SONG: Vince Burke's Original Song for the Bicentenary: 'Give me Death or Liberty!'

James Ings the Portsmouth Butcher
James Ings British Museum
The Last Words of James Ings by Vince Burke
Vince Burke's original song based on the last words of James Ings.

In an attempt to bring the story of the Cato Street conspirators to a new audience, the Westminster Community Reminiscence and Archive Group (WCRAG) approached musician composer Vince Burke about composing an original piece of music that we could use with schools as part of our outreach programme.

In the autumn of 2019 Vince was able to review much of the archive material we had gathered together to begin our project.  He was particularly struck by how the conspirators coped with their moment of execution.  One conspirator fascinated him.  This was James Ings who chose to sing in the last moments of his life. Ings, a Hampshire man, had formerly known more prosperous times, but lost much of his property and money during the trade slump after Waterloo. He had a wife, Celia, three daughters, and a son called William. Ings had recently kept a coffee-shop in Whitechapel, from which he sold political pamphlets, but this venture, too, failed. He was penniless in the run-up to the conspiracy, and is said to have been given money by government spy George Edwards to rent a room which served as an arms depot for the conspirators. As a former butcher by trade, Ings had eagerly awaited the opportunity to take out years of frustration on members of Lord Liverpool’s cabinet.  Years of failure and frustration came to the fore , when he envisaged what he wold do after taking the lives of the hated ministers. He was adamant that he would use his butchery skills to remove the heads of Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh and Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth sand remove them from Lord Harrowby’s Grosvenor Square home in two bags he would carry with him for the purpose; in a macabre twist Ings particularly wished to preserve the right hand of Lord Castlereagh as a valuable curiosity. 

Ings never had the opportunity of putting his grisly plan into operation.  He was captured on the night o the 23rd February 1820 at the Cato Street hideaway, imprisoned and then found guilty of treason at his trail at the Old Bailey.  The tables were turned upon him. It would be Castlereagh and Sidmouth that would be organising a grisly end for Ings on the scaffold at Newgate.

Vince Burke was fascinated by this story but more so by the description of how Ings behaved at his execution.  He met his end singing. Over fifty years after his death, the memory of his last moments at Newgate were remembered by author Walter Thornbury.  In 1878 he described the execution outside Newgate prison, in Old and New London: Volume 2:

Ings seemed mad with excitement. He moved his head to and fro, cried “Huzza!” three times, and commenced singing, “Oh, give me death or liberty!” There was partial cheering. He exclaimed, from time to time, “Here we go, my lads! You see the last remains of James Ings. Remember, I die the enemy of tyranny, and would sooner die in chains than live in slavery.” When the chaplain exhorted him, the reckless ruffian said, with a coarse laugh, “I am not afraid to go before God or man.” Then he shouted to the silent executioner, “Now, old man, finish me tidy. Pull the halter a little tighter: it might slip.” He then waved a handkerchief three times, and said he hoped the chaplain would give him a good character.

For some of the conspirators Ings manic behaviour was too much. Thistlewood had wanted them to go to their end as heroes. He broke his determined silence when Ings began singing ‘Death or Liberty.’, Thistlewood was said to have shouted across the gallows to his fellow consprator:

              Be quiet, Ings; we can die without all this noise.

At a signal given by the Rev. Mr. Cotton the platform fell. At the very instant Ings was observed to join Davidson in prayer. Half an hour after, a “resurrection-man,” who received a fee of twenty guineas, disguised in a rough jacket and trousers, and a mask on his face, appeared with an amputating-knife, and severed Ings head from his body. The hangman, Jack Ketch, then held up Ings head by the hair, and exclaimed three times, “This is the head of James Ings, a traitor.”

It was in the aftermath of this shocking affair that Lord Byron completed his work on a long-ago Venetian putsch, Marino Faliero, that put forward the notion that those who died in the cause of liberty would live on as immortals.

They never fail who die
In a great cause: the block may soak their gore:
Their heads may sodden in the sun; their limbs
Be strung to city gates and castle walls —
But still their Spirit walks abroad. Though years
Elapse, and others share as dark a doom,
They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts
Which overpower all others, and conduct
The world at last to Freedom

However, the government was determined that none of the Cato Street conspirators would become martyrs to the cause of revolution.  The headless bodies were buried in quick lime in unmarked graves with the confines of Newgate prison. By the time Walter Thornberry wrote his piece on Newgate executions in 1878, they had been almost totally forgotten.


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