The Bow Street Runners burst in on the Cato Street conspirators. In the ensuing struggle, Arthur Thistlewood killed Bow Street Runner Richard Smithers with a sword

Rich history of the revolutionary poor

When rebellion stalked the streets of London


This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Why did Brunt die crying ‘long live liberty’?” asked the wife of the Russian ambassador to London on May Day 1820.

Dorothea Lieven had just seen five British tradesmen hanged outside Newgate Prison. After the twitching stopped, their bodies hung in the air for half an hour. What kept the crowd from drifting off to the maypoles? The prisoners had been given oranges to suck in their last moments. Was tea served? 

Conspiracy on Cato Street: A Tale of Liberty and Revolution in Regency London. Vic Gatrell (Cambridge University Press, £25)

The hangman cut down one corpse, dragged it through a heap of sawdust, and propped its shoulders on a block. Then another man with handkerchiefs around his face decapitated it with a carving knife. “This is the head of Arthur Thistlewood — traitor,” the hangman told the groaning crowd. Four more followed. 

Dorothea Lieven was no doe-eyed ingénue from a Jane Austen adaptation. Cabinet ministers trailed after her in London; later in life, she was the epicentre of liberal Parisian society. “It is better to die free than to live as slaves,” prisoner John Thomas Brunt said to his co-conspiritor Arthur Thistlewood just before the drop. Could she really not fathom why?

Vic Gatrell tells us how the ordinary men at the heart of the Cato Street conspiracy met their fate. Through half-grasped aphorisms from the “High” Enlightenment and the discourse of shoemakers, he takes us into the radical politics of their streets, their conflicted feelings about royalty, republic, nation and empire that bled out of the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution — and the British government’s terror at the homegrown mob, which famously reached its apogee with the killing of 15 freeborn Englishmen at St Peter’s Field in Manchester. 

Gatrell has told us a human story with the depth of a novel

He guides us along the knife-edge of life in Regency London, through the tragic existence of luckless butcher James Ings, who begged the king “to save my life, for sake of family”, to the racism meted out to William “Black” Davidson, who sang Robert Burns as he wrestled with the Bow Street Runners and whom Mr Justice Garrow told was “entitled to British justice as much as the fairest British subject” — before having him publicly butchered. 

He traces rejections of Christianity that cracked in cells and others that held firm to the edge of the drop. And he shows how former militiamen like Thistlewood mixed anti-militarism with extreme violence, thus enabling government agents to encourage their plot to kill the British Cabinet — and kill the plotters first.

This is micro-history at its richest and its most penetrating. More than giving us a social history in a few lives, Gatrell has told us a human story with the depth of a novel. This is no mean feat: few people of the time left much trace of their existence. Even here, the only man who gets a full life story is Thistlewood; born on the fringes of the gentry and the nephew of someone with a claim to the strongly-contested title of worst man in eighteenth-century Jamaica. 

The tradesmen appear only in flashes; Gilchrist, Adams, Monument would have remained names but for the words captured in spy reports (dubiously) and in court proceedings. The voices of their wives are fainter still. Yet these glimpses are remarkable, and moving. For Gatrell has not only listened to the voices of the silent. He has heard the human predicament through those voices. 

We can feel the heaviness of Richard Tidd’s aged hand in a last submission to history which must have felt as hopeless as the others: “Sir I Ham a very Bad Hand at Righting”. We feel butcher James Ings’s indignation in the courtroom because we have tasted the air in the rooms where he made his oaths, watched the volatility of his friendships, seen his betrayal. “I am sold like a bullock driven to Smithfield,” he cried.

Later in the century, Thackeray wrote of “the hidden lust after blood which influences our race”. Britain’s government, the target of the Cato Street conspiracy, is not Gatrell’s target. But when its members do appear, it is to the great strength of his book that they share the frailties of their would-be assassins.

Robert Peel reformed some of the worse abuses of the criminal justice system 

This makes a parable about fearful and desperate men brutalised by war, reared in the shadow of the guillotine. Musket balls jangle in Lord Castlereagh’s pockets as well as Thistlewood’s. Dining with the Lievens the day he learned what he must have sensed every waking moment — that men just down the street were planning to behead him — Dorothea said the foreign secretary looked “like a man who had just been hung”. She fainted when he showed her the pistols. Castlereagh carried them for two years before he cut his own throat.

Like revolutionary radicalism itself, the Cato Street conspiracy was a dead end — as was the authoritarianism of Lord Liverpool’s neo-Tory government. Make no mistake, the Thistlewood type is still with us, and ideations of beheading have not vanished entirely from the political landscape. And recent history has proved that some are still incapable of seeing the politics of the people as anything more than a symptom of madness, malice, or economic relations. They are still crying for the re-moralisation of the masses. 

The difference was that some of Liverpool’s ministers had the wit to see that British politics was deadlocked. Perhaps some believed the same myths that moved Londoners to speak of “an un-English complexion to the night” when the conspiracy was broken. After he became home secretary in 1822, Robert Peel reformed some of the worse abuses of the criminal justice system. The Duke of Wellington — one of the Cato Street men had an especially large grenade for him — led the move towards Catholic emancipation later in the decade.

Gatrell affords the aristocratic Whigs who began to deliver parliamentary reform in the 1830s only a walk-on part. But they did manage, as George Tierney vowed in 1819, to make the House of Commons “gradually and practically a truer representation of the people”. Ings told the court that he hoped his children would live to be free men. Some of the conspirators’ sons did live long enough to vote.

Cato Street is on the sidelines of that story. We need histories of modern Britain that are honest without confusing the country for Tsarist Russia — as Dorothea Lieven surely realised when the traps dropped. Complacency is the worst vice of British Whig history. Britain avoided a revolution after 1789, and in 1820. But as Gatrell’s works have shown with a starkness few can emulate, reform was not easy and freedoms were hard-won and harder still to preserve. But the moderation that so spectacularly eluded Arthur Thistlewood and his associates in the spring of 1820 was one of the keys to progress. The radicals decided to seize the British state instead of overthrowing it. By the end of the century, democracy itself was fast becoming a conservative value.

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