Walking in the footsteps of revolutionaries

The arrest of the Cato Street conspirators

On the final day of the Christmas break I went for a walk around some of the sites mentioned in Vic Gatrell’s new study of the 1820 Cato Street conspiracy. Strolling around my home city of London with a camera is one of my favorite ways to spend time and if I can combine this with my historical interests, so much the better.

In fact, as Gatrell notes, the geography of historical events and people is important and too often overlooked. Every year I walk Northampton students around Whitechapel to better understand the murders that took place there in 1888 and their context. I use maps in my teaching and my research and find them every bit as enlightening as other documents such as court records or newspapers.

My stroll took me down Fetter Lane, once home to, among others, Thomas Hobbes, John Dyrden and Tom Paine. This is where Elizabeth Brownrigg mistreated her apprentices and, at the end of the street, where the infamous murderess Sarah Malcolm was hanged. There’s a statue of John Wilkes looking out to the Royal Courts of Justice and Fetter Lane may owe its etymology to a corruption of the Old French word for lawyer (faitor), although associations with begging have also been suggested as the origins of the street’s name.

Fetter Lane runs into Fleet Street and turning right I passed the supposed haunt of the demon barber himself, Sweeney Todd, at Hen and Chickens Court. Todd is one of London’s myths, but again, probably has some roots in historical reality. In studying history we dig into these roots to try and separate fact from fiction but also to understand how such legends emerge. Todd features in my Jack the Ripper module, along with Spring Heel Jack and the London Monster.

All four cross the boundaries of what is truth and what is fiction, and all four have strong associations with London’s geography.

Having reached the river I had to take the tube again to get to Edgware Road, a short walk from which is Cato Street.

Cato Street today

On 23 April 1820 a posse of Bow Street Runners raided a stable building on Cato Street where a group of revolutionaries led by Arthur Thistlewood were plotting to murder the Privy Council and effect an overthrow of the government. A company of Coldstream Guards were supposed to assist the Runners but got lost on route and only appeared as gunshots revealed the plotters’ location.

One Runner lost his life in the raid and some conspirators escaped. In the end most were captured and put on trial. The trials were unfair even by the standards of the day, although at least they last longer than some at Old Bailey. Indeed, during a break in Thistlewood’s trial the court found time to try and convict two men for petty thefts, the judge condemning to hang before pardoning them and banishing them to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania).  

The prosecution held all the cards; the defendants were kept in the dark as to the charges against them and their counsel, Mr John Aldolphus, only picked up the brief the weekend before Thistlewood’s trial on the Monday. Some of the arrested men turned King’s evidence or otherwise gave information to save their lives, notably Robert Adams and Thomas Dwyer. Abel Hall went one step further by becoming a government spy. Two men escaped: John Palin (who was later arrested and released) and William Cook who vanished.

The plot was egged on – as many were – by government spies and infiltrators. In this case the chief culprit was George Edwards who had been recruited by the Home Office in 1818. Edwards wormed his way into the radical scene in London and exploited the situation for money, as many informers did. What most irked the defence and the defendants was that Edwards was excluded from the trial process and his role as an agent provocateur was entirely obscured.

A carefully selected jury swiftly found first Thistlewood and then the others (John Thomas Brunt, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, John Harrison, Charles Copper, Richard Bradburn, James Wilson, John Shaw Strange, and James Gilchrist) guilty of treason and insurrection and the judge sentenced them to death.

Five of these had their sentences commuted to transportation for life and were shipped hallway round the world to Australia. Gilchrist’s death sentence was respited and he was released a few months afterwards. That left Thistlewood, Brunt, Davidson, Ings, and Tidd.

On 1 May 1820 each was brought out in turn to stand on a specially constructed scaffold outside Newgate prison where they were hanged, left for half an hour and then decapitated. They were spared some of the other horrors of a traitor’s death, such as being drawn to their place of execution or having their bodies cut into quarters. Theirs was the last public execution for treason.

Vic Gatrell’s history of Cato Street is a brilliant close reading of the case, bringing the voices of the conspirators, the spies, police, and government opponents to life, and providing a rich context for the plot. Thistlewood and the others were part of a wider network of radicals, some more revolutionary than others, influenced by men like Paine and Thomas Spence, who wanted to see change in post Napoleonic wartime England.

Cato Street took place just months after the authorities had brutally put down a peaceful gathering of pro-democracy crowds in Manchester. The Peterloo massacre was fresh in the memory, and Lord Liverpool’s government, through his hated Home Secretary Sidmouth, was determined to suppress all dissent. Gatrell provides useful context for Cato Street by looking at Peterloo, the reaction to it in London, and at Spa Fields (1816) and radicalism in the 1810 and 20s. It is well worth a read.

I will give the last words to Arthur Thistlewood who emerges as a deeply troubled soul who met death on the scaffold with no little courage:

When any man, or any set of men, place themselves above the laws of their country, there is no means of bringing them to justice than through the arms [weapons] of a private individual. If the laws are not strong enough to prevent them from murdering the community, it becomes the duty of every member of that community to rid his country of its oppressors… Insurrection then became a public duty.

Conspiracy on Cato Street: A Tale of Liberty and Revolution in Regency London by Vic Gatrell is published by Cambridge University Press at £25 in HB.

Drew Gray, Head of Culture, University of Northampton

Comments are closed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: