In the early evening of 23 February 1820, some twenty men assembled in a small hayloft above a stable in Cato Street, off the Edgware Road in London. They were led by Arthur Thistlewood, a well-known militant follower of the radical doctrines of Thomas Spence; the majority of the other men were destitute tradesmen from England, Scotland and Ireland. Joining their ranks was the Jamaican-born William Davidson. The hayloft had been converted into the ramshackle headquarters of a revolutionary conspiracy to assassinate the British Cabinet, who were believed to be dining in nearby Grosvenor Square.
The conspirators were driven by a thirst for vengeance for the ‘Peterloo massacre’ the previous summer, when a peaceful political rally calling for parliamentary reform was charged by the Manchester Yeomanry, killing eighteen and injuring over 700 people. Thistlewood was also enthused by the brutal assassination of Charles Ferdinard, the heir to the French throne, in Paris, ten days before the fated gathering in Cato Street. Ferdinard was stabbed on leaving an opera house in Paris by Louis Pierre Louvel, a fanatical Bonapartist who craved nothing less than the eradication of the Bourbon monarchy. Thistlewood was newly invigorated on hearing of Louvel’s deed, believing that the time had come to strike against aristocratic and monarchical rule in Britain.
The Cato Street conspirators conceived an even more audacious action than the assassination of Ferdinard. After gathering at Cato Street to collect weapons (mostly pikes, swords and homemade guns), the revolutionary band intended to walk the short distance to the home of Lord Harrowby, the President of the Privy Council, the host for the Cabinet’s dinner. It was to be the ministers’ final meal: the conspirators planned to kill everyone in the dining room who held a position in government, with decapitation reserved for the two most loathed ministers, the Home Secretary, Viscount Sidmouth, and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. Their heads were to be mounted on spikes and paraded ghoulishly in public as befitted traitors to the ‘People’.
Following the tyrannicide, the revolutionaries planned to seize symbolic buildings and establish a provisional government. On hearing the news of the death of the Cabinet and reading the declaration of the new government that promised a new dispensation based on the emancipation of the people, they believed that radicals in the capital would join the conspirators en masse, which in turn would trigger a national rising. Eighteen-twenty was to be the year of the British Republic.
The conspirators were, however, betrayed. There was no dinner for the Cabinet in Grosvenor Square that night; unbeknown to Thistlewood and his followers, they had been set up by an agent provocateur, George Edwards, who had infiltrated the conspiracy. The hated Lord Sidmouth authorised the publication of the false notice of the Cabinet dinner to lure out the conspiracy from the shadows.
As the conspirators prepared for their mission, the Bow Street Runners (an ancestor of the Metropolitan Police) charged into the stable on Cato Street. The scene was chaotic, as the Runners frantically climbed up a ladder to the hayloft. The candles were extinguished by the conspirators as they attempted to escape; as fighting broke out in the darkness, Thistlewood fatally stabbed an officer. With the assistance of army troops, the revolutionaries were eventually rounded up and arrested. The Cato Street conspiracy was over.
Justice was swiftly dealt out to the ring leaders. Eleven men were tried at the Old Bailey in April: five were exiled to Australia for life; one served a prison sentence; and five, including Thistlewood, were hanged on 1 May. The hangman held up their severed heads to the gathered crowd, denouncing the condemned men as traitors to the Crown.
The legacy of the Cato Street conspiracy is a mixed one. Most radicals denounced the conspiracy and its aims once the plot became public. With the passing of the generations, Thistlewood and his band of revolutionaries were not claimed by any radical tradition, in the same way that nineteenth- and twentieth-century Irish republicans venerated past figures associated with violent struggle, such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Robert Emmet. Given the absence of a coherent revolutionary tradition in modern Britain (as opposed to Ireland), the Cato Street conspiracy does not quite ‘fit’ into a neatly defined historical narrative that emphasises peaceful and constitutional radical political reform.
It is, perhaps, for this reason that the significance of the plot is overlooked in (or even entirely missing from) many accounts of the early decades of nineteenth-century Britain. While the plot can be (and often is) dismissed as an act of lunacy, such a perspective overlooks the depth of hostility among radicals towards the government in the years immediately following the end of the Napoleonic Wars, especially in the aftermath of Peterloo. The refusal to treat the conspiracy seriously also means that historians can easily miss the international revolutionary networks that surrounded the ringleaders. The men who gathered in the hayloft on Cato Street in February 1820 did not trigger an insurrection against Britain’s aristocratic masters, but this was not necessarily a certainty, especially in the context of spiralling revolutionary fervour in Europe.
Making sense of the Cato Street conspiracy is a difficult but rewarding challenge. This is why the recent publication of an edited volume of essays that emerged from a conference on the conspiracy held at the University of Sheffield in 2017 is so welcome: as the book reveals, there is much to be said about this almost forgotten plot, from the conspirators’ Caribbean connections to lives of the exiled rebels in Australia. The Cato Street Conspiracy: Plotting, Counter-Intelligence and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland, edited by Jason McElligott and Martin Conboy, illuminates many aspects of the foiled plan and its wider significance.
With the bicentenary of the conspiracy, it is perhaps time to reconsider Britain’s complicated radical past, warts and all. The transition to democracy was not as linear and peaceful as it retrospectively appeared.
Colin Reid is a Lecturer in Modern British and Irish History at the University of Sheffield. His research interests lie in exploring the political, cultural and intellectual mentalities at the heart of the British-Irish dilemma from the French Revolution to the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’.
Cover image: The arrest of the Cato Street Conspirators, 1820.