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Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Britons To Arms! Spa Fields 1816.

Spa Fields Chapel in the 1780s.
One group of particular interest to Britain's spymasters were the Spencean Philanthropists. These revolutionaries were followers of Thomas Spence. Spence believed that ‘the land is the people’s farm’. Land should belong to all, not just the ‘landed monopoly’. 
Spence's Plan. HO40/9, 1817.

After Spence's death in 1814, a new society was set up by his adherents, which included former LCS members Thomas Evans and his son Thomas, who were earning a living as brace-makers in the Strand. 

The Spenceans held weekly meetings at pubs in the metropolis. Their members included Dr James Watson, ‘a respectable surgeon and apothecary’, his son Jem or 'Young Watson', John Hooper, Thomas Preston – and Arthur Thistlewood, a brooding, dangerous man. 
In the autumn of 1816, the Spenceans wrote to Radical orator Henry Hunt, asking him to address a meeting at Spa Fields. Hunt, a very popular speaker, was sure to draw a large crowd. The Spenceans could use the meeting to test public support for their plans to overthrow the government. 
Hooper and Thistlewood.
The Spenceans told Hunt that they planned to hold a meeting ‘of the distressed inhabitants of the metropolis’ at Spa Fields on Monday 15 November.  They would prepare a memorial to the Prince Regent detailing the people's grievances and asking for relief. Hunt agreed to go. But when he arrived in London, and the Spenceans showed him the speech which they wanted him to read out, Henry was aghast:‘The whole affair was made up of Spencean principles, relating to the holding of all the land in the kingdom to be one great farm, or something of that sort’. It was ‘treasonable matter’. At last Hunt agreed to chair the meeting provided there was no mention of Spencean ideas. He wanted to concentrate on the reform of parliament - the introduction of universal (male) suffrage and annual parliaments. 
Shortly before the meeting, 5,000 handbills were distributed in London: 'Britons To Arms! The whole country waits the Signal  from London to fly to Arms! Hasten break open Gunsmiths and other likely places to find Arms!... Stand True or be Slaves for Ever!' (HO 40/3/3, f.901, 1816). 
Although this meeting passed off peacefully, the next one, on 2 December, was a very different affair. The government's spies reported that the Spenceans planned to attack the Bank of England and and the Tower of London (very similar to the Despard plot).

So on the appointed day, troops and police were out in force in London. Dr Watson’s son Jem was first to address the crowd. He climbed on a coal-waggon decorated with tri-coloured flags: the emblem of the French revolution. 

When Hunt turned up at 1pm to address the 10,000-strong crowd, Young Watson was already heading towards Smithfield with several 
hundred men. Jem shot a customer, Mr Platt, while raiding a gunsmith’s shop. Several shops were attacked, and a mob rampaged through the streets until stopped by the troops and cavalry.The Spenceans were now wanted men...

The Home Office received regular updates as the riot was taking place. HO40/10.

Tricoloured flags.


Unknown said...

Hi Sue, a very interesting read. I also found your book about Regency Spies very interesting. You have a good collection of rare pictures that I've not seen before. I have my own site which you might find interesting:

I've often wondered if the Stockport Radicals had closer connections with their London colleagues - the Spenceans and whether they were aware of the Cato Street Plot?


Sue Wilkes said...

Hi Anthony, many thanks for your feedback. I was very interested to see your blog - I'll try and add it to my blogroll. Joseph Harrison and the 'battle of Sandy Brow' are mentioned in my Regency Cheshire book (
It is certainly possible that the Stockport Radicals had links with the Spenceans, but if so they would have had to be extremely careful with the indefatigable John Lloyd on the case!