Peregrinations yesterday prevented me from writing this up. So, 24 hours late, we remember the arrest, on 23 February 1820, of the Cato Street conspirators, a rag-tag assemblage of radical malcontents who planned to assassinate all of His Majesty’s loyal Cabinet and to take over the government.
George IV had been on the throne a matter of weeks. The social and political landscape in Britain was in a state of flux. Major continental wars had been settled for the time being and combined with the effects of the Corn Laws was causing unemployment and hardship throughout the land. The previous summer had seen the Peterloo Massacre, where the jittery authorities ordered a cavalry charge against a massive protest in Manchester. The resulting Six Acts, designed to force a lid on this pressure cooker situation, further radicalised angry reformers.
One such was Arthur Thistlewood, an agitator with previous form. He became the leader of a conspiracy to murder Lord Liverpool’s Cabinet while they were scheduled to have dinner at the house of Lord Harrowby on the evening of 23rd of February.
The plotters rented a house in Cato Street to serve as their rendezvous on the fateful evening. Unfortunately, their group – numbering nearly 30 – was too big to keep such a plan uncompromised.
During the afternoon, magistrate Richard Birnie, along with twelve Bow Street runners, positioned themselves in the pub across the road from the conspiritors’ lair. The lawman was expecting back-up from a unit of Coldstream Guards, but fearing that their prey was about to make a move, he initiated the raid. An almighty fracas followed during which one officer was killed with a sword. Most of the conspirators were arrested; a handful escaped, but were subsequently caught.
Twelve of the conspiritors were charged. Five, including Thistlewood, were hanged and beheaded for treason on 1 May at Newgate. Of the remainder, a further five were transported for life and two had charges dropped in exchange for turning evidence against their comrades.
And so ended the Cato Street Conspiracy, whose repercussions could have been every bit as significant as the Gunpowder Plot 200 years previously, but has instead faded from the national consciousness.
Last week, I finally got around to visiting Cato Street. Remarkably, in an area of uninspiring post-war apartment blocks and offices, the conspiritors’ lair has survived, a tiny two-story Georgian building.