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A guest post by London Historians Member, Rob Smith.

November 2016 is the 200th Anniversary of the Spa Fields Riots, a series of demonstrations in favour of parliamentary reform and against taxation that were held on open ground called Spa Fields in Islington, part of which is still a public park today. The Riots were another of the many steps on the way to universal suffrage, but also an example of the ideological splits and personality clashes that will be familiar among protest groups and political movements.

The Times December 3rd 1812

The Times December 3rd 1812

 

The Battle of Waterloo may have ended the Napoleonic Wars but it did not end the discontent the wars had created across Britain. The cost of the wars had been horrendous and taxation had increased to pay for them. The export market for the luxury goods produced by skilled craftsmen had dried up, while the belt tightening going on in Britain’s country houses meant that the market inside Britain was smaller too. George III, now elderly and infirm, left the Prince Regent’s extravagant spending go unchecked, making the monarchy unpopular on the streets of London. The assassination of Spencer Percival meant that the Earl of Liverpool was Prime Minister, effectively the 5th choice man for the job. A rapidly rising population, uncontrolled urbanisation, uncertainty caused by the industrial revolution and higher food prices all added to make, what should have been a time of triumph for Britain, a time of turmoil.

Opposition to war with France had started back in 1789 when the London Revolution Society were addressed by Richard Price at the Crown and Anchor on the Strand, with a call for support for the French Revolution, an end to the British monarchy and parliamentary reform. During the years of war, legislation like the Treasonable Practices Act of 1795 aimed to prevent literature critical of the war. In 1799 reform groups like The London Corresponding Society were banned, and those attempting to sell Tom Paine’s “The Rights of Man” were imprisoned for selling a dangerous book.

One such was Thomas Spence – one of the more radical revolutionaries in London in the Napoleonic war period. Spence demanded the end of the monarchy, aristocracy and landlords and common ownership of all land. He wanted votes for all, including women, an end to child labour and other cruelties to children, and an end to the war with France. He also called for reform of the English Language, with the introduction of phonetic spelling, which would make learning to read easier for those without access to education. When Spence died in 1814 his followers vowed to continue his work as the Society of Spencean Philanthropists.

In 1816 three Spenceans – Arthur Thistlewood, James Watson and Thomas Preston, decided the time was ripe for action. If they could gather together a large enough group of supporters, the chance to bring about the revolution they had hoped for was finally here. But how to draw the crowd? Thistlewood wrote to two of the best known speakers in the land, William Cobbett (later known for his book Rural Rides) and Henry Hunt. Cobbett refused to attend and warned Hunt not to get involved either, but eventually Hunt agreed to speak at the meeting on November 15th 1816 at Spa Fields in Clerkenwell. Hunt was certainly experienced at talking to huge rallies. Appearances in Birmingham, Blackburn, Stockport and Nottingham that year had drawn audiences of up to 80,000 – earning him the nickname Orator Hunt. The day was set for a huge rally in London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

Henry Hunt by Adam Buck, NPG London.

At that time Spa Fields was much larger than the small park it is today, stretching beyond Sadler’s Wells and was one of Clerkenwell’s many places of recreation. A crowd of over 10,000 gathered, forcing Hunt to address them from the upstairs window of the Merlin’s Cave pub (now commemorated by Merlin Street). The crowd was swollen by people returning from a public hanging at Newgate prison. Hunt spoke about the poverty British workers were living in, despite being the most industrious in the world. The cause of this was taxation, taxation to pay for a standing army occupying France and an army in Britain to stop the populace demanding its rights. According to Hunt, the British worker had not wanted the war, it had been brought about by the MPs in the rotten boroughs that represented a minority of landowners. Therefore the only cure was parliamentary reform.

merlin-st_500

A petition was drawn up and signatures collected, demanding the Prince Regent provide relief for the poor and put together proposals for parliamentary reform. In the end Hunt was refused permission to deliver the petition, and a second meeting was called for December 2nd. Meanwhile Preston had been grumbling about Hunt – a country gentleman – taking the lead role in the movement. Would it not be more appropriate that a London artisan like himself took the lead?

The authorities had not been idle either. A man named John Castle had infiltrated the Spenceans. On the day of the second demonstration, Castle waylaid Hunt in Cheapside, allowing Watson to address the crowd outside the Spa Fields Cake shop, comparing the Tower of London to the Bastille. By the time Hunt, who was opposed to the use of force, arrived, Watson was leading a crowd behind the revolutionary tricolour on the way to meet with Preston and Thistlewood at the Mulberry Tree Tavern. A group split off to raid a gun shop in Snow Hill, during which raid the owner was shot and wounded.

The breakaway rioters then moved to the Royal Exchange on which they opened fire. Militia soldiers returning in kind. Rioters also broke into Fleet Street and smashed windows in Somerset House. Others made for Newgate Prison, while Thistlewood headed for the Tower of London where he made a speech to the soldiers, demanding they lay down their arms. They refused and with the protests breaking up, order was restored. Most of the people had stayed at Spa Fields listening to Hunt give a long-winded self congratulatory speech. It had not been the general uprising Thistlewood, Watson and Preston had been hoping for.

The next day arrests were made and the organisers charged with sedition. Amazingly though, after a defence by Sir Charles Wetherell, Thistlewood, Watson and Preston were all acquitted, on the basis that government spy John Castle had acted as an agent provocateur.

The movement was now firmly split into reform and revolutionary camps. Hunt continued to push for reform of Parliament, standing as an MP, and addressing the crowd at the ill-fated meeting in Manchester known as Peterloo. Thistlewood became involved in the 1920 Cato Street Conspiracy, a plot to kill the Prime Minister and Cabinet. He was hanged for treason when the plot was discovered.

The Spa Fields Riots were interesting as they show that the road to parliamentary democracy with universal suffrage was a long one, with many false starts and incremental progressions along the way. The reforms the protesters were demanding did not come about until many years later, but they might not have come about at all without protest. The riots are also interesting because they show how any cause can be riven with splits, something anyone who has been involved with politics will be familiar with.

Spa Fields Today

Spa Fields Today


Islington Museum has an exhibition called Commit Outrage to commemorate the riots, and there will be two free walks led by Rob Smith and Philip Nelkon talking about them.

Saturday 26th November 2016 11am
Led by Rob Smith

Saturday 3rd December 2016 11am
Led by Philip Nelkon

Where: Meet in the foyer of The Islington Museum
14:45h, St John St, London, EC1V 4NB
Duration: 1 hour

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