William Davidson and the West End Job: Part 3

Scene 9: the Marylebone Reading Room-William Davidson joins the Spencean Philanthropists at The Marylebone Union Reading Rooms
Kate Morton
William Daivdson's anger at Peterloo leads him into joining the Spencean Philanthropists
William Davidson describes how he became a revolutionary follower of Thomas Spence

Anger at Peterloo: Joining the Spencean Philanthropists

After the Napoleonic Wars, thousands of soldiers were left without employment. William Davidson befriended an ex-Lifeguard, John Harrison, with whom he shared similar views on how society needed to change. Harrison’s time as a Lifeguard disenchanted him with the Regency and he lost all respect for the monarchy. Harrison served abroad in Spain and Portugal towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Davidson and Harrison were followers of the writings of Thomas Spence, a radical who believed in votes for all and common ownership of land. The Peterloo Massacre occurred at a peaceful protest in Manchester when 60,000 people called for the right to vote. The Six Acts were passed in retaliation and made large protests illegal. Davidson joined the Marylebone Reading Society where he met with like-minded individuals and read radical papers. Arthur Thistlewood, one of these like-minded individuals, convinced Davidson and others to become Spencean Philanthropists, a group dedicated to overthrowing Lord Liverpool’s corrupt government. After not making any money for 18 months, Davidson eagerly took up Thistlewood’s call for revolution in 1819.

  • 1814 – John Harrison returned to London after serving in Spain and Portugal
  • 1815 – 1846 – Corn Laws in place on imported grains that were meant to keep prices high and favour domestic producers
  • 1816 – Arthur Thistlewood tried for treason and acquitted for leading the Spa Field Riots
  • 16 August 1819 – Peterloo Massacre
  • 1819 – Six Acts passed
  • October 1819 – Davidson joined the Marylebone Reading Society

Background to our William Davidson film:

2020 has also shone the spotlight on Britain’s colonial past and its role in the slave trade. We decided to tell the story of the Cato Street Conspiracy through the eyes of Jamaican conspirator William Davidson.  We were able to work with film makers Digital Works and WCRAG volunteer Susi Hilmi to film actor Michael Lyall in role at the Household Cavalry Museum, whose stables stood in for Davidson’s Newgate prison cell.

Although the words of the story that follow are not those of William Davidson, they are based mainly on research undertaken by our volunteers Rebecca Simons and Amber Hederer from contemporary sources. Our key source has been: An Authentic History of the Cato-Street Conspiracy,’(1820) and the transcripts of the trial that are available from the Old Bailey Online website www.oldbaileyonline.org. Both of which have provided contemporary accounts of Davidson’s story that we have been able to adapt as if written by Davidson himself.

We are delighted to highlight William Davidson, a significant individual in Black British history, whose story deserves to be more widely known.


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