On Our Book-shelves

In the first in our series about items from our Library Collection, Director, Graham Keates has come across an item containing accounts of High Treason…

I was searching along our shelves recently when I came across an unusual little volume. It was tucked between Tanner’s Tudor Constitutional Documents (Cambridge, 1922) and Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials (London, 1809). The book I had come across was The Trials of Arthur Thistlewood and Others for High Treason.

Title Page
Title Page

It is a leather-bound octavo edition with foxing to some pages and some of the engravings have “bled” into one another but otherwise it is good condition for a book nearly two hundred years old.

It was published in London by Sherwood, Neely and Jones in 1820 and is a report of the trials of the Cato Street Conspirators at the Old Bailey in May 1820. The reporter adopted an early example of short-hand invented by John Byrom. He published The Universal English Short-hand in Manchester in 1767. This work has the rather charming sub-title, “the way of writing English in the most easy, concise, regular and beautiful manner”, but I digress…….

This small leather-bound book transported me back to my classroom and my history teacher the dreaded and much feared Mrs. S. The link between her and me and Arthur is unbreakable. Her guiding precept when teaching was “Take no prisoners!”. Especially grubby, inky-fingered schoolboys. We sat there quiet and attentive. We had to, the alternative being a tongue-lashing that would have made Captain Bligh flinch. It was, I have to say, a very effective method of teaching. The names and events  she dealt with are permanently engraved on my psyche. Jethro Tull, Peterloo, Josiah Wedgwood and of course Arthur Thistlewood.

The First Day of the Trial
The First Day of the Trial

The Conspiracy was one of the products of the radical thought that was current at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The end of the Napoleonic Wars meant that thousands of soldiers and sailors returned home and were looking for work. Increasing industrialisation, the Peterloo Massacre and resentment at the Six Acts were some, but not all, of the contributory factors to radical discontent. The final event that prompted the conspirators to action was the death on 29 January 1820 of George III. They determined to assassinate the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and the rest of the Cabinet as they dined with Lord Harrowby at his home in Grosvenor Square.

Thistlewood was born in Lincolnshire in 1770 and was, among others things, one of the organisers of the great meeting at Spa Fields in 1816 at which it was determined to start a revolution and he had, in 1817, been imprisoned in The Tower of London, charged with High Treason. He and his fellows were members of the “Society of Spencean Philanthropists”, followers of the ultra-radical thinker Thomas Spence. In 1793 Spence published a pamphlet outlining his plans for a fairer society entitled The Real Rights of Man. Presumably “Real” because Thomas Paine had already used the title in 1791. Spence had six main propositions aimed at reforming social institutions for the benefit of the working classes. His proposals were: the end of the aristocracy and landlords, all land to be owned by self-governing “democratic parishes”, rents to be shared equally among parishioners, universal suffrage, a “social guarantee” of an income for those unable to work, and finally “the right of infants” to remain “free of abuse and poverty”. These were some of the ideas that underpinned the Cato Street Conspiracy.

Thistlewood believed that following the assassinations the whole country would rise up and a Spencean democracy would be instituted. Given his background he was what in today’s police jargon would be known as “a person of interest”. And they certainly were interested. Unfortunately for Arthur and the other thirteen conspirators on the “secret committee” one of their number, George Edwards, was a police spy. Furthermore it seems that the entire plot was Edwards’ idea in the first place. The plot was doomed from the start.

Sgt Legg and Sgt Lott
Sgt Legg and Sgt Lott

On February 23 the majority of the plotters were arrested at Cato Street by police together with a detachment of Coldstream Guards commanded by Lieutenant Fitzclarence, a natural son of the future king William IV. They were bought to trial in May the details of which are given in this book It also contains several engravings by Abraham Wivell, an early example of the work of the court artists still employed today to produce drawings and sketches of scenes within the courtroom. Wivell’s engravings show the main conspirators, Thistlewood, Ings, Brunt, Davidson and Tidd. There are also portraits of Sergeants Lott and Legg of the Coldstream Guards and a view of the Cato Street premises where they were arrested. Having been found guilty five conspirators were sentenced to transportation while the other five named above were to be executed. In an appendix there is a description of that execution, by hanging and decapitation and a further engraving depicting the scene.

The opening of the book, day one of the trial, describes Arthur Thistlewood as he enters the dock. He was “pale and dejected” a description which could also be applied to the schoolboy historians of Mrs. S.

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