Thursday, March 7, 2013


February 1820 Dancing around the maypole on Mayday, 1820. On top of the maypole are the heads of:
John Thomas Brunt (1782–1820);
William Davidson (1781–1820);
James Ings (1794–1820);
Arthur Thistlewood (1774–1820);
and, Richard Tidd (1773–1820).
The execution of the Cato Street Conspirators 1 May 1820 from An Authentic A History of the Cato Conspiracy by George Wilkinson The London Museum
The Cato Conspiracy, although not as prominent in history as the Peterloo Massacre and the Spitalfields riots, has been remembered for its absurdity and the horrible ending the conspirators faced. What followed was dissenting public opinion regarding the punishment of the conspirators.  The conspirators were called the Spencean Philanthropists, a group taking their name from the British radical speaker, Thomas Spence. The group was known for being a revolutionary organization, involved in minor unrest and propaganda.While some supported the high-ended attempts to ensure that the Spencean Philanthropists were found guilty, others remained conflicted due to the demand of parliamentary reform.
Arthur Thistlewood engraving 1820
Interior of the hayloft in Cato Street occupied by the conspirators.
Beneath the romance of the Regency, the dandies, the poets, the glamor of Prinny’s court, the conspiracy reveals the real characters of the age. Arthur Thistlewood was one of its leaders. A Republican, who supposedly had lost a fortune before serving as an officer in the French Republican Army, he was a magnificent swordsman. A loudmouthed, taciturn man, said to be rather naïve. He had come to London in the autumn of 1819 during the disintegration of the radical movement, and involved himself in the Spitalfields riots.  Disappointed by the result, he still managed to convince himself that one violently dramatic blow against authority would raise the country. He gathered around him a small group of simple-minded working men. They met in a barn in Cato Street, off the Edgware Road, to decide upon a target.  The second in command, George Edwards, put up most of the suggestions. Thistlewood rejected them because they involved the death of innocent persons. A grand cabinet dinner was finally agreed upon, which was thought to offer them the best opportunity. Angered by the Six Acts and the Peterloo Massacre, as well as with the economic and political depression of the time. They planned to assassinate a number of cabinet ministers, overthrow the government and establish a "Committee of Public Safety" to oversee a radical revolution, similar to the French Revolution. According to the prosecution at their trial, they had intended to form a provisional government headquartered in the Mansion House.
But the men were betrayed by Edwards, a government spy and agent provocateur. There was to be no cabinet dinner; the announcement of it had been planted in the press to deceive the conspirators. While they gathered together, the men were arrested. Thistlewood resisted and ran his sword through one of the Bow Street Runners.
Liverpool’s government faced a general election in March, and this sensational affair at the end of February was just what they needed.
At the trial in April, one of the men, Ings, a butcher, cried out: “I am like a bullock drove into Smithfield market to be sold. Lord Sidmouth knew all about this for two months.”
William Davidson
Thistlewood, Ings, Brunt, Tidd and Davidson were sentenced to be publicly hanged (and then have their heads cut off) on 1 May. Another five were transported. In court, while the Lord Chief Justice was pronouncing his doom, Thistlewood took snuff and gazed indifferently around the courtroom.
Brunt, a shoemaker, boldly informed the court that when his weekly earnings went down from 3 or 4 pounds to ten shillings, he began to look about him, and what he found were “men in power, who met to deliberate how they might starve and plunder the country.” (A not unreasonable comment on Liverpool’s government)
Ings’ last letter to his wife before he was hanged stated “…I must die according to the law, and leave you in a land full of corruption…”
The men were hanged on the first day in May 1820, a fine morning. It was successful as a May-day spectacle. Even the poorest seats fetched half-a-crown, and those with a good view paid three guineas. 

Ing sang Death or Liberty at the top of his voice on the way to the gallows and Thistlewood responded: “Be quiet Ings; we can die without all this noise.”
Bucks of the first head, Thomas Raikes and his friend Lord Alvanley, who never liked to miss anything, attended the ceremony. But Raikes wrote afterwards: “It was the first execution I ever saw, and shall be the last.”

Maggi Andersen is writing a historical romance series set during these years of unrest. Book one, A Baron in Her Bed – The Spies of Mayfair, has been released on the 6th March 2013 with Knox Robinson Publishing.
THE PRINCE OF PLEASURE and His Regency, J.B. Priestley.


  1. This event reminds me of a "terrorist conspiracy" case from a few years ago. The more things change... Great post!

  2. Thanks Lauren. I doubt it had the gruesome ending!

  3. Hi Maggi - my 3x great grandfather was George Ruthven, Bow Street detective, who stormed the stable room and recaptured Thistlewood following his initial escape.

  4. Hi Maggi - my 3x great grandfather was George Ruthven, Bow Street detective, who stormed the stable room and recaptured Thistlewood following his initial escape.


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