John Cam Hobhouse, in this image being Baron Broughton.
Algabal at en.wikipedia, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Scene 20: Newgate Execution. ON May 1st 1820 the cato Street Conspirators were publicly executed outside Newgate prison. The potential leader of the revolutionary government, Westminster MP John Cam Hobhouse and his son can be seen in the bottom right corner.
A letter written to the constituents of Westminster by Hobouse. He was previously asked about his position on universal suffrage and annual parliaments; this is his response.
Chester Courant - Tuesday 28 December 1819
The Cato Street conspirators mixed with many individuals involved in radical politics. One such individual was John Cam Hobhouse. Hobhouse may well have known about the conspiracy but whether he was more directly involved cannot be proven. Hobhouse certainly drew attention to the radical cause through his speeches at the 1819 Westminster by-election. Some believe that Thistlewood hoped that Hobhouse would head his revolutionary government following what he hoped would be Britain’s ‘Bastille moment.’ All in all, Hobhouse is a fascinating character in the wider story of the Cato Street Conspiracy, and thus is deserving of a feature article.
John Cam Hobhouse was born 27 June 1786, in a suburb named Redland outside of Bristol. He was the firstborn son of Sir Benjamin Hobhouse, himself a politician and was educated at Westminster School, and later pursued higher education at Trinity College, graduating in 1808. Here he became involved in politics, founding the Whig Club. Following graduation, Hobhouse journeyed to mainland Europe, and was present in the final campaign of Napoleon during the War of the Sixth Coalition, where Bonaparte was defeated and exiled, and the Bourbon Restoration commenced. He seems to have taken a liking to the mainland, as he was also present after the return of Napoleon from exile in 1815. During this time period he further developed his political leanings, and at his return to England ran for parliament in Westminster in 1819.
Hobhouse attacks the Six Acts
Hobhouse ran for parliament on the Radical ticket to represent the City of Westminster. The Westminster electorate numbered about 16,000 in theory, but about 12,000 in practice. A significant proportion were members of the leisured classes and included many of the political and social elite. However the electorate also included a wide assortment of professional men, tradesmen, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. The size and social diversity of the electorate ensured a significant role for public opinion of all shades and Westminster was one of the few seats where a radical candidate could hope to be elected.
In February 1819 Hobhouse put himself up as the Radical candidate at a by-election for the City of Westminster seat. He had already gained some popularity by writing in favour of reform, and in 1819 spoke the following words:
“I am a man chosen for the people, by the people; and, if elected, I will do no other business than that of the people”.
At the 1819 election this appealed to many of Westminster’s radical electorate. They supported a return to normalcy, that is respect on the part of the government of the Magna Carta’s protections Habeus Corpus-right to be tried before imprisonment- was suspended for two years at this point), respect of common law, as well as more radical propositions such as universal suffrage. The tumult of the times rallied many to his cause, including William Davidson, who would form part of a rowdy crowd in support of Hobhouse. In a speech at Convent Garden, Hobhouse told assembled crowds that they would never be able to gather again thanks to the crackdown on civil liberties as a result of the Six Acts, which in the view of himself and many of the people gathered was a breach of the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. At debate between the candidates for the Westminster election, a mob arrived attempting to whip up the crowd gathered to watch into a revolutionary fervour. Press reports mention a death’s head emblem on a back flag carrying the motto: ‘Let us die like men and not be sold like slaves. ’ It is now known that a flag similar to this was associated with William Davidson. While Hobhouse would lose the election, he did so with the support of the shopkeepers of Westminster, and only by 604 votes.
it was now that Hobhouse’s radical views led him into being imprisoned. In 1819 he had issued A defence of the People in reply to Lord Erskine’s “Two Defences of the Whigs,” followed by A trifling mistake in Thomas, Lord Erskine’s recent preface. The House of Commons declared this latter pamphlet a breach of privilege and ordered that Hobhouse should be punished for publishing it. He was arrested on 14 December 1819, and in spite of an appeal to the court of king’s bench he remained in imprisoned in Newgate until the end of the following February. However this imprisonment not only increased his popularity so that he was returned as Westminster’s MP following the 1820 General Election but ensured he could avoid being implicated in the Cato Street Conspiracy as he was in Newgate Prison on February 34rd when the conspirators were arrested.
In Newgate on Thursday, February 24th 1820, Hobhouse wrote in his diary:
This morning the Times says Arthur Thistlewood proclaimed a traitor and a murderer – £1,000 reward offered for him – also a denunciation of High Treason against those who harbour him. This is against law – a man must be arraigned or convicted before it is High Treason to harbour him. People coming in the morning tell the whole story: a plot to murder the ministers at a cabinet dinner. The conspirators met in a stable in Cato Street, Edgware Road. They fought desperately – Thistlewood killed one Smithers, a Bow Street officer. He was taken in bed this morning, about half-past nine, I believe. This is, as Brown my jailor says, a trump card for ministers, just before the election.
On May 1st, Hobhouse – by now, thanks to his late imprisonment, a national hero, and MP for Westminster – witnessed the execution of the Cato Street Conspirators:
Rode up to London. Thistlewood, Ings, Brunt, Davidson, and Tidd executed this morning at the Old Bailey. Their heads were cut off by a man in a mask. The people hissed violently during the operation – soldiers were in readiness everywhere. The men died like heroes – Ings perhaps was too obstreperous in singing Death or Liberty, and Thistlewood said, “Be quiet Ings, we can die without all this noise”. They admitted they intended to kill the ministers, but without malice, and as the only resource.
It is certain that Edwards, a government spy, was the chief instigator of the whole scheme. The people cried out for him during the execution. The
government will gain nothing by this execution. I went down to the House, and sat some time. The Attorney-General did not come down, and if he had I think I should have been afraid to speak.
Hobhouse was not normally afraid to speak – it seems that though the Cato Street Conspiracy had failed, the government conspiracy, to make free speech impossible, had succeeded. The men had first been hanged and then decapitated. The headsman was probably Tom Parker, an expert
resurrection-man and mortician; though several respectable surgeons were assaulted, and in one case almost castrated, on suspicion of having performed the decapitations. Thistlewood had tried to implicate Hobhouse in the plot, though as Hobhouse was in jail at the time of its occurrence, obviously nothing could stick. But the Duke of Wellington – clearly as paranoid about conspiracies,
and as in thrall to his own party’s lies, as the rest of the nation – was convinced that if the conspiracy had succeeded, Hobhouse would have accepted the presidency of the new-model, post-Cato Street British Republic.
His exact level of involvement in the plot is unknown, but he must have been drawn to the conspirators as he attended their execution. He did so, bizarrely enough, with his son. The execution shocked many with the efficiency at which the deceased’s heads were separated from their body, done by a man who’s identity remained anonymous. The following day, he visited the White Lion, a frequent stop for the conspiracists who now numbered 10 less. There, he was passed information suggesting that a surgeon on Argyll Street had been the mystery man responsible for the decapitation of his friends, and set a plan action. The Lancester has published an article about what happened next:
Hobhouse ran again for parliament in 1820, and this time won, running on the Reform party ticket. After his election, Hobhouse established himself as one of the leading radicals in Parliament. Hobhouse proudly described himself as a leveller and was a strong opponent of aristocratic privilege.
In 1819 Hobhouse had carried out his own private investigation into the Peterloo Massacre and in the House of Commons was highly critical of the way the authorities had dealt with the demonstrators. In a debate in the House of Commons on 15th May 1821, Hobhouse argued that the meeting at St. Peter’s Fields had been completely peaceful. He also attacked William Hulton and other government witnesses of telling “lies” and providing “misstatements” at the trial of the organisers of the St. Peter’s Fields meeting.
In the House of Commons Hobhouse became the leading advocate of parliamentary reform and he remained for several years, at least until 1826. In 1831 he succeeded his father as and assumed the position of Baron Broughton, and was appointed as the Secretary at War within the Whig administration of Lord Grey the following year. During his time in public office, he was able to pass several key reform bills, such as the Vestry Act 1831. In 1833 he became Chief Secretary for Ireland, but resigned his position and seat in Parliament when he refused to vote with the government against the abolition of the Doors and Widows Tax. Hobhouse joined the cabinet of Lord Melbourne as First Commissioner of Woods and Forests in 1834, as well as occupying the same position 9 years later in Lord John Russel’s cabinet. Lastly, in February 1851 Hobhouse joined the House of Lords as Baron Broughton, leaving by the next year.
John Cam Hobhouse was made a Knight of Grand Cross of the order of the Bath in 1851, and excused himself from political life in favor of literary study. He was a fellow of the Royal Society, as well as being a founding member of the Royal Geographical Society. Hobhouse died on 3 June 1869 at the age of 82, in Berkeley Square, London.