Arthur Thistlewood

Arthur Thistlewood

Arthur Thistlewood was born in Tupholme in 1774. Arthur, the illegitimate son of a prosperous farmer and stockbreeder, was educated at Horncastle Grammar School and then trained as a land-surveyor. However, he disliked the work and at the age of twenty-one he obtained a commission in the army.

In January 1804 Arthur Thistlewood married Jane Worsley but she died two years later giving birth to their first child. Four years later he married his second wife, Susan Wilkinson, the daughter of a butcher in Horncastle. Thistlewood left the army and with the help of his father purchased a farm. The farm was not a success and in 1811 he moved to London.

Within a few months of arriving in London Arthur Thistlewood had joined the Spencean Philanthropists. By 1816 Thistlewood was being reported on by police spies who described him as a "dangerous character" who believed in revolution. Thistlewood, along with James Watson and Thomas Preston, was now a member of the five-man committee that ran the organisation. John Castle, a police spy, was also a member of the committee and was able to provide the authorities with a detailed account of Spencean activities.

In October 1816 Castle reported to John Stafford, supervisor of Home Office spies, that the Spenceans were planning to overthrow the British government. The plan was to encourage rioting at a mass meeting and while this was going on, to seize power by taking the Tower of London and the Bank of England.

The mass meeting was organised to take place at Spa Fields, Islington, on 2nd December 1816. 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 leaders of the planned uprising went into hiding. Thistlewood decided to emigrate to America with his wife and child but was arrested as he boarded the ship on the Thames. The other leaders were also arrested and charged with high treason.

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 long 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 Arthur Thistlewood, Thomas Preston and John Hopper, the other three men who were due to be tried for the same offence.

The Spenceans continued to meet in 1817. A new police spy who had joined the group, John Williamson, reported to John Stafford that Thistlewood was still trying to organise an armed uprising. 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.

In 1817 Thistlewood wrote to Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, demanding payment of £180, the cost of the three tickets that he purchased for the trip to America. When Sidmouth failed to respond to the letter, Thistlewood challenged him to a duel. Sidmouth ordered Thistlewood's arrest and he was charged with threatening a breach of the peace. Thistlewood was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment in Horsham Jail. Thistlewood wrote several letters to the Home Office complaining about the conditions in prison. One of his complaints was that three men had to share one bed and a cell measuring only seven feet by nine feet.

Arthur Thistlewood played an important role in the protest meetings that followed the Peterloo Massacre. He organised the public reception of Henry Hunt after he arrived back in London after the massacre. The Times estimated that over 300,000 people turned up to see Hunt and to hear speeches from Sir Francis Burdett, Major John Cartwright, James Watson and John Thelwall. However, these men tried to distance themselves from Thistlewood because of his known revolutionary beliefs.

On 22nd February 1820, George Edwards pointed out to Thistlewood an item in the New Times that several members of the British government were going to have dinner at Lord Harrowby's house at 39 Grosvenor Square. Thistlewood and a small group of Spenceans decided to take part in a plot to kill the government ministers dining at Lord Harrowby's house on 23rd February.

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 Thistlewood he insisted that the servant was lying and that the assassinations should proceed as planned.

On the 23rd February Thistlewood's gang assembled in a hayloft in Cato Street, a short distance away from Grosvenor Square. However, government ministers were not meeting at the home of Earl of Harrowby. The Spenceans had been set up by George Edwards, a government spy who had infiltrated the Spencean Society.

Thirteen police officers led by George Ruthven stormed the hay loft. Several members of the gang refused to surrender their weapons and one police officer, Richard Smithers, was killed by Thistlewood. Four of the conspirators, Thistlewood, John Brunt, Robert Adams and John Harrison escaped out of a window. However, George Edwards had given the police a detailed list of all those involved and the men were soon arrested.

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

On the 23rd February Thistlewood's gang assembled in a hayloft in Cato Street, a short distance away from Grosvenor Square. However, government ministers were not meeting at the home of Earl of Harrowby. The Spenceans had been set up by George Edwards, a government spy who had infiltrated the Spencean Society.

Thirteen police officers led by George Ruthven stormed the hay loft. Several members of the gang refused to surrender their weapons and one police officer, Richard Smithers, was killed by Thistlewood. Four of the conspirators, Thistlewood, John Brunt, Robert Adams and John Harrison escaped out of a 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. Charges against Robert Adams and John Monument were dropped when they agreed to give evidence against the other men involved in the plot.

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. Arthur Thistlewood was executed at Newgate Prison on the 1st May, 1820.

The Execution of Arthur Thistlewood at Newgate (1820)
The Execution of Arthur Thistlewood at Newgate (1820)

Primary Sources

(1) George Theodore Wilkinson described Thistlewood being interviewed after his arrest in May, 1820.

"My genius is so great just now, I don't think there is any man alive has so great a genius as mine at the moment." Then he would pour upon the ground for a minute or two in deep cogitation; and at length break into the following soliloquy: "If it is the will of the Author of the World that I should perish in the cause of freedom - his will, and not mine, be done! It would be quite a triumph to me! - at the same time throwing his arms about in a manner which savoured strongly of insanity.

(2) John Hobhouse, a government minister, 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."

(3) 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.

(4) 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.