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Monday, 3 February 2020

Meet the Cato Street Conspirators!

Every November, we commemorate the discovery in 1605 of Guy Fawkes' Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament, over four hundred years after the event. Yet the Cato Street Conspirators - who planned to murder the whole British Cabinet and launch a revolution - are seemingly almost forgotten, even though it's the bicentenary of their executions this year. Most of the plotters were arrested in a loft at Cato Street following a police 'sting' operation set up by Home Office spy George Edwards.

On Monday 1 May 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Thomas Brunt, Richard Tidd and William Davidson were hanged for high treason before a vast crowd at Newgate prison.

What type of men were the conspirators?

All the plotters were as poor as church mice. Their ringleader, Arthur Thistlewood, was already well known to the authorities for his role in the Spa Fields Riots (December 1816). He was 5ft 8in high, with ‘a sallow complexion’, dark hair, ‘dark hazel eyes and arched eyebrows’, a wide mouth and good teeth. Arthur had a scar under his chin, and the ‘appearance of a military man’. He customarily wore a blue riding coat and blue pantaloons. Thistlewood, now about 25 years old, was on his second marriage, and had previously been unfortunate in his finances. Arthur had a pathological hatred of government ministers like Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth, and was notorious for his violent language and demeanour. When the police trap was sprung, Thistlewood fought his way out of the loft, killing a policeman, Smithers, with his sword. George Edwards later led the police to Thistlewood's hiding place.

James 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.

John Thomas Brunt was lodging in the same house. A Londoner, he earned a living as a 'boot-closer', and was said to be an 'excellent workman'. A married man, in his late thirties, he had a fourteen-year-old son. Brunt was seemingly of a poetic turn. The night before his execution, he sent his wife the last shilling he possessed, begging her to 'keep the shilling for his sake for as long as she lived'.
He also wrote some verses for his wife:
Tho' in a cell I'm close confin'd,
No fears alarm the noble mind,
Tho' death itself appears in view, 
Daunts not the soul sincerely true, 
Let Sidmouth and his base colleagues
Cajole and plot their dark intrigues;
Still each Briton's last words shall be,
Oh! give me death or liberty!
(George Theodore Wilkinson, An Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy, London, 1820).

Richard Tidd, born in Grantham, was a Radical shoemaker alleged to have been involved in the Despard conspiracy. Tidd was married, with a daughter, and lived in great poverty in Hole-in-the-Wall Passage, Baldwin's Gardens. It's said that Tidd fired a gun at a peace officer during the conspirators' arrest on 23 February.

William Davidson, 'a man of colour', was highly intelligent. Born in Kingston, Jamaica (where his father was Attorney-General), he came to England while still very young for a good education. He studied mathematics, and the law (for a time) before learning the trade of a cabinet-maker.

The Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy gives Davidson a very bad character, accusing him not only of an 'indelicate attack' on a Sunday School teacher, but also the young ladies who attended the school. He too was extremely poor following the failure of his business.

Several of the conspirators who were arrested were lucky to escape the gallows. Five others were transported to Australia.

Two more, John Monument and Thomas Adams turned King's evidence to save their skins.

Thomas Hiden, who had a last-minute change of heart and alerted the authorities to the plot (which they already knew about), was later rewarded with a job by the government.

However, Thistlewood also had links with other revolutionary groups in the UK, and the full extent of the conspiracy may never be fully known. 

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Cato Street Conspiracy Bicentenary

This year marks the bicentenary of the Cato Street Conspiracy. My latest feature for Jane Austen's Regency World magazine looks at the story behind the capture of some of Britain's most desperate revolutionaries on 23 February 1820. 

You can see a contemporary 'Narrative' of the Conspiracy here on the British Library website, and some original documents relating to the conspirators here on the National Archives website. The Treasury Solicitor papers at the National Archives also include a weapon that was used in evidence at the trial of Arthur Thistlewood and his crew.
Arthur Thistlewood.

An exhibition on George IV's reign, 'Georgian Delights', is currently on show at the Weston Gallery, Lakeside Arts Centre, Nottingham. Dr Richard Gaunt, the exhibition curator, will give a talk on Cato Street on 24 February at the Djanogly Theatre.

You can also find out more about the background and build-up to the Cato Street Conspiracy in my book Regency Spies.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Paperback Release!

I'm very pleased to announce that Vignettes is now available in paperback with a gorgeous new cover! It's available exclusively from Amazon - here in the UK, and here in the USA. I do hope you enjoy reading it!

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Life has rather got in the way of updating my blogs this year, but I hope to do better in 2020. In the meantime, here is a festive tale of two clever horses from The Children's Picture-Book of the Sagacity of Animals, George Routledge & Sons., 1872 (illustration by Harrison Weir).

Happy Christmas everyone! I hope you have a lovely Christmas and peaceful New Year.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Review of Vignettes!

I'm absolutely thrilled with this lovely review of Vignettes in the September/October edition of Jane Austen's Regency World! A big "Thank You" to reviewer Jocelyn Bury! This edition of the magazine also includes my article on marriage and divorce in Austen's day, plus an exclusive look behind the scenes of the new TV adaptation of Sanditon, Jane Austen's last unfinished novel.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Countdown To Peterloo!

Manchester Heroes! Courtesy Library of Congress.
Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre. I thought it would be useful to chart some of the key events which led to the tragedy in Manchester, and its aftermath. 

6 December 1816: The Spa Field Riots, London. Henry Hunt gives a speech on parliamentary reform.

10 March 1817: The Blanketeers' March. Later this month, the Home Office recruits the notorious Oliver the Spy.

June 1817: The Pentrich and Huddersfield Risings are quashed by the authorities.

January 1819. Huge parliamentary reform meeting held at St Peter's Field, Manchester.

June-July 1819. First women reformers' unions formed in Lancashire.

6 August 1819. Mysterious fire breaks out at Tabley House (home of Sir John Fleming Leicester, commander of the Cheshire Yeomanry). This suspected arson attack means that Sir John is absent on the 16th when the Cheshire Yeomanry musters at Manchester.
Henry Hunt.

8 August 1819. Henry "Orator" Hunt arrives in the Manchester area.

16 August 1819: The Peterloo Massacre. There's a detailed timeline of events on the day here on the Peterloo1819 website. A reported 15-18 people are killed, and hundreds injured, including men, women and children. The names of the victims, and others known to be present on the day, can be found here on the Peterloo Names website.

November-December 1819. The Government introduces the "Six Acts" to suppress "sedition".

20 January 1820. Death of George III.

February 1820: The Cato Street Conspirators are arrested.

March 1820: Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford, John Thacker Saxton and others are tried at York for their seditious "conspiracy" at Peterloo. Hunt and Bamford later received prison sentences.

Lots of events are planned for the bicentenary commemorations this weekend, and there's a round-up of them here.