ARTHUR THISTLEWOOD, JAMES INGS, JOHN THOMAS BRUNT, RICHARD TIDD AND WILLIAM DAVIDSON
Leaders in the Cato Street Conspiracy
ON the cessation of the war which ended in Bonaparte being exiled to St Helena, Great Britain found herself subject to those temporary domestic difficulties which always succeed a return from hostility to peace. Agriculture, trade and commerce became, for the instant, almost torpid, and thousands of the labouring classes were thrown out of employment.
In this moment of paramount distress the evil-minded and the designing, taking advantage of the disposition of the people, and urged by personal considerations, continued those attacks upon the Ministry of the country which they had hitherto made without success, and the people, whose attention was now withdrawn from the object which had hitherto served to keep their minds occupied, were easily led away and persuaded that the dangers and difficulties which appeared to exist were the result of bad management only, and were of a nature likely to be permanent, and most injurious to their well-being. The existence of the evil was attributed to some defects which were pointed out in the representative system; and as this was considered to be the root of the evil, the name of Radical (from radix, the Latin word for a root) was given to the persons who espoused these new opinions. The party in itself, both as regarded reputation and numbers, was contemptible to a degree. Arthur Thistlewood, Dr James Watson, James Watson, jun., Thomas Preston, John Hooper, and a man named Hunt, who eventually became a Member of Parliament, were the most notorious of these agitators. Meetings were held in various parts of the kingdom, for the ostensible purpose of petitioning for parliamentary reform, and the metropolis followed the example.
The first meeting took place, 15th of November, 1816, in the Spafields, then a wild unenclosed space. The circulation of some addresses proved that the object of the meeting was not of that peaceful nature which its promoters pretended to ascribe to it. On the day appointed, soon after twelve o'clock, the assemblage of the mob commenced, and in less than half-an-hour about five thousand persons had collected round a party supporting tricoloured flags. A cart was placed on this spot, and in a short time Dr Watson, his son, and Mr Hooper, all carrying tricoloured cockades in their hats, ascended this rostrum, and were hailed with loud cheers. The Doctor and his son then addressed the meeting in most inflammatory speeches; and the latter, having wound himself up to a pitch of the most ungovernable fury, called upon the people to follow him, and jumping from his elevated position he rushed, pistol in hand, at the head of the mob, towards Clerkenwell. The mob rushed the shop of Mr Beckwith, a gunmaker, and carried away all the arms they could find. They then marched under the guidance of their leader to the Tower, and then, while young Watson endeavoured to win the soldiers from their allegiance, by assuring them of the good feeling which prevailed towards them on the part of the people, and that they should receive a hundred guineas per man if they would join them, the mob continued to scour the neighbourhood in search of arms. While, however, the great body of the rioters had thus followed in the steps of their leader, others pursued a different direction, and, taking St Giles's, St Clement's and the Strand in their march, despoiled every shop which they approached of such articles as they deemed might be useful to them. The eruption was so sudden that the means of opposing the proceedings of the rioters could not speedily be obtained. The Lord Mayor, Sir Matthew Wood, showed great determination; and, notwithstanding the most violent proceedings on the part of these fellows, he and Sir James Shaw, the Chamberlain, succeeded in securing three of the insurgents, who had entered the Royal Exchange, and were armed with guns.
The military at length appeared, and many of the rioters were secured, while the others, having thrown away their arms, quickly disappeared. Young Watson, however, was nowhere to be found; and it appears that immediately after he quitted the Tower, being alarmed at his position, he hastily returned to his lodgings, and possessing himself of some papers and other articles went to a public-house in Fetter Lane, where he found his father and Thistlewood. The trio considered themselves as being likely to be taken into custody, and they in consequence quitted London for Northampton immediately. On their arriving at Highgate, however, they were seized, on suspicion of being footpads, but a scuffle taking place, the elder Watson alone remained in the hands of their assailants, while his companions effected their escape.
The Government had received information of a formidable and dangerous conspiracy, in which Dr Watson and others were stated to be deeply implicated, and the parties were in consequence apprehended, and with the Doctor were committed to the Tower.
A bill being found by the grand jury, Watson, Thistlewood, Preston and Hooper were brought up from the Tower to the Court of King's Bench, on the 17th of May, 1817. They severally pleaded not guilty, and were then taken back to the Tower, from which they were again brought up on the 9th of June.
Dr Watson was first arraigned, and John Castles was the witness called to prove the most material facts against him. He said that he became acquainted with the prisoner about a month before the Spafields meeting, and saw him at the Cock, in Grafton Street, where he went to meet a society called the Spenceans. On the following night he met Watson and Preston by appointment at the Mulberry Arms, Moorfields, at a society of the same description; and he there saw present young Watson, Hooper, Thistlewood, the two Evanses, father and son, and one John Harrison. After the meeting broke up he walked away with the elder Watson, who observed that it was a very easy matter to upset Government, provided a few good fellows would act together. He then said that he had drawn out a plan that would debar the cavalry from acting, by interrupting the horses, and that he had got several people who had solicited at different houses, and that they had formed a committee, which was sitting, to devise the best modes and plans. He inquired where the witness lived, and promised to call the next morning, and show him the plan.
In pursuance of this appointment he called at the lodging of Castles on the following Sunday morning, and produced several papers, one of which was a plan of the Tower, and another a plan of the machine, which he had described on the Thursday before, for obstructing the cavalry. It was to run upon four wheels, with sharp knives, which were to be on each side, and spikes in the middle. The knives were to be something like scythes, and placed horizontally. There were also several other drawings of the Tower Bridge, and different places and entrances about the Tower. "He then," continued Castles, "asked me how many men I could bring; and how many I knew. I told him I knew a great many, but I did not know whether they would act when put to the test; he begged I would exert myself as much as I could. I told him that I was a smith, and that I had nothing but my little business to live on; but he said never to mind that; they would find something better for me than that; they had plenty of money for everything. We then made another appointment, and I met him at one Newton's. Similar conversation took place there, and he said they had got a committee consisting of five -- namely, Harrison, Preston, Thistlewood and his son, and himself -- and that I should be made one of the generals, and head a party of pikemen and other men, and that I should hear further in a few days, and might consider myself as one of the committee from that time; that I should make the sixth, and they would not have any more.
"Shortly afterwards I met the elder Watson, and we went to King Street barracks, and across the Park to a small magazine in Hyde Park, where the powder is kept, to examine the whole of the avenues, and determine which was the best place for setting fire to the barracks. There was also one Skinner with us, but he left us in the Park, and Watson said he had thought that Skinner was a cleverer man than he really was; that he had intended to have made an officer of him, but he found him not at all as he had calculated, as he had not any cultivated idea whatever.
"About this time I was introduced to Thistlewood, by one John Harrison. Thistlewood asked me how much money it would take to make a few hundred pikes, and how long it would take me. I told him it would depend entirely on their size, and the steel or iron they should be made of. He said they should be about nine or ten inches long; and I told him that they would come to about fourpence or fourpence-halfpenny a pound. He wished me to make one for a pattern; and I told him I would, but that I had no place to make them in. Harrison replied that he knew a person who would lend me the use of his forge. Hooper and Harrison went with me to a little shop in a cellar, kept by a man of the name of Bentley, in Hart Street. I asked him to allow me to make use of his forge to make a pike, to put round a rabbit-warren or fishpond. He told me that if I would look out a piece of iron he would make it himself. When it was done it was given to me, and I took it away. I afterwards carried it to one Randall's, where I met the two Watsons, and Thistlewood, Harrison and Hooper; and Watson said that it was a famous instrument. Watson then wrote down the name of the house where the committee sat, No. 9 Greystoke Place, on a paper for me.
"A day or two afterwards the committee met in Greystoke Place, to deliberate upon the best plan to set fire to the barracks, and to get all the men we could together. When we met, Thistlewood produced a map of London. It was marked out with which were the best roads to take; and we arranged the number of men who were to be collected together at the different barracks and places to be attacked. The whole of the committee were to act as generals; to have their several stations, and were to attack the separate barracks at one given time and moment. Watson proposed Thistlewood as the head general. Thistlewood and young Watson were to take the guns and two field-pieces that were in the artillery ground in Gray's Inn Lane; Preston was to attack the Tower; Harrison the artillery barracks near Regent's Park; and I was to set fire to the King Street barracks, and either to take the men prisoners or kill those that might attempt to escape; the elder Watson was to set fire to the Portland Street barracks. We were to attack the whole of those places at a given hour, and set them on fire at one in the morning; we were to take any person we met and make them join us -- such as gentlemen's servants; and coachmen were to be taken from their carriages, and those who could ride were to have the horses, which were to form a cavalry, and the coaches and carriages were to be used to barricade the entrances. After I had set fire to the King Street barracks, and after we had seen that all were in flames, and that none had made their escape, I was to meet the elder Watson at the top of Oxford Street. Harrison was to join us with the artillery, which he was to bring from the barracks by Regent's Park, and as soon as that was done there was to be a volley fired, to let the remainder know we had got possession of the artillery. Piccadilly Gate was to be fastened and chained, and a party stationed there to fire upon the horse if they attempted to come from the barracks, and then others were to proceed towards Charing Cross and Westminster Bridge, and barricade there all the avenues upon that side, to prevent them coming round by Chelsea and that way, and then young Watson and Thistlewood, after getting possession of the guns, were to break open all the oil-shops and gunsmiths' shops, in which they could find either combustibles or arms. They were then to blockade Chancery Lane and Gray's Inn Lane to St Giles's, where Thistlewood was to make his grand stand. One gun was to be pointed up Tottenham Court Road and the other up Oxford Street.
"Preston, if he had not succeeded in taking the Tower, was to barricade London Bridge, to prevent the artillery coming from Woolwich. He was then to barricade Whitechapel, to prevent any troops coming from the country that way; and then, when he had a body sufficient, the main body was to have met at the Bank."
Witness proceeded to give many more details of the plot, and described how, when an attempt was made to carry it into effect, the mob threw down their arms at the approach of the military, while the ringleaders escaped into the country.
On his cross-examination it appeared that the witness was a Government spy, and that his morals admirably fitted him for such an employment. There were few crimes, short of murder, with which he was not made to charge himself. On the sixth day of the trial Mr Hunt and several other witnesses were called, whose testimony went to impeach the credit of Castles and others for the prosecution, after which counsel was heard for the prisoner, and the Attorney-General spoke in reply.
Watson having declined to make any defence after the ability displayed by his counsel, Lord Ellenborough proceeded to charge the jury, who returned a verdict of acquittal, founded apparently upon the incredibility of the testimony of the witness Castles.
It was not until the 24th of February, 1820, that the public were made aware of another plot to which Dr Watson was a party and which had for its object the assassination of the whole of his Majesty's Ministers. On the morning of that date a proclamation was plentifully distributed throughout the metropolis, offering a reward of a thousand pounds for the apprehension of the notorious Arthur Thistlewood, on a charge of high treason and murder, and pronouncing the heaviest penalties against all who should harbour or conceal him from justice.
It would appear that it had been long known to the Members of the Government that a plan was in meditation by which they would all be murdered, and that Thistlewood was one of the originators of and prime movers in the horrid design; but in accordance with the system which then existed -- of waiting until the crime should be all but matured, in order to secure a conviction of the offenders -- they determined to make no effort to crush the scheme until a period should have arrived when their own safety rendered it necessary. The conspirators, meanwhile, having weighed various plans and projects for the accomplishment of their object, eventually determined to select the evening of Wednesday, the 23rd of February, as that on which they would carry out their plot, and it was deemed advisable that this night should be fixed upon because it became known to them, by an announcement in the newspapers, that a Cabinet dinner would then be held at the house of Lord Harrowby, in Grosvenor Square. Contemptible as the means possessed by the conspirators were to carry their design fully into execution, it is certain, from the confession of one of them, that the first part of their project was planned with so much circumstantial exactness that the assassination of all the Ministers would have been secured. It would appear that it was arranged that one of the party should proceed to Lord Harrowby's house with a parcel addressed to his lordship, and that when the door was opened his companions should rush in, bind or, in case of resistance, kill the servants, and occupy all the avenues of the house, while a select band proceeded to the chamber where the Ministers were at dinner, and massacred the whole of them indiscriminately. To increase the confusion, hand-grenades were prepared, which it was intended should be thrown lighted into the several rooms, and one of the party engaged to bring away the heads of Lords Castlereagh and Sidmouth in a bag, which he had provided for that purpose.
Thus far the conspirators might probably have carried their plans into effect, but of the scheme for a general revolution which these men -- whose number never exceeded thirty -- appear to have considered themselves capable of accomplishing we cannot seriously speak. Among other arrangements, the Mansion House -- selected, we suppose, for its proximity to the Bank -- was fixed upon for the "palace of the provisional government."
The place chosen for the final organisation of their proceedings, and for collecting their force previous to immediate action, was a half-dilapidated tenement in an obscure street called Cato Street, near the Edgware Road. The premises were composed of a stable, with a loft above, and had been for some time unoccupied.
The information upon which Ministers proceeded in frustrating the schemes of the conspirators was derived from a man named Edwards, who pretended to enter into their views, for the purpose of betraying them.
Thus accurately informed of the intentions of the gang, measures were taken for their apprehension. A strong body of constables and police officers, supported by a detachment of the Guards, was ordered to proceed to Cato Street, under the direction of Mr (afterwards Sir Richard) Birnie, the magistrate. On arriving at the spot they found that the conspirators had taken the precaution to place a sentinel below, and that the only approach to the loft was by passing up a ladder, and through a trap-door so narrow as not to admit more than one at a time. Ruthven led the way, followed by Ellis, Smithers and others of the Bow Street patrol, and on the door being opened they discovered the whole gang, in number between twenty and thirty, hastily arming themselves. There was a carpenter's bench in the room, on which lay a number of cutlasses, bayonets, pistols and sword-belts, and a considerable quantity of ammunition. Ruthven, upon bursting into the loft, announced himself as a peace officer, and called upon them to lay down their arms. Thistlewood stood near the door with a drawn sword, and Smithers advanced upon him, when the former made a lunge, and the unfortunate officer received the blade in his breast, and almost immediately expired.
About this time the Guards, who had been delayed in consequence of their having entered the street at the wrong end, arrived, under the command of Captain (Lord Adolphus) Fitzclarence, and mounted the ladder; but, as the conspirators had extinguished the lights, fourteen or fifteen of them succeeded in making their escape, and Thistlewood, the chief of the gang, was among the number. A desperate conflict now took place, and at length nine persons were made prisoners -- namely, Ings, Wilson, Bradburn, Gilchrist, Cooper, Tidd, Monument, Shaw and Davidson. They were all immediately conveyed to Bow Street, together with a large quantity of arms, consisting of pistols, guns, swords and pikes, and a large sackful of hand-grenades, besides other ammunition, which had been found in the loft. The same means by which the conspiracy had been discovered was now adopted in order to procure the discovery of the hiding-place of Thistlewood, and it was found that, instead of his returning to his own lodgings in Stanhope Street, Clare Market, on the apprehension of his fellows, he had gone to an obscure house, No. 8 White Street, Moorfields. On the morning of the 24th of February, at nine o'clock, Lavender and others of the Bow Street patrol were dispatched to secure his apprehension; and after planting a guard round the house, so as to prevent the possibility of his escaping, they entered a room on the ground floor, where they found the object of their inquiry in bed, with his stockings and breeches on. In his pockets were found some ball cartridges and flints, a black girdle or belt, which he was seen to wear at Cato Street, and a military sash.
He was first conveyed to Bow Street, and there shortly examined by Sir R. Birnie, by whom he was subsequently conducted to Whitehall, where he was introduced to the presence of the Privy Council. He was still handcuffed, but he mounted the stairs leading to the council chamber with great alacrity. On his being informed of the nature of the charges made against him by the Lord Chancellor, he declined saying anything, and was remanded to prison. In the course of the week several other persons were apprehended as being accessories to the plot; and, on the 3rd of March, Thistlewood, Monument, Brunt, Ings, Wilson, Harrison, Tidd and Davidson were committed to the Tower as state prisoners, the rest of the persons charged being sent back to Coldbath Fields Prison, where they had been previously confined.
The case of the parties to this most diabolical conspiracy immediately received the attention of the law officers of the Crown; and on the 15th of April, 1820, a special commission being issued, the prisoners were arraigned at the bar of the Old Bailey on the charge of high treason, and also of murder, in having caused the death of the unfortunate Smithers. There were eleven prisoners -- Arthur Thistlewood, William Davidson (a man of colour), James Ings, John Thomas Brunt, Richard Tidd, James Wilson, John Harrison, Richard Bradburn, John Shaw Strange, James Gilchrist and Charles Cooper -- and they all pleaded not guilty to the charges preferred against them.
Counsel having been assigned to the prisoners, and the necessary forms having been gone through, Thistlewood received an intimation that his case would be taken on Monday morning, the 17th of the same month, and the prisoners were remanded to that day.
At the appointed time, accordingly, Arthur Thistlewood was placed at the bar. He looked pale, but evinced his usual firmness. The jury having been sworn, and the indictment read, the Attorney-General stated the case at great length, and twenty-five witnesses were examined in support of the prosecution, among whom were several accomplices, whose testimony was satisfactorily corroborated. Some of those who appeared to give evidence had been apprehended on the fatal night in Cato Street, but were now admitted witnesses for the Crown. After a trial which occupied the Court four days, Thistlewood was found guilty of high treason. He heard the verdict with his wonted composure, seeming to have anticipated it; for when it was pronounced he appeared quite indifferent to what so fatally concerned him.
The evidence against Tidd, Ings, Davidson and Brunt, whose trials came on next in succession, differed little from that upon which Thistlewood was convicted, and they were also found guilty. Their trials, being separate, occupied the Court six days. On the evening of the tenth day the six remaining prisoners, at the suggestion of their counsel, pleaded guilty -- having been permitted to withdraw their former plea -- by which they eventually escaped capital punishment.
On Friday, the 28th of April, the eleven prisoners were brought up to receive sentence. After a most admirable and affecting speech, the Lord Chief Justice passed sentence in the usual form upon them, directing that, after they should have been hanged, their heads should be severed from their bodies, and their bodies divided into four quarters, which should be at the disposal of his Majesty.
The execution of Thistlewood, Ings, Brunt, Davidson and Tidd took place on the following Monday, at Newgate. Davidson was the only prisoner who did not reject religious consolation; and Thistlewood, when on the scaffold, turned away from the ordinary with an expression of indifference and contempt.