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James Watson (1766?-1838)

This article was written by Gerald le Grys Norgate and was published in 1899

James Watson, Spencean agitator, born about 1766, was probably a Scotsman, and may have been the person of that name who in 1787 published at Edinburgh a Dissertatio Inauguralis Medica de Amenorrhea. He afterwards came to London, and was officially described in 1817 as ‘surgeon, late of Bloomsbury,’ where he lived in Hyde Street with his son, who bore the same name and is similarly described. He may, however, have been only a chemist and apothecary, as he is called in his obituary notice; and in any case he could have had little practice, as he was in very poor circumstances.

“Dr.” Watson and his son James early connected themselves with the ‘Societies of Spencean Philanthropists’ founded in 1814 by Thomas Evans, a traces-maker, to carry on the designs of Thomas Spence. They held that private ownership of land was unchristian, and advocated ‘parochial partnership.’ They met weekly at one or other of four London taverns, the chief of which was the Cock in Grafton Street, Soho. In spite of the alarmist reports of the secret committees of the two houses of parliament in 1817, the Spenceans were very harmless as a body, and not only never had provincial branches, but, as Evans told Francis Place, at no time numbered more than fifty persons.

The peace of 1815 was followed by great distress and discontent among the labouring population, and of this some of the Spenceans, including the Watsons (father and son) and Arthur Thistlewood, constituted themselves exponents. They were joined by a man named Castle, a figure or doll maker, and a committee was formed consisting of themselves and two others, operatives named Preston and Hooper. They met in Greystoke Place, near Fetter Lane. Castle, it seems highly probable, acted throughout as an agent provocateur for the government. According to his story, he struck up an acquaintance with the others at a Spencean meeting in the autumn of 1816, and went about with Watson preparing a revolution which was to follow public meetings in Spa Fields. Thistlewood was to be the head, and the other five, generals under him, Watson the elder being second in command. Attempts were made to rouse the discontented workmen, and especially the ‘navigators’ in Paddington, and some efforts were made to seduce the soldiers. Watson himself prepared combustibles for blowing up the cavalry barracks in Portman Square. Two hundred and fifty pikes were made. The streets were to be barricaded and the Tower and the Bank seized.

On 15 November 1816 a meeting of distressed operatives was held in Spa Fields, Islington, at which all the conspirators were present. Henry Hunt addressed them. A petition was prepared which he was to present to the prince regent, and a further meeting was to be called to receive the answer to it. It was proposed that this should take place after the assembling of parliament in the following February; but young Watson opposed this, and it was agreed that the second meeting should be held on 2 December.

Placards were printed and posted in London summoning workmen to attend, and declaring that there were ‘four million in distress.’ Hunt's petition was not received, and he himself contrived to be late for the meeting on 2 December. The elder Watson opened the meeting on that day. He spoke from a waggon, and concluded, ‘Ever since the Norman conquest kings and lords have been deluding you … but this must last no longer.’ His son succeeded in a much more violent strain, with allusions to African slaves and Wat Tyler and a personal attack upon the regent. Finally exclaiming: ‘If they will not give us what we want, shall we not take it?’ he seized a tricolour and called on the people to follow him. The mob then went through Clerkenwell and Smithfield to Snow Hill. A gunsmith's shop in Skinner Street was plundered, and young Watson wounded with a pistol a customer who was in it named Platt. He was arrested, but escaped after having lain concealed for some months in a house in Bayham Street belonging to his father's friend, Henry Holl, an actor.

Meanwhile the mob was met at the Royal Exchange by the lord mayor and a few police, who succeeded in taking their flag from them. Part of them then went through the Minories, where they rifled another gunsmith's shop, towards the Tower. Thistlewood and the elder Watson called to the soldiers on guard to surrender. Soon afterwards, when a few soldiers showed themselves, the people were easily dispersed. The same evening Watson and Thistlewood were arrested at Highgate on suspicion of being footpads. They were armed, and made some resistance. Next day they were committed to the Tower, with Preston and Hooper. A plan of the Tower and of the contemplated operations was found at Watson's new lodgings at Dean Street, Fetter Lane, as well as a list of a ‘committee of public safety,’ which contained the names of Sir Francis Burdett, Lord Cochrane, Major Cartwright, Hunt, and other radicals.

On 29 April 1817 a true bill was found by the grand jury of Middlesex against the prisoners, who were charged with high treason. On 17 May they were arraigned and assigned counsel. The younger Watson was included in the indictment, and a reward of £500 was offered for his apprehension. The trial began on 9 June before the court of king's bench, presided over by Lord Ellenborough.

Watson was tried first. The proceedings against him lasted a whole week. For the crown the chief law officers, Sir Samuel Shepherd and Sir Robert Gifford (afterwards first Baron Gifford), appeared; (Sir) Charles Wetherell and Serjeant John Singleton Copley (afterwards Lord Lyndhurst) defended Watson. Castle the informer was easily discredited. Orator Hunt, the chief witness for the defence, testified to the comparative moderation of the elder Watson, who briefly disclaimed having had any intention whatever against ‘the form of government established by king, lords, and commons.’ In spite of an able reply by the solicitor-general, and the summing up of Ellenborough in favour of the prosecution, the jury brought in a verdict of ‘not guilty.’ The prosecution of the remaining prisoners was then dropped.

Legal authorities held that had Watson and his associates been indicted merely for riot, they must have been convicted; but the government, it was thought, desired something on which they could ground the repressive measures which they soon afterwards passed. In Place's opinion, which appears to be borne out by other considerations, the mob were ‘a contemptible set of fools and miscreants, whom twenty constables could have dispersed.’ Watson was ‘a half-crazy creature,’ and his son ‘a wild, profligate fellow as crazy as his father.’ The elder was, he adds, a man of loose habits and wretchedly poor. He continued his life as an agitator. He was not personally implicated in the Cato Street conspiracy, though his son was. Some time afterwards, however, he went to America, where he died in poor circumstances at New York on 12 February 1838.

Samuel Bamford, who met him soon after the trial, describes Watson as having somewhat of a polish in his gait and manner, and a certain respectability and neatness in his dress. Watson and his friend Preston were in Bamford's opinion two of the most influential leaders of the London operative reformers of the day, though the first had a better heart than head. The younger Watson died two years before his father.

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