Review of The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland, edited by Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy
Manchester University Press, 2019
Two hundred years ago an incident took place just off London’s Edgeware Road that is one of the less examined chapters in the annals of English Radicalism. With the state-sanctioned slaughter which had taken place in Manchester the previous August (otherwise known as Peterloo) still fresh in their memories, and fuelled by desire for revenge as well as for political and economic reform, a group of around twenty working-class revolutionaries assembled in the hayloft of a stable in Cato Street on the evening of the 23rd of February 1820. Their intention was to assassinate the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and his Cabinet, whom they understood to be dining at a house nearby. In the event, the Cato Street Conspiracy (as it is now known) never came to fruition owing to the actions of an agent provocateur who had ingratiated himself into the ranks of the radicals, fed them misinformation about the date and location of the Cabinet dinner, and then ensured that the authorities were on hand to raid Cato Street on the evening in question.
In the resulting skirmish, one of the Bow Street Runners who had charged into the stable building and attempted to climb into the hayloft was fatally stabbed by the conspirators’ ringleader Arthur Thistlewood. Amidst the chaos, some of Thistlewood’s associates were arrested immediately, whilst he and three other men managed to escape, only to be captured some days later. Of the eleven men who subsequently faced trial, five were hanged (including Thistlewood), five were transported to Australia for life, and one had his death sentence transmuted to a spell of imprisonment. In The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland, the editors have assembled a series of essays which examine several different facets of the episode, and reveal the national and international contexts leading up to and following on from the events of February 1820. What becomes clear from the outset is that the Cato Street Conspiracy was anything but an isolated or peripheral event in the wider perspective of early nineteenth-century reformist agitation. Instead, it was representative of a wider nexus of revolutionary activism about which the government of the day was deeply concerned.
The principal ideological tenets which influenced Thistlewood and the other main protagonists could be found in the writings of Thomas Spence (1750-1814), a leading English Radical and champion of common land ownership whose ideas inspired the setting up of a Society of Spencean Philanthropists. Thistlewood joined and soon became a leading member of this society, which advocated insurrectionary means to obtain social justice. By 1816 the Spencean Philanthropists had bifurcated into those concerned with the theoretical feasibility of insurrection and those, such as Thistlewood, who were more interested in taking direct action. Indeed, Thistlewood’s militantly proactive character was well known to the authorities from his several previous confrontations with officialdom; for example, he had been imprisoned for challenging the Home Secretary to a duel in 1817. Several of those who gathered with him at Cato Street in 1820 had been similarly known to the government for quite some time before the conspiracy was foiled. That being the case, as Richard A. Gaunt asks in his essay, how and when did the authorities learn of the insurrectionists’ plans, and to what extent did they then seek to surreptitiously orchestrate the outcome? According to the Duke of Wellington’s later reflections, the “first intimation of a conspiracy was received some months before the Cato Street attack,” but the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, chose not to act on the information at that time. Whether or not the Duke’s recollections were accurate, ministers began to be aware that they were being monitored by Thistlewood and his associates in late 1819, and that an earlier plan to attack them at a Cabinet dinner had been called off at the last moment. In the knowledge that these Spencean Radicals would be looking for a further opportunity to undertake some form of political violence in the near future, the Home Office saw the placing of an agent provocateur in their midst as a highly effective means of entrapment that would end their treacherous aspirations for good. Enter George Edwards, who had been recommended to the Home Office as someone who had knowledge of Thistlewood and his confederates and was “willing to disclose all he knows and to assist in discovering more.” In addition to acting as an informer, Edwards made himself one of Thistlewood’s most trusted companions. A day before the planned attack, he drew the ringleader’s attention to a newspaper notice about a gathering of the Cabinet at dinner on the 23rd. Once Thistlewood had taken the bait and started to make hasty preparations to put the plot into effect, Edwards contacted the Under-Secretary of State to report that there was a “foul and diabolical conspiracy” afoot. Around the same time, it seems that two other informants had warned Cabinet members of the imminent danger, although, with reference to later testimony, there is some question about when and how these further tip-offs were delivered.
The late Hanoverian society of the Cato Street Conspiracy was, according to the historian David Eastwood, “built across fault lines opened up by the advent of revolutionary politics and convulsive economic growth.” The subsistence pressures generated by the Napoleonic Wars, the introduction of the Corn Laws, and hardship caused to craftworkers by growing mechanisation all contributed to an increasing radicalisation of the working classes. Out of this maelstrom of discontent emerged several leading orators and agitators, such as Henry Hunt, Samuel Bamford, Sir Francis Burdett and John Cam Hobhouse, who time and again can be found addressing large meetings of the disenfranchised or taking part in protest events. For the most part, however, these luminaries exercised and advocated strategic moderation in popular agitation, with many of them staunchly opposed to the ultra-Radical credo espoused by the Spencean Thistlewood. Even so, as Jason McElligot shows, this did not necessarily mean that the group who gathered at Cato Street represented the eccentric hinterland of Radicalism. Indeed, there is some evidence in the Home Office files to suggest that “the circle of plotters, active sympathisers and passive fellow-travellers was significantly larger, and largely more significant, than Arthur Thistlewood and his gang.” That being the case, the authorities had every reason to fear what would happen if those involved in organising political agitation, covert or otherwise, managed to drum up the support of the labouring classes en masse.
Furthermore, as Malcolm Chase points out, the Conspiracy should not just be seen as a by-product of British Radicalism: in the early nineteenth century there were similar enclaves of unrest with similar grievances across Europe. In point of fact, 1820 was “a year of European revolution that had no parallel till 1848,” and for the French in particular, the events in Cato Street became fixed in the revolutionary imagination. A further international dimension to the Spencean Radicalism espoused by Thistlewood and his accomplices was that two of the agitators, Robert Wedderburn and William Davidson, were Black men born in Jamaica. Ryan Hanley traces the lives of both to see how they came to be involved in the Conspiracy. He finds that Davidson was not born into slavery, and although he was illegitimate, thanks to his unknown father’s financial support he was able to study law in Scotland, before eventually —after spells in the Navy and teaching— becoming a cabinet maker in London, where he got involved in Radical politics. In contrast, Wedderburn was from the lower ranks of Jamaican society, with an enslaved mother and a slave-owner father. Like Davidson, he enlisted in the Navy before eventually making his way to London and joining the Radical scene. However, unlike Davidson, who was executed for his role in the Conspiracy, Wedderburn was not directly implicated in the Cato Street plot and remained active in London’s ultra-Radical scene for many years after. Closer to home, the Irish, as long-standing resisters of English oppression and as poor and unwelcome immigrants, also identified with the issues that had spurred the Cato Street conspirators to take action. Because of this connection, according to Timothy Murtagh, the Spenceans were “eager to recruit amongst London’s Irish communities,” for whom the revolutionary republicanism of the Society of United Irishmen, which had flourished in the late eighteenth century, was still a stirring memory. With the government already on constant alert for agrarian disturbances in Ireland and alarmed by the persistent threat of insurrection on English soil, such intra-national alliances gave Home Office officials cause for serious concern.
In an intriguing addendum to the events of February 1820, Kieran Hannon considers the fate of those conspirators who escaped the noose and were instead transported to Australia. A description of the transportation process reveals the emotional and physical hardships involved. Of the five men who were placed aboard the transport ship Guildford, four of them left behind wives and, in total, seventeen children. It took 139 days for the Guildford to reach Sydney, including a stopover at Cape Colony, and during the voyage floggings were regularly meted out. When the men arrived they were relocated to a harshly regimented penal settlement at Newcastle in New South Wales, where their principal occupations included coal mining and timber felling. Whilst some of the conspirators lived and died in obscurity, records show that others subsequently acclimatised well to their new environment and, owing to their skills and strength of character, became respected citizens and active members of their community. The last surviving member, John Shaw Strange, died aged seventy-eight in 1868. An equally interesting sidelight on the consequences of the Cato Street Conspiracy, this time its theatrical representations, is provided by John Gardner. These include Lord Byron’s 1821 blank verse tragedy Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice, which, though set in the world of La Serenissima in 1355, is shown by Gardner to have allegorical plot correspondences with the actions of the Cato Street Radicals. Moving forward in time, Robert Shaw’s play Cato Street was debuted at the Young Vic in 1971. In prominently featuring the character of Susan, Arthur Thistlewood’s wife, it gave the text a feminist slant, whilst in Tanika Gupta’s 2001 play Betrayal: The Trial of William Davidson racism plays an important part in the eponymous Radical’s conviction. Despite the intriguing nature of these and a couple of other theatrical productions identified by Gardner, their rarity indicates how little cultural attention has been paid to the Cato Street Conspiracy in general.
In the book’s afterword Caoimhe Nic Dháibhéid and Colin W. Reid ask the question: is there a British revolutionary tradition in terms of a Radical ideological framework which stresses a coherent historical consciousness in the way, for instance, that the Irish revolutionary experience does? Their conclusion is that there isn’t; although there have been acts of sporadic political violence in our history, they do not add up to a sustained tradition. Whether that is the case or not, perhaps one of the most edifying reasons for revisiting the Cato Street Conspiracy in terms of the incidents and personalities involved in the events of the 23rd of February 1820 is for what they reveal about class, race, and political legitimacy in the early nineteenth century. Out of such cultural cross-currents, the Spencean Philanthropist Arthur Thistlewood emerges as the embodied Radical bogeyman of the late Hanoverian government’s worst nightmares. --Mark Jones