History Today eBook: The Second World War

The Revolutionary Plan of Thomas Spence

Alastair Bonnett tells the little-known but extraordinary ‘rags to rags’ story of a radical maverick of the early 19th century.

 

June 2005 saw a discovery. Leafing through a battered compilation of eighteenth-century documents held by Newcastle’s Literary and Philosophical Society, David Gardner-Medwin, a retired doctor and amateur local historian chanced upon an intriguing one-penny pamphlet. No author is indicated but the title is striking, Property in Land Every One’s Right, proved in a lecture read at the Philosophical Society in Newcastle, on the 8th of Nov. 1775.

 

Dr Gardner-Medwin immediately recognized it as the founding statement of Spence’s thought. It is a work republished many times in later editions as ‘The Rights of Man’. But the original had been lost for nearly 200 years.

 

Newcastle with its message that all land should be taken out of private hands and instead be owned by the parishes. It was the start of a long and impoverished life on the furthest margins of British politics. Spence’s story is a rags to rags tale of defiance and ingenuity. Today his name is all but forgotten. But in the first two decades of the nineteenth century it was synonymous with radical opinion. He was the subject of four contemporary biographical memoirs. Moreover, three years after his death an Act of Parliament was passed prohibiting ‘All societies or clubs calling themselves Spencean or Spencean Philanthropists’.

 

 

... an idea has lately prevailed among the lower classes of society that the land is the people’s farm, the rent of which ought to be divided equally among them; and that they have been deprived of the benefits which belong to them, from this their natural inheritance, and by the injustice and oppression of their stewards, the landlords.

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