On 23 February 1820, a new sort of terrorism was foiled when police raided a backstreet stable loft in central London and caught men preparing to assassinate the current Prime Minister and the entire British cabinet.
The so-called Cato Street conspiracy has echoes in more modern outrages. At the time it terrified ministers in Lord Liverpool’s Tory cabinet. But the overwhelming likelihood is that the real conspiracy was provoked and inspired by a spy in the pay of the government itself.
As James Ings, one of the plotters, an unemployed butcher from Hampshire, claimed at his trial: “This man has been at all the meetings, he has planned and done everything … I am sold like a bullock driven into Smithfield market.”
The conspiracy was the culmination of a series of demonstrations and uprisings that arose from economic dislocation, high food prices, high unemployment and reduced wages following the Napoleonic wars. It came six months after the Peterloo massacre, when armed troops had broken up a peaceful meeting calling for political reform in Manchester, killing 18 people and injuring hundreds more.
Some had already concluded that orderly demonstrations were not enough and that the government needed to be overthrown by force. Among them was Arthur Thistlewood, a 44-year-old Lincolnshire farmer’s son, who had drifted to London and become involved in previous violent protests. He had already led a mob attempting to seize the Bank of England in 1816, but was acquitted at his trial for treason after the chief prosecution witness was exposed as an agent provocateur. After that he had tried to emigrate to the US but lacked the money for his fare. The government kept tabs on him, but he continued plotting, abandoning a plan to drop a bomb on the heads of MPs in the Commons chamber in 1819 as impractical. Now the death of King George III in January 1820 appeared to give him another chance. He believed troops would be deployed away from London to Windsor, to guard the unpopular new king, George IV.
His trusted ally was George Edwards, who made plaster statuettes and formerly ran a shop in Eton High Street selling models of the school’s hated headmaster, John Keate, to the pupils for target practice. Edwards showed Thistlewood a newspaper that said the entire cabinet would be meeting for dinner at the government minister Lord Harrowby’s house in Grosvenor Square. Thistlewood seized the chance: he and his followers would invade the house and decapitate the ministers with cutlasses, sticking their heads on pikes on London Bridge. He called it “the West End job”. They would capture cannon from the artillery ground at Finsbury, take over the Bank of England and distribute its coinage, burning the paper currency as valueless. “Your tyrants are destroyed,” their manifesto would proclaim. All land would be held in common, redistributed from the aristocracy, and they believed a grateful working class would rise in support of their provisional government. Thistlewood hoped that at least 50 followers would turn up to help when they gathered in a loft above a dilapidated stable in Cato Street off Edgware Road. But on the night only 20 men arrived. Alarmed at how few of them there were, some attempted to back out, but others started to distribute swords, clubs and muskets provided by Edwards. Desperately, Thistlewood told them: “For God’s sake, do not think of dropping the business now.”
Outside in the street, Bow Street Runners were gathering, and a detachment of the Coldstream Guards was stationed nearby. The authorities knew all about the plan because Thistlewood’s trusted sidekick, Edwards, was in the pay of the government. Another of those in the loft, a milkman named Thomas Hiden, was also a spy and had warned Harrowby, the president of the council, of the plot. The cabinet had no intention of meeting that evening. The Bow Street Runners broke into the stables and clambered up a ladder into the hayloft, where they were met with chaos as some plotters grappled with them and others attempted to flee in the darkness. Thistlewood ran one of the officers through with a sword before clambering out through a window.
Many of the men were captured outside and others were rounded up after a list of names and addresses was found on one of the captives, William Davidson, from Jamaica where his father had been attorney general. Thistlewood unwisely took Edwards’s advice to hide in lodgings in Moorfields, where he was arrested the following morning. Some of the plotters turned king’s evidence, while others were transported to Australia, but Thistlewood and four others, including Ings and Davidson, were put on trial. All five men were literate, but all had fallen on hard times and were desperate. Their fate was not in doubt, though Edwards was spirited out of the country by the government and did not give evidence. He would die in South Africa in 1843.
Five men from the initial 11 sentenced to death for their roles in the Cato Street Conspiracy had this sentence carried out. These men were, Arthur Thistlewood, Richard Tidd, James Ings, William Davidson, and John Thomas Brunt. How each man conducted himself in their last moments is an essential component in understanding the character of the men involved in the conspiracy, and as such play a principal role in the wider history of the Cato Street Conspiracy. The May 1st execution of these men highlighted the barbaric nature of a legal system that these men sought to overthrow.
On the gallows, in front of a jeering crowd, Arthur Thistlewood recited the words from his Old Bailey speech:
Thistlewood was convinced that the future would exonerate him of the charges levied against him, much as it has throughout the course of history to revolutionary figures. He remained steadfast in his beliefs, principally in his Deist faith; he refused repeatedly the offers of the Ordinary of Newgate Horace Cotton to pray, like the majority of the men presented to the scaffold that day. Thistlewood refused a hood, and was reportedly sucking on an orange until the moment when the trapdoor beneath him swung open, killing him in short order.
Richard Tidd walked onto the scaffolding to cheers from the crowd. Tidd’s legs had given way while walking on the scaffolding, causing him to stagger across the stage, almost like a dance. The crowd cheered, to which Tidd acknowledged by ceremoniously bowing to the four sides of the scaffolds, at this point filled with onlookers. Much like Thistlewood, Tidd refused a hood and sucked on an orange until dropped from the gallows.
James Ings was in a manic state by the time he was escorted to the gallows. He had donned his bloodied butchers apron and asked that his other clothes be returned to his wife so that the executioner could not benefit from them; it was custom at this time for the executioner to possess and sell the clothes of the condemned after their sentence was carried out. When Ings walked onto the scaffold, he gave three cheers and a little dance, clearly expecting a reply from the crows assembled before Newgate Prison. This call was scantily returned. While awaiting his death, Ings sung the seditious (in the view of the government) song ‘Whilst Happy in My Native Land,’ that called upon Britons to defend their natural rights found in the Magna Carta. In the song, the one of the key lines from its chorus is “Give me Death or Liberty.” Such sentiments can be seen throughout the time period, most famously by the American Patrick Henry on the eve of the American Revolution. Despite his good intentions, Ings was chastised by Thistlewood for having a poor voice. Former Spencean Philanthropist and soon to be radical MP for Westminster John Cam Hobhouse, who was watching the execution from the crowd had this to say about the event; “Ings, perhaps, was too obstreperous in singing ‘Death of Liberty,’ I am not surprised that Thistlewood told Ings to be quiet ‘so we can die without all this noise.’ Ings never could hold a tune.” Tidd’s last words were something similar, saying “Don’t Ings. There is no use in all this noise. We can die without making a noise!”
William Davidson was the only conspirator to renounce his recent conversion to deism and make use of the services of the Ordinary of Newcastle Prison Horace Cotton. He held Rev’d Cottons hand on his way up the scaffold, and wore a hood/handkerchief much like Ings. He spent his final moments deep in prayer and had the final words “Lord God I pray for the prosperity of King George IV although not his ministers.”
John Thomas Brunt was the last of the conspirators to be called onto the scaffold. He clearly saw this as a slight against his person, and had this to say; “What, am I to be the last? Why is this? They can have my blood but once and why am I to be kept till last? But I suppose they’re afraid I shall say something to the people because I spoke my mind on the trial. However I don’t care.” Similar to Tidd and Thistlewood, Brunt refused to wear a hood. As the noose was placed around his neck, he took a pinch of snuff, a smokeless tobacco inhaled through the nasal cavity which delivers a fast hit of nicotine to the individual. His last words expressed anger at the sight of soldiers guarding the gallows: “What soldiers! What do they do here? I see nothing but a military Government will do for this country, unless there as good many as we are. I see a good many of my friends about.
Following the hanging of these five men, their bodies were left for approximately half an hour before they were cut down. The next phase of their sentence began, with the decapitation of their bodies, to be done by an anonymous but highly skilled individual. This man knew the best way to decapitate men, and begun with a deep cut across the front of the neck, angling the knife under the jaw to the foramen magnum, where the skull opens to allow the spinal cord to interact with the brain. The man would continue this angle of cut all around the neck of the deceased. When this was done, this man took hold of the head and violently twisted it in both directions, separating the head from the neck without needing to saw through fibrous ligaments that remained uncut by his blade. After each head was cut off, the decapitator would display it to the crowd, stating the name of the deceased as well as his sentence and crimes. When Brunt’s turn came, the man dropped the head, spurring cries from the gathered audience of “Yah! Butterfingers!”
The authorities were reportedly worried that the crowd would be agitated to the point of violence during the execution of the Conspiracists. Carpenters were called in to erect barriers to prevent the public from getting to close to the scaffolds, and units of soldiers were brought up in anticipation of violence. These were stationed out of sight of the crowd, but ready for action. In addition to the two troops of Life Guards, 8 artillery pieces were present to control the movement of the crowd, should things turn bloody. The force composition is similar to that which oversaw the Peterloo Massacre just years before. Large banners were prepared to be unfurled with orders to disperse. Thankfully, the crowd did not turn bloody. The crowd booed and jeered the heads of the conspirators as they were presented. Following the decapitation of the conspirators, the streets were flooded with celebration, complete with music and masks. Clearly, the worst fears of the government did not come true, and the popular support the conspiracists thought would materialize never did.