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Britain’s miseries and inequalities after the 1815 Peace provoked popular unrest and upper-class anxiety on an uprecedented scale, but not a revolutionary situation. The centre held firm. Repressive laws, imprisonments, and executions counted as much as popular deference and loyalism in preserving order. These inflictions were backed by an efficient spy system and the multiplication of military barracks across London and the rest of the country. As one military commander wrote, ‘Fools! We have the physical force, not they.’ Plebeian radicals were akin to peasants armed with pitchforks, and were as innocent as peasants about the disciplinary forces that faced them.
In and after 1819, particularly after Peterloo, support for radical change among disfranchised Londoners broadened. The conspirators themselves were ‘ordinary Britons’. In no senses part of the ‘mob’, they were craftsmen with families who were losing craft status and income in the worsening post-war economy. Many had the common disabilities of the poor, but Wivell’s extraordinary prison portraits show their common humanity. Most were shoemakers, a craft that was famously literate, thoughtful, and radical.
The trials on 17-27 April, sentences on 28 April, and executions on Monday, 1 May counted among the greatest public sensations of the era. Adolphus’s brilliant defence rested on the conspiracy’s absurdity and the crown’s dependence on the evidence of the unreliable turncoat, Adams. Chief justice Abbott, an unlovely enemy of radicals, advised the jury to deliver guilty verdicts, which they did. Abbott then ordered eleven conspirators to be executed as traitors. Five, however, were shown ‘mercy’ and transported, and one had his sentence respited. Adolphus asked them all to write in their own hands memento passages for him to distribute to his cabinet friend in facsimile.
All the conspirators could read, and most could write, more or less. Radical newspapers and tavern trade clubs and societies provided their political education. ’Low’ radicals in regency London were as deeply influenced by the agrarian socialist Thomas Spence as by Tom Paine, but, either way, their values drew on Enlightenment. They believed in the people’s right to resist oppression, and some hoped for the redistribution of landed property throughout the kingdom. Spence propagated his ideas through slogans, songs, graffiti, and tokens as well as pamphlets and books; and after his death in 1814 they were propagated through the Society of Spencean Philanthropists and Wedderburn’s ‘chapel’ in Soho, to both of which key conspirators belonged.
The five widows of the executed conspirators and the five wives whose men were transported leave poignant records of both impoverishment and courage. Before the trials, most couples seem to have been faithful to each other, William Davidson excepted. Left with 26 children to care for between them, the women had no support other than radicals’ charity. Most disappeared miserably from history. But Susan Thistlewood and Arthur’s illegitimate son Julian made good in the long run: Julian became a Parisian painter and fathered a noted impressionist. And Ings the butcher’s letters to his wife Celia suggest a loving marriage, and she lived adequately as a widow.
Edwards spied on Spencean meetings for the Bow Street police office from January 1818 onwards. He insinuated himself into the radical bookseller Richard Carlile’s life, befriended the butcher Ings in Carlile’s bookshop, and attached himself to Thistlewood on the latter’s release from gaol in May 1819. Between November and 23 February 1820 he reported Thistlewood’s every move to the police and home office. On 13 December Thistlewood told Edwards his latest plan – to murder the whole cabinet at their next cabinet dinner. For weeks later, with false starts and much wishful thinking, this plan was played with until Sidmouth ordered a cabinet dinner at Harrowby’s mansion to be falsely advertised. This feint provoked the conspirators to action. The chapter ends with an account of Edwards’s and the turncoat conspirators’ misfortunes after the executions.
This chapter offers a narrative and descriptions of the plot, its participants and purposes, of the Cato Street locality and the conspirators’ weaponry, of the gathering in the Cato Street stable on 23 February 1820, of informers in the group.
London radicalism in all its expressions was galvanised by the Manchester atrocity in August 1819. While the moderate radicals raised relief funds and sought justice for the victims, the Watsonites called public meetings and arranged Hunt’s spectacular triumphal entry into London in September. Government brought prosecutions and Sidmouth’s repressive Six Acts in its wake. The moderates and Huntites quarrelled with the ultras, and the Watsonites’ failure to win mass support at a washed-out meeting in Finsbury Market on 1 November deepened Watson’s, Thistlewood’s, and Preston’s conviction that the only hope of change lay in violence.
Unemployment, hunger, and declining craft status were more significant than the formal ideas most historians have attended to in radicalising London’s poor. Few of the poor wanted outright revolution. Rather, their mental worlds were packed by a melange of myths, slogans, and ‘intellectual bric-a-brac’, and naïve fantasies and wishful thoughts about the prospects of change. Myths about a golden past, the ‘free-born Englishman’, and the oppressions of the Norman Yoke were spread in songs and slogans of considerable antiquity, and provided the primary languages of radical dissent.
The chapter charts what we know of Thistlewood’s early Lincolnshire years, his character and appearance, his gentlemanly status and modest wealth, his fecklessness and gambling, the birth of his illegitimate son Julian, and his marriages – particularly to Susan, who stayed with him to the end. It follows his increasing radicalisation after the family’s arrival in London in 1811 and his joining Evans’s Society of Spencean Philanthropists in 1814.