London 1746 Rocques map
You can search the London and Pub history sites by name, address OR street names

Chapter 11. Spa Field Riots. - John Ashton 1888

This London history site is a wiki of early London streets.

It is almost impossible to write about anything connected with Spa Fields, without mentioning the famous "Spa Fields Riots," which occurred on Dec. 2, 1816. In every great city there will always be a leaven of disquietude: demagogues who have nothing to lose, but all to gain, will always find an audience for their outpourings; and, often, the ignorant, and unthinking, have only to be told, by any knave, that they are underpaid, downtrodden, or what not, and they are ready to yell, with their sweet breaths, that they are. So was it then in 1816.

And it is also remarkable how history repeats itself; for, part of the scheme proposed by the agitators on that day, was exactly similar to the proposals of certain Irishmen and Socialists of our time--_teste_ the following handbill, taken from the _Times_, the newspaper of Dec. 7, 1816.

"SPENCE'S PLAN. For Parochial Partnerships in the Land, is the only effectual Remedy for the Distresses and Oppression of the People. The Landowners are not Proprietors in Chief; they are but the _Stewards_ of the Public; For the LAND is the PEOPLE'S FARM. The Expenses of the Government do not cause the Misery that surrounds us, but the enormous exactions of these '_Unjust Stewards_.' Landed Monopoly is indeed equally contrary to the benign spirit of Christianity, and destructive of the Independence and Morality of Mankind.

"'The Profit of the Earth is for all.'

"Yet how deplorably destitute are the great Mass of the People! Nor is it possible for their situations to be radically amended, but by the establishment of a system, founded on the immutable basis of Nature and Justice. Experience demonstrates its necessity and the rights of mankind require it for their preservation.

"To obtain this important object, by extending the knowledge of the above system, the Society of Spencean Philanthropists has been instituted. Further information of it's principles may be obtained by attending any of it's sectional meetings, where subjects are discussed, calculated to enlighten the human understanding, and where, also, the regulations of the society may be procured, containing a Complete development of the Spencean system. Every individual is admitted free of expense, who will conduct himself with decorum.

First Section every Wednesday at the Cock, Grafton Street, Soho. Second " " Thursday " Mulberry Tree, Mulberry Ct., Wilson Street, Moorfields. Third " " Monday " Nag's Head, Carnaby Mrkt. Fourth " " Tuesday " No. 8, Lumber St., Mint, Borough."

There! does not that read exactly like a modern speech delivered in Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, or Dublin? Of course it was the old story of Demagogy. The pot boiled, the scum came to the top, and it boiled over, so that, one fine day, there was a riot. It was a period of distress for the working classes, who did not then, as now, swarm into London from all parts of England, and expect Jupiter to help them; but then, as now, the rich were ever willing to help their poorer brethren, for, in the very same _Times_ newspaper that gives an account of this Spa Fields Riot, there is a list of subscriptions towards the relief of distress in Spitalfields alone, amounting to over L18,000.

The story is one that should be told, because it has its lesson and its parallel in all time. The ruling spirit of the movement was Henry Hunt, generally called Orator Hunt, a man fairly well to do, and who did not agitate for the sake of his daily bread. The occasion of the meeting in Spa Fields, at which some 10,000 people were present, was to receive the answer of the Prince Regent to a petition from the distressed mechanics of London and its vicinity for relief. It was held first of all in front of the "Merlin's Cave" (a name which still survives at 131, Rosomon Street, Clerkenwell), and afterwards in the adjacent fields. The following account of the riots is from the _Times_ of Dec. 3, 1816:

"As a prelude to the scene that followed, and with the spirit of the ruling demagogue, a person mounted a coal waggon with three flags, on which were inscribed certain mottoes; and, after having harangued a small audience, draughted off from the general body, proceeded to the city, where the acts of violence were perpetrated, which will be found in another part of our paper.

"The speech of this orator, and the conduct of his audience, we shall give in an extract from an evening paper as we were not present at the first part of the drama ourselves.

"'In the field was a Coal waggon, upon which were mounted about twenty persons, chiefly in the dress of sailors. Several flags were displayed; two tricoloured ones, on one of which was the following inscription:

"'Nature, Truth, and Justice! Feed the Hungry! Protect the Oppressed! Punish Crimes!'

"'On a second tricoloured flag, no inscription.

"'On a third white flag was inscribed in red letters the following:

"'The brave Soldiers are our Brothers; treat them kindly.'

"'Many had bludgeons, and others pockets full of stones. One person in the waggon then addressed the meeting in the following strain:--"I am sorry to tell you that our application to the Prince has failed. He, the father of his people, answered--'My family have never attended to Petitions but from Oxford and Cambridge, and the City of London.' And is this Man the father of the people? No. Has he listened to your petition? No. The day is come--(_It is, It is_, from the mob.) We must do more than words. We have been oppressed for 800 years since the Norman Conquest. If they would give ye a hod, a shovel, a spade, and a hoe, your mother earth would supply you. (_Aye, aye, she would._ Loud Applause.) Country men, if you will have your wrongs redressed, follow me. (_That we will._ Shouts.) Wat Tyler would have succeeded had he not been basely murdered by a Lord Mayor, William of Walworth. Has the Parliament done their duty? No. Has the Regent done his duty? No, no. A man who receives one million a year public money gives only L5,000 to the poor. They have neglected the starving people, robbed them of everything, and given them a penny. Is this to be endured? Four millions are in distress; our brothers in Ireland are in a worse state, the climax of misery is complete, it can go no farther. The Ministers have not granted our rights. Shall we take them? (_Yes, yes_, from the mob.) Will you demand them? (_Yes, yes._) If I jump down will you follow me? (_Yes, yes_, was again vociferated.)."

"'The persons on the waggon then descended with the flags; the constables immediately laid hold of the flags. Some persons attempted resistance, and two were therefore taken up forthwith, and sent to prison. The constables succeeded in getting one of the flags.

"'When the second flag was displayed, it was supposed that it headed Mr. Hunt's procession, and there was a loud huzza, which stopped one of the waggon orators for five minutes.'

"[For all the rest we hold ourselves responsible, as it is our own report of what passed.]."

The _Times_ then gives in detail a report of the meeting, commencing from the arrival of "Orator" Hunt, who read the correspondence between himself and Lord Sidmouth, and said: "The statement of Lord Sidmouth to him was, that neither any King of the House of Brunswick, nor the Prince Regent, since he had attained sovereign power, ever gave any answer to petitions except they came from the Corporation of the City of London, or from the two Universities which had the privilege of being heard, and answered from the throne. 'If I were to carry your present petition to the levee (added his lordship) I should deliver it into his Royal Highness's hand, make my bow, and walk on; and if you, yourself, Mr. Hunt, were to appear, you would do just the same thing; you would deliver your petition, make your bow, and pass on.' This, Gentlemen, is a little more about Court matters than I was aware of before. (Loud laughter and applause.) The meeting had the consolation to think, that, if their petition was not answered by the Prince Regent, it had met with no worse fate than other petitions presented to the House of Hanover since the accession of this family to the throne. (Applause.)

"He expected to have seen this day a deputation from the Soup Committee, for the purpose of returning thanks to this meeting for obtaining the L5,000 which the Prince Regent had granted. (Great applause.) He was convinced that it was owing to the exertions and patriotism of the last assembly in those fields that his Royal Highness was induced to give this pittance: but his Royal Highness had not gone the full length of the requests which had then been made. It was required that he should bestow on the inhabitants of the metropolis L2 or 300,000 out of the Civil List; but, instead of this, what had been done? Some enemy to his country, some corrupt minister had persuaded his Royal Highness to send L5000 out of the Droits of the Admiralty, which properly belonged to the sailors: those droits, the piratical seizing of which had caused so much bloodshed, and the loss of so many British lives."

* * * * *

This was the sort of fustian that was talked then, as now, and probably always will be, to an ignorant mob; and, as a natural sequence, words begot actions. Blind--foolishly blind--the idiotic mob marched towards the City, not knowing why, or what advantage they were to gain by so doing. Naturally, there were thieves about, and they plundered the shop of Mr. Beckwith, a gunmaker, in Skinner Street, Snow Hill, shooting a gentleman, named Platt, who happened to be in the shop, at the time.

At the Royal Exchange, the Lord Mayor, Sir James Shaw, with his own hands, seized a man, who was bearing a flag, and the mob, unable to force the gates, fired inside; but as far as I can learn, without effect. Foiled in the attempt to sack, or destroy the Exchange, by the arrival of some civil force to the assistance of his Lordship, they moved on, seemingly aimlessly, towards the Tower: why--unless it was to supply themselves with arms--no one can guess. Of course, if they had tried to take it, they could not have accomplished their purpose, but it never came to that. They stole a few guns from two gunmakers in the Minories, Messrs. Brander and Rea; and then this gathering of rogues and fools dispersed, and the nine days' wonder was over.

As usual, nothing was gained by violence. Socialism certainly did not advance--nor was any more employment found for anybody--and the thing fizzled out. But it was not the fault of the agitators. Let us read a short extract from a leading article in the _Times_ of December 4, 1816:--

"As to the _foreseeing_ what was to happen--have we forgotten Mr. Hunt's advice on the first day to petition, then, if that failed to resort to _physical force_. They did petition, and he calls them together to tell them that their petition has failed; and yet it is to be supposed that he foresees on their part no resort to physical force! Why! this would be trifling with the understanding of an infant. But the second time Mr. Hunt said nothing about physical force! Oh, no. Whilst the bloody business was in hand by his myrmidons in Newgate Street, and at the Royal Exchange--whilst an innocent gentleman was in the hands of his assassins--whilst the life of the Chief Magistrate of the city was attacked by ruffians, the first inciter to the use of physical force was coolly haranguing on the comparative merits of himself and his hunter, in Spa Fields. What! did anybody expect that he would get up, and accuse himself openly of high treason? Did Catilina, in the Roman Senate, avow his parricidal intentions against his country? But, to quit Mr. Hunt for awhile, let us recall to the recollection of our readers, the incendiary handbills thrust under the doors of public houses, several weeks ago. A copy of one of them was inserted in our paper of the 1st of last month; but, at the time it did not command that attention which its real importance perhaps deserved. It was of the following tenour:-- 'Britons to arms! _Break open all gun and sword shops_, pawnbrokers, and other likely places to find arms. No rise of bread, &c. No CASTLEREAGH. Off with his head. No National Debt. _The whole country waits the signal from London_ to fly _to arms_. Stand firm now or never.--N.B. _Printed bills containing further directions_, will be circulated as soon as possible.'"

I have dwelt thus at length on these Spa Fields riots because the Socialistic and Communistic development therein contained, runs fairly parallel with our own times; and it is comforting to know, that in this case, as in all others in England, the movement was purely evanescent; the love of law and order being too deeply seated in the breasts of Englishmen. Nay, in this case, the butchers from the shambles in Whitechapel attacked the mob, and compelled them to give up their arms, "which the butchers express a wish to retain, as trophies and proofs of their loyalty and courage." Hunt fizzled out, and returned to his previous nonentity.