhat dramatic:

“Albion is still in chains of slavery. I quit it without regret. I shall be consigned to the grave, and my body will be immured beneath the soil whereon I first drew breath. My only sorrow is that that soil should be a theatre for slaves, for cowards and for despots. My motives, I doubt not, will hereafter be justly appreciated.”

After the lapse of a hundred and thirty years, during which interval we have seen the rise and triumph of many revolutionary parties and during which the mechanics of revolutions have been the subject of much study, we can appreciate the significance of Thistlewood and his ideas far more completely than could his contemporaries. He was a revolutionary who came to believe that only the working class itself could bring about its own emancipation. He had no faith in the middle-class reformers who were to dominate liberal and radical politics throughout the century. In tactics he put his faith in the revolutionary coup d’etat followed by an appeal to the people. Obsessed with the need for action, feeling, like the later terrorist Zhelyabov, that history was moving too slowly and needed a push, he devoted little attention to matters of theory.

He occupies, in the ancestry of English revolutionaries, a position similar to that which Marxists have freely accorded to Baboeuf. His activity began too late to be effective. His conspiracies were futile. His oratory fell upon deaf ears. In his own age he was wondered at as a prodigy. We now know him to have been a portent.

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