The Cato Street conspirators were inspired by the radical ideas of Thomas Spence who believed that the ‘land was a common treasury for all’ and that men and women should have the vote to bring about true equality. Lord Liverpool’s government approval of the Peterloo Massacre and the subsequent passing of the ‘Six Acts’, which curtailed free speech and political protest, prompted the ‘Spencean Philanthropists’ to decide on drastic measures to bring about change. Their leader, Arthur Thistlewood planned to assassinate Lord Liverpool and his cabinet at Lord Harrowby’s Grosvenor Square home and then form a ‘Committee of Public Safety’ to bring about a Spencean revolution. This would bring land into public ownership, abolish the aristocracy and the introduce universal suffrage – including votes for women.
So who was Thomas Spence? How did his ideas come to inspire the Cato Street conspiracy? The story begins in Newcastle, where Spence lived and worked as a schoolmaster. Spence read widely and was strongly influenced by the ideas of Tom Paine. In December 1792 Spence moved to London and attempted to make a living by selling the works of Paine on street corners. He was arrested but soon after he was released from prison he opened a shop, ‘The Hive of Liberty’ in Holborn where he sold radical books and pamphlets.
In 1793 Spence started a periodical, Pig’s Meat. This was an ironic name refuting Burke’s claim that ‘the Swinish Multitude’ ie ordinary people, could not be trusted with political power as they were too pig ignorant to choose wisely. Spence said in the first edition:
“Awake! Arise! Arm yourselves with truth, justice, reason. Lay siege to corruption. Claim as your inalienable right, universal suffrage and annual parliaments. And whenever you have the gratification to choose a representative, let him be from among the lower orders of men, and he will know how to sympathize with you.”
By the early 1800s Thomas Spence had established himself as the unofficial leader of those Radicals who advocated revolution. James Watson, a close associate and friend of Arthur Thistlewood, was one of the men who worked very closely with Spence during this period. Spence did not believe in a centralized radical body and instead encouraged the formation of small groups that could meet in local public houses. At the night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as “Spence’s Plan and Full Bellies” and “The Land is the People’s Farm”. In 1800 and 1801 the authorities believed that Spence and his followers were responsible for bread riots in London. However, they did not have enough evidence to arrest them.
Thomas Spence died in September 1814. He was buried by “forty disciples” who pledged that they would keep his ideas alive. They did this by forming the Society of Spencean Philanthropists. The men met in small groups all over London. These meetings mainly took place in pubs and they discussed the best way of achieving an equal society. Places used included the Mulberry Tree in Moorfields, the Carlisle in Shoreditch, the Cock in Soho, the Pineapple in Lambeth, the White Lion in Covent Garden, the Horse and Groom in Marylebone and the Nag’s Head in Carnaby Market. The government became very concerned about this group that they employed a spy, John Castle, to join the Spenceans and report on their activities. This led the Spenceans to make a first attempt at revolution in 1816, at what became known as the Spa Fields riots. Both Watson and Thistlewood stood trial for treason but the jury would not believe evidence provided by spies like Castle.
The government remained concerned about the Spenceans and John Strafford, who worked at the Home Office, recruited Geroge Edwards, George Ruthven, John Williamson, John Shegoe, James Hanley and Thomas Dwyer to spy on this group. Peterloo increased the amount of anger the Spenceans felt towards the government. At one meeting a spy reported that Arthur Thistlewood said:
“High Treason was committed against the people at Manchester. I resolved that the lives of the instigators of massacre should atone for the souls of murdered innocents.”
The Thomas Spence Society has a website dedicated to the ideas of the man who inspired the Cato Street conspirators.
As part of our project we used one of the songs written about Spence in our school outreach work. The song, ‘Thomas Spence’ was written and composed by Tim Martin.