Spa Fields Protest 2nd December 1816. An attempted coup d’etat.



61l1BkkmGRL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_The second Spa Fields protest meeting started by looking very similar to the first- the same place, same field and same pubic house, and the same flooding of London with pamphlets and handbills beforehand.(see above)However, the tactics of the Spenceans had changed. They already knew that the Prince Regent had refused leave to present the petition and were determined to incite their insurrection before the meeting and try to turn it into an armed revolution against the Lord Liverpool Government

The other similarity was the planned speech by Henry Hunt at 1pm. However, the Spenceans seemed to have pre-empted Hunt’s arrival when they arrived with a cattle wagon full of flags with inflammatory slogans .

“Nature, Truth and Justice”

“Feed the Hungary”

“Protect the Oppressed”

“Punish Crimes”

There was also gunpowder, guns and pikes in the wagon, according to their treason trial in 1817, and this seems very likely. Some of them seemed to be either mariners or dressed like them .Another of the slogans was an exhortation to treat soldiers and sailors as friends. Arthur Thistlewood was probably there, and the pro-military comments suggests that Thistlewood, an ex soldier, was key to the planning but the speaker, who announced himself as “ Mr Smith”, was almost certainly James Watson Junior, another member of the society. He told the crowd that the petition had been rejected, despite this not quite being the truth; it had just not been presented yet. He attacked the royalty “This Brunswick Family” -”people with a million pounds who give the poor £5000”.

Hunt had been delayed on the way to the meeting. John Castle, Hunt’s driver and an agent provocateur, was possibly under orders to delay him so that the others could start without them. It was the work of this government spy was the reason why they leaders of the insurrection were acquitted of treason in 1817

Mr Smith compared Hunt to Wat Tyler, the leader of the 1381 peasants’ revolt, and made it clear that this was a good thing. In reality, the Spencean view of Hunt was not high, and they knew only his ego had brought him back to address another mass meeting. Hunt was swinging from the moderate positions of Cobbett and Burdett to the unconstitutional ambitions of Thistlewood and the Spenceans and trying to be the leader of both.

About 200 to 1000 of the protesters never heard Hunt speak, as they had successfully been peeled off by the inflammatory speech of Smith/ Watson. They accepted the Spenceans offer to arm themselves and defend their English liberty with force. The Chester Courant said that “trail was soon discernible by fragments of lamps and windows”.

They swept away to the Tower and the Royal Exchange by way of all the gun shops on the way. The ease with which they located them suggested that some research had already been done. the attempted insurrection was not an accidental result of Spa Fields alone-newspapers report that more members of the mob from Newgate and Finsbury Square converged with the Spa Fields group.

This serious violence was to continue for many hours . Meanwhile, Hunt arrived late, about 1pm wearing a much bigger overcoat than last time, presumably in attempt to stay in the cold and not taken refuge in the public house. He has also brought his own modest coach (“shabby” according to the Courant) possibly because of the damage had been caused at the last meeting to somebody else’s property,as the newspapers were more than eager to present him a a Jacobin who would destroy that belonging to others, which he had accidently done when standing on a coach last time.

Hunt reported what they crowd already knew- that the Prince Regent had declined to see their petition. The crowd also groaned in disappointment when Hunt reminded them that Sir Francis Burdett had declined to come from Brighton to co-present the petition. Hunt reported that the Prince Regent had contributed £5000 to the Soup Committee, which provided sustenance to distressed mariners, but that he had no interest in any radical political or economic change. Hunt reported back his exchange of exaggeratedly polite correspondence with Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary. Despite the formulaic good manners of his letters, Sidmouth was now convinced of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Hunt continued to better his two hour speech of November 15th, with the exhortation to face the artillery of the evil with the more powerful artillery of truth, and ritual condemnations of corrupt placemen, unrepresentative parliaments, taxation and standing army designed to oppress the people.

Meanwhile, a few miles away, the state power was reasserting itself. Despite arming themselves with the proceeds of looted guns hops, the Spenceans were unable to defeat the Life Guards and Life Dragoons that were set against them. The Riot Act had already been read at about 4pm.

There were failed attacked on the Tower of London by a very drunk James Watson junior; the members of Lloyds Coffee house were conscripted as special constables. Sir W Curtis, the first MP to speak against the property tax a few months earlier, organised a spirited defence of the Royal Exchange. Despite clear banners with slogans such as “We consider the soldiers our friends”, the army remained loyal to the government. The insurrection ended about 9pm. Two Spenceans, Hopper and Cashman were arrested. There was a least one casualty, a warehouseman called Platt , shot in the groin by a Spencean, probably Watson junior again, and probably drunk again

Watson was still at large on December 14th. Lord Sidmouth, desperate for a treason trial, offered £500 for his apprehension. Watson, it is alleged, contacted the Home Secretary and offered to surrender if he himself could have the money. Watson had previously had treatment for insanity in Bath, and, at time, this showed.

Sane or not, he needed to be captured and made example of. The establishment obliged.The City of London offered another £100, plus an extra £50 for the person who shot Platt, knowing full well that this was the same person. This was enough to get informants about Watson’s location, although he did little to hide himself. he was spotted in a pub in the east end of town, declaring that he would like to either “die a Bellingham ( the man who murdered Prime Minister Spencer Percival) or live a Cicero”

In late December Thomas Preston was bailed at the Mansion House. Bail was set at £50 and was promised by Mark Berman, straw hat maker. and C Pendrill, boot maker . Simmonds ” a man of colour” and apparent associate of Preston, was released/

The Spenceans themselves put down the failure of their attempted coup to the fact that  ” the people were not ripe” for revolution. They tried again in 1817 and 1818 but by 1820 they had switched to assassination as a new tactic.

There is a whole chapter in my book ( below) about Arthur Thistlewood. Details here.  


The Spa Fields Protest 15 November 1816


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