Underdog history

“A few thousands of hearty determined fellows well armed” could do the job, reckoned the group’s founder, Thomas Spence, in 1795, as he weighed the chances of capturing London in a coup. Captain Despard, before he actually attempted one in 1802, had put it at 1,500 – with another 50,000 to hold the capital. Arthur Thistlewood had fewer than fifty in February 1820, but the plan at least was straightforward.

The conspirators planned to leave their hideout at a stables on Cato Street, Marylebone, rush in on the Cabinet dinner at Lord Harrowby’s house, a mile away in Grosvenor Square, with pistols and homemade grenades, murder all its members (the Duke of Wellington included ), and decapitate Lords Castlereagh and Sidmouth to parade their heads on pikes. Meanwhile, another party would raid the Artillery Ground in Finsbury for cannon, attack the Bank of England and the Mansion House, then start fires across London – “nothing will call the people together like fires”, thought Thistlewood. Once the symbols of power had been exploded, a popular rising would surely follow.

It was a trap. The Grosvenor Square dinner was a decoy. Thistlewood and his dwindling bubble of conspirators had for months been tracked by multiple spies and informers who sent daily reports to the Home Office; the agents included his right-hand man, George Edwards (codename “Windsor”). After a skirmish in the loft at Cato Street, during which Thistlewood ran through and killed a constable, the culprits were rounded up and tried for treason. They died a traitor’s death, the decapitators decapitated.

The Cato Street conspiracy of February 1820 was, writes Vic Gatrell, “the most violent and precisely aimed assault on the British political order since Guy Fawkes”. The Jacobite armies might disagree, but it was certainly the most dramatic of the many aftershocks of the Peterloo of August 1819, when armed cavalry sent by the magistrates to disperse a pro-democracy rally in Manchester killed fifteen people and wounded 700. for redress were fiery and prolonged: Thistlewood imagined himself announcing to the startled Cabinet ministers, “the blood of Manchester cries out for justice – enter, gentlemen, and do your duty!”.

For the historians who have paid most attention to it, the Cato Street conspiracy belongs to the history of political radicalism and organized labor. Somehow, though, the narrative of “the making of the English working class” has never really connected with other accounts of the Regency period; online word searches show that the cliché “Regency elegance” has achieved viral status, while “Regency” and “radicalism” are rarely found together, Peterloo notwithstanding. Taking a passing swipe at “miserabilist histories” of industrial revolution, Gatrell eschews what he sees as the stifling pieties of labor history in favor of individual character and lived detail, professing a Dickensian empathy for the “muddled attitudes, slogans and resentments” of ordinary Londoners. “A story of deprivation, of governmental malignity, guilt, and panic”, he declares, “Cato Street is underdog history at its purest.”

There is no better guide to metropolitan high and low life than Gatrell, the author of a history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century capital punishment in The Hanging Tree (1996) and of eighteenth-century London satire and its consumers in City of Laughter (2007). In Conspiracy on Cato Street he conducts a masterly and well-illustrated series of historical tours of the “rebellious habitats” lying between the City and the West End, some of the last surviving neighbors of pre-fire London, and of the metropolitan milieu of militant artisans surging through them. He feels “more warmth to the conspirators than to the privileged Aristocrats who provoked them and then killed them”. His account of the gory melodrama of the executions is a tour de force, complete with the death-cell portraits and testimonies of the five condemned men. In a final flourish of detective work, Gatrell reveals that the French artist Théodore Géricault, passing through London with “The Raft of the Medusa”, made unflinching sketches of what proved to be the last public executions of traitors in England. Looking at the face of Thistlewood, about to go under the executioner’s hood, one wonders who had the bleaker stare: the condemned man or the artist?

Thistlewood is at the heart of the story. A man of gentlemanly bearing, he was by this time a self-made underdog, having gambled away his wife’s fortune; he suffered ever after from “a sense of exclusion and thwarted entitlement”. His mysterious ability to tap connections such as Jeremy Bentham for money has led to speculation about accomplices in high places, but Thistlewood (as the radical bookseller Richard Carlile recognized) was at his core a scrounger and a fantasist. Gatrell, who described him as “unhinged”, admires his scaffold eloquence, but leaves him skewered by a compliment: “Britain’s greatest would-be terrorist”.

Thistlewood’s accomplices included two Black conspirators of Jamaican origin, the secular preacher Robert Wedderburn (who was safely in jail at the time of the plot) and the well-educated William Davidson (who was executed). Gatrell’s sensitive and penetrating portraits of them are a significant addition to Black British history. The rebels’ wives also get a sprightly chapter to themselves, with Susan Thistlewood and Mary Brunt spying out Harrowby’s house the night before the action. Here, though, he bypasses important work on the same subject by Katrina Navickas, and Judy Meweezen’s carefully researched novel Turtle Soup for the King.

The decision to focus the book tightly on London, and on the few weeks before the conspiracy, pays off handsomely in one way, but it comes at a cost. The northern, Midland and Scottish radical movements, which aimed at forcing out the government in concert with London, are taken as read. Gatrell is a Mancunian born and bred, and served an academic apprenticeship counting cotton mills, which may account for a historical empathy that seems to give out north of Watford. He imagines “northern workers galvanized” somehow by the Spa Fields riot in London in late 1816. The Manchester “blanketeer” rebels of 1817, who attempted to march on the capital to demand reform, are dismissed as “desperate weavers petitioning for relief”, While the Pentrich rebels who followed them in the East Midlands are both “desperate” and “deluded”. There are more “desperate weavers” staging an unexplained rebellion in Glasgow in 1820. There is a whiff here of low life viewed from high table. When the former London ultras Thomas Evans, father and son, leave for Manchester, they are said to “disappear from this story”. In fact Evans junior went to take up the editorship of the combative Manchester Observerwhose coverage of the Cato Street trial (available online) is of some interest.

Thistlewood’s group could only ever muster large numbers for rallies in co-operation with the much more numerous radical Whigs or the popular orator Henry Hunt (of Peterloo fame). Whenever they struck out publicly on their own they were usually humiliated, and in 1819 they essentially became parasitic upon the much stronger northern radical movement. Gatrell largely fails to register the ultras’ campaign in the autumn of 1819 to organize simultaneous mass protest meetings in London and the provinces. The aim was to overstretch the military and bring part of the northern radical movement south to fuel a rising in the capital. The ultras and their provincial allies were, however, each minorities within larger radical movements, and each tried to persuade the other to take the lead in revolt by spinning tales of armed multitudes ready to rise in their home town. Only after all these schemes failed did the ultras turn to terrorism, in the process scaring off all the regular spies except Edwards. The Cato Street conspiracy happened not because a national was expected, but because one had already risen failed.

Gatrell misses all this through concentrating (understandably) on the large archival bundles amassed by the Home Office and the Treasury Solicitor for the trial of the conspirators. Yet the trial was tightly focused on the conspiracy plot in order to disguise the involvement of spies, which could well have provoked the jury to acquit. The plentiful material about the period before December 1819 scattered among the more general HO 42 correspondence is only lightly sampled and erratically referenced, while the “Private and Secret” correspondence (HO 79) is, curiously, neglected.

Not the least of the mysteries is Thistlewood’s almost wilful blindness to the presence of spies. He always assumed they were there, and occasionally addressed them in public, but he consistently failed to spot every actual infiltrator. His provincial contacts who visited the capital then spread the virus of espionage throughout the country, dividing and confounding their own movements. Amid all the howls of betrayal, there is a case for saying that the group’s chief betrayer was its own leader.

What remains is nonetheless an enthralling classic of London history. “I die an enemy to all tyrants!”, cried the butcher James Ings as he prepared to swing. “Write that down!”

Robert Poole is Professor of History at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston, and the author of Peterloo: The English uprising2019

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