To kill the cabinet: the Cato Street Conspiracy

More than 200 years after Guy Fawkes, another murderous plot was hatched, which, as journalist Roger Hermiston reveals, could have hurled Britain into revolution. But how much do you know about the Cato Street Conspiracy? When did it take place? What happened? And why did it fail? Everything you need to know

Picture depicting the Cato Street conspirators

The England of 1820 was a nervous, disordered country on the brink of revolt. Peace with Europe, secured with the end of the Napoleonic Wars five years earlier at Waterloo, ought to have ushered in a period of growing prosperity and progress at home. But when King George III died on 29 January after 60 years on the throne, he bequeathed a nation – to a dissolute son and a repressive government – stricken by austerity and riven by political turmoil.

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Just three weeks into the new reign of George IV, there was a sensational plot to kill all the members of Cabinet, including the Prime Minister, and set up a revolutionary government along the lines of the Committee of Safety in Robespierre’s France 30 years earlier. The Cato Street Conspiracy has been the poor relation of that other violent attempt to overturn the government, the Gunpowder Plot, and historically cast as merely an isolated, forlorn and foolhardy strike against the state by a gang of radical desperadoes. But such a simplistic interpretation does no justice to the significance of the plot.

Limiting free speech

At no period in British history has social discontent seemed to contemporary observers so likely to erupt in violent revolution. The sequence of events that sparked the plot began with the Peterloo Massacre in August 1819. So-called in mocking comparison to the famous battle, 11 people were killed and over 400 seriously injured, many women and children, when troops cut through a crowd of around 60,000 non-violent demonstrators on St Peter’s Field, on the outskirts of Manchester.

The Tory government of Lord Liverpool responded with punitive legislation, known as the ‘Six Acts’. They were aimed at severely limiting free speech and free assembly, while supplying the authorities with greater powers to prosecute critics of the regime. Percy Bysshe Shelley captured the public disquiet in his famous poem 1819. “Rulers who neither see nor feel nor know, but leechlike to their fainting country cling, till they drop, blind in blood, without a blow.” It was in this threatening atmosphere of mistrust and repression that a group of conspirators gathered at Cato Street.

Their plot, many months in the making, reached its climax on Wednesday 23 February, one week after the funeral of the King. At 7.30pm, a group of around 30 men crowded into a hayloft upstairs in a small, dilapidated two-storey building in Cato Street, just off Edgware Road in central London. Their mission was to take the 15-minute walk to fashionable Grosvenor Square, to the home of Lord Harrowby, who was Lord President of the Council in the government. Once there, they planned to storm the house as Harrowby, the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and the rest of the British Cabinet – including the hero of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, and Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh – were having dinner.

Grenades and guns

Arthur Thistlewood, the former soldier who led the Cato Street gang, called it the ‘West End Job’. It would start with one of his party knocking on the door, purporting to have a parcel for Lord Harrowby, to allow the gang to burst in. One group would bind – or in the event of resistance, kill – the servants and occupy all quarters of the building, while a second select group, led by Thistlewood, would proceed to the dining room. There, hand grenades would pave the way for an indiscriminate attack on the assembled ministers with guns and knives. Once the entire Cabinet had been murdered, the plan was to use the bodies for a gruesome pièce de théâtre. Thistlewood’s right-hand man, the former butcher James Ings, would cut off all their heads, and take away two of them, those of the particularly reviled Castlereagh and the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, to be displayed for public edification on spikes on Westminster Bridge.

Picture depicting the arrest of the Cato Street Conspirators
The conspirators wanted to bring down the government, but the government was watching. (Photo by the Print Collector/Getty Images)

Thistlewood and his cohorts then planned to seize the King Street Barracks, the Bishop of London’s house, the Light House barracks in Gray’s Inn Lane, the Bank of England and Mansion House (which would house their provisional government). They were convinced from all their soundings that the country was on the verge of revolt, and that their act would trigger a massive uprising against the decapitated government. They believed disaffected Londoners would spontaneously flock to support the new Committee of Public Safety, while nationwide thousands of working men from Newcastle, Glasgow and Leeds would join the revolution. Thistlewood had even approached the leading Radical John Cam Hobhouse, soon to be MP for Westminster, to be head of the new government. The coup leader was determined this would be Britain’s ‘Bastille moment’.

The best way to avert a revolution was to create one

But just like the Gunpowder Plot more than two centuries earlier, this strike against the state was foiled by a betrayal from within. This time, however, it was not a question of one member having second thoughts about a momentous plan of treachery. George Edwards was no conspirator at all, but a spy for the police and his infiltration of the Thistlewood group would reap rich rewards. Indeed, uncovering the Cato Street Conspiracy may well have been the result of more than a straightforward spying exercise by Lord Sidmouth’s men, as there is evidence that the government may have been responsible for deliberate acts of provocation. In other words, the Home Secretary could have set the whole thing up to entrap Thistlewood and his colleagues, believing that the best way to avert a revolution was to create one – and then publicly crush it.

Whatever the truth, the plotters did not even get away from Cato Street with their weaponry. The Bow Street Runners, often referred to as London’s first professional police force, had watched the house all afternoon on 23 February and when convinced that the full group of conspirators was present, they stormed the hayloft.

During the ensuing battle, Thistlewood ran through one of the Runners, Richard Smithers, with his cavalry sword – the policeman would die of his wounds – and another plotter, Jamaican-born William Davidson, a former sailor in the Navy, put up similarly stern resistance. But when reinforcements from the Coldstream Guards arrived, most of the conspirators were detained at the scene. They were marched off to Bow Street magistrates’ court, while the body of Smithers was taken from the loft and laid out in a room at the nearby Horse & Groom pub.

Would-be victims: the cabinet

Lord Liverpool, Prime Minister

Having witnessed the fall of the Bastille while on a holiday to Paris in 1789, he had a terror of revolution. He struggled to cope with the 1817 economic recession, passing harsh legislation on the working classes, like the Corn Laws and Game Laws. The later 19th-century PM Benjamin Disraeli summed him up: “The Arch-Mediocrity who presided, rather than ruled, over this Cabinet of Mediocrities.”

Lord Castlereagh, Foreign Secretary and Leader of the Commons

“I met Murder on the way – He had a mask like Castlereagh,” wrote Shelley after Peterloo and the passing of the Six Acts. A master diplomat in Europe, Castlereagh organised the coalition of nations that eventually crushed Napoleon. He once challenged a Cabinet colleague to a duel.

The Duke of Wellington, Master General of the Ordnance

The hero of Waterloo had deep Tory views, being the “child and champion of aristocracy”, and was determined to guard the rights of property at all costs. He deplored the growing English press, considering it “ignorant, presumptive and licentious”.

Lord Sidmouth, Home Secretary

The architect of the most comprehensive network of informants since the days of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s unofficial spymaster. He also had a reputation as a stern and distant lawmaker. His longevity and loyalty won him little esteem among his senior colleagues. “He is like the smallpox. Everybody is obliged to have him once in their lives,” quipped George Canning.

George Canning, President of the Board of Control

A brilliant, theatrical speaker with an acerbic wit, he was the most unconventional and dazzling member of Liverpool’s government. But he also gained many political enemies. Pro-French Revolution in his earlier days, he saw democracy as “tyranny and anarchy combined”.

Yet a number of plotters escaped in the darkness and confusion, including Thistlewood himself. Londoners awoke the following morning to read an extraordinary announcement in The London Gazette. Signed by the Home Secretary, it urged them to help find Thistlewood, who stood charged with high treason, and offered £1,000 for information leading to his arrest. A full description of the wanted man was provided: “The above-named Arthur Thistlewood is about forty-eight years of age, five feet ten inches high, has a sallow complexion, long visage, a wide mouth and a good set of teeth, has a scar under his right jaw, is slender made, and has the appearance of a military man… he usually wears a blue long coat and blue pantaloons.”

Thistlewood had wisely not returned to his home in Stanhope Street, but instead had holed up at 8 White Street, Little Moorfields. Nonetheless, a neighbour spotted him and immediately alerted the Runners. They had arrived by nine o’clock in the morning and were let in by the landlady, Mrs Harris. Thistlewood was caught as he slept, with leader of the Runners Daniel Bishop handcuffing the coup leader in his bed, before he knew what was happening. He was fully clothed with ball cartridges and flints still in his pockets.

Dying without noise

In all, 13 plotters were arrested and charged with treason. Included in their various interrogations during February and March were extraordinary sessions with the Privy Council, where they had dramatic face-to-face meetings with the very men they had intended to murder.

Engraving of prisoners at Coldbath Fields
Prisoners at Coldbath Fields worked on a giant treadmill to grind flour. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

Government accounts painted a picture of a somewhat dishevelled, yet calm and collected Thistlewood. “When before the Privy Council, his dress was an old black coat and waistcoat, very much worn, and old worsted stockings. His general appearance indicated great distress; his limbs were slender, and his countenance squalid and somewhat dejected. There was nothing of agitation in his manner. He sat with his eyes fixed chiefly on the ground.”

Key Cato Street Conspirators

They were members of the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, a group inspired by charismatic Radical Thomas Spence, and believed a revolution was needed. But on 1 May 1820, their plot foiled, they all died on the gallows

Arthur Thistlewood

The illegitimate son of a prosperous Lincoln farmer and a shopkeeper’s daughter, he forsook a career as a land surveyor to explore the countries where revolution had taken hold, America and France. Before his radical politics, he enlisted in the army and became an expert swordsman. When the Conspiracy was foiled, he put this skill to use by killing a Bow Street Runner.

John Brunt

A Londoner and boot maker, whose work was exhibited in a Strand shop’s window display. Brunt later found work in Wellington’s army in France, where he developed his radicalism.

James Ings

Born in Portsea, Hampshire, to a family of respectable tradesmen, he initially became a successful butcher. His business declined rapidly, though, in the years of recession after the Napoleonic Wars. In 1819, he established a coffee shop in the East End of London and distributed radical literature.

Richard Tidd

He was a member of a particularly radical profession, shoemaking, at Hole-in-the-Wall Passage, a slum alley in London. Tidd worked a scam with the British army, using false names to receive multiple bounty payments for joining up.

William Davidson

His father, the Attorney-General of Jamaica, who had Davidson illegitimately with a local, found him an apprenticeship with a Liverpool lawyer. Instead, Davidson ran away to sea and was press-ganged into the Royal Navy. Later, he turned to radical politics in the wake of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

Across the table sat Lords Liverpool, Sidmouth, Castlereagh and Harrowby, and the Duke of Wellington. At one of these encounters, the military hero had to listen to an affidavit read out in which Thistlewood said, “I would rather kill that damned villain Wellington than any of them.” This was followed by “great mirth” erupting among those in the room as the two men stared at each other impassively.

Thistlewood was caught as he slept, handcuffed in his bed

At the final session between the failed revolutionaries and their would-be victims on 23 March, Thistlewood simply refused to engage when charges of murder and high treason were laid against him. Ings was equally sullen, but snapped at the Prime Minister and his colleagues: “It is want of food which has brought us here. Death would be a pleasure to me… if I had 50 necks, I’d rather have them all broken, one after the other, than see my children starve.”

Eight of the men were sent under cavalry escort to the Tower of London to await trial, while the rest were taken to the notorious Coldbath Fields Prison in Clerkenwell. Thistlewood was placed in the Bloody Tower, where another famous conspirator, Sir Walter Ralegh, had resided for 13 years in the reign of King James I. At the trial in April, Thistlewood freely admitted his guilt, but never showed any remorse as he aggressively and eloquently hammered home his motives. “I died when liberty and justice had been driven from this country’s confines by a set of villains, whose thirst for blood is only to be equalled by their activity in plunder.”

Spies on the inside

The Cato Street Conspiracy had been undone by a spy, George Edwards, working for the Home Secretary. Lord Sidmouth never struggled to find volunteers for his network, but the quality of his informers – mostly poor men – was patchy. And as local magistrates were in charge of recruitment and deployment, the system was decentralised and he never exercised full control.

The most notorious agent was William J Oliver. After the Pentrich armed uprising in June 1817, which ended with the execution of leader Jeremiah Brandreth and two others, the Leeds Mercury exposed Oliver’s role as an agent provocateur in that event. The news sparked outrage, and a whole rash of acquittals followed in other cases involving Oliver.

Another spy with unreliable information was petty criminal John Castle, who was the chief witness when Arthur Thistlewood first stood trial – after riots broke out at mass demonstrations at Spa Fields, Islington. Lord Sidmouth finally found his man in Edwards, a modeller well-known for his plaster-of-Paris busts of the famous, which he sold on street corners. He infiltrated the Spencean group planning the Cato Street Conspiracy so successfully that Thistlewood made him his aide-de-camp, giving him access to every last detail of the plot.

Thistlewood and four of his coconspirators – Ings, Davidson, John Brunt and Richard Tidd – were convicted and sentenced to be hanged, quartered and beheaded (although, the grisly middle feature of the punishment was later remitted). Sentences of death on another five were commuted to transportation for life.

The five met their fate at Newgate Prison on the morning of 1 May 1820 in front of a crowd of about 100,000, some having paid three guineas for a good vantage point from the windows of houses overlooking the scaffold. To keep the peace, infantry were stationed nearby and out of sight of the crowd, including two troops of Life Guards and eight artillery pieces commanding the road at Blackfriars Bridge.

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“The men died like heroes,” John Cam Hobhouse recorded in his diary that night. Ings lustily sang the anthem of the Radicals, Death or Liberty, as he awaited the tightening of the noose. But Thistlewood, calm to the last, sharply told his friend, “Be quiet, Ings. We can die without all this noise.”

What happened next

The trauma of the Cato Street Conspiracy had a sobering effect on reactionaries and radicals alike. “From that day”, wrote journalist William Cobbett, “the tone of the sons of corruption became less insolent and audacious.” Meanwhile the tone of the sons of liberty became less truculent. Peterloo had been a warning light, and improbable though it seemed at the time, Cato Street proved a catalyst for change. Despite being a failure, it helped set a new course, which was to lead directly to the Great Reform Act of 1832 and the first significant extension of the franchise.

This article was first published in the May 2018 edition of BBC History Revealed