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The Cato Street Conspiracy

In the first of my Soho Club novellas, I introduced my Regency-era spies Claire and Xander. In the second story in this series, my readers met Ada and Felix. Both stories dovetail across the telling of a real Regency-era event: the badly organised (and even more poorly executed) Cato Street Conspiracy. Let's see if I can describe it for you without any spoilers.


The Year Was 1820:

A change of monarch is always a turbulent time in a nation's history, but consider the special circumstances attending the Regency era itself. In 1811 the Prince of Wales became Regent by an act of Parliament, due to the incapacity of King George III. It's worth remembering that the prince was not terribly popular with the populace. The Napoleonic wars made life hard for the average Englishman and watching a profligate prince become king at the age of 57 did the monarchy no favours.

In 1820 the Duke of Kent (the Regent's younger brother) passed away on 23 January and then the monarch himself, King George III, died on 29 January. The nation was already in mourning by the time King George IV (formerly the Regent) assumed the throne. It's also a fact that the general populace was suffering with high produce prices and the problem of too many returned soldiers with not enough work to keep them busy. This resulted in increased crime rates in the capital, and a deeply discontented populace. Bear in mind that a similar dissatisfaction with the monarchy had led to revolution in France in 1789 - less than thirty years earlier. The new English parliament were (not unreasonably) concerned.


The Conspiracy:

The Cato Street Conspiracy was a real-life plot to murder all the British cabinet ministers, as well as the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool. The name 'Cato Street' comes from the revolutionaries' meeting place near Edgewater Road in London. The police (newly formed) had an informer; the plotters fell into a police trap. Thirteen insurrectionists were arrested while one policeman, Richard Smithers, was killed.

How widespread the Cato Street conspiracy was is uncertain. In times of unrest, rumours abound. Sources noted that 'the London-Irish community and a number of trade societies, notably shoemakers, were prepared to lend support, while unrest and awareness of a planned rising were widespread in the industrial north and on Clydeside.' As you can see, my Irish heroines were fairly true to life, as is the suspicion Ada Ryan falls under in my novella.


Spencean Philanthropists:

Inspired by the British radical speaker Thomas Spence, the conspirators titled themselves 'Spencean Philanthropists'. This group was already known for troublemaking, producing propaganda and plotting the overthrow of the government. Some of the men involved, such as Arthur Thistlewood, were involved with the Spa Fields riots in 1816. Thistlewood led the group, with George Edwards as his second in command. Edwards was a police spy.

In a meeting held on 22 February, George Edwards suggested that the group could exploit the political situation and kill all the cabinet ministers after invading a fabricated cabinet dinner at the home of Lord Harrowby, Lord President of the Council. He even provided funds to arm the conspirators with pistols and grenades.

Thistlewood thought the act would trigger a massive uprising against the government. James Ings, a coffeeshop keeper and former butcher, later announced that he would have decapitated all the cabinet members and taken two heads to exhibit on Westminster Bridge. Thistlewood spent the next hours trying to recruit more men for the attack. Twenty-seven men joined the effort, unaware that the dinner at Harrowby's was a fiction - and a trap.


The Trap is Sprung:

Jamaican-born William Davidson had worked for Lord Harrowby. The group designated him to find more details about the cabinet dinner. On inquiry, Davidson learned that Harrowby was not at home. When Davidson informed Thistlewood, the leader of the conspiracists refused to believe it. One of the men rented a small house in Cato Street as their base of operations.

Edwards kept the police fully informed at each step. Some of the other members had suspected Edwards, but Thistlewood made him his top aide. Edwards had presented the idea of the attack with the full knowledge of the Home Office, which had put the advertisement about the supposed dinner in The New Times. When Edwards reported that his would-be comrades were ready to follow his suggestions, the Home Office took action.


Arrest:

On 23 February, Richard Birnie, Bow Street magistrate, and George Ruthven, another police spy, waited at a public house on the other side of the Cato Street building, with twelve Bow Street Runners. Birnie and Ruthven waited for the afternoon because they had been promised reinforcements from the Coldstream Guards, under the command of Captain FitzClarence (illegitimate son of the Duke of Clarence and later William IV). Thistlewood's group arrived during that time. At 7:30 pm, the Bow Street Runners decided to apprehend the conspirators themselves. The Coldstream Guards had not appeared.

In the resulting brawl, Thistlewood killed Bow Street Runner Richard Smithers with a sword. Some conspirators surrendered peacefully, while others resisted forcefully. William Davidson was captured. Thistlewood, Robert Adams, John Brunt and John Harrison slipped out through the back window, but were arrested a few days later.


Trial and executions:

During the trial, the defence argued that the statement of Edwards, a government spy, was unreliable and he was therefore never called to testify. Police persuaded two of the men, Robert Adams and John Monument, to testify against other conspirators in exchange for dropped charges. On 28 April most of the accused were sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason. All sentences were later commuted, at least in respect of this medieval form of execution, to hanging and beheading. The death sentences of Charles Cooper, Richard Bradburn, John Harrison, James Wilson and John Strange were commuted to transportation for life.

Arthur Thistlewood, Richard Tidd, James Ings, William Davidson and John Brunt were hanged at Newgate Prison on the morning of 1 May 1820 in front of a crowd of many thousands, some having paid as much as three guineas for a good vantage point from the windows of houses overlooking the scaffold. Infantry were stationed nearby, out of sight of the crowd. Two troops of Life Guards were present, and eight artillery pieces were deployed commanding the road at Blackfriars Bridge. Large banners had been prepared with a painted order to disperse. These were to be displayed to the crowd if trouble caused the authorities to invoke the Riot Act. This was unnecessary. There was no trouble.

The hangman was John Foxton. After the bodies had hung for half an hour, they were lowered one at a time and an unidentified individual in a black mask decapitated them against an angled block with a small knife. Each beheading was accompanied by shouts, booing and hissing from the crowd and each head was displayed to the assembled spectators, declaring it to be the head of a traitor, before placing it in the coffin with the remainder of the body.


Legacy:

The British government used the incident to justify the Six Acts that had been passed two months before. However, in the House of Commons Matthew Wood MP accused the government of purposeful entrapment of the conspirators to smear the campaign for parliamentary reform. Although there is evidence that Edwards did incite certain actions of the conspirators, the idea is not supported by modern historians.

The treasonous plot is the subject of many books, as well as a play, Cato Street, written by the actor and author Robert Shaw, and a 2019 Edinburgh Fringe show, Cato Street 1820, written and performed by David Benson. The conspiracy was also the basis for a 1976 BBC Radio 4 drama 'Thistlewood' by Stewart Conn and 2001 radio drama, Betrayal: The Trial of William Davidson, by Tanika Gupta. The Cato Street Conspiracy is featured in the short animation Cato Street to Newgate written and directed by Jason Young...

...and of course, my Regency novella series based in and around the Soho Club.

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