Arthur Thistlewood: The Leader of the Conspiracy

Leader of the Conspiracy: Arthur Thistlewood
Westminster Archives

Arthur Thistlewood was born at either Bardney or Tupholme in Lincolnshire.  We are not sure of his exact date of birth but records show that and was baptised on 24 December 1774. ‘T,’ as the conspirators called him, did not share their working class background. He was from what was then called yeomanry stock. His father was a successful farmer but there is some evidence to show that Thistlewood was actually the illegitimate son of Ann Burnet who had been the housekeeper for Thistlewood’s father. Whereas Richard Tidd could barely write his own name ,Thistlewood had received a private education.  This would have been with a view to him becoming a land surveyor but he did not wish to go into this line of work.

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At the start of the French Revolutionary Wars, joined the army and went to the West Indies. There he resigned his commission and visited the United States and France; he returned to England in 1794 convinced that the first duty of a patriot was to overthrow the government. In 1795 he became a Lieutenant in a militia regiment and married Miss Bruce who had a property with an annual income of £300. His wife died in 1797, at which point Thistlewood discovered that she had only a life interest in her property and her death had left him penniless. Thistlewood got deep in debt from his gambling and fled to France.

He inherited an English estate from a relative which he sold for an annuity of £850; he married a Miss Wilkinson and tried to settle down. The estate owner went bankrupt and left Thistlewood without an income once more. His father and brother gave him a farm but Thistlewood soon discovered that he could not make it pay; he left for London and became involved in radical politics. He attended meetings of the Spenceans a group regarded as dangerously extreme, and made particular friends of a man called Preston and the Watsons, father and son. This group was probably not totally sane and attracted others who had a grudge against society. However, Thistlewood provided a strong opposition to the failure of the government to address the Condition of England question in the 18-teens.

In December 1816, Thistlewood helped to plan the meeting at Spa Fields at which Henry Hunt was to speak. The meeting resulted in a riot in which the Bank of England and the Tower of London were to be seized. After the rioters were dispersed, Thistlewood and another conspirator were arrested but were eventually acquitted. A03A0239

Thistlewood was imprisoned for eighteen month in 1818-19 for issuing a challenge to a duel to Viscount Sidmouth the Home Secretary who was responsible for the Six Actsof 1819, which were intended to suppress radical movements. After his release from prison, Thistlewood resumed his revolutionary activities.

He learned that Lord Liverpool and the Cabinet had arranged to dine at the Earl of Harrowby’s house in Grosvenor Square on 23 February 1820 and concocted what became known as the Cato Street ConspiracyThe police heard of Thistlewood’s plot to murder the Cabinet members, and, on that evening, as Thistlewood and several armed accomplices were preparing to leave a room in Cato Street for Grosvenor Square, officers appeared and arrested some of them. Thistlewood himself escaped but was captured the next day. The government put up bill-posters in the attempt to find Thistlewood: he is described as being

about forty-eight years of age, five feet ten inches high, has a sallow complexion, long visage, dark hair, (a little grey) dark A03A0239hazel eyes and arched eyebrows, a wide mouth and a good set of teeth, has a scar under his right jaw, is slender made, and has the appearance of a military man; was born in Lincolnshire, and apprenticed to an apothecary at Newark; usually wears a blue long coat and blue pantaloons, and has been a lieutenant in the militia.

Found guilty of high treason, he and four others were hanged on 1 May 1820. Thistlewood was also decapitated, as prescribed for traitors.

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