Spa Fields in North London was still a field in 1816, famous for its clear unpolluted water, open spaces and tea houses. However, the Northampton Estate had already made plans to build speculatively and in January 1816 the local improvement commissioners were building new roads and pavements in preparation. Four years later most of the fields were built over, but on a cold Friday in November 1816 it was still big enough to hold between 3,000 and 20,000 unemployed workers and demobilised members of the armed forces. They met to petition the Prince Regent to ameliorate their conditions and to press for reform of parliament so that the working man had the vote.
The organisers of the event were revolutionaries, although they kept a low profile at this first of three protest meetings. The ever so condescending “ Stamford Mercury” told its readers that posters calling meeting had been placed all over town by two men called “Dyal” and “Preston”. The last person was Thomas Preston, a member of the Spencean Philanthropists who had been agitating among the distressed Spitalfields silk weavers, being a weaver himself. The leader of the Spenceans by the middle of 1816 was the gentlemen soldier Arthur Thistlewood. His plan was to use the cover of a mass meeting to start an insurrection. For that purpose he had invited Henry Hunt, the most famous radical of the age to address the meeting, despite Hunt being significantly less radical than the Spenceans, but sufficiently egotistical to wish to be the centre of attraction.
The meeting stared at 12. Most of the leaders were still in the local public house, the Merlin’s Cave. The Spenceans had a preference for meeting in small, tightly knit cells that met in pubs. The first speaker was a man of the cloth named Parke or Parkes. He seemed not to know the leaders of the protest and told the audience to stay calm, be bound by the constitution and be hopeful that the Prince Regent would be able to redress their grievances. His connection and co-ordination with the main leaders is unsure; when he left in his coach there was a 30 minute gap as the others failed to come out from the public house. The unfriendly “Stamford Advertiser” put the worse possible interpretation on this.
At 1pm Henry “Orator” Hunt took centre stage on a coach in the middle of the crowd. He was not there long, less than a minute, as the cold seems to have affected him, and instead made the rest of the speech from the open window of the Merlin’s Cave. He had with him a Cap of Liberty on a pole and a tricolour flag. He spoke for two hours- he “talked down the sun” in the words of the Mercury and harangued his shivering audience with denunciations. T he late unjustified war, the restoration of the Bourbons, the corrupt government and the increase in prices and taxation “Every thing they ate or drank or wore or saw-was taxed”
The rich aristocrats were verbally attacked -“Lady Grenville has £15,000”. He pointed to the nearby Cold Bath Fields prison and compared it to the French Bastilles. He told a story of a Spitalfield weaver who had told him recently that “he would actually be thankful to any person who would put his family to death”, despite having also said that he had this morning arrived from 100 miles away. He had possibly been talking to Thomas Preston in the pub. Hunt was dismissive of the rich providing charity to the poor, who had been dispossessed, in his view, but the very enrichment of those handing out charity. The charitable rich were compared to highwaymen who robbed people of £1000 but gave them a penny top pay for the turnpike, or somebody who stole your goose and gave you back the giblets to say sorry.
He denounced Canning- had he not recently referred to the industrious people of England as the “swinish multitude”? Was he not a man who did not know his grandfather?At this point, Dyall, obvious is his ill fitting green coat, the sign of the revolutionary since the 1790s, interrupted Hunt with a meritocratic plea “Reformers had no business to talk about jinny-ologies as no man had a natural right to have ancestors to the prejudice of other citizens”
The unsympathetic newspaper believed that Hunt thought that there were only three man of sound judgement in England- Cobbett, Cartwright, Burdett and, the paper hinted, himself. The paper did not know that Cobbett had refused an invitation to the meeting and Burdett was about to annoy Hunt by refusing to present the Spa Fields petition to the Prince Regent.
Hunt asked for calm at the end of the meeting, emphasising the importance of “mental strength” over “physical strength” and the meeting for the most part broke up peacefully. There were no carts, carriages or coaches; all of these poor people had walked to Spa Fields. The people, of the mob if you were reading the Mercury, boisterously put Hunt in his carriage to send him away, damaging according to the paper, the property of the unfortunate coachmen.
All sources are agreed that there was a riot at the end of the meeting, although the meeting itself was peaceful. No more than 200 boys and men, many sporting a loaf attached at the end of a stick, attacked butchers and bakers shops in the strand. Windows were broken at the Morning Advertiser and at the residence of Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh.
A John Severn, of no occupation, was arrested and found to have a loaf of bread that had apparently come from the broken window of Mr Morrison’s grocery shop in High Holborn.’ He was charged with a capital crime of burglary at the Old Bailey on December 13th and was acquitted. Others in the mob had been shouting “bread and blood” but the constable could not swear that Severn was among them. Nobody saw Severn break any windows. He was acquitted by Mr Justice Bayley
Minutes beforehand, Joseph Prescott had been sentenced to death for stealing a bay mare.
For more on Arthur Thistlewood and the Regency period, please consider this book .
A chapter by chapter guide here