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An Overview of Francis Place's Life, 1771-1854

Jeremy Wickins

London, the first half of the eighteenth century. A politically turbulent city in an agitated country in a continent in flux in a world of change. Men and women had the chance to be great in these conditions. However, the social barriers meant that the prosperous tradesman who had a happy married life with children and his own house was on a different plane to the political cognoscenti with his own library, in which the movers and shakers of the time would come and sit to listen to words of advice on matters ranging from political strategy to law via metaphysics. That one person became both of these is understated in history. The influence that he had can be seen today.

Francis Place was born in London, the son of a man whose gambling caused him and his family much suffering. Place's mother, though, ' ... was one of the best women that ever existed. Clean, neat, kind, cheerful, good tempered, warm hearted and always ready to do services to every body [sic], whom it seemed to be possible for her to serve.' Place went to school between the ages of four and fourteen, but it was only in his last two years that he realised that learning was pleasurable, and he began to buy books with the proceeds of various money-making schemes. At the age of fifteen, he was bound apprentice to a skilled leather breeches maker, who unfortunately was a poor businessman. After about four years he was released from his apprenticeship following an argument with his master, who went into the workhouse with his wife the year after. Place had some difficulty finding employment for a while after this, but eventually he found it with a prosperous breeches maker and tailor who rapidly recognised Francis' business ability and ambition, putting him in the position of managing fifteen men by the time he was eighteen, earning Francis a guinea and a half a week.

This was the time he met his wife, Elizabeth Chadd. He fell in love at first sight, and resolved to marry her. He gave up the mild debaucheries to which a young man on good money was prone, and began to save up. Unfortunately, at the same time he met Elizabeth he was having an affair with the sister of his employer, and this led to his dismissal from work when he refused to marry her. Nonetheless, marry Elizabeth he did. Elizabeth's mother tried to forbid the marriage on the grounds of Francis' bad temper, and his involvement in a declining trade, but Elizabeth seems to have had the same sort of stubborn streak that was part of Francis' character, and they married sooner than they had planned in the face of this opposition, on March 3rd, 1791. Francis' accounts of his bride suggest that she was ' ... similar in character to his mother, affectionate, loyal, domestic, with a poor education and no intellectual interests'. Despite, or maybe because of their penurious state, the newlyweds seem to have taken great pleasure in each other. Francis wrote,

It may be supposed that I led a miserable life but I did not I [sic] was very far indeed from being miserable at this time when my wife came home at night, we always had something to talk about, we were pleased to see each other, our reliance on each other was great indeed, we were poor, but we were young, active cheerful [sic] and although my wife at times doubted that we would get on in the world, I had no such misgivings.

This was Francis' first taste of industrial action, and though only twenty-two, he showed his skill at dealing with difficult situations by proposing a scheme which would stretch the meagre strike-fund for several weeks longer than it would if strike-pay alone was doled out. This was taken up, and Place was put in charge of selling goods made to raise money for the strike. Unfortunately, the strike was unsuccessful, and Place was blacklisted with every employer and master, so that he could not find work anywhere. Initially, this enforced period of unemployment made him bitter, and his bad temper became uncontrollable, with Elizabeth bearing the brunt, though there is no evidence that he ever physically abused her.

It was after realising that he was being unfair to his wife that he spent the rest of his six months unemployment studying, despite all their belongings going to the pawn shop, and only remaining in their lodging by the kindness of their landlady. Among the things he read were Greek and Roman histories, geography, anatomy, surgery, science, and the arts. He also read the books of Adam Smith and John Locke, and was influenced strongly by the works of David Hume. This period of study came to an end when one of Place's former employers decided that the treatment meted out for the strike leaders was unfair, and gave Place as much work as he could manage. Elizabeth was able to help Francis with stuff-breeches making, and together they set a punishing pace, sixteen to eighteen hours per day, seven days a week. They recovered all their pawned possessions, but for the first month Francis did not even find time to shave, such was his determination to end their poverty.

This work only lasted a few months, but Place had helped to set up trade clubs for carpenters and plumbers. He became a paid secretary for each of these, and he led several successful strikes. With the addition of work passed to him by members of his own trade, he maintained the family home, which now included his first surviving child. Around this time, Place seems to have thought about becoming a bookseller and publisher, but this was relatively short-lived. In 1796, Place started looking for customers so that he could set up in business as a tailor. Place had read Godwin's Political Justice and had determined that they could succeed in business by trading honestly with people. He persuaded suppliers to offer him credit by buying small amounts of materials at one shop, then carrying the goods to another to make further purchases. The shopkeepers offered him credit in order to secure the whole order in future, and by meticulously paying back what he owed in the period agreed, Place gained a reputation for honesty and integrity which led to two mercers and two woollen drapers being ready to offer any amount of credit when he needed it. In 1797, Place found that he had cash-flow problems, as he was obliged to offer credit to his customers, and this meant that the more customers he had, the more debt he was in.

In 1798 he took in a lodger, another tailor called Richard Wild, to help pay the rent, and in 1799 they went into business together. Financially, this was a struggle, but Place's good reputation allowed them to put on a good shop window. Place and Wild would often work from 6a.m. until midnight, and by the end of 1800 they had thirty-two tailors and four leather-breeches makers working for them. Wild turned out to be less than honest a year later when Place found out that his partner had secured loans to be able to buy the business from creditors if he dissolved the partnership, leaving Place with nothing, and little hope of starting over. This distressed Place, but he discussed things with his attorney who arranged a total of £1600 in loans for Place, based on his honesty. Wild outbid Place for the original business, but Place was able to set up his own. For five years he worked solely at establishing himself, stating that

... the most profitable part for me to follow was dancing attendance on silly people ... I knew well that to enable me to make money I must consent to much indignity, and insolence, to tyranny and injustice ... I can imagine nothing except being a footman or common soldier as more degrading than being either a barber or a tailor.

Place's ability to put up with such indignity paid dividends, and for 1815 he posted profits of £2500, and in 1817 he handed his business over to his son, Francis Junior, and retired from business. In the same year, Elizabeth had the last of their fifteen children. Elizabeth died in 1827, and in 1830, Place married an actress, Louisa Simeon Chatterley.

That is Francis Place the tailor, in itself a story of quite a remarkable man, but the story of Place the radical is even more worthy of note. Place may never have been elected to Parliament, but he was instrumental in many of the changes which took place in the social structure of the country, either during his lifetime, or shortly after. He is best known for his work in securing the legalisation of trade unions in 1824. He worked with Joseph Hume MP to get a Parliamentary Select committee set up to examine the issue of Unions, but only after a ten-year campaign. Place managed the committee, and drafted both the Committee's report, and the bill which became legislation. He showed his political acumen when he persuaded supporters of the bill not to speak in debates about the bill, and it was passed almost unnoticed. Place then fought unsuccessfully the next year to prevent his act being emasculated by the addition of clauses restricting molestation and defining trade unions in a very close way, but the meat of the Act, that workers could organise strikes, was retained.

It might seem strange that a tailor of low birth for that time should be so influential. Indeed, it was strange, and the fact that in 1825 Place wrote that

... he could read French with ease, law Latin, law French, and Saxon sufficient for his legal and antiquarian studies. He had a good knowledge of machinery and had assisted in the simplification of more than one complicated machine ... [He] had some knowledge of chemistry, geology, natural history, mathematics, and astronomy, and his studies in anatomy included attending dissections; his knowledge of geography was very competent. Metaphysics he considered "the master science" ... [He] believed that he understood [political economy] as well as almost anyone ... His greatest expertise was in law and jurisprudence ...

shows a vast array of knowledge, and all of it self-taught. This was a constant in Place's view of the world - that people should be given the right to self-improvement and education. He was a leading campaigner for laws to restrict the hours of work that were inflicted on children, and was instrumental in the Factory Acts in the early 1800s. In 1813 he was a member of the committee of the British and Foreign School Society, and in the 1820's he launched the London Mechanics Institute and helped to found London University, both of which were aimed at adult education. He had a hatred of the aristocracy, and he believed that the working people were deliberately kept down by those in power. Education was his "Holy Grail", and he kept a library above his shop which was open for anyone who had the desire to learn more about the world. His view of those in power was reinforced when his foreman showed the library to one of Place's upper class clients. Immediately the client took away his business and that of his friends. Place wrote

Had these persons been told that I never read a book, that I was ignorant of everything but my business, that I sotted in a public house , they would not have made the least objection to me. I should have been a 'fellow' beneath them, and they would have patronised me; but, - to accumulate books and to be supposed to know something of their contents, to seek for friends, too among literary and scientific men, was putting myself on an equality with themselves, if not indeed assuming a superiority; was an abominable offence in a tailor ...

Place's reference to his friends was not hyperbole. He was associated with Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, David Ricardo, with whom he examined the state of government finances in the period 1818-22, William Godwin, and several MP's and radicals throughout the country. Indeed, he even had the respect of Peel, who, via intermediaries, listened to Place's ideas on criminal law reforms.

One of Place's more curious attitudes for the time was that towards life. In 1813-15 he campaigned for improvement of conditions for lunatics. He believed that lunacy was hereditary, and that lunatics should therefore not be free to breed. Since this was impossible without putting the lunatics at the mercy of unscrupulous asylum keepers, it would be kinder to kill lunatics, but since this was not an option, he believed that the risk of ill treatment should be reduced. He supported the ill-fated London asylum project, and helped to block a bill which would have benefited doctors more than their patients. Related to this attitude was his belief in population control. He felt that the number of people in the lower orders created a situation in which employers did not need to show any compassion of fairness, because there was a surfeit of labour. The current view in Place's time was "moral restraint" and late marriage. Place was totally in opposition to this view, and he became the first proponent of the birth control movement. In 1818 he came across the contraceptive sponge following a friend's visit to France, and he immediately seems to have adopted its use. In 1822, he published Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, which for the first time put forward the case for birth control by contraception.

Place's strenuous propaganda in the years following the publication of this book was effectively the first pro-contraception movement, with Place circulating anonymous leaflets which gave details of methods of contraception between the years of 1823-26. He backed this up in his numerous letters and articles in newspapers, and never tired of trying to convert this friends to the same ideals. It should be noted that Place did not find out about contraception until after his fifteen children were born, and that he totally disagreed with Malthusian ideas, railing at Malthus' 'calumny against the common man' in Illustrations and Proofs. Of course, ideas relating to contraception were not popular with the church and the Establishment, but Place was aware from the start that he would be the target of attacks. An example comes in the form of an article in the Bull Dog, a periodical set up to counter the birth control movement, which accused Place of a ' ... most foul and devilish attempt, at corrupting the youth of both sexes in this country: an attempt at making no less than catamites of the male portion of the youth, and of the females, prostitutes.' Place also supported "free love", writing in 1824 ' ... would it not be desirable that sexual intercourse should be free.[sic] I think it would.' He was, however, careful to keep his opinions to himself, as he knew that the contraception campaign would not stand being associated with such an idea.

Another of Place' unorthodox ideas was that Britain in Saxon times had both universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments, and that this was therefore the way that things ought to be. Between 1812 and 1827 he researched this topic, finally publishing a very unconvincing paper on the subject. He seems to have believed that the Norman invasion in the 11th century had taken away basic civil rights, and that the aristocracy, being mainly derived from Norman stock, were continuing a policy that had been wrongly employed in the first place, therefore everything should go back to the way it was before the Normans came. As an idea it never took off, and Place seems to have gone away from it following his publication.

Place was a great advocate of the rights of the common people. He became involved with the London Corresponding Society in 1794, and according to his own account of things, he was soon elected to the general committee and became a member of one of the committees set up to assist the defence in the treason trials of members of the LCS. He states that he was spending a great deal of time at the Old Bailey between October and December 1794, and that he was ' ... very active and useful in directing others, and was well pleased to see the esteem in which I was held by those with whom I acted who were clever men in circumstances very superior to mine'. This seems to have acted as a springboard into political involvement, and in 1807 he was a key part of the radicals' General Election campaign in Westminster which saw their candidate, Sir Francis Burdett elected. This saw an upsurge of interest in Radical activity, and Westminster became the centre of a growing movement for the next two decades. From here, there was scarcely a year went by when Place was not involved in some radical activity, as a glance at the table of Place's activities will show.

Francis Place died in the night of 31 December 1853. His activities have impact on the social structure of the country today, and some, especially his ideas about birth control, have a world-wide relevance that he could not have imagined. If he had been born in this century, he would have been known as a civil- or human-rights campaigner. He cared passionately about the underprivileged of society, and he was loyal to the working people, never forgetting his own times of poverty. In his later life he wrote

I saw among them, much merit - much patient suffering - wonderful endurance - industry - care and desire to be and to appear respectable. I saw also the oppression of the laws as well as of most of their employers, and that also in which in its immediate effect is even more intolerable, the contumely with which all who thought themselves above them treated them. I not only saw all this but I felt it also, and I resolved never to abandon the working people and I never will.

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Last modified 12 January, 2016

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