A review of Conspiracy on Cato Street: A Tale of Liberty and Revolution in Regency London, Vic Gatrell (Cambridge University Press, 2022), £25
On the night of 23 February 1820, 25 impoverished craftsmen assembled in an obscure stable in Cato Street, London, with a plan to massacre the whole British cabinet as they enjoyed their lavish monthly dinner. The Cato Street conspiracy was the most sensational of all plots aimed at the British state since Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot in 1605. It ended in betrayal, arrest and trial, with five conspirators publicly hanged and decapitated for treason. The conspiracy was an enormously important event for radicals in the early 19th century, but it is today frequently dismissed as a hopelessly naive attempt to overthrow the might of the British state. Cato Street is considered an irrelevance by historians on the right and is dismissed by historians of the left because the conspiracy failed to spark any wider revolt or establish a lasting movement. However, a meticulously researched and gripping new history of the conspiracy reassesses the event and places it in the context of the turbulent years in which the urban poor rose repeatedly against the state in Britain.
The conspirators’ plan was ambitious. From Cato Street, their leader, Arthur Thistlewood, would walk them a mile south through dimly gaslit streets to the Grosvenor Square mansion of the Earl of Harrowby, who was Lord President of the Council, where they believed the whole government cabinet would be dining. The attackers would carry pistols, swords and homemade hand grenades and pikes. According to the courtroom testimony of the turncoat conspirator Robert Adams, Thistlewood was to rap at the door while the others rushed into the room. The cabinet would be despatched, then James Ings, a butcher, would cut off every head that was in the room. The heads of the home secretary and foreign secretary, Viscounts Sidmouth and Castlereagh, would be paraded through London. Castlereagh and Sidmouth were objects of particular hatred because of their prominent roles as the suppressors of the republican uprising of the United Irishmen in 1789 and as the architects of deeply repressive legislation. While these assassinations were in progress, supporters would set fires to create diversions and hijack cannon from the Finsbury artillery barracks in the City of London and the barracks of the Light Horse Volunteers on Upper Gray’s Inn Lane. Thus armed, they would attack the Bank of England, Newgate Prison and the Tower of London. They would then set up a provisional government in the Mansion House (the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London) and the discontented populace would rise behind them to win their political rights and restore their freedoms.
The Cato Street plot was not the men’s first attempt to provoke an uprising. In December 1816, Thistlewood and two of his associates, an apothecary called Dr James Watson and a shoemaker named Thomas Preston, planned to mount an insurrection after a great reform meeting in Spa Fields in North London. Soldiers made sure that their plan failed miserably, and four men, including Thistlewood and Watson, were charged with treason. They only escaped a trial when the key witness against them was discredited as a government spy. In August 1819, London’s radicals were re-energised by the Peterloo Massacre, when dragoons and yeomanry attacked unarmed men, women and children demonstrating in favour of reform, which left 17 dead and 670 grievously injured. This horror was the most immediate provocation and justification for the Cato Street conspiracy. Thistlewood told his trial:
High treason was committed against the people at Manchester, but justice was closed against the mutilated, the maimed, and the friends of those who were upon that occasion indiscriminately massacred. Insurrection then became a public duty.1
Thistlewood tried to do his duty by arranging meetings with radicals in Manchester and London. A national rising appeared to be a real prospect. Floods of letters from the North warned the Home Office that Lancashire, Yorkshire and Clydeside were awaiting a London insurrection to launch their own. Thistlewood, Watson and Preston gathered about them a hard core of supporters, including shoemakers John Brunt and Richard Tidd, ex-soldiers John Harrison and Robert Adams, Jamaican-born cabinet-maker William Davidson, the butcher James Ings and an impoverished modelmaker called George Edwards. Edwards was the government spy and agent provocateur who achieved the conspiracy’s downfall. He reported the radicals’ every move to home secretary Sidmouth and the Bow Street magistrate Richard Birnie, and under their guidance he lured the conspirators into a trap.
On 22 February, Edwards arrived at the conspirators’ meeting place and announced excitedly that he had just spotted an advertisement in the New Times. It read: “The Earl of Harrowby gives a Grand Cabinet Dinner tomorrow at his house, in Grosvenor Square.” Thistlewood should have been suspicious as the advert did not appear in any other paper, but past delays and disappointments had brought the group to fever pitch. They swallowed the bait. As the plotters were loading their pistols, the room was stormed by Bow Street constables, followed by heavily armed troops. Thistlewood shot a police constable dead. The conspirators were arrested and tried; five men were sentenced to transportation for life and five were hanged at Newgate Prison on 1 May 1820. Their bodies were taken down and one by one they were decapitated, and their heads were held aloft. The mood of the crowd turned to anger as the blood flowed and the head of John Brunt was dropped. The public revulsion was immediate. These were the last executions for treason conducted in this way in England.
In the first decades of the 19th century, the British ruling class was involved in two wars: one against revolutionary France and then Napoleon, and one against its own people. Before the Peterloo Massacre, Sidmouth’s under-secretary told the northern military commander, “Your country will not be tranquillised until blood shall have been shed either by the law or the sword”.2 From Sidmouth’s perspective, Peterloo was not an operation that got tragically out of hand but rather one that went pretty much according to plan. The government systematically reinforced its capacity to repress its own population. There had been 200 sedition trials in the 1790s alone. The peacetime army after the Battle of Waterloo still numbered 150,000—twice the size of the army today despite being drawn from a far smaller population. London was turned into a military camp. As home secretary, Sidmouth created a network of spies and agent provocateurs who infiltrated radical groups and provoked rash actions, leading to executions for treason at Pentrich in Derbyshire in 1817 as well as London in 1820. The government pushed through the Six Acts in 1819, strengthening laws against seditious libel, increasing punitive taxes on newspapers, and banning public meetings of 50 or more. The cause of moderate reform, despite huge popular support, effectively remained outlawed throughout the four decades of uninterrupted Tory rule from 1784 to 1830. Working men did not win the vote until 1867, and women had to wait for a century after Cato Street to cast theirs.
Enemies to all tyrants
Vic Gatrell’s new Conspiracy on Cato Street is sensitive to the people who have been hidden from history by those writing the official records, who often assumed women were irrelevant to events. Women, however, were involved, whether by choice or circumstance. The conspirators’ wives supported each other, organising a defence committee to petition the courts for clemency. After the executions, the women unsuccessfully petitioned the Home Office for the return of their husbands’ bodies and heads for burial. They also raised subscriptions to secure support for themselves and the 26 children left fatherless by execution and transportation. In May 1820, Susan Thistlewood, her stepson Julian and Mary Brunt tried to prosecute George Edwards for treason, but he fled the country.3 Susan Thistlewood became an object of interest to reporters, who noted her courage and dignity as well as her defiance in the face of authority.4 The Cato Street wives presented an example of female activism that sat alongside Peterloo in the radical imagination.
In one fascinating chapter, Gatrell’s book explores the experiences of William Davidson and other black radicals in London. There were 10,000 or so people of colour in the metropolis around 1800, and none would have escaped insult and exclusion for his or her skin and presumed past enslavement. Davidson attracted hostility by having sexual relationships with white women and marrying one of them, Sarah, with whom he had two children and became father to the four children she had by a previous relationship. Despite the racism they faced, black people found jobs, social and political networks, and partners in London, and they were a significant presence in radical circles. Other prominent black radicals in this period included Catherine Despard, the Jamaican wife of Edward Despard, an Irish revolutionary who was executed for treason in 1803 after an attempt to launch an uprising by Irish nationalists, the urban poor and weavers in the North of England. Another example is Robert Wedderburn, a black radical publisher and organiser who opened his own debating room and published republican and revolutionary books. Despard, Davidson and Wedderburn overcame the racism they faced to make important contributions to London’s radical underworld.
The Cato Street conspiracy did not become a tragedy because its leaders were naive, rash adventurers as has been sometimes claimed. They had reason to believe that their insurrection had a good chance of sparking a national uprising. Shortly after the conspirators were arrested, there were attempted rebellions in Yorkshire and Glasgow. The plethora of clubs formed to protest against the Peterloo Massacre often invoked the rhetoric of armed revolt.5 Rumours of insurrection were frequently repeated in the manufacturing districts throughout 1819 and 1820. The conspirators of 1820, fuelled by the outrage after Peterloo, felt their time had come. They were wrong. Their strategy was the last gasp of the Jacobinism that had triumphed against the French aristocracy in 1789 but failed in England. Three decades after the Great French Revolution, a vicious state apparatus had emerged in Britain in order to reinforce the rise of the capitalist methods of production that were becoming entrenched in Lancashire and West Yorkshire, beginning a transformation of British society. In hindsight, the Cato Street conspiracy looks liked a doomed adventure led by desperate hotheads with little to lose. However, those hotheads were in fact committed and courageous revolutionaries who fermented insurrection in the years just before the working class stepped onto the stage of history. Their strategy could not win, but that should not diminish the courage they displayed in their attempt to spark revolution.
The last words of the condemned men are moving testament to the strength of their belief in the need to resist tyranny and injustice, just as their sentences were a testament to the brutality and contempt for reform among the British ruling class. Just before his sentence was announced, Thistlewood told the court:
A few hours hence and I will be no more, but the nightly breeze, which will whistle over the silent grave that shall protect me from its keenness, will bear to your restless pillow the memory of one who lived but for his country and died when liberty and justice had been driven from its confines by a set of villains whose thirst for blood is only to be equalled by their activity in plunder.6
James Ings wrote to his wife, Celia, the day before his execution:
My dear Celia—I hardly know how to begin, or what to say, for the laws of tyrants have parted us forever. My dear, this is the last time you will ever hear from me. My dear, out of the anxiety and regard I have for you and the children, I know not how to explain myself; but I must die according to law and leave you in a land full of corruption, where justice and liberty has taken their flight to other distant shores. I thought I should have rendered my starving fellow men, women and children a service… Farewell! Farewell, my dear wife and children, forever! I conclude a constant lover to you and your children, and all friends. I die the same, but an enemy to all tyrants—James Ings.7
Gatrell argues that the conspirators had only simple ideas of justice and democracy—an ambition for universal suffrage and the secret ballot that they shared with more moderate reformers. There is a danger that this underestimates the intensely political atmosphere engendered by London’s insurrectionists, which was steeped in a print culture of newspapers, books and tracts. Like Robert Wedderburn, Thistlewood was an enthusiast for the ideas of the revolutionary Thomas Spence and a member of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists. Spence was one of the leading revolutionary personalities of the day, advocating the common ownership of land and democratic equality of the sexes. Although little known today, he was a hugely influential figure in radical London in the early 19th century. Historian Malcolm Chase argued that the Cato Street conspiracy cannot be understood without reference to the utopian ideas and faith in progress that shaped Spencerianism.8
Reclaiming and celebrating our radical antecedents has always been an important part of creating revolutionary organisation. Conspiracy on Cato Street deserves to be read as a fascinating window into London’s revolutionary tradition and an irrefutable account of the determination of the British establishment to execute, imprison and brutalise its own citizens rather than allow them to vote. Cato Street stood at the cusp between heroic but clandestine insurrectionism and the mass working-class mobilisations of Chartism, which emerged in the 1830s. It deserves to be remembered as a significant event in the development of the English revolutionary tradition.
Judy Cox is a teacher in East London. She is studying for a PhD in women and the Chartist movement at the University of Leeds. She is the author of The Women’s Revolution: Russia 1905-1917 (Haymarket, 2019) and Rebellious Daughters of History (Redwords, 2020).
1 Gatrell, 2022, p169.
2 Gatrell, 2022, p232.
3 Gatrell, 2022, p310.
4 Gatrell, 2022, p312.
5 Thompson, 1963, p776.
6 Gatrell, 2022, p168.
7 Gatrell, 2022, p318.
8 Chase, 1988, pp118-119.