Cato Street Conspiracy

Thomas Spence, a schoolteacher from Newcastle arrived in London in December 1792. Over the next twenty-two years Spence developed a reputation as an important radical figure in Britain. He wrote books, pamphlets and produced a journal, Pigs Meat, where he argued for the radical transformation of society. The publication of this material resulted in him enduring several periods of imprisonment.

Spence did not believe in a centralized radical body and instead encouraged the formation of small groups that could meet in local public houses. At these meetings Thomas Spence argued that "if all the land in Britain was shared out equally, there would be enough to give every man, woman and child seven acres each". At night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as "Spence's Plan and Full Bellies" and "The Land is the People's Farm". In 1800 and 1801 the authorities believed that Spence and his followers were responsible for bread riots in London. However, they did not have enough evidence to arrest them for this offence.

Drawing of Arthur Thistlewood killing Richard Smithers
Drawing of Arthur Thistlewood killing Richard Smithers

Thomas Spence died in September 1814. He was buried by "forty disciples" who pledged that they would keep his ideas alive. They did this by forming the Society of Spencean Philanthropists. The men met in small groups all over London. These meetings mainly took place in public houses and they discussed the best way of achieving an equal society. Places used included the Mulberry Tree in Moorfields, the Carlisle in Shoreditch, the Cock in Soho, the Pineapple in Lambeth, the White Lion in Camden, the Horse and Groom in Marylebone and the Nag's Head in Carnaby Market.

The government became very concerned about this group that they employed a spy, John Castle, to join the Spenceans and report on their activities. In October 1816 Castle reported to John Stafford, supervisor of Home Office spies, that the Spenceans were planning to overthrow the British government.

On 2nd December 1816, the Spencean group organised a mass meeting at Spa Fields, Islington. The speakers at the meeting included Henry 'Orator' Hunt and James Watson. The magistrates decided to disperse the meeting and while Stafford and eighty police officers were doing this, one of the men, Joseph Rhodes, was stabbed. The four leaders of the Spenceans, James Watson, Arthur Thistlewood, Thomas Preston and John Hopper were arrested and charged with high treason.

George Cruikshank, Cato Street Conspiracy (1820)
George Cruikshank, Cato Street Conspiracy (1820)

James Watson was the first to be tried. However, the main prosecution witness was the government spy, John Castle. The defence council was able to show that Castle had a criminal record and that his testimony was unreliable. The jury concluded that Castle was an agent provocateur (a person employed to incite suspected people to some open action that will make them liable to punishment) and refused to convict Watson. As the case against Watson had failed, it was decided to release the other three men who were due to be tried for the same offence.

The Spenceans continued to meet after the trial but the members now disagreed about the future strategy of the group. Arthur Thistlewood was convinced a successful violent revolution was possible. James Watson now doubted the wisdom of this strategy and although he still attended meetings, he gradually lost control of the group to the more militant ideas of Thistlewood.

The government remained concerned about the Spenceans and in January, 1817 John Stafford asked a police officer, George Ruthven, to join the group. Ruthven discovered that the Spenceans were planning an armed rising. Arthur Thistlewood, claimed at one meeting that he could raise 15,000 armed men in just half an hour. As a result of this information, John Williamson, John Shegoe, James Hanley, George Edwards and Thomas Dwyer were also recruited by Stafford to spy on the Spenceans.

The Peterloo Massacre in Manchester increased the amount of anger the Spenceans felt towards the government. At one meeting a spy reported that Arthur Thistlewood said: "High Treason was committed against the people at Manchester. I resolved that the lives of the instigators of massacre should atone for the souls of murdered innocents."

On 22nd February 1820, George Edwards pointed out to Arthur Thistlewood an item in the New Times that said several members of the British government were going to have dinner at Lord Harrowby's house at 39 Grosvenor Square the following night. Thistlewood argued that this was the opportunity they had been waiting for. It was decided that a group of Spenceans would gain entry to the house and kill all the government ministers. The heads of Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth would be placed on poles and taken around the slums of London. Thistlewood was convinced that this would incite an armed uprising that would overthrow the government. This would be followed by the creation of a new government committed to creating a society based on the ideas of Thomas Spence.

Over the next few hours Thistlewood attempted to recruit as many people as possible to take part in the plot. Many people refused and according to the police spy, George Edwards, only twenty-seven people agreed to participate. This included William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, John Brunt, John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange, Charles Copper, Robert Adams and John Monument.

William Davidson had worked for Lord Harrowby in the past and knew some of the staff at Grosvenor Square. He was instructed to find out more details about the cabinet meeting. However, when he spoke to one of the servants he was told that the Earl of Harrowby was not in London. When Davidson reported this news back to Arthur Thistlewood, he insisted that the servant was lying and that the assassinations should proceed as planned.

One member of the gang, John Harrison, knew of a small, two-story building in Cato Street that was available for rent. The ground-floor was a stable and above that was a hayloft. As it was only a short distance from Grosvenor Square, it was decided to rent the building as a base for the operation. Edwards told Stafford of the plan and Richard Birnie, a magistrate at Bow Street, was put in charge of the operation. Lord Sidmouth instructed Birnie to use men from the Second Battalion Coldstream Guards as well as police officers from Bow Street to arrest the Cato Street Conspirators.

Birnie decided to send George Ruthven, a police officer and former spy who knew most of the Spenceans, to the Horse and Groom, a public house that overlooked the stable in Cato Street. On 23rd February, Ruthven took up his position at two o'clock in the afternoon. Soon afterwards Thistlewood's gang began arriving at the stable. By seven thirty Richard Birnie and twelve police officers joined Ruthven at Cato Street.

The Coldstream Guards had not arrived and Birnie decided he had enough men to capture the Cato Street gang. Birnie gave orders for Ruthven to carry out the task while he waited outside. Inside the stable the police found James Ings on guard. He was quickly overcome and George Ruthven led his men up the ladder into the hayloft where the gang were having their meeting. As he entered the loft Ruthven shouted, "We are peace officers. Lay down your arms." Arthur Thistlewood and William Davidson raised their swords while some of the other men attempted to load their pistols. One of the police officers, Richard Smithers, moved forward to make the arrests but Thistlewood stabbed him with his sword. Smithers gasped, "Oh God, I am..." and lost consciousness. Smithers died soon afterwards.

Some of the gang surrendered but others like William Davidson were only taken after a struggle. Four of the conspirators, Thistlewood, John Brunt, Robert Adams and John Harrison escaped out of a back window. However, George Edwards had given the police a detailed list of all those involved and the men were soon arrested.

Eleven men were eventually charged with being involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy. After the experience of the previous trial of the Spenceans, Lord Sidmouth was unwilling to use the evidence of his spies in court. George Edwards, the person with a great deal of information about the conspiracy, was never called. Instead the police offered to drop charges against certain members of the gang if they were willing to give evidence against the rest of the conspirators. Two of these men, Robert Adams and John Monument, agreed and they provided the evidence needed to convict the rest of the gang.

William Davidson said in court: "It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny... And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword... Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards? I can die but once in this world, and the only regret left is, that I have a large family of small children, and when I think of that, it unmans me."

On 28th April 1820, Arthur Thistlewood, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange and Charles Copper were also found guilty but their original sentence of execution was subsequently commuted to transportation for life. Thistlewood, Davidson, Ings, Tidd and Brunt were executed at Newgate Prison on the 1st May, 1820.

Primary Sources

(1) Sir Robert Gifford, Attorney-General, opened the case for the crown against the Cato Street Conspirators.

Arthur Thistlewood had for some time conceived the wicked and nefarious plan of overturning the government so long established in this country; and it will appear to you that several, nay, all of the persons mentioned in the indictment, were participators in the same design.

They got intimation on Saturday the 19th February that on the Wednesday following the opportunity would occur when they would be able to effect their purpose, by finding that his majesty's ministers would be all assembled at the same house. On Tuesday the 22nd of February, a meeting took place again, in the morning, at Brunt's, and upon that occasion, one of parties communicated to some who were present, that he had discovered by the newspapers, that a cabinet dinner was to be given again on the following day, Wednesday, at Lord Harrowby's in Grosvenor Square.

On the Wednesday morning, great preparations were made. Arms were brought by Brunt in great abundance to the stable in Cato Street; they consisted of sabres, swords, guns, pistols, and other destructive instruments of offence. But one on the most terrific instruments, and calculated for the most deadly purposes, and which they prepared themselves, was what was called a hand grenade.

On 22nd February, the conspirators held a consultation as the house of Brunt. Everything was on this occasion considered as finally arranged. After the first blow was struck of destroying the ministers, the principal barracks and various public places were to be set fire to.

Thistlewood sat down and wrote two proclamations, in anticipation of the success of his diabolical scheme. He wrote an address to the following effect, intended for the people generally: "Your tyrants are destroyed - the friends of liberty are called upon to come forward - the Provisional Government is now sitting."

After Thistlewood had written this, he proceeded to form a proclamation to the soldiers, calling upon them to join their friends in liberty, and promising that they should be rewarded with full pay and a pension for life!

(2) The Sunday Observer (3rd March, 1820)

The interest excited by the discovery of the diabolical conspiracy to assassinate his Majesty's Ministers has, throughout the last week continued with unabated force. The premises in Cato Street, which will be ever memorable for the events of which they were the scene, was visited by several thousand persons. Among whom were many individuals of the highest rank.

The blood of poor Smithers was still visible on the floor, and seemed to be avoided with a sort of reverential awe. Lee, one of the officers who was there when the assault took place, was present, and explained the whole operation from the commencement to the conclusion. Among others attracted to the spot, we remarked several of the fair sex, who braved the inconvenience of the difficult ascent to the loft for the gratification of their curiosity.

(3) James Ings claimed in court that George Edwards had been an agent provocateur who had helped organise the conspiracy.

The Attorney-General knows Edwards. He knew all the plans for two months before I was acquainted with it. When I was before Lord Sidmouth, a gentleman said Lord Sidmouth knew all about this for two months. I consider myself murdered if Edwards is not brought forward. I am willing to die on the scaffold with him.

I conspired to put Lord Castlereagh and Lord Sidmouth out of this world, but I did not intend to commit High Treason. I did not expect to save my own life, but I was determined to die a martyr in my country's cause.

(4) William Davidson, speech in court (April, 1820)

It is an ancient custom to resist tyranny... And our history goes on further to say, that when another of their Majesties the Kings of England tried to infringe upon those rights, the people armed, and told him that if he did not give them the privileges of Englishmen, they would compel him by the point of the sword... Would you not rather govern a country of spirited men, than cowards? I can die but once in this world, and the only regret left is, that I have a large family of small children, and when I think of that, it unmans me.

(5) George Edwards wrote a letter to Henry Hobhouse, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Home Office, on 5th May, 1820.

According to your desire I gave all the papers I had in my possession together with the copy of Depositions to the gentleman you sent to me on Sunday evening last. I am now in the Isle of Guernsey and think I may remain here in perfect safety till you direct otherwise.

My money will be exhausted by the time I hear from you. I beg leave your benevolent attention to my family whom I am sure must want financial assistance by the time this letter reaches you. Whatever way you direct my wife to proceed in, she will get my brother to accomplish. All letters I receive from you shall be destroyed as soon as read.

(6) George Theodore Wilkinson, An Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820)

Thistlewood struggled slightly for a few minutes, but each effort was more faint than that which preceded; and the body soon turned round slowly, as if upon the motion of the hand of death.

Tidd, whose size gave cause to suppose that he would "pass" with little comparative pain, scarcely moved after the fall. The struggles of Ings were great. The assistants of the executioner pulled his legs with all their might; and even then the reluctance of the soul to part from its native seat was to be observed in the vehement efforts of every part of the body. Davidson, after three or four heaves, became motionless; but Brunt suffered extremely, and considerable exertions were made by the executioners and others to shorten his agonies.

(7) British Luminary and Weekly Intelligence (7th May, 1820)

Davidson ascended the scaffold with a firm step, calm deportment, and undismayed countenance. He bowed to the crowd, but his conduct altogether was equally free from the appearance of terror, and the affectation of indifference.

(8) John Hobhouse observed the executions and that night wrote about it in his diary (1st May, 1820)

The men died like heroes. Ings, perhaps, was too obstreperous in singing 'Death or Liberty', and Thistlewood said, "Be quiet, Ings; we can die without all this noise."

(9) The Traveller (May, 1820)

The executioner, who trembled much, was a long time tying up the prisoners; while this operation was going on a dead silence prevailed among the crowd, but the moment the drop fell, the general feeling was manifested by deep sighs and groans. Ings and Brunt were those only who manifested pain while hanging. The former writhed for some moments; but the latter for several minutes seemed, from the horrifying contortions of his countenance, to be suffering the most excruciating torture.

(10) Richard Carlile, letter to Sarah Davidson (May 1820)

Little did I think that villain Edwards was the spy, agent, and instigator of the government, and Mr. Davidson his victim. I now regret my error, and hope that you will pardon it as an error of the head, without any bad motive. Be assured that the heroic manner in which your husband and his companions met their fate, will in a few years, perhaps in a few months, stamp their names as patriots, and men who had nothing but their country's weal at heart. I flatter myself as your children grow up, they will find that the fate of their father will rather procure them respect and admiration than its reverse.