Two centuries ago, a group of political radicals hatched a plan to butcher the cabinet. Their goal was a working-class revolution. Yet little did they know, writes Stephen Bates, that the authorities were on to the plot and ready to pounce
In the early evening of 23 February 1820 a group of desperate men gathered in the hay loft above dilapidated stables in a dead end side street off London’s Edgware Road. Their intention was to kill the entire British cabinet as its members sat at dinner, in a theatrical act of political terrorism of a sort with which we are familiar across the world these days, but which 200 years ago was unprecedented.
The conspirators would decapitate the ministers with butchers’ knives, sticking their heads on poles at Westminster Bridge, and also cut the hands off the hated Lord Castlereagh, foreign secretary.
In spontaneous rejoicing, the working class would rise, they believed, just as they had done in the French Revolution 30 years earlier. The coinage of the Bank of England would be distributed to the poor, its paper notes burned – they seemed worthless and untrustworthy as currency anyway – and land would be held in common for the good of all. “Your tyrants are destroyed!” a manifesto would proclaim. “The provisional government is now sitting.”
Fatal act: George Cruikshank’s cartoon shows lead conspirator Arthur Thistlewood plunging a sword into officer Richard Smithers, as the authorities spring their trap on the Cato Street plot. (Photo by Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
But as the men buckled up in the hay loft in Cato Street, sticking swords and pistols in their belts, ready for what their leader Arthur Thistlewood called the “West End Job”, the details of the plan remained hazy. Only about 20 plotters had turned up (it’s possible that Thistlewood was hoping for as many as 50). All were impoverished and close to starvation – they had had trouble rustling up a pound for a celebratory drink a few days earlier – and now some were getting cold feet as the impracticalities of the venture became clear.
If 14 of the plotters were required to invade the mansion where the ministers were dining – as Thistlewood insisted – how could the remaining six seize control of two artillery cannon in Gray’s Inn Road and another six at the Artillery Ground in Finsbury in order to secure the city?
Thistlewood attempted to reassure them: “For God’s sake do not think of dropping the business now.” Assassinating the cabinet would only take 10 minutes. The house servants were unarmed and, if any attempted to raise the alarm, they would be killed. Reminding ministers of the Peterloo massacre six months earlier, when 18 peaceful demonstrators had been killed by cavalry at a political meeting in Manchester, Thistlewood intended to burst in crying: “Well, my lords, I have as good men here as the Manchester Yeomanry. Enter citizens and do your duty!”
In truth, Thistlewood had not worked out the details of the plot because he’d devised it so hurriedly. The original plan, discussed a few months earlier, had been to drop bombs on the heads of MPs in the Commons chamber, but that had been abandoned as impractical. Then an opportunity seemed to present itself. George III, old, mad and blind, locked up in Windsor Castle for years, had finally died three weeks earlier. The plotters confidently expected that the cavalry and troops normally stationed at the Tower of London would be otherwise engaged – deployed to guard the funeral and the new king, George IV.
Better still, the day before the plotters gathered in the hay loft, one of Thistlewood’s most trusted lieutenants, George Edwards, had seen an announcement in a paper called the New Times that the cabinet would be dining together, for the first time since the king’s death, at the home of the Earl of Harrowby, lord president of the Council, in Grosvenor Square. There was no time to lose.
What Thistlewood did not know, however, was that Edwards, a modeller of plaster ornaments – he had run a shop in Eton High Street where he sold images of the hated headmaster to the boys for target practice – was now a government spy. Notification of the dinner was in only one newspaper and, as it had been planted there, it was no coincidence that Edwards had spotted it and brought the story to Thistlewood’s attention. Nor was Edwards the only spy in the room: Thomas Hiden, who kept cows and sold milk, had approached the Earl of Harrowby when he was out riding the previous day, to tell him of the plot.
As it was, the government already knew all about Thistlewood. The 44-year-old illegitimate son of a Lincolnshire stockman, he had initially trained as a surveyor and served briefly as an ensign in the West Yorkshire militia before failing at farming. Thistlewood moved to London in about 1810 and, embittered, became involved in a series of radical causes, including a move to invite Napoleon to invade Britain and restore a supposed Saxon constitution.
Thistlewood also became a Spencean, a follower of the radical pamphleteer and bookseller Thomas Spence, who had advocated that all land should be held in common, administered by parishes and rented out to local inhabitants. Parliament’s wealthy landowners regarded this as subversive and revolutionary, and had repeatedly had Spence arrested for sedition before his death in 1814.
Thistlewood came to the attention of the authorities as one of the ringleaders of a mob’s attempt to storm the Bank of England following a political reform meeting at Spa Fields in Clerkenwell in December 1816. Arrested on a charge of high treason, he was acquitted at a trial in June 1817 after the crown’s chief witness was exposed as a liar and agent provocateur. Thistlewood had also tried to emigrate to America, but lacked the money for a ticket so he was still about on the fringes of the political reform movement. His recklessness and vehemence meant other radicals, such as Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the putative speaker at the Peterloo demonstration, and Francis Burdett, the MP for Westminster, would have nothing to do with him.
Physical force factions
Political radicals calling for parliamentary reform divided into broadly two factions during the first half of the 19th century: those like the Manchester crowd, and later the Chartists, believing in moral persuasion to effect change; and physical force supporters such as Thistlewood who thought only violence would achieve results. The physical force factions had staged a series of small scale and diffuse uprisings over the previous decades. Colonel Edward Despard, a disgruntled Irish officer, attempted to recruit Irish labourers in London to join a rising and was executed at the turn of the 19th century; Luddites smashed the new machinery being introduced in mills; Derbyshire farm labourers briefly marched; and the Spencean-organised Spa Fields meeting descended into chaos.
Prime minister Lord Liverpool’s Tory government, fearing revolution, reacted with repression and (in the absence of a civilian police force) with spies and informers, the deployment of the army and savage punishment of ringleaders. In return, the Spenceans decided that mass meetings and petitions would never work and a coup was needed: “They say the philanthropy and benevolence will never effect any change and that Luddism is best calculated for the times,” one spy told the government. A succession of bad harvests and declining wages after the end of the Napoleonic Wars seemed to make those times propitious.
So far Thistlewood had eluded the authorities but he was being watched, and Edwards, who had been working for the government in return for money, had infiltrated his group. He may even have suggested the assassination plot.
The men gathering in the loft that evening were largely tradesmen who had drifted into London from the country, where hunger, business failures and lack of work had made them desperate. All were literate. They included James Ings, a Hampshire butcher; Richard Tidd, a Lincolnshire shoemaker; Thomas Brunt, a London bootcloser; and William Davidson, an unemployed cabinetmaker. Davidson was of mixed race, having been born in Jamaica where his father had been attorney general. Davidson had once studied to be a lawyer himself before taking up an apprenticeship and joining the radical movement. He was spotted a few months earlier carrying a banner bearing the words: “Let Us Die Like Men and Not Be Sold as Slaves” at a meeting in Smithfield.
Of course there was not going to be a cabinet dinner that evening. Castlereagh and his colleagues briefly discussed lying in wait for the assassins and attacking them first, but that was decided to be impractical and dangerous. Instead, Bow Street Runners (members of London’s first professional police force) placed the Cato Street stables under surveillance. At one point, Thistlewood had stared hard at them as he brushed past, but had gone on in.
This hand-coloured etching from 1820 shows ministers capering around a maypole below the severed heads of five Cato Street conspirators. (Photo by Alamy)
Now, with a detachment of the Coldstream Guards waiting nearby, the Bow Street Runners sprang into action. They had already been issued with warrants detailing the names of all those to be arrested and, led by an officer called George Ruthven, they rushed into the stables and started to climb a ladder which was the only way into the loft. Upstairs they found the group of heavily armed and frightened men milling about in the candlelight. Thistlewood seized a long sword and thrust it into the chest of an officer named Richard Smithers, who was trying to arrest him. “Oh my God, I am done,” Smithers cried as he collapsed and died.
The battle was now taking place in darkness, with the officers forced back down the ladder and the conspirators trying to escape through upper windows. Some were apprehended outside and others, including Thistle-wood, disappeared into the shadows. He made the mistake of trusting George Edwards, who suggested he should hole up in lodgings at Whitecross Street, Moorfields and then proceeded to tell the authorities where they could find him the next morning. Davidson was captured outside the stables with an incriminating list of names and addresses of the nobility, and most of the others were rapidly run to ground too.
Several of those left in the loft turned king’s evidence and, at the subsequent trial, gave evidence against the five men singled out for a charge of high treason: Thistlewood, Ings, Tidd, Brunt and Davidson. A further five of those who had been present were transported to Australia. There was no prospect the men on trial would get off, and the testimonies of their co-conspirators Robert Adams and John Monument were sufficiently damning that the authorities never had to produce George Edwards. (Fearful of retribution, he escaped to Guernsey and later emigrated to the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa.)
The five men were executed on May Day 1820 outside Newgate Prison in front of a large crowd. On the scaffold Ings sang: “Oh, give me death or liberty!” Thistlewood was asked if he repented and replied: “No, not at all. I hope the world will think that I have at least been sincere in my endeavours.”
Half an hour after their hanging, a masked executioner stepped forward to complete the punishment by hacking off their heads with a butcher’s knife, an incident that caused much revulsion. It was one of the last times that the punishment of decapitation – the residue of hanging, drawing and quartering – was employed.
Despite its failure, the Cato Street conspiracy certainly unnerved at least one member of the government. Lord Castlereagh took to carrying two loaded pistols. Countess Lieven, the wife of the Russian ambassador, wrote after dining with him: “He showed them to me at the table. I was very nervous every time he made an effort to offer me anything. I sat sideways on my chair; I edged away… and got so near my right hand neighbour that he could put nothing in his mouth without elbowing me.”
For all Castlereagh’s anxiety, the Cato Street conspirators never really stood a chance of murdering the entire cabinet. A combination of shoddy planning and government infiltration saw to that. And now, with harvests improving and employment picking up, the landscape was growing less and less fertile for acts of domestic terrorism. There would be further risings in coming decades. But no one would try to assassinate the British cabinet until the Brighton bomb of 1984 – when the IRA came within a whisker of killing Margaret Thatcher.
Stephen Bates is a former senior correspondent with The Guardian and the author of 1815: Regency Britain in the Year of Waterloo (Head of Zeus 2015)
This article was first published in the March 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine