The Cato Street Conspiracy was undertaken by the group known as the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, hereafter referred to as the Spencean Philanthropists. The group took its name from an influenceable Radical British thinker, Thomas Spence. Thistlewood and his fellow Philanthropists wished to implement Spence’s ideas, who can be described as a ‘proto-communist,’ though it is more accurate to refer to him as a adherent of Georgism. Georgism is the theory that economic value is derived from land, and thus should be a shared resource. Spence subscribed to ideas fundamental to the enlightenment, like liberty, freedom, and rationality. He took these views further than most however – two of his most controversial ideas were universal suffrage, and common ownership of the land. By ensuring that all voices carried an equal weight, and by eliminating the concept of private property for the good of all, inequality could be addressed. Thomas Spences life informed his philosophy, as well as those who subscribed to his ideas, so it is essential in telling the complete story of the Cato Street Conspiracy.
The Life of Thomas Spence
Thomas Spence was born in Newcastle in 1750. Not much is known about his childhood, but by the 1770’s he was working as a schoolmaster, and at this point had begin to develop the political notions that would make him famous. In 1771, Town Moor in Newcastle, a common land, was threatened with enclosure. Similar scenes were happening all across England, thanks to the ratification of several Enclosure Acts by the monarchy at the time. In response to this transgression, Spence spent years developing a political pamphlet, which he titled Property in Land Every One’s Right in 1775, which can be found here. This pamphlet argues for a restructure of the way land is owned and used. Spence holds that landlords and lords in general are obsolete and have no place in his society. Land instead would be distributed equally among the people, establishing a community parish as a municipal government. All pay rent fairly into the parish, which then uses the funds on public works like roads, public education, and unemployment. These parishes would function as relatively autonomous municipalities, and several parishes together would be able to elect a representative to parliament, which would stand for the common interests of the parishes. There would be no peacetime armies, and without the driving forces behind it, no inequality. In Spences eyes, and the eyes of the Spencean Philanthropists, this was to be an ideal society, one without unnecessary war or economic inequality. There is little wonder as to why the Spencean Philanthropists were willing to undertake such an audacious plan; if successful, they could create a Utopia.
Spence did not stop there; he was determined to identify and tackle the roots of inequality. Spence was a firm believer in the value of education as a means to liberation. Along with private ownership of land, he understood linguistic differences to be a principal actor in class distinctions. He went as far as to create his own phonetic script and pronunciation system, which he believed would lead to class distinctions being eliminated. In 18th and 19th century society, pronunciation was a marker of the class one was in; by eliminating this indicator, society could better move past the concepts of classes, and fully integrate into Spence’s ideal society. In 1775, the same year as his pamphlet publication, he published the first English dictionary with pronunciation included.
Spence believed himself to be the first to utilize the term “Rights of Man,” before the enormously consequential work by Thomas Paine of the same name. During one of his various prison sentences, Spence wrote of his connection to “Jack the Blaster,” a man from Marsden Grotto that was famous for his living situation. Jack Bates was a miner who moved to Marsden Grotto after either refusing to pay rent on his former house, or because he had no where to live. In Marsden Grotto Jack decided to take it upon himself to create a unique living arrangement that would negate the need to pay rent; he would live in a cave. As a miner, he had experience with explosives, and turned a small cave into a living space for him and his wife, thus earning him the name “Jack the Blaster.” Of course, such a unique story attracted visitors from all over the United Kingdom, with Spence being one of them. Spence was in awe of this man who was able to live fully without being exploited by the structures that Spence had begun to fight against. Spence, speaking in the third person, wrote “Exulting in the idea of a human being, who bravely emancipated himself from the iron fangs of aristocracy, to live free from impost, he [i.e. Spence] wrote […] above the fire place of this free man […] Your stewards and lawyers I defy // And live with all the RIGHTS OF MAN.” Paine’s book came out 9 years following the demolition done by Bates, and it is certainly possible that Spence was able to take a trip to visit him in Marsden Grotto.
In 1789, Spence left his hometown of Newcastle for London, where he operated a bookstore called “The Hive of Liberty” in High Holborn. He specialized in selling revolutionary texts, such as Thomas Paines The Rights of Man, which was illegal at the time. Spence published a penny weekly publication called the Pig’s Meat, which plays reference to Edmund Burks comments that revolutionaries were “a swinish multitude.” While in London, Spence participated in the London Correspondence Society, a reformist group; while Spence more of a revolutionary, he saw the value in associating with relatively like minded individuals. In addition to selling books, Spence minted his own coins, which he used to great effect to spread propaganda. As London’s population grew, there was an acute shortage of small change. Spence contributed to ending this problem by printing coins with revolutionary phrases on them. Much like other forms of modern propaganda, Spences coins display “outspoken idealism matched with heavy irony about the present days injustices” . The goal of Spence was to foster through these coins the sentiments that Spence himself subscribed to; the sharing of the land, and universal suffrage. Clearly, there was merit to this idea; coinage was subject to an intense propaganda campaign made by royalist supporters during the same time period.
Within just a few years of moving to London, he was arrested and spend several months in Newgate Gaol, under the charge of high treason in 1794. In 1797, he published a scathing response to Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice, advocating primarily for the rights of children, titled The Rights of Infants. The Rights of Infants can be found here. However, important to note is his support of women’s rights, in particular women’s suffrage. Spence also advocates for the implementation of public safety nets, and a democratic system of government. Certainty, Spence’s ideas were revolutionary in late 18th century England. It stands to reason then, the lure that Thomas Spence had as a revolutionary figure, and thus the formation of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, as well as their audacious plot.
Thomas Spence spent the rest of his life in London. He imprisoned again in 1801 for seditious defamation, for a period of 12 months. Spence died on September 8th, 1814. He died in poverty, much like how he was born. During his life Spence contributed greatly to political movements that challenged the status quo of Europe, and in particular England. He left an enormous impact on English radical thought and action, that is best seen in the Cato Street Conspiracy.