The Age of George III

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The Spa Fields Riots, 2 December 1816

After the end of the French Wars, it became increasingly clear that England was suffering from great social, economic and political upheavals. These problems collectively became known as the 'Condition of England Question'. Many of these problems would have occurred eventually but had been speeded up by the effects of the French Wars on the country. Most of the major changes were the direct result of the French Wars. Others came from natural growth and change. The distress and discontent caused by these enormous changes were manifested in a series of events in the period 1811-19. One of these was the Spa Fields riots.

[Go here to read the full transcription of the trial]

In September 1816 Henry Hunt received a letter from Arthur Thistlewood,

requesting me, when I came to town, to favour him with a call, as he had to communicate to me matters of the highest importance connected with the welfare and happiness of the people, to promote whose interest, he had always observed, that I was always most ready and active ....

Hunt ignored the letter but received another in November from Thomas Preston, asking Hunt to address a meeting on 15 November at Spa Fields which had the intention of petitioning the Prince Regent to reform parliament. Hunt accepted the invitation and then visited his friend William Cobbett who warned Hunt that the meeting could be dangerous. Cobbett omitted to tell Hunt that he, too, had been invited but had declined. The purpose of the meeting was to secure a show of hands for the election of Hunt and Sir Francis Burdett to take a petition to the Prince Regent from the people of London, asking for relief from the distress and for parliamentary reform.

The meeting was attended by about 10,000 people and Hunt spoke from the window of a public house; he wore his white top hat, a symbol of radicalism and the 'purity of his cause'. Behind him was a tricolour flag and a Cap of Liberty. Hunt waxed lyrical about the evils of high prices and over-taxation, the greed of the borough-mongers and sinecurists and the necessity for parliamentary reform. The meeting was peaceful: Hunt made no appeal to force but he did advise his hearers to sign a petition 'before physical force was applied'. The petition embodied the full radical programme of the day:

In his speech, Hunt said

He knew the superiority of mental over physical force; nor would he counsel any resort to the latter till the former had been found ineffectual. Before physical force was applied to, it was their duty to petitiqri, to remonstrate, to call aloud for timely reformation. Those who resisted the just demands of the people were the real friends of confusion and bloodshed . . . but if the fatal day should be destined to arrive, he assured them that if he knew anything of himself, he would not be found concealed behind a counter, or sheltering himself in the rear.
[taken from E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, 1968), p.685]

Hunt and Burdett were elected to take the petition to the Prince Regent. Burdett declined the honour; he and Hunt fell out over the former's refusal to present the petition. Hunt accused Burdett of running away and said that he abandoned any idea that Burdett would ever do 'anything effectually to relieve the people'. Hunt then made two futile attempts to present the petition to Prince George and twice was refused admission to the Regent's presence. On 2 December another meeting was held at Spa Fields to protest at the treatment that Hunt had received. This meeting degenerated into the Spa Fields riot.

Hunt was late for the meeting and was driving down Cheapside when he was met by a man called Castle who told Hunt that he was too late, that 'the people' had taken the Tower of London. When Hunt arrived at Spa Fields, he saw a waggon in the middle of the crowd that was decorated with banners, one of which said 'the brave soldiers are our friends'. In the waggon stood Dr Watson and his son, Arthur Thistlewood and other men who met at the Cock and the Mulberry Tree public houses where the Spenceans gathered. The younger Watson was declaiming from Camille Desmoulin's cafe-table exhortation to the patriots of Paris before the storming of the Bastille:

If they will not give us what we want, shall we not take it? Are you willing to take it? Will you go and take it? If I jump down amongst you, will you come and take it?

Watson then jumped down, picked up a tricolour and set off for the Tower of London. some sailors supplied the muscle and a gunsmith's shop on Snow Hill was robbed to provide weapons. One of the sailors subsequently was executed for his part in the riot although he was probably the scapegoat rather than a dangerous radical: he had just arrived in London having been demobilised after spending years fighting in the French Wars. A pedestrian was killed by the mob which then made for the Royal Exchange where they were confronted by Alderman Shaw and seven constables. Shaw did not see any weapons and arrested three of the leaders of the mob. By nightfall, order had been restored in the city. The incident has been described as "five fanatics hounded on by a spy": the government had the leaders charged with High Treason. They were acquitted when Castle, the informer, presented his evidence. The role of Castle was exposed by Wetherell, a High Tory:

If you bear in mind who is the principal (I should say the only) witness in this case - a man of the name of Castle; if you bear in mind what he has proved to have done in the course of these transactions; if you bear in mind for whom he is a witness, from what place he comes, what he has been, and what he now is ... you will hereafter consider whether Mr. Castle is not the man who has made these persons his dupes; whether he has not alone invented, organised and framed the whole of the projects which he represents were moulded into a system of conspiracy; whether, according to every fair and rational presumption, he is not the author and parent of all these transactions, forming an ideal conspiracy for purposes of his own. (State Trials, Vol. 32, pp.421-422)

However, the incident completed the alienation of Burdett from the Hunt/Cobbett/Cartwright leadership and convinced Sidmouth that there was a revolution in the making in the provinces of England.

This is made clear in the Report of the Secret Committee into the Disturbed State of the Country, February 1817 (Parliamentary Debates, 1st Series, vol. 35, (1817) col.438

Attempts have been made, in various parts of the country, as well as in the metropolis, to take advantage of the distress in which the labouring and manufacturing classes of the community are at present involved, to induce them to look for immediate relief, not only in a reform of Parliament on the plan of universal suffrage and annual election, but in a total overthrow of all existing establishments, and in a division of the landed, and extinction of the funded property of the country.

In reaction to these events, the government passed the so called "Gag Acts" in February and March 1817.

The next manifestation of discontent and distress came with the March of the Blanketeers in March 1817

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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