In the first half of this chapter I have collected those articles that report prosecutions for sedition or treason during the Revolutionary War. This half-chapter was called ‘Sedition’ in all previous editions of this work.

As a general rule all dissent was driven by hard and unsatisfactory conditions of life. I have accordingly included some articles dealing with debt.

The suppression of freedom of speech and of association continued throughout the wars with democracy and the former Libel chapter is now the latter half of this chapter. It details the later development of popular suppression.

It was not until after the war, say at the time of Peterloo, that a majority of the British people realised they had been deceived. Their instant response to democracy in 1790 had been to welcome it until forced to desist by the King’s Proclamation. Thus they had submitted and obeyed for over twenty years until the rise of the Holy Alliance (and Castlereagh’s ready involvement of England in it) and the concurrent poverty caused by deflationary policies to restore value to the domestic paper money, revealed the true purpose behind the endless wars with France and led ultimately to the pendulum swinging and the enactment of minimalist reform in 1832. There is a great principle to be detected here – an intimate connection between foreign policy and domestic happiness – that seems not to have yet been recognised in the West.

Before we start, I should mention for good order that the Court of King’s Bench at the outset of this period adopted some of the doctrine that had formerly found favour under the Court of Star Chamber. One such rule was that the libelous nature of a document was to be established by the Judge alone. In other words, the jury’s function was solely to identify the publisher, they might have no opinion on whether the document was libelous or not. They received that authority only in 1792.

Some of the articles dealing with the conflicting ideology and philosophy of Britain and France appear in this chapter but many more are in the Political Management chapter.

This chapter is dedicated to those barristers of the period who promoted the Rule of Law and concerned themselves with fairness. Primarily, I have in mind Thomas Erskine and James Mackintosh in London and William Ashburner and later James Buckingham in India.

Sat 18th May 1793

Thomas Paine was tried in London for authorising the publication of the 2nd part of the Rights of Man and an immediate guilty verdict was obtained.[1]

The spirit of riot has spread to Scotland. In Dundee a crowd planted a tree ‘sacred to freedom’.

Sat 1st June 1793

The Court of King’s Bench is hearing a case of sedition. The judge told the Grand Jury:

“In these days of national disorder we are reminded of Blackstone’s maxim ‘that man, on coming into society, gives up a certain portion of his freedom for the security of the remainder.’[2]

“Obedience to the law is the bulwark of our admirable Constitution, but some people wish to subvert our institutions. Seditious publications caused the King to issue his proclamation of 21st May 1792 but people are still influenced by the struggles in our neighbouring country. Be vigilant.”[3]

Sat 31st August 1793

London news, 5th March:

The House of Lords has debated the Insolvent Debtors Bill. Lord Rawdon said imprisonment for debt was attended by many evils. His Bill is intended to distinguish the genuine debtor from the fraudster and to punish the latter only.

The Lord Chancellor supported the concept but not all the clauses. He thought the main objection to imprisonment for debt was the condition of the prisons. He thought it inconceivable that Judges could not know the malpractices routinely occurring in prison – extortion of every description – which were a disgrace to the service. The money extorted from debtors in prison would be better applied to their debts. The wickedness of the system precluded debtors from reflecting on their acts or feeling contrition for them.

Sat 12th Oct 1793

A new law is passed in England for the control of debtors. It does not apply in Scotland. Imprisonment is no longer invariable. Prisons will publish a list of debtors who have been gaoled for more than six months together with the amount of debt. The Lord Chancellor will distinguish the real from the fraudulent debtors.

Sat 30th Nov 1793

London news:

  • James Ridgway and Symmonds appeared at their trial for publishing seditious pamphlets – the Jockey Club, Address to the Addressers and Paine’s Rights of Man[4] – and were found guilty. The judgment did not mention the objectionable passage(s) as the Court felt they should be consigned to oblivion however the Judge said the pamphlets were actually attempts by France to subvert England and usurp the British government by exciting rebellion. “We have only to recognise the wretched state of our neighbour to know that their theories do not work” he said.
    Ridgway was sentenced to two years in Newgate for publishing the Jockey Club, one year for publishing the Address to the Addressers and another year for publishing the Rights of Man. He is also fined £100 for each of the last two offences. Symmonds, the printer, got a slightly lesser award.
  • Burke has spoken in the Commons on the Sedition Bill. He deplores the Englishmen who went to Paris and hugged Marat et al in a ‘horrid act of confraternity’.

Sat 28th Dec 1793

The lawyer John Frost was convicted at King’s Bench of speaking seditious words tending to denigrate the Constitution and the King. He said ‘equality is everyman’s birthright’ in a public room. When asked what he meant, he replied ‘no King’, adding ‘the Constitution of England is bad for having a King’.

Judgment – Your words reveal your malignity which requires correction. You have recently returned from France and should have known the advantages our Constitution provides. I have reason to suspect that you did not go to France to compare administrative systems, as you say. You are a professional attorney. You have sworn allegiance to your King (to access the Courts and make use of his qualification). You are to be gaoled for 6 months and within that time you will be pilloried at Charing Cross for an hour between noon and 2 pm.[5] You are bound over in £500 to behave yourself for 5 years. Two sureties of £100 each are required.

Lord Kenyon, the prosecutor, requested Frost be struck off the Roll of Attorneys.

Sat 5th April 1794

Edinburgh 31st August 1794: The first of Henry Dundas’ sedition trials has been held here. Thomas Muir of Huntershill is accused of inciting disloyalty to the King by means of seditious speeches at various Scottish reform societies in November 1792. He promoted and distributed Paine’s Rights of Man, the Declaration of Rights[6] and the newspaper The Patriot. He also read the Address from the Society of United Irishmen to a Scottish Reform Society.

Muir pleaded ‘not guilty’. He said he all along supported the Constitution. He relied on a written defence which he submitted to the Judge. He had always told people to study reform and pursue Constitutional means to obtain it.

On the jury being named, Muir objected to every one of them. He noted they were all members of the Goldsmiths Hall Association which had offered a public reward to anyone who would inform them who was circulating what they called ‘seditious writings’. This suggested bias and he thought they were accordingly improper people to hear a government accusation of sedition.

Solicitor General Dundas, as prosecutor, declined to change the jurors saying every friend of the Constitution condemned Paine. The Court over-ruled Muir’s objections and the examination of witnesses proceeded.

The Lord Advocate then summed up the case ‘If there is anyone who should be prosecuted for sedition it is Muir. Pretending to promote reform, he has instead sought to destroy order and overturn the Constitution. He has compared France to England and repeatedly wished to introduce French principles here.” He then recapitulated the incriminating evidence which included Muir’s departure from and return to Britain.

Muir conducted his own defence. He said he was satisfied that his own moral character had been unsullied by the prosecution which had relied totally on the evidence of informers. He said the charge of sedition was a pretence. His actual crime was to press for political reform. Had he been so charged he would have pleaded guilty and saved everyone’s time. He recalled that Pitt and the Duke of Richmond[7] had both once been proponents of reform. Was not the Lord Advocate himself a reformer; had he not recently been a delegate for the amendment of the representative arrangements in the Scottish counties?

Verdict – Guilty. Award – transportation for 14 years to wherever His Majesty might chose to send him. Muir said he would never be guilty.

Sat 28th June 1794

A convention was held in Edinburgh on 25th Nov 1793 to consider the reform of parliamentary representation to include the populations of new towns. The purpose of this group is said by the ministry to be anti-Constitutional. They elected an obscure individual as their President and he is a follower of Brelliard.

The Convention voted its approval to send emissaries throughout England, Scotland and Wales to disseminate their political opinions. Government proposes to punish them in the same way it punished Muir and Palmer i.e. convict them of sedition and transport them to Botany Bay or put them to hard labour on the Thames.

Government severity is essential as Dundas (the ministry’s man in charge of Scotland) has arrested a Frenchman named Duvalle whom he considers to be a spy. Duvalle was questioned by Privy Councillors and his papers have been examined. Dundas has arrested two other Frenchmen as well and imprisoned all three of them.

Sat 28th June 1794

William Skirving is the Secretary of the Society of Friends of the People. The ministry calls this Society “the English Convention” to infer its connection with the French National Convention across the Channel. The members demand universal suffrage and annual parliaments.

Skirving was charged in the High Court with writing seditious papers in imitation of the National Convention. Specifically, he called a meeting in contravention of the King’s Proclamation. For this offence he was sentenced to 14 years transportation.

Sat 8th Nov 1794

Dr Joseph Priestley (1733 – 1804) has written on the riots at Birmingham and the wish of his friends is that he leave England for America or France whilst he still can. He contrarily came directly to London and offered himself to the Privy Council for interrogation, an offer which ministers have so far ignored. He says:

“I have taken a long lease on a house in Lower Clapton, Hackney, refurbished it at great expense and resumed my laboratory experiments. I have taken the precaution of sending my family and my surplus capital abroad. I have been refused all employment here and am now considering joining my sons in America. I am rumoured to be guilty of sedition, of being an enemy of the Constitution and of peace.

“My life is devoted to theology and science – all my publications are about these subjects. I have never been interested in politics.

“When I was young (he’s now 60), I wrote an anonymous political pamphlet on liberty in England. It was at the time of Wilkes’ election for Middlesex. I later wrote another to the dissenters on the approaching rupture with America, at the request of Ben Franklin and Dr Fothergill. That pamphlet was widely circulated. After that I wrote on the Test Act and state control of religion which might be thought political. After this I was patronised by the Marquis Lansdowne and lived with him 7 years during which I published nothing political. I never preached a political sermon in my life, if you exclude the usual dissenting sermon we all make on 5th November each year, but even then I have never said anything the ministry might disapprove of.[8]

“The doctrines I espoused when young are now disapproved but I cannot abandon them simply because they have become hazardous to health. I have never disapproved of Societies that provide political information but then neither have I ever joined any one of them or attended their meetings.

“The French consider I was persecuted in England for my attachment to Liberty and gave me citizenship. Then several of the Departments asked me to represent them in the National Convention. This offer was repeated but I resolutely declined it. It now seems my usefulness to England is ending and I should seek to work elsewhere, perhaps with my sons.

“I was affected by the fate of Muir and Palmer (the Scottish democrats transported to Botany Bay for sedition). I was shocked by Winterbottom’s conviction for preparing a sermon that he had drafted but never actually delivered. I do not want to leave England and my many friends. I wish you all happiness and should you reflect on what I have done I hope you will recognise there is no harm in it.”

Sat 1st Nov 1794

London, 16th May – The animated Constitutional debate between the government and the liberal Whig opposition has been ended by Henry Dundas. He has announced a high-level conspiracy to the Commons on 12th May and has implicated Lord Stanhope:

The ministry has informed the King that a conspiracy exists in London amongst some Societies which correspond with similar bodies throughout the country. These Societies intend to convoke a public assembly in emulation of the French to introduce democracy and compete with parliament for the loyalty of the people. The government has seized the books and papers of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) and the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI) and has placed them before MPs for their consideration. It has arrested the Secretaries of the Societies. These are Hardy the shoemaker, Adams, Rev Jeremiah Joyce tutor to Lord Stanhope’s son and his Lordship’s private Secretary.

They are all charged with the capital offence of High Treason. Another man named Stone is charged with traitorous correspondence with France and has been sent to Newgate.

The Commons appointed another Secret Committee on 14th May to examine the books of the LCS and SCI. It is headed by Pitt and Dundas.

Sat 29th Nov 1794

House of Commons, 16th May:

Pitt has presented a voluminous report on the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information to MPs. It is prepared by the Secret Committee of the House (Pitt, Dundas, et al). It is voluminous only because a huge amount of the Societies’ correspondence is attached. The actual report is quite brief and was read in the House by the clerk. It takes a general view and is said to precede a detailed report, but is presented to MPs now in view of the urgency of the matter.

Pitt says the Committee was alarmed by its discoveries. By reviewing the correspondence of these two most important Societies back to 1791, the Committee believed the Societies sought to subvert the British Constitution and establish a French-style democracy in its place.

Early in 1792 the Societies adopted Paine’s Rights of Man (“that deceitful and mischievous system”) as representing their own policy and they widely circulated its details. In May 1792 they addressed a vote of thanks to the Jacobin Club of Paris and at the end of that year they sent a similar address to the National Convention by hand of M/s Frost and Barlow. They received a reply to this letter. In February 1793, when Pitt’s administration was beginning to contemplate war with France, the Societies admitted Barrere and Roland as Honorary Members. All this establishes their treason.

The Societies have attempted to foment disorder by encouraging the formation of regional Societies. Letters from the LCS to a similar Association in Norwich and to the British Convention at Edinburgh (to which they have sent a delegation) are attached to the report. Other letters approved the acts of Muir, Palmer, Margarot, Skirving and Gerrald (Scots banished for sedition) and contain abuse of the Courts that sentenced them.

The Society for Constitutional Information was the first to be established, the London Corresponding Society came later. This new club has 30 divisions, one of which contains 600 members. An address by the LCS to the people of Britain was read to the MPs. It criticised the government and opposed war with France. The letter is signed by Martin as President and Hardy as Secretary who sign-off ‘with civic affection’. They called a meeting on the green at Chalk Farm, near Hampstead, and read a letter of thanks they had sent to Archibald Hamilton Rowan who, at that time, was preventively detained in Ireland for sedition under our Suspension of Habeas Corpus law. They have called a General Convention of the People and are clearly intent on establishing themselves as a sort of representative body to usurp the role of this House.

Pitt said there was no time to await the detailed report. The House must act now on the information the Secret Committee had provided. The formation of a General Convention of the People was intended to replace government and introduce Jacobin principles. These people are politicising ordinary people who are too stupid to understand what they are being asked to do. Their pretext is the relief of public grievances but actually they want to create anarchy in order to plunder the nation. They have the temerity to say that parliament lacks the authority to land foreign troops in England (the émigré battalions), to suspend Habeas Corpus or pass a Convention Bill and should we do so they will call a General Convention of the People to resist our authority. This means if MPs legislate to defend our system, they will oppose us. This has happened because of the French example. It is a coup d’etat.

Some may say they are few and we are many but we have seen a small number of desperate men in Paris take over the entire country. The British democrats did not express regret for the execution of Louis XVI, they ridicule the House of Lords and they defy this House too. They say the only law should be the safety of the people. If they arm themselves we will have a civil war. The ministry will present a detailed report as soon as possible but for now the House should adopt strong and speedy measures to counteract this unconstitutional threat and he moved that a Bill be introduced to detain anyone suspected of conspiring against government.

Fox said the Secret Committee had reported a few hours after its appointment. He had supposed it had something important to say and he had cancelled his prior engagements to attend the House. Now he found the ‘report’ was a compilation of old newspaper stories and there was no indication of treasonable intent to be found. All this report reveals is a resolution to obtain full and free representation of the people by constitutional means.

The government has focused on words like ‘convention’ and ‘deputies’ to make a parallel with France. England has Conventions as well as France. He recalled that it was a Convention for Parliamentary Reform that had led his own election to the Commons in 1786. That Convention had petitioned the Commons and nobody then thought its name objectionable. Ireland had formed a Convention to progress its wishes for free trade and independence and had partly accomplished that. He supposed the Irish would have failed had there been no Convention. The Irish Catholics were living under shameful political disabilities and petitioned parliament (which was rejected). They then formed a Convention to decide what to do and they soon recovered those rights that they had been so long denied. Pitt himself and the Duke of Richmond made proposals in the Convention of 1780. There is no evidence that Conventions usurp the role of parliament or government. The people involved are not capable of that sort of initiative. Fox concluded that the Report was a farce and government’s real intention was to withdraw the liberty of the English people to bring them to submission.

Concerning supposedly common precedents, he knew of 2-3 cases in William III’s reign when Habeas Corpus had been suspended but each occasion involved the interference of foreign governments in our domestic affairs and our people were discontented. He believed suspensions occurred in 1715 and 1745 when the country faced rebellions and a deposed pretender to the throne who avowed he would overthrow our liberty, religion and law. We then briefly surrendered our ancient security to preserve our way of life and our own choice of monarch. In the instant case, not one of these considerations applies. If there is a Clear and Present Danger it has existed since 1792 and no urgency was suggested until now. He supposed that Pitt and Dundas would not push the matter through without some mature and careful debate and looked forward to contributing to it. For the present he would oppose the motion.

Robinson opposed the motion because he felt it would introduce the severity of Scottish law into England.

Martin agreed with Robinson.

Lambton said it was unconstitutional and he would oppose it.

Burdon thought Pitt’s arguments had not been fully explained but he would temporarily support the minister and reconsider the matter when the Committee reported finally.

Jekyll said the report is insufficient to legislate an end to Habeas Corpus in England. If there are rebellious people here, which he doubted, the law is already adequate to deal with them without the abject surrender of one of the few worthwhile rights that the English people have.

Charles Grey complained, like Fox, that he rearranged his appointments to attend and now found the Report ‘a set of trumpery papers’. He thought the proposed suspension would disaffect the English people and it would be this ministry that thus achieved the revolutionary aims of the democrats. Paris will be more pleased by Pitt’s proposed legislation than they are at their recent military victory (over General Clairfait’s Austrian army). He ridiculed the Secret Committee for trafficking in newspaper reports. He thought the Committee was rather like the Committee of Public Safety (CPS) in Paris. He said listening to Pitt was reminiscent of Barrere’s diatribes against counter-revolutionaries. He concluded that if the motion was approved, he would immediately move for ‘a Call of the House’ and would take its sense by a division at every stage of its progress.

Sheridan rose and impatient Pitt supporters called for him to sit down but he said he could not be silent on a motion that threatened the annihilation of British liberty. Whilst freedom of speech is still permitted in this House I will avail myself of the right. Once this Bill is passed any dissenting views expressed in the House will render the dissenter liable to imprisonment. Suspension of Habeas Corpus will give dissenters better grounds for dissent.

I have personally been calumniated by the press but had never thought to prosecute an Editor because the right to an opinion is the essence of Englishness. Even that paper under the control of Pitt, which continually libels me (today’s issue says I am in touch with a banished man), has never received my Writ. If Pitt wishes to raise the public estimation of MPs, he might start by ending the slanderous tattle he purveys to the press. Sheridan concluded that he had nothing to hide and right from the start of the French Revolution had done nothing improper.

He then considered the precedents and recalled the last occasion that Habeas Corpus was suspended was during the American War but it was applied only to those people coming here from America. He noted Burke had permitted his son to be an Agent of the Convention of Irish Catholics. It was another instance showing that hatred of Conventions was a limited thing. He was surprised at the abrupt introduction of the motion and supposed he would have abundant chances to speak on the Bill in its future stages. He likened Pitt to Barrere and the Secret Committee to the CPS and said he would oppose the motion.

Pitt said he intended to get the Bill through Committee today and have it passed tomorrow.

Grey reiterated that, if he attempted that, he (Grey) would divide the House at every stage.

Burke characterised Pitt as vengeful but thought the Constitutional danger was real. He read from a book published by the Revolution Society that suggested the next stage would be the arming of the dissenters. In the events of 1715 and 1745 the great families of England were divided between support for the Stuarts and for the Hanoverians. The suspension of Habeas Corpus permitted the then government to gaol many prominent Lords. Had it not been so, those Lords would have been obliged to participate in the quarrel, and would have had their titles, fortunes and estates confiscated. He hoped the present proposals would have the same protective effect.

The Attorney General resented Fox’s censure of public prosecutions and asked which had been objectionable.

Fox said it was the trials of Walker, Phillips of Leicester, Winterbottom and the lawyer Frost.

The House divided and the motion was passed 201/39

Grey moved that the House be called over.

Pitt condemned the likely delay.

Fox said it was a good moment to reconsider ‘before we rescind freedom of speech’. The House again divided on Grey’s motion which was defeated 33/186.

Grey moved fourteen divisions before the Bill was read a first and second time, committed, reported and ordered to be read tomorrow. As a result of Grey’s delaying tactics, the House adjourned at 4 am.

Sat 18th Oct 1794

House of Lords, 11th June – Lord Grenville formally produced a report of the Secret Committee. The Lords had each read a copy earlier. The names of the committee members are only partially revealed as Duke of Portland, Lords Grenville and Mansfield,

The report concerned public opinion and how far it supported the ministry and the King. It concluded that there had been a treasonable conspiracy operating under the name of ‘political reform’ to subvert the Kingdom and introduce French principles but it had been thwarted by the diligence of ministers. The conspiracy had operated for more than two years and involved Britons and foreigners. It had been developed to the point of execution when it was discovered and foiled.

The report’s authors said, soon after the execution of Louis XVI, a correspondence had commenced between reform clubs in England and the National Convention in Paris. In Nov 1792 formal Addresses from the British clubs were sent to the National Convention and had been regularly answered. These clubs informed the French parliament that the people of England wished to emulate the French and throw off the King and the aristocratic landowners and assume democratic control of the country. The clubs had informed the National Convention that a majority of Englishmen were opposed to the British government.

The club containing the greatest number of clever people is the London Corresponding Society (LCS). It liaised with regional clubs and acted as a head office, feeding democratic ideas to the regions and receiving back indications of the mood of the people. The Declaration of War had precluded this correspondence continuing directly but the LCS did continue to promote democracy at home and to defend the actions of the National Convention before the English people.

The LCS membership discussed forming a General Convention as had been done in France to request for the reformation of political abuses and the redress of popular grievances. The British Convention met at Edinburgh in October 1793 and agreed to promote democracy. They discussed obtaining arms to promote their aims by violence if necessary. Government discovered the plot just in time to prevent it. Some of the leaders had been arrested and charged with sedition. When this happened the British Convention was dispersed but an Emergency Committee was formed and continued to communicate with all the regional clubs. Although the British Convention had very few officers and regional clubs, they were bold and persevering and they represented a challenge to the ministry.

Grenville moved that an Address be made to the King advising him that a conspiracy to subvert the Constitution had been discovered and assuring him of parliamentary support.

Abington said the conspirators included members of both Houses of Parliament. “I have here in my hand a speech that Earl Stanhope made to this House on 24th January 1794 requesting peace with France and recognition of her popular government. It was sent to me enclosed with a petititon of the people of Glasgow. The covering letter of the Glaswegians says ‘your horse laugh will be properly attended to’.” Abington recalled that when Stanhope made the speech, he had said I (Abington) have ‘a good loud horse laugh’, for which I am now a marked man. I admonish those sans culottes Lords of this House. They are responsible for this mischief.

Lauderdale said he hoped everyone had read the report because his conclusions differed widely from the conclusions reached by its author Lord Grenville. He found no proof of a conspiracy in the report. He thought the main consequence of the report would be to show to the government of France that a supportive conspiracy existed in Britain that was so formidable it had required the executive to arm itself with extraordinary powers to resist it. He had no doubt that would be its main effect, for we ourselves had gauged the situation in France from the published proceedings of the National Convention and from these learned of the supposedly formidable Royalist Club in that country (which turned out to be an unformidable damp squib).

Lauderdale particularly noted that this matter involved the pending fair trail of the alleged conspirators who were charged with capital offences. Lauderdale recalled that in 1780 another group of nobles and gentlemen had used far more violent language for the reform of certain abuses (the Gordon riots). That group included several peers and MPs but, though they used strong language, it was not thought necessary to suspend Habeas Corpus or to set the army on them. For these reasons Lauderdale disagreed with Grenville’s interpretation of the known facts about the LCS and the British Convention.

Lord Sydney said he was a member of one of the reform societies but he seldom attended.

Lord Mansfield defended the thrust of the report. He was a member of the Secret Committee that drew it up. The Duke of Portland had taken a leading part in its preparation but was now sick and could not defend it. That few people are involved in the intended insurrection is irrelevant, he said. He recalled from his studies that the Roman civil war was commenced by 70 low-born people. He said the Scottish conspirators had planned to seize the Bank of Scotland and arrest the magistrates which would have interrupted commerce and administration.

Lauderdale objected. The Lord Chancellor then put the question of Grenville’s motion which was carried without a division.

Sat 29th Nov 1794

The progress of popular democracy in the French style was checked in England at end 1792 by ministerial action but has since revived. Then it was discovered that the London Corresponding Society proposed, immediately after the prorogation of parliament, to assemble a National Convention at its address in Chalk Farm on 14th April 1794. This provoked Pitt’s message requiring the formation of a Secret Committee of the Commons. The 21 Secret Committee members are all from Pitt’s side of the House but some few of them were formerly Foxites who followed the Duke of Portland across the floor. These people are reliable. They all agree that equality is incompatible with the British property system.[9]

The Ministerial response to the democratic threat has been to suspend Habeas Corpus. The initiative was argued in the Commons on 16th and 17th May 1794. Habeas Corpus has rarely been suspended since the Constitution was introduced in 1689. On each of the two days the debate continued until 3 am. The government wishes to detain citizens to prevent their acting criminally. It wishes to disable their bailing themselves or obtaining securities for their release. Preventive detention is unconstitutional but MPs can vote away the peoples’ privileges if they think it appropriate.

At the outset, on 16th May, the Minister introduced a Report of the Secret Committee of the House. The committee is comprised of Pitt, Dundas, Welbore Ellis Attorney General, Windham Solicitor General, Grenville, Steele, Banks Jenkinson, Sir H Houghton, Powys, Lords Mornington and Mulgrave, J H Brown, J Anstruther, T Stanley, C Townshend and Edmund Burke.

Its report solely concerns the proceedings of the London Correspondence Society (LCS) and the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI). It outlines the pre-war connections of the two Societies with the French Convention, the Jacobin Club of Paris and other popular French societies; it lists the missions sent to Paris; the offers and assurances they had given and the replies they received and the union they had proposed with the Jacobins.

Thereafter the British Declaration of War interrupted these communications and the Societies were legislatively obliged to redirect their efforts. They have since spread French principles domestically, particularly in the manufacturing towns where the populace is ‘enslaved to the industrialists’. The report lists the titles of the inexpensive publications they circulated and the 27th March proclamation of the SCI convoking an assembly of all the Deputies of its regional Societies at a National Convention. All this was represented to parliament by Pitt as a conspiracy against the King and the ministry.

The opposition vociferously opposed Pitt’s speech. First Fox, then Robertson, Martin Lambton, Harrison, Jekyll, Charles Grey and Sheridan all made successive and largely satirical responses – the report contained nothing new, the men involved had no influence, their conduct was not dangerous, they desire a reform of parliament which is a legal object, just as Pitt himself and the Duke of Richmond had promoted previously in this House.

Burdon, Wigley and Burke spoke in support of Pitt and the motion passed 201/39. Grey asked that the debate be adjourned for a fortnight but was voted down 201/32. The First reading of the Suspension of Habeas Corpus Bill then occurred and was approved 197/33. The second reading was immediately held and passed 172/22 and the Bill send to committee where it passed 125/24. It was then adjourned to a special sitting on the following day (Saturday) when it was passed 146/28 and was sent to House of Lords where Grenville read a message from the King in similar terms to Pitt’s in the Commons. Thus was Habeas corpus suspended.

Sat 22nd Nov 1794

House of Lords, 12th May 1794 – The King requested an investigation of popular dissent and a Secret Committee of the Commons recommended the suspension of Habeas Corpus. The Bill was rushed through the Commons in two days and has now come before the Lords.

Lauderdale observed that the Secret Committee was supposed to report facts and not recommend what action is to be taken. He was called to order by the Bishop of Rochester who thought any such niceties were out of order. Lauderdale disagreed.

Grenville pushed on with the Bill and urged their Lordships to complete all necessary work to pass the Bill that day. The new law would permit the imprisonment without trial of anyone reasonably suspected of treason. He referred to a conspiracy to overthrow the national authorities as ‘well-established’ – ‘everyone knows about it’, he said. He told the Lords that Habeas Corpus had been frequently suspended and now was the proper time to do it again. He said in former times it was only necessary for the King to intimate a danger, for parliament to pass legislation. In this case it had been investigated by the Commons and the clearest proofs of the conspiracy were on the record.

Grenville then reviewed the proceedings of the London Corresponding Society to suggest it was founded on Jacobin principles whose sentiments, reasoning, etc., it adopted:

  • The members are called Citizens.
  • They hold Parliament in contempt and say they will make their own law.
  • They have addressed the National Convention in Paris and published opinions on the treason trials in Scotland.
  • Their language is shocking.
  • Their most recent action was to propose a General Convention of the People.

Grenville said, had they armed themselves, we would have defeated them. They are few and have little money – how can we trust our liberty to them? The most terrible conspiracies of history were begun by worthless men. We have Dumouriez’s word that the French Revolution was commenced by a mere two hundred men, of whom the majority were wretched peasants. Grenville said this ‘little cloud on the horizon’ threatened a ‘great flood’ and there was no time to be lost. He urged the reading of the Bill.

Stanhope said he opposed the Bill which ‘reduces Englishmen to the same status as Frenchmen before the Revolution’. He thought it would be easy to refute everything Grenville had said. He thought a Congress of the People was a legal venture. It might agree to not support any candidate for election to the Commons who did not promote reform. He said such Conventions are not unprecedented in England – had not his Noble Friend ‘Citizen Richmond’ held one in Kent at which Lord Camden and Tommy Townshend and many other Lords attended?

Lord Sydney (Townshend) instantly rose to deny ever being a member of a Convention.

Stanhope said he had proof of Sydney’s membership of the Kent Committee. He then read a few of the resolutions of the Kent Committee and characterised them ‘as inflammatory as anything in the Report of the Secret Committee’. He noted these meetings were legal in Britain and Ireland as the Irish parliament had been required to enact a Convention Bill. He recalled Pitt and Sir George Savile had both avowed doctrines (such as those now objected to by the Secret Committee) when they had spoken on the desirability of parliamentary reform. Savile had despaired of reform occurring, except by an act of the people, such as was now occurring. In his letter to Col Sharman, ‘Citizen Richmond’ reviewed the whole matter up to universal suffrage and annual parliaments. That letter noted that despite the best efforts of Pitt, none of the parliamentarians could be persuaded to forego corruption (the necessary pre-condition to consensual parliamentary reform).[10]

Burke had taken the same view as Pitt – his letter to the people of Bristol and his 1792 letter to Sir Hercules Langrishe about the exclusion of Catholics from the Irish elections, are evidence of his support. The activities of the Corresponding Societies had been common knowledge for two years and the government had done nothing – this was not some recent innovation that required urgent attention. It was a transparent pretext for popular repression.

The address of the Society to the National Convention was legal, having been made before the government declared war on France. Receipt of the reply (after war was declared) is said to have been a crime although the report does not indicate whether that reply was approved or even read in the Society’s proceedings.

The report is factually unreliable. Barrere and Roland are said to be leading members of the National Convention when Roland was a minister and barred by his employment from being a legislator. Stanhope concluded that he would oppose the Bill.

Spencer said it was a strong measure but he would support it. So did Kinnoul and Burlington.

Thurlow said the Secret Committee had reported their opinion of Constitutional danger and it is the duty of legislators to uphold and protect the law. The worst tyranny was anarchy. Law restricted liberty to protect liberty. He opined that the offences which the Societies appeared guilty of were seditious not treasonable, as they had not sought to effect their beliefs by actions. He concluded he would support the Bill.

Lauderdale discovered an Order of the House of Lords dated 1715 that prevented a Bill being read more than once in a day. He requested an adjournment.

Grenville replied that in former matters concerning suspension of Habeas Corpus, this Order had been dispensed with.

Carnaervon, Abington, Leeds and Carlyle supported the Bill.

Derby was opposed.

Lansdowne said suspension of Habeas Corpus was unnecessary. The course of conduct of the Societies flowed consistently from their former meetings going back to their commencement in 1773 and the present plans were just the old (parliamentary) Jacobins persecuting the new.

The Lord Chancellor (Grenville) replied at great length and finally claimed to have shown that the Societies were not harmless. He concluded that the legislature should take precautions before any blood is spilled. The sitting continued until 3 am. The Lords then voted for suspension 137/9.

Sat 6th Dec 1794

The Secret Committee on Treason in Britain has reported finally. It has examined the books and papers, proceedings of the London Corresponding Society (LCS) and the Society for Constitutional Information (SCI) and found they comprised a complete record of the two societies.

These Societies are in correspondence with many others in all parts of Great Britain and Ireland. On 25th January and 1st February 1793, just before our Declaration of War, Barrere and Roland, then leading members of the National Convention, were admitted to honorary associate membership of the Society. The speeches of Barrere and St Andre (another honorary French member) that were reported in the Moniteur on 4th 6th and 7th January were republished in the books of the Society.

Our Declaration of War interrupted their communications but the Society has continued to promote democratic ideals and follows the forms, even the words, of the French democrats. The Society has assiduously promoted these democratic views in publications and by resolutions and circulated all these papers throughout Britain and Ireland. The Societies of Sheffield, Norwich and Manchester were the most active of the regional Societies.

In a letter to the United Political Societies of Norwich dated 12th April 1793, the SCI writes:

“ … where then are we to look for the remedy? To that parliament of which we complain? To the executive power, which is implicitly obeyed, if not anticipated, in that parliament? Or to ourselves, represented in some meeting of delegates for the especial purpose of reform, which we suppose you understand by the term Convention?

“It is the end of each of these propositions that we ought to look to and, as success in a good cause must be the effect of perseverance and the rising reason of the time, let us determine with coolness, but let us persevere with decision. …. As to a Convention, we regard it as a plan the most desirable and the most practicable, as soon as the great Body of the People shall be courageous and virtuous enough to join us in the attempt. Hitherto we have no reason to believe that the moment is arrived for that purpose. …..As to any petition to the Crown, we believe it hopeless in its consequences. With respect to the last of the proposals, we are at a loss to advise. If the event is looked to in the vote which may be obtained from that body to whom this petition is to be addressed, which of us can look to it without the prospect of an absolute negative?

“In this point of view, therefore, it cannot require a moment’s consideration. But if we regard the policy of such a Petition, it may, in our apprehension, be well-worth considering as a warning voice to our present Legislators, and as a signal for imitation to the majority of the People.

“Should such a plan be vigorously and generally pursued, it would hold out a certainty to our fellow countrymen that we are not a handful of individuals, unworthy of attention or consideration, who desire the restoration of the ancient liberties of England; but, on the contrary, it might revivify that host of well-meaning men who, in the different towns and counties of this Realm, are silently but seriously anxious for reformation in the government.

“We exhort you with anxiety to pursue your laudable endeavours for the common good, and never despair of the public cause.”

But the main correspondence of SCI was with the British Convention at Edinburgh and the London Corresponding Society.

On 15th October 1793 the SCI Secretary read a letter to the members from the Society of the Friends of the People at Edinburgh after which it was resolved to hold an EGM to consider sending delegates to a Convention of all the Societies to be held in Edinburgh for the purpose of obtaining a reform of parliament. On 23rd Oct this EGM took place and two delegates were chosen. They were instructed to assist and support all Constitutional means to obtain real representation in the Commons. They were told to always keep in mind two principles – universal suffrage and annual parliaments. They were told to assert the inalienable right of the people to reform their government and to propose a fixed sum, raised by a one-off charge on the people, whereby existing MPs might be compensated for their pecuniary loss.[11] The Secretary also agreed to write to all SCI correspondents telling them what had been decided.

The delegates attended at Edinburgh but the SCI records are silent as the ministry was then prosecuting several members before the Scottish court. On 17th January 1794, after the Edinburgh sedition trials were completed, the SCI passed the following resolutions:

  • Oppressive laws need not be obeyed
  • Remember with satisfaction the merited fate of Judge Jeffreys who was torn in pieces by the people during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Those who imitate Jeffreys deserve the same fate.
  • The Tweed may divide our countries but there is no separation of principles between Scots and English. The safety of Englishmen is equally threatened when Scots are banished like felons for wise and meritorious conduct.
  • Regret, but do not fear, our seeming inability to reason with government. Oppose tyranny with undaunted resolution but do not quibble to use the tools of tyranny to defeat tyranny.
  • We approve the conduct of the British Convention. Their arguments have not been answered with reason but with violence. Convention members are unlike MPs who have interests distinct from the common people.
  • A copy of these resolutions will be sent to Citizen Skirving currently imprisoned in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh.

After this, the SCI books are full of approbation for Skirving, Margarot and Gerrald, the men most recently convicted of sedition and full of inflammatory words towards the Court that convicted them.

Before reviewing those papers, the Secret Committee will comment on the LCS, which measures in the last six weeks result from a closer collaboration between the two Societies.

…. continued from last edition ….

On 27th March the LCS wrote to SCI proposing to concert their activities. They advised SCI of the resolutions they had made, attached copies of those resolutions, and proposed a full and explicit Declaration by all the Friends of Freedom. They enquired whether the ‘illegal’ prosecutions (in Scotland) would cause SCI to abandon reform or become more radical. They wrote “Are you ready to act with us to obtain a fair Representation of the People”. The letter was signed T Hardy, Secretary.

The attached Resolutions:

We are resolved that Justice and Liberty must be permanent to be valuable. Equal laws can only result from fair representation. We are willing to hazard our lives in this enterprise if that is the only way to assure our happiness. To protect us from illegal prosecutions and unjust sentences, in recollection of the wise laws which have been sequentially repealed, there ought to be a Convention of the People from all the Friends of Freedom in this country. We are further resolved to take the sense of the SCI on this subject.

After the SCI’s views are obtained, another meeting will be held and further resolutions made; a General Meeting of the Friends of Liberty should be called to discuss means of obtaining full and fair representation; The membership will be canvassed for their agreement to instigate all the regional Societies to join this effort; a Standing Committee of both SCI and LCS will be formed to co-ordinate efforts.

The Secret Committee of the House has learned that in the last few weeks circular letters have been sent to the regional societies to convene a National Convention. A pamphlet (no date given) in LCS files says:

The moment has come. Britons must chose to claim Liberty or submit to ministerial usurpation. There is only one peaceful measure we can propose for this. Notwithstanding the corrupt faction that presently tramples on our rights and liberties, our meetings require the adoption of a Convention Bill to better unify our various Societies. If we permit threats, prosecutions and unjust sentences to suppress the popular will, we are unworthy of Liberty. We must be quick – already Hessians and Austrians are amongst us. If we submit, a gang of armed barbarians will be released on us.[12] We shall call a Convention in the centre of the country, which place will be identified later. Send us your answers by 20th April.

Subsequently, the LCS held a meeting at Chalk Farm on 14th April at which a Society of Friends of the People was proclaimed to convoke a Convention to discuss a legal and Constitutional method of fair representation. The conveners listed their grievances:

  • government has proscribed the right of assembly; it disperses legal gatherings and seizes the papers of attendees.
  • Some members have been transported for 14 years. One was said by Pitt in the Commons to have been convicted and condemned even before his trial commenced.
  • Pitt’s insidious attempt to introduce foreign mercenaries into England, without consent of parliament, and to present a Bill allowing foreigners into our army is grounds for fear.
  • The government maintains, out of its public plunder, a gang of spies whose avowed business is to destroy us libertarians.

These complaints are in addition to those that derive from the present unrepresentative nature of parliament.

However the minister has declared war on France and uses the fact of war to say that this is not the time for reform. They say there is a risk of disturbance. Are we to have reform postponed by those who corruptly administer this country? What are these disturbances that threaten tranquillity? All the riots and disturbances that have occurred are fomented by government spies to create the appearance of the situation it says it fears. It is clear the minister is hostile to a genuinely representative assembly. We reformers are peaceful while Pitt is violent. Formerly he supported reform, now he has changed his mind. We must demonstrate to him that we are determined. We do that by a National Convention. Sgd Thomas Hardy.

.… continued in next edition ….

When the LCS started in 1792, it had 200 subscribers. After a few months the numbers increased dramatically and it was decided to create regional sub-groups around London. There are now about 30 regional groups which each send one member to form the General Committee of LCS. Whenever a group reaches thirty members it is required to create a sub-group for new applicants. The LCS corresponds with similar Societies in Sheffield, Manchester, Bristol, Coventry, Nottingham, Derby, Leicester, Norwich, Birmingham, Leeds, Royston, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, York, Hereford, Edinburgh and other Scottish towns.

The LCS addressed the National Convention in France in 1792, just like the SCI. The only document we found on the Secretary was an Address that had been agreed in general meeting at the Globe Tavern, Strand, on 20th Jan 1794. John Martin was chairman. The LCS Address says:

Government has involved us in a war which has killed a huge number of our friends and relatives.[13] A vast sum of money has been spent. Manufacturing and commerce have been destroyed. The country is ruined and starving. New taxes are reportedly about to be introduced. The load of imposts is already intolerable. All this has been done merely to re-establish odious despotism in France.

We do not approve the principles of this war. It is neither just nor discreet. We fear the likelihood of failure is high. The name of Britain is being disgraced. Everyday we hear from those in power (the placemen and sinecure holders) that the British Constitution is the perfection of human wisdom; that laws provide perfect justice; that the administration of law is impartial and provides equal remedies to rich and poor alike. On these assertions the government founds an opinion that our rights and liberties are well secured and cannot be diminished. They say Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 are the bulwarks of our liberty.

Well, we have studied the documents. Wise and wholesome laws were indeed established then. But hardly a vestige of our admirable Constitution remains. The only chapters of the Great Charter that are still legally valid are Caps 14 and 29.

Cap 14 says ‘a freeman shall be amerced in proportion to his fault, saving to him his contentment; a merchant shall be amerced likewise, saving to him his merchandise; another’s villain shall be amerced likewise, saving to him his wainage.’ These amercements can be quantified only by honest and lawful men of the vicinity (i.e. fines may be fixed Constitutionally only by jurors, not Judges). This Right has been unjustly ravished from us.

Cap 29 says ‘No freeman shall be imprisoned, his freehold or liberties seized, or his person outlawed or exiled. He will be judged by his peers or by applying the law of the land. We will not sell justice or right to any man neither will we deny or defer justice and right.’

From the various methods now in vogue it may be thought that the Great Charter has been repealed but it remains the basis to our Constitution. The representatives of rotten boroughs have even less right than real representatives to diminish it yet we find ‘informations ex-officio’ that usurp the role of the jury, are based on the bought testimony of a paid informer and in this way pensioned Justice has been substituted for our birthright. In addition, the expense of hearings, the novel practise of annuling jury verdicts and the delay at every stage of trial, all most flagrantly contradict the Charter clause that forbids denial, delay or sale of Justice.

A felon may be bailed to appear, at the risk of his life and goods (at common law), on finding two sureties of £40 each. A man recently accused of a misdemeanour, by using a form of words, was required by the Attorney General to put up £1,000 bail.[14]

Upon conviction for misdemeanour there have been several recent cases of enormous fines and long and cruel imprisonments that are unknown to our ancient laws and not sanctioned by new law. The Bill of Rights provides that excessive bail shall not be demanded not cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

In Ireland the acknowledged right of the people to meet for the protection of their rights and liberties is supposedly removed by a late Act of Parliament whilst Irish ‘peerages have been distributed in England and new sources of corruption opened to gratify the greed of the ministry.’

In Scotland not even an Act of Parliament countenances the interruption of the peaceful and lawful meetings of people by magistrates who disrupt proceedings of public meetings and prevent association.

The wisdom and restraint of the British Convention at Edinburgh is applauded. They defy government to name the law which they have broken. Notwithstanding this, the members have had their papers seized and presented in evidence against them, many virtuous people have been disgraced by illegal sentences of transportation. And these judgments have been executed with a rancour and malignity never before known in this land. They have been fettered and gaoled with felons in the hulks, which oppressions formerly required express words in the judicial sentence.

We associate to bring an end to all this. We expect fair, free and full representation of the people in a House of real national representatives. We are willing to be treated as felons to maintain these inherent rights and we will never forego them whilst we live. It is treason to withhold them. It is the same corrupt influence that dominates in Ireland, Scotland and England. Can you have confidence in those who send virtuous Irishmen and Scots to Botany Bay? Do you see that you may be next? The cause of the Irish and the Scots is our cause too. The Irish Parliament and the Scottish Judges, both acting under English influence, have brought us to the point we must take sides. Choose liberty or slavery for yourselves and your children. Do not wait until a barracks has been built in every village and the Hessian and Hanoverian mercenaries are upon us.

The means we will adopt to obtain redress is by law. It is the ancient law of the land not the new law of oppressive plunderers.

And it is resolved that in the next session of parliament we will sit daily and observe the proceedings and administration of government. Upon the introduction of any Bill that is inimical with liberty – the landing of foreign troops, the suspension of Habeas Corpus, the proclamation of martial law, or any other unconstitutional innovation – the General Committee will summon the delegates and call a General Convention of the People to consider such measures as are required.

Sgd J Martin Chairman, T Hardy Secretary.[15]

LCS Committee Room, 23rd January – Resolved unanimously that 100,000 copies of the above Address be printed and distributed. The following toasts, celebrated at our annual dinners, will be added at the end:

  • The Rights of Man – may Britons never lack the spirit to assert them.
  • The British Convention and success to its objects
  • William Skirving who called that Convention into being.
  • The LCS and the other patriotic Societies of Great Britain.
  • Maurice Margarot, the condemned Delegate of LCS. May his manly conduct be rewarded with your approbation.
  • Joseph Gerard, the other delegate of LCS now under prosecution. May his sentiments be engraved on every British heart.
  • The transactions at Toulon – may we profit from this dearly-bought experience.[16]
  • Hamilton Rowan and the other patriots of Ireland. May the authors of the Convention Bill be confounded.
  • M/s Muir and Palmer. May their sentences be speedily reversed and Botany Bay reserved to real criminals.
  • Success to the arms of freedom; confusion to despots (whoever they ally with)
  • To all that is good in every Constitution
  • Thomas Paine. May his virtue rise above calumny and suspicion and his name be made dear among the people.
  • Lord Loughborough, Earl of Moira, Gilbert Elliot and the other apostates of liberty. May they enjoy their profits for as long as they live.
  • A speedy and honourable peace with France.
  • To the starving manufacturers and neglected peasantry of Britain and Ireland.
  • John Frost. May he soon recover the health he lost in Newgate.
  • To all virtuous citizens now confined for their opinions. May they never be forgotten.

The review of the Secret Committee report continued in the next edition of the newspaper:

At a meeting of the LCS, a letter from the Friends of the People dated 11th April was read:

Sir, Your letter to Sheridan, Chairman of the Friends of the People, was read in our last meeting. We share your alarm at recent government proposals. We will co-operate with you in every peaceable and constitutional means to promote the objects of our associations but we fear the means you propose will give our enemies grounds to attack us and deter our members from countenancing what you approve. The Friends of the People accordingly decline to send delegates to a Convention as proposed by LCS. We nevertheless assure you of our wish to preserve a good understanding with you and others who promote the cause of parliamentary reform. Sgd W Breton.

The following LCS resolutions were then passed:

  • We are indignant at the rise of despotism in Britain, the invasion of public security, the contempt for popular opinion and the violation of those Constitutional provisions intended for our protection.
  • We abhor the flagitious proceedings in Scotland, reminiscent of the Star Chamber of Charles I, and we abhor the court’s sentencing that violates all law and justice and reveals that Britons are no longer free.
  • We applaud the proceedings of the British Convention.
  • We applaud the patriotism of Margarot and Gerard. We will always remember them and eventually redress the wrongs they have sustained.
  • Any further attempt to vest legislative power in some of the Judges of the Scottish Judiciary will be considered as dissolving the social contract between the King and the people. We hold that the safety of the people is the supreme law.
  • The arming and disciplining in these islands of émigrés (driven from their own country for their attachment to despotism) is an outrageous attempt to intimidate the people of Britain and subjugate them to a band of mercenary cut-throats whose interests are necessarily opposed to true English interests.
  • The project of raising troops and funds by forced subscriptions is unconstitutional (a requisition of the King or his minister can never be voluntary). The arming of one part of the people against another part (such as brought Charles I to the block and drove James II into exile) are acts of treason by the minister.
  • This Society honours the respect that the House of Lords displayed on 4th April towards its constitutional rules in the matter of Lord Stanhope’s motion for an enquiry into ministerial interference in the domestic affairs of France. It is this Society’s belief that this matter alone will convince the nation of the danger we face from the Commons.
  • We thank Earl Stanhope for his manly conduct in the Lords where he has single-handedly brought about the removal of the Hessian and Hanoverian mercenaries from these shores and prevented the creation of a military despotism.
  • That it is our firm belief that a continued opposition in a virtuous cause must ultimately triumph. Truth and liberty are invincible.

Having already sent a letter to Margarot, an address to Joseph Gerard was then read:

To Gerard, a prisoner sentenced by the High Court of Scotland to transportation beyond the seas for 14 years, beloved and respected friend:

You are martyred to the honourable cause of equal representation. We cannot allow you to leave this degraded country without expressing the obligations of the entire populace. We admire your spirited exertions in the cause, particularly during the sitting of the British Convention at Edinburgh and at your subsequent legal proceedings (we will not call it a trial). We honour both your resistance of the wrongs against your country and your philosophical suffering under an arbitrary and, until recently, unprecedented sentence. You are put amongst felons and the vilest outcasts of society, and doomed to a sojourn in New Holland. Remember our sincere regard. The equal laws of this country have fled. We daily commit the same actions and say the same words that caused your infamous sentence. We will continue to do so until we are successful. The law is either unjust to you or deprives us of our share of martyrdom. We pledge ourselves to you and to our country. We demand the rights that have been usurped from us. We will not cease to work for equal representation until we are triumphant. We wish you health and happiness. We will never forget you.

Sgd John Lovett Chairman and Thomas Hardy Secretary.

It was then resolved unanimously that the Committee of LCS convey its approbation to the following:

  • Archibald Hamilton Rowan, prisoner at Newgate, Dublin, for his spirited assertion of popular rights.
  • John Philpot Curran, for his defence of Rowan and his patriotic conduct in the Irish parliament
  • The Society of United Irishmen with an exhortation to persevere for justice for the people of Ireland.
  • Skirving, Palmer and Muir, who received the same sentence as our delegates.
  • John Clark and Alexander Reid for raising bail for our delegates, uninfluenced by any personal considerations but the liberty of the British people.
  • Adam Gillies, Malcolm Laing and James Gibson for their assistance to Gerard at the bar of the Scottish High Court.
  • Thomas Walker of Manchester on the event of his late trial. We commiserate on the development of a system of government spies and informers.
  • Sir Joseph Mawbey for his manly conduct at the recent surreptitious meeting at Epsom.

And it was resolved that 200,000 copies of these proceedings and resolutions be printed and published. Sgd J Lovett, T Hardy.

The Secret Committee of the Commons concluded that a meeting called a General Convention of the People assumes a representative quality and is intended to supersede this House. The references to reform are intentionally misleading. Margarot wrote to SCI in December 1793 advising them to say nothing about politics and to only mention reform instead. No petition to this House for equal representation has been made.[17] This General Convention is an attempt to takeover the legislature.

The object of the Societies is the convocation of a General Assembly of the People composed of delegates of each Society to obtain fair and equal representation. The Societies have resolved to secure themselves from ‘future illegal and scandalous prosecutions, to prevent a repetition of unjust sentences.’ This is not an attempt to apply to parliament for reform, it is an attempt to confer political authority on themselves. They have attacked the legislature and promoted resistance to parliamentary measures. They assert the doctrines of Paine in the Rights of Man – the principles that direct France. It is a traitorous conspiracy to subvert the established laws and Constitution and introduce anarchy as has already occurred in France.

There are two more things the Secret Committee wishes to say. Although we have found no mention of armed rebellion, we suspect measures have lately been taken to distribute guns to members. Since the arrest of the people who held the papers on which we have commented at length, there have been several meetings around London. These people have not abandoned their plans. We fear they will attempt a forcible resistance.

Having reviewed the Secret Committee’s Report and recommendations, Pitt then moved an Address to the King.

He asked for, and expected, the unanimous concurrence of the whole House. He said the Secret Committee had exposed a plot to overturn the Constitution. He considered the petition of LCS to the Commons in May 1793 (which had been read and summarily rejected) had been merely a matter of form and that everything they had done subsequently would have been done in any event. After Hardy’s arrest, a paper had been found on him suggesting it was not the intention of the Convention to assume legislative power but to call into existence another Convention (by elections) that would assume the functions of this House. This proved the intent to overthrow the Constitution. He drew particular attention to the avowed belief of the Committee members that the Societies would achieve their ends by violence.

Lambton said if arms have been found in the possession of persons guilty of treasonable intent, then Pitt’s proposals are reasonable. He confessed that he had not assessed the Secret Committee’s report as justifying the fears of Pitt. He agreed that some of the words were very like sedition, but had they been recited in context they would have appeared more reasonable. He noted the repeated declarations to pursue their aims with moderation in obedience to law. Those declarations would satisfy a Judge if not this House, he thought. He noted at Algernon Sydney’s trial he had told that execrable Chief Justice (Jeffreys) that if he selected passages out of context he could prove anything. The language of Pitt and the Duke of Richmond was as seditious as anything in the documents. The minister’s focus on armed rebellion was based on the discovery in Scotland of 18 pikeheads, 10 battle axes and about 20 unfinished sword blades. The democrats could hardly take over the country by violence with that arsenal. And he objected to the Society of Friends of the People, of which he was a member, being confounded with the other Societies.

The barrister Serjeant Watson said the courts had been libelled. He thought the conspirators had few arms because the government had foiled their plot timely. Should we have waited, like we did in 1780, until they had 1,800 pikes? Instruments of death had been found and HM’s ministers had prudently stepped in to prevent mortality.

Sir Watkin Lewes knew and respected many of the members who formerly belonged to the SCI but he nevertheless thought a plot did exist.

Alderman Newnham said he had expected this development since the commencement of the war. He had warned against a conspiracy in the first session of this parliament.

Martin said a man has an express Constitutional right to bear arms in his own defence.[18] He did not see any offence in the papers presented to the House.

Burdon said every living Englishman should rejoice that this conspiracy had been detected.

Fox said he had often spoken on this subject and would not take long. All the alleged conspirators had been faithful friends and supporters of Pitt and now they were providing the pretext for his assuming extraordinary powers and suspending the best parts of the Constitution. It was a nice question whether they had given Pitt better support then or now.

He recalled in the reigns of the two last Princes of Brunswick (George I & II) there were many who wished to subvert the Constitution and remove the King. They were rich men of high rank connected with foreign powers. In this case there is no evidence of wealth, rank or foreign involvement against the participants. Why had government extraordinarily intervened in this case? Were the laws now inadequate? If these conspirators are formidable it can only be by assistance from France and there is no evidence of that. We have just heard of Lord Howe’s victory over the French fleet. The threat of invasion has receded. He had hoped on hearing that news that Pitt would withdraw his proposal to suspend Habeas Corpus.

This House’s opinion of its loyalty to the King is well known. The King sends down some papers; the House, without seeing them or interviewing anyone, votes in accordance with the King’s proposals. That is the state of parliamentary representation.

In France the King was not removed by inconsiderable people. All the great families, the propertied people and the philosophers united to overthrow him. He noted the Secret Committee’s report focused on Scotland and he (Fox) was glad it drew attention to the severe anti-sedition laws in that country that produced disaffection. Mild measures were preferable. The trials of Muir and Palmer were a disgrace. Oppressive government provokes rebellion.

His love of the Constitution was not for its form but its principle, which he identified as political liberty. He regretted the King’s alarm at his people meeting to discuss political subjects. It is said they had arms, but may not the time come when we have no means of preserving our Constitution but by resisting oppression? Do ministers say that the people must in all circumstances submit? He feared that ministers were emulating the French parliament and endeavouring to pass unpopular measures by invoking alarm. He thought there are as few Royalists in France as there are Republicans in England.

He reiterated that the best way forward was by mild measures. The Constitution can withstand attack. He hoped the members of these Societies would be tried with justice and mercy. Conspiracies are only dangerous when they adopt violent measures. He exhorted the House to protect all persons of whatever religion, abolish tests, treat neutral nations, particularly America, with respect and end the war.

Sir William Dolben (MP for Oxford U) thought there had been a dangerous conspiracy. He recalled Fox had said, on the passage of his India Bill in the Commons, that the Lords could hardly reject a Bill that had passed with such éclat. It seemed to him that Fox wanted an obedient King, an unresisting House of Lords and a Republican Commons.

Dent wondered how any MP could defend the Societies.

Loveden said there are people in London who want to behead the King.

Wharton said he had attended a meeting of SCI and found the membership all innocent men. He had been President and its purposes were solely convivial.

Pitt’s motion was then carried.

The subsequent Address to the King:

We the Lords and Commons have considered your Bill concerning designs against the public peace. We see a seditious and traitorous conspiracy intended to subvert the authority of Your Majesty and his Parliament and destroy the Constitution and government. It was intended to use violence to achieve its ends. It has been caught just in time. We are grateful for your paternal care in bringing it to our notice. We have empowered Your Majesty with additional authority to punish these crimes and suppress rebellion.[19] And we assure Your Majesty that we will defend your reign from foreign enemies and support you in maintaining the Constitution of the realm and preserving internal peace. We will resist the desperate purposes of those who would introduce the miseries now prevalent in France.

Sat 31st Jan 1795

House of Lords, 25th July: The Privy Council is considering the best means of trying traitors. They wonder whether a dedicated Tribunal is advisable. The 12 judges were called to Lord Kenyon’s office and asked their opinions. They commended the ministry to continue the usual course of justice (through existing courts). Traitors from London and Middlesex will be tried at the sessions; traitors from elsewhere will be tried at county sessions.

Sat 28th Feb 1795

London emulates the Revolutionary Tribunal in Paris:

  • A special commission has been formed in London to try all cases of sedition. It is composed of the Lord Chief Justice, the Lord Chief Baron (Hotham) and Justices Buller, Lawrence and Grote.
    The permanent jurors of this court are Benjamin Winthorp (Foreman), H Boddam, Thomas Boddam, W H Boddam, John Campbell, Thomas Cole, Samuel Cuff, Thomas Everett, John Eyres, John Hankey, John Hatchet, Samuel Hawkins, Edward Ironsides, Benjamin Kenton, Joseph Lancaster, George Galway Mills, John Perry, Henry Right, John Snider, Robert Stephenson, George Warde, Robert Wilkinson and Thomas Winslowe.
    The defendants in the grand opening trial are the democrats John Baxter, J A Bonney, Thomas Hardell, Thomas Hardie, Richard Hodgson, Thomas Holcroft, Jeremiah Joyce, Stewart Kydd, Matthew Moore, John Richter, John Thelwell and J Horne Tooke.
    Pitt is present both as a witness and as an assistant in the first prosecution. So are several other ministers to impress the Judges that this is serious business.[20]
  • In Scotland another special commission has been created to try cases of high treason. It is composed of the Lord President, the Lord Chief Baron, Lord Justice Clerk, Lords Hinderland, Eskgrove, Swinloe, Dunfinnan and Abercromby and Baron Norton.

Sat 28th Feb 1795

London news, 29th Sept – Pitt’s cabinet has fortuitously obtained some good support for its Constitutional roll-backs:

Two men were arrested at Fleet Market on Saturday for plotting to assassinate George III. They were arrested on a warrant of the Duke of Portland, the Lord Chancellor. One man had an airgun and darts in his house; the other is a chemist. They have been interviewed by the Duke of Portland, Earl of Mansfield, Lord Grenville and Pitt.

The defendants are Peter le Maitre, a watchcase maker of Denmark Street, St Giles, who owns the air-gun, and John Higgins a chemist in Fleet Market. They are said to have been turned-in by an accomplice whom they had asked to make a special hollow dart. All three are young members of the London Corresponding Society (LCS).

The plan, revealed by the ministry’s spies, was for the two to go to the pit of a theatre which the King has previously patronised. They were to have associates scattered throughout the audience who would create disturbance and, when the King glanced over the balcony to observe what was occurring, they were to shoot the poisoned dart at him and escape.

The only slight difficulty with the prosecution evidence is the well-known fact that the King rarely attends the theatre but he has been known to go. This connection between regicide and the LCS will justify the ministry’s recent acts.

Sat 4th April 1795

London – The Special Tribunal was opened on 2nd October at Clerkenwell Green Sessions to try the democrats who are presently detained in the Tower for high treason. (The membership of the Tribunal and identities of the permanent Jurors have been listed above.) They marched in parade through the streets to the Green. Twenty three of the nominated jurors were selected. Thirty six witnesses were then sworn and gave evidence.

Lord Chief Justice Eyre then addressed the Jurors:

“This is the most important legal case for a century. The verdict of twelve of you will determine the fates, perhaps lives, of the defendants. The anarchy in France must not be introduced here. France has been reduced to misery and confusion. Our King is the head of the law. He protects our lives, liberty and property. Anyone opposed to the King is an enemy of us all and must receive exemplary punishment. You stand between the King and the people. You are bound to consult the interests of both. The King has a just and ancient prerogative He exercises on behalf of the people. The law guards the King as the centre of the peoples’ safety. You will determine if the disclosed facts amount to high treason.

“Under the statute of Edward III anyone who compasses or imagines the death of the King is punishable with death. As the penalty is high, the evidence must be clear, and two witnesses are required to establish the offence. Both Houses of Parliament have concluded that the acts complained of are high treason, but you must satisfy yourselves that they are right. Societies for the reform of parliament are not illegal but if they fall under the influence of bad men they can progress to any enormity. If you find the defendants sought to reform the Commons without the approval of both Houses, it is treason. If they sought to reform parliament in contemplation of using the reformed chamber to execute the King, that may not amount to high treason.”

The following are the prosecution witnesses – Daniel Adams, Secretary of the SCI; John Frost, lawyer; John Williams, wine merchant; William Sharpe, engraver; Isaac Saint, Norwich publican; Wm Broomhead, from Sheffield; George Wideson, from Sheffield; Samuel Williams, gunsmith; John Edwards, silversmith. These nine were at first arrested and questioned and have since volunteered to assist the prosecution. The other prosecution witnesses are several policemen, eight citizens and eleven King’s messengers.

The Jury quickly convicted John Martin, a lawyer.

Thomas Holcroft, author of The Road to Ruin, surrendered himself to the court having discovered only the day before that he was indicted. He addressed the Judge who categorised his statement as a confession of treason and ordered his formal arrest. He asked that the barristers Erskine and Gibbs be allowed to represent him.

Sat 25th April 1795

From the treason trials at Clerkenwell. The charge:

The prisoners were charged with being instigated by the devil to depose and kill King George III and to subvert and alter the legislature. They wrote books and said words to incite the people to assist them. On 1st March and on other days they armed themselves with guns, muskets, pikes and axes and consulted on the best means to form a Convention and invite the people to send delegates to it to oppose the King’s power and law. Etc.

Sat 11th April 1795

London, Old Bailey, Saturday 25th October 1794:

The Special Commission for the Trial of High Treason has convened with Aldermen Plummer, Pickett, Anderson, Newman, Coombe, Langstone in their robes and Macauley in undress. The Attorney General and Solicitor General with other prosecution lawyers, including Pitt, appeared for the Crown. Kirby, the Keeper of Newgate, was ordered to produce the prisoners.

Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, John Augustus Bonney, Jeremiah Joyce, Thomas Holcroft, Stewart Kydd, John Thelwell, John Richter and John Baxter were brought in. The remaining three accused – Thomas Wardle, Matthew Moore and Richard Hogdson – have not yet been apprehended. Counsel for the prisoners (Erskine, Gibbs & Vaughan) had not then arrived and the Commissioners agreed to wait briefly.

Tooke complained that the Court was draughty and the window behind the prisoners was letting in a constant draught of cold wind which was uncomfortable and unhealthy. He wished to remove somewhere more comfortable. The Court said if you plead, you can leave immediately.

Tooke was reluctant to plead as he had not received the ten days allowed by law to prepare his defence. They had all been gaoled in the Tower then moved to Newgate yesterday. All their defence papers had been mixed up in the move and meetings fixed with Counsel had failed because no-one knew where they were. The Court said Tooke’s argument would better be made by Counsel.

Tooke said he had been closely confined for a month and still did not know the precise charges against him, but to preserve his health from the cold wind he was now prepared to plead immediately. Thelwell made the same complaint of reduced time for preparation from the statutory ten days to less than nine. He wished the Court to know that his books and papers, which he had in the Tower, had been withheld from him at Newgate and his ability to defend himself had been reduced to relying on memory. The Sheriff said that the defendants had failed to collect their papers before the move. He disagreed that they had insufficient time. Thelwell said the Sheriff told the defendants he would order the papers be made available to them but it had never happened. The Sheriff then revealed that the prisoners’ trunks containing the papers also contained things that could not be admitted to Newgate.

The defendants were asked how they pleaded and what form of trial they chose. Hardy and Tooke both pleaded ‘not guilty’ and requested to be tried by ‘God and the country’. Bonney said there was an error in his indictment which might enable him to avoid liability (his indictment referred to high treason done in the parish of St Giles whereas he lived in St Pancras at the time of his arrest) but as he was innocent in any event he would reveal the prosecution’s error to the court for amendment. Thelwell also reported an error in his indictment. He was charged as a resident of the City of Westminster whereas he was a resident of the Duchy of Lancaster. He and the other defendants all pleaded ‘not guilty’. All the defendants asked for separate trials to which the prosecution assented.

Defence Counsel then arrived. Erskine confirmed the disruption of contact with his client Tooke. The prosecution agreed to delay the trial for a day and then start with the case against Hardy. Bonney told the court that his case was not about felony or murder. He was charged with holding a wrong opinion. He trusted the court and the law and had no fear of the verdict but he would like to have the usual conveniences of life restored to him during his imprisonment. He was kept in a dark and airless cell at Newgate, lacking every comfort, and he would like to be remanded to the Tower were he had been detained for the prior 22 weeks and had settled in. The Court said it was beyond its jurisdiction to vary the place of detention. Richter, Thelwell and Baxter also complained of the horrors of confinement at Newgate. The Lord Chief Justice asked the sheriffs to provide the best facilities they could.

Hardy was acquitted (there is no indication in the newspaper of the grounds) and was met outside the Old Bailey by a jubilant crowd which had been waiting for hours. They wished to remove the horses from his hackney and pull it themselves. Hardy was embarrassed and drove off to New Church in the Strand where he was prevailed upon to permit this show of popular support. The people then pulled the hackney in procession via Charing Cross, Pall Mall and St James Street to Lancaster Court in the Strand where Hardy temporarily resides at his brother’s home. He thanked the crowd for the honour they had done him and asked them to disperse peacefully.

Hardy’s lawyer, Erskine, was similarly taken in procession to Serjeant’s Inn where he made a fine extempore address on the British Constitution and the law and described the acquittal of his client as a striking example of their effectiveness.

Sat 18th April 1795

The trial of Thomas Hardy commenced on 28th Oct and continued six days a week until 5th Nov when he was acquitted. The notes of evidence are voluminous and we (the Bombay Courier Editor) have made a précis. The jury had to stay in the Old Bailey for days until on Wednesday night they were permitted to sleep at Hummums, a Covent Garden hotel. The principal witnesses for the prosecution were Pitt, Dundas, the Dukes of Richmond and Portland, Rose, Burke, Sheridan, Nepean, Ford, W Faulkner, Reeves and Cotterell.

Sat 2nd May 1795

London Treason trial. The prosecutors are discovering day by day that few of their witnesses are reliable. Today Le Maitre is examined:

What is your Christian name – Paul Thomas.

Are you a member of LCS – I will not answer until you show me the warrant; when I asked to see it at my arrest I was assaulted.

Here is the warrant – That is not me. My initials are not JP.

That does not signify, it is you we want – it does signify but I have nothing to hide and do not fear your questions.

Did you write this letter (about brass airguns and poison not being ready) – no.

Is it not in your handwriting – its similar but not mine. I can indicate the differences to you but I fear other letters will then be produced which I may not be able to satisfactorily distinguish.

The witness is ordered to withdraw.

Pitt told the court he had witnesses against Le Maitre who would show him to be a violent man.

The Attorney General John Scott (later Lord Eldon) then made a 9 hour speech justifying the government’s pre-emptive attack on dissent on the grounds it had been alarmed by events in France and feared the infection was spreading to England. He held that the representative democracy in England with its legislatively entrenched protection for property had produced more wealth than any other system in history and must therefore be better than French principles.

The affairs of 1688 empowered parliament and required the King to act in accordance with the common law and the statutory law of parliament. His position was made hereditary. The inalienable prescriptive Rights of Man were not compatible with the British Constitution and could not legally form a basis to the representation of the British people. Our Bill of Rights empowers parliament whereas Paine’s Rights empower the people – these are two different things. Deposing the King obviously, but also forcing him to change his minister or his government, were accordingly acts of treason.

Had the people in Scotland (Muir, Margarot et al ) been charged with treason instead of sedition they would most justifiably have been found guilty, he thought. These people in England had gone ahead with their plan although they knew the results of similar activities in Scotland – they were incorrigible. They needed intimidating to bring them to heel. These people had no plan to petition parliament for relief – they planned to set up a Convention to vie with parliament for the hearts and minds of the people. They say the King and the aristocrats have usurped the legislature and seldom act in the interests of the people.

In 1792 and 1793 these people had merely talked of hoping for the adoption of their views but by this year (1794) they were talking of greater expectations. The conviction of Skirving and Margarot in Scotland produced a paper from the LCS containing the sentence ‘now is the time to do a deed worthy of men’.

One of the letters found in Hardy’s files was a note about the French fleet recently said to have been in the Channel. The writer said it comprised 70 sail and must accordingly contain transports i.e. it was so large it must be an invasion fleet, or part of one. The writer then recommends we ‘strike a bold blow for freedom’. The defendants had published their opinion that ‘law ceases to be binding when it is used for oppression’ and had expressly considered the violent dismemberment of Judge Jeffreys as a suitable precedent for treatment of the Scottish judges who tried the sedition cases.[21]

Soon after those Scottish trials, the defendants were persuaded that they could only progress their views by violence. They had planned to enact a theatrical piece called ‘The Guillotine’ or ‘George’s Head in a Basket’ on 4th April (the final scene of which depicts the decapitation of leeches to represent the demise of the ministry).

Mr Yorke of the Sheffield branch was the man who organised the production of pikes of a peculiar and distinctive type and these weapons had been found in every town where the group had a society. They had opened schools of military instruction at Holborn and Lambeth to teach the use of these pikes. Horne Tooke had a ‘black book’ in which the names of opponents to their plans were listed.

Much of the incriminating prosecution evidence was sourced from spies who had been infiltrated into the societies. There was no other way to get information.

However although these people are accused of conspiring to treason, they are entitled to separate trials under our legal rules.

Documents from Hardy’s papers and from the Scottish sedition trials establish that Hardy promoted annual parliaments and universal suffrage by peaceful means. He wanted paid national representatives at the Convention, the election of sheriffs by the people, juries chosen by lot (and not selected by either party to the proceedings) and that jurors should be instructed in their duty, the freedom of the press, the right of disobedience to oppressive laws and an end to factional politics.

Other letters proposed lines of conduct to be adopted should the government suspend Habeas Corpus, or land foreign troops in England or pass a Bill against the Convention. Erskine, for the defence, said that even if the correspondence revealed a conspiracy to treason, it had to involve his client to support the prosecution.[22]

Sat 9th May 1795

In the course of the prosecution of Hardy for treason, some part of the seditious proceedings of the British Convention in Scotland were adduced in evidence. The resolutions of that Convention on 28th November 1793 were:

  • Resolved, that any Act that deprived the people of their right to meet and discuss matters of public or private interest is an anti-social Act opposed to our Constitutional liberties and to be resisted until we are compelled to desist by superior force.
  • Resolved that on the first notice of a government intention to enact a Convention Bill or suspend Habeas Corpus (or to suspend the Act against wrongful imprisonment or suspend the proscription against undue delay in prosecuting), or in the event of an invasion or the landing of foreign troops, then several delegates of the Convention will form a secret committee to appoint seven members who may declare the sittings of the British Convention permanent with a quorum of 21 members.
  • Resolved that each delegate shall return home and convene a meeting of his constituents to explain the Convention’s stance, to select a delegate to the Convention in the event it is required (who is to stand ready to depart at one hour’s notice) and to start a local fund for the discharge of these aims.

Gale, a printer from Sheffield, instructed his local steel manufactory to make 10” pike blades, pointed like bayonets. In a letter to Hardy dated 24th April 1794, he writes “The steel has been tempered and polished. They are fitted with hoops for attachment to firwood shafts. They cost 1/- each, cash with order to the Secretary of the Sheffield Constitutional Society.”

This offer had been advised to Coke at Norwich. There was also an offer for the provision of a ‘cat’ – two pieces of steel rod, each bent at right angles, sharpened at either end and stuck together at the bend to create a four-pointed device which, however it fell, always presented one upturned spike. It was for use against cavalry.[23]

Otherwise the verbal evidence of the accuseds revealed only a wish for parliamentary reform. They planned to keep each other informed of their legal and political rights, to publish their grievances and to mobilise the people to protest. They proposed a petition to parliament requesting for full and fair representation. The activists preferred a petition to the King which was to also include a demand that the slave trade be ended. This was drafted by Henry Yorke and left for signature. It was then to be sent to Earl Stanhope in London. The intention was to restore the liberties enjoyed by the Saxon people of Wessex under King Alfred and roll-back the diminutions of that liberty that were enacted after the Norman invasions. Nothing less than the proposed measures would effect that intention. They relied on the declaration of Lord Somers who drafted the Bill of Rights in about 1688 to support their position but, after William of Orange got the British throne, the annual parliaments he had agreed to accept were withheld and a triennial parliament substituted. This derogation had been permitted to continue for a century. The defendants thought it was time for a change.

On 28th February 1794 a meeting of 1,000 – 2,000 people was held in the open air, books were distributed and a collection of 1d per week was arranged from most of the attendees, about 600 of whom were Society members.

Sat 16th May 1795

Notes of the trial of Thomas Hardy, continued …..

Henry Alexander was sworn. I was a member of Division 29 of the LCS. We met at Robson’s Coffee Shop in Shire Lane. There were usually 60 – 100 members present. The songs sung by Division 29 at its meetings are Ҫa Ira, the Marseillaise and the Carmagnole.[24]

He recalled Yorke’s speech when he left England on 5th Nov 1793. He said he was going to Belgium to fight. He hoped to return with the French armies and looked forward to seeing the heads of the King and his ministers upon Temple Bar. Everyone shook hands with him when he left. Alexander then went to the Lord Mayor Sir J Sanderson and told him what he had heard. Sanderson took him to Dundas to report.

Alexander recalled Tooke told one meeting that MPs were scoundrels and the opposition and government conspired together to oppress the people. He spoke harshly of hereditary nobility and asked the audience what they thought of Robert Banks Jenkinson (Lord Hawkesbury). Tooke excluded the ancient nobility (Bedford, Norfolk et al) which he thought useful – he was referring to the myriad new Lords whom the King had elevated and might be expected in return to do anything they were told to do. Tooke said the two Houses abused both the King and the people. He had no doubt the King had been constitutionally diminished by these people. He thought corruption would eventually destroy the Constitution.

On cross examination Alexander said he was employed to infiltrate the Society. He is also a prosecution witness in the trial of Yorke at Sheffield.

Another crown witness (John Groves) revealed he was a solicitor employed by the ministry to investigate the LCS. Under examination, it transpired he had, on one occasion, compromised Walsh, another government spy, in order to protect himself.

Sat 23rd May 1795

Erskine’s defence of Hardy was shaped to destroy the prosecution’s attempt to create an offence of ‘constructive’ treason. His opening remarks were:

He deplored the events in France, the anarchy that had resulted from such a total change in government, the absence of safety of the person or safety of property. He does not want it in England and his client does not either.

The eminent jurist Lord Holt has noted that under the common law there is a great latitude of interpretation that has allowed uncertainty to arise and has permitted the growth of the Royal prerogative.

Writing a thousand letters to effect the murder of a subject is a misdemeanour not treason, Erskine said. Treason refers to attempts to murder the King. The evidence against Hardy is contained in numerous letters. Rash and foolish as some of them are, they are worthy of censure but do not comprise treason. Treason requires an overt act which any reasonable man understands as intended to attack the King. The jury must be convinced. There was no overt act in Hardy’s case.

The prosecution has sought to convict Hardy on a chain of reasoning, from one inference to the next. His case ultimately turns on whether Englishmen are permitted to buy and keep books promoting different political systems. Lord Holt says that men who conduct themselves to seek for political reform without adopting any violent means, do not commit treason.

In the recent case of treason against Lord George Gordon, the prisoner was acquitted although he had taken a large group of people to the House of Commons and violence and threats of violence occurred, yet the jury was not satisfied that Gordon’s intention was treason. Lord Mansfield was seized of that case and he made the useful distinction between conspiracy against the King’s life and conspiracy against His crown and dignity.

In this case we should recall that Pitt the Elder made his name by proposals for reform of parliament. His son and the Duke of Richmond did the same. At that time (1780) Pitt Jr approved of reform; now (1794) he is opposed to it. In 1780 Richmond wanted annual parliaments and universal franchise. It is precisely what Hardy is asking for. Were Pitt and the Duke guilty of treason? What is the difference between Pitt or the Duke and my client – is it solely a difference of wealth?

In 1780’s Lord Richmond wrote a famous letter to Col Sharman in Ireland. Sharman was then leading 10,000 armed men who had not been commissioned by the King. The Irish called a Convention at Dublin and delegates from every county attended. Both Richmond and the Dublin Convention members were attempting to have reforms made.

The Duke of Richmond is on record as telling parliament that, in 1780, 10,000 men returned a majority of British MPs whilst another 167 MPs are chosen by 71 peers and the Treasury. He said “from parliament I have nothing to hope. It is from the people at large that I expect any good.” Richmond refers in his speeches and correspondence to Conventions, Delegates and Committees of Correspondence – all the nouns which the prosecution says links these defendants with the recent change of government in France. These are not words we have derived from France. It is more conceivable that France derived them from the Duke, Erskine thought.

The English people have an inalienable right to assemble, whatever you call the assembly. They are permitted to seek for redress of their grievances by any peaceful means. Fox believes neither proposed measure would have been useful but that is immaterial if the defendants thought it would answer.

Erskine then reviewed the prosecution evidence:

The Society for Constitutional Information had a long honourable history and had attracted the highest people into its membership. The London Corresponding Society was formed for similar purposes. They carried on their treason in public papers. The Societies totally enlisted 40,000 members. A letter from the Norwich Branch to Hardy refers to ‘ripping-up monarchy by the roots and entrenching democracy in its stead.’ Hardy replied that their task was a complete reform of the Commons whereafter they could use that House to redress their grievances.

Then there is the Convention which the prosecution says must assume all the functions of the legislature. This plan for a Convention was not Hardy’s idea. There had just been a British Convention started in Scotland to reform the election laws. The Lord Chief Baron was the Chairman. The first purpose on the Lord Chief Baron’s list was “that they met for the purpose of reforming the Election Laws.” Skirving then circulated a letter inviting delegates to attend. This was held to be ‘constructive treason’ by the Scottish judges. The last time an offence of ‘constructive treason’ was presented was in the trial of Lord George Gordon when it was sought to attribute the acts of a mob to Gordon’s influence. If we are to apply this doctrine to the instant case, how many defendants will there be – the entire membership of all the Societies and their supporters, probably half the population.

When the London Corresponding Society was closed it had £15 in its treasury – hardly adequate funds to overturn a monarchy. Concerning the Convention they called – was it to be a Convention of the people or a Convention of societies. If of the Societies, Hardy is innocent. If of the people then every member (there are several tens of thousands) is notionally guilty.

The British Convention at Edinburgh was dispersed by the municipal officers who demanded it cease. Skirving refused. The Lord Provost took him by the arm. That was sufficient force to end the meeting. They refused to disperse because they saw no harm or illegality in their acts. Then several were arrested, charged with sedition and tried. They made the obvious defence and it was rejected. How they came to be convicted is obscure but the sentences were harsh.

The London Corresponding Society characterised this as an unbecoming use of excessive force against the people. They said those who imitate Judge Jeffreys should anticipate the same fate. They were angered and they widely published what they perceived as government injustice. Government did nothing about reform. Paine was never prosecuted for his book. W Adams brought the matter of reform before the Commons just as Lord Grey had done – their Petition was rejected.

At that time, the French were surrounded by hostile neighbours. Pitt refused to talk with the French government and they declared war. The predictable disruption of our commerce followed. People lost their jobs or were otherwise affected, yet government still did not act. Connections were averred with French Societies. The evidence from the Sheffield Branch reveals the reformers were threatened by some people. Inflammatory handbills against them were circulated. The people were incited to attack them and their houses were fired into with guns.

In these circumstances the dissenters found it prudent to arm themselves for their defence. This first mention of arms is on 24th April and all the members say it was for their self-defence. Davidson wrote to Hardy telling what had occurred, not as an officer of the Sheffield Society but privately. This letter enclosed another for Norwich but it appears to have never been forwarded to that place. A man wrote to Hardy reporting people in Sheffield arming for self-defence – that is the entire prosecution case that led to the present proceedings – yet Hardy is charged with procuring arms to overturn the monarchy.

The case rested on the testimony of government spies. That testimony was at variance with the evidence of 40,000 members of the Societies. One of the spies, Alexander, had formerly been in service to Mr Smith on a salary of £25 pa but was induced to resign that job to become a spy – obviously spying is well paid. Two government spies – Groves and Green, who gave the evidence on knives – contradicted each other. Then there is the confession of Watt, a government spy, that he proposed to write a treasonous letter to Hardy in the expectation that its possession would incriminate him (Hardy).

The Duke of Burgundy gave the Belgians a Constitution. The Austrian Emperor marched in an army to overturn it. The Belgians rebelled, the French declared war, evicted the Emperor and came in and occupied Belgium. It was a similar story in America. These examples reveal that a government is secure only if it has the love of the people.

Long before his arrest, Hardy had exposed the London Corresponding Society papers to an MP who intended to bring a motion in the House concerning the activities of the Society. Now he is here. He is an ordinary man.[25]

Sat 18th April 1795

Leiden Gazette – Erskine, who has become a national hero for successfully defending Hardy against the ministry’s treason charge, made an address to the public from his window after the trial:

“Citizens, had Hardy been convicted I should have nothing to say. Now he is exonerated, I am content. 12 good men have reached an honest and independent verdict. Thank you for your moral support. Please go home and thank God for this result.”

Erskine’s defence was based on the previous liberal writings of Pitt the Elder, Pitt the Younger, the Duke of Richmond and Mr Burke, of whom the last three were all prime prosecution witnesses. The proceedings would have been funny had the defendants not been at risk of execution.

Erskine’s argument was that ‘the endeavour to reform parliament by legal and peaceful means can never be treasonous.’ It was in defence of this doctrine that Pitt the Elder founded his reputation. His son, the present minister, based his reputation on the same doctrine. It turned out in the proceedings that the LCS was actually founded by Pitt and the Duke of Richmond. They had demanded annual parliaments and universal suffrage. Richmond had said at the time that if the abuses in parliament were not corrected there would be a revolution.

He published his proposals in 1780 in a letter to Colonel Sharman and suggested that the delegates of popular assemblies should unite in a Convention. This was not a letter to a Society with a few pikes, it was to a soldier in command of 10,000 armed men who had not sworn allegiance to the King but proceeded to capture Ireland for Him. Sharman’s army held a Convention, unauthorised by the King or the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and the government expressed no concern or complaint. It appeared to have been entirely satisfied.

Erskine then reviewed the evidence of the policemen and informers to establish there was no case. Several of the Police witnesses and King’s messengers were obliged to admit they were paid by the administration specifically to collect evidence against the defendants.

Erskine was uninformed about and unwilling to defend the proceedings of the Convention in Scotland but for these proceedings against the LCS he thought it appropriate to demand a ministerial apology. He thought that everyone should respect the law and said ‘we may wish to shun innovations but our fear of them must not be permitted to make us unjust’.

Sat 4th July 1795

Habeas Corpus has been suspended in England by MPs on the minister’s assertion that traitorous conspiracies exist to introduce French principles of liberty and equality into Britain. The treason trials that evidenced the conspiracies have been concluded and all defendants acquitted. It appears the ministry has overstated the disaffection of the English people but Pitt still required the suspension of Habeas Corpus maintaining it is necessary for a continuance of the war.

Burke requested that Habeas Corpus be restored.

Ministers recalled a Grand Jury had found sufficient reason to indict the defendants – they had a case to answer which is nearly as good as a conviction. The liberal opposition noted that Grand Juries often act under superior management.

Sheridan noted several Grand Jurors had received notes from the Sheriff dispensing with their attendance (i.e. there had been a selection of jurors by the Sheriff). He supposed that if the Grand Jury found evidence to indict and the Jury acquitted, one or other was wrong.

Windham expostulated.

Sheridan accused Windham of being the one man in all England most responsible for the decision to war.[26] He recalled that twelve of the foremost lawyers of England had assisted in the prosecution, of whom only the Attorney General acted gratuitously. He noted that the prosecution list of witnesses against Mr Joyce comprised 207 names of whom 22 were staff of the Home Secretary’s office, 45 were police and prison officers, 23 were prisoners, 28 were lawyers and their clerks, 17 were Scots who had never met Joyce, 23 were government spies and 49 were police informers. It had taken Attorney General Scott nine hours to explain government thinking behind the charge.

The prosecution made much of a supposedly intended armed rising but, after much trouble, produced only a single pike in evidence. The whole army of traitors was commanded by a tailor and had ammunition for nine muskets. They held a treasury of £11 and one bad shilling.

Sheridan concluded that the whole project had been a piece of theatre constructed by the ministry to create the illusion of national danger and justify their oppressive response to the change of French government. He particularly deplored the employment of spies – ‘those zealous men whose exertions produced all the evidence of excesses presented against the defendants at the trial.’ He accused the ministry of governing by a Reign of Terror.

Serjeant Adair, the Barrister, reminded the House that only one clause of the Habeas Corpus Act had been suspended – the one dealing with charges of high treason – and all other provisions remained in effect.

Windham said the fact of a conspiracy to commit treason had been established in the trials – government just failed to link the defendants to it. He thought the acts of the ministry were necessary.

Fox said Hardy’s signature was on the papers that supposedly established the ‘constructive’ treason that the ministry alleged. If he signed them, he approved them. But Hardy said those papers were prepared in pursuit of parliamentary reform and the jury agreed. He regretted that several people had been arrested and imprisoned and later released without charge or apology.

He asked the House to consider an event he had just seen at the Bow Street Court where a man charged with stealing a 9d wooden board was forgiven by its owner, whereupon the Magistrate sentenced him to life in the army. The culprit protested – he had a mother to support – but the magistrate was implacable. Counsel addressed the Magistrate that the liberty of the man was being infringed. The magistrate said he acted on the authority of a letter from Henry Dundas as Home Secretary directing the Judiciary to provide more men for the army. Fox thought it inappropriate for the Home Ministry to treat the Judiciary as a crimp or a press gang.

Sat 20th June 1795

House of Commons has continued to debate the treason trials and Habeas Corpus:

Sheridan again asked that Habeas Corpus be restored ‘now the treason trials are ended’. He ridiculed the efforts of the ministry to create alarms in justification of its suspension and he asked any one of the ministers to tell him whether it was their intention to repeal the law or extend its validity on expiry.

Dundas said there was no change in the security situation and the Act will continue. Jekyll reprobated the ministry’s attempts to silence the people – “it is like the terrors of the Bastille” he said.

Solicitor General[27]defended the treason trials – “if it is not treason to correspond with the French legislature, I don’t know what is” the law officer said. He criticised the jurors – “if they knew the law as well as I do, they would have convicted” (laughter). He said Horne Tooke had not denied plots but had relied on the government having inadequate evidence to convict.

Fox wondered why the ministry still needed extraordinary measures when the people they feared had been tried and acquitted and the ministry’s fears had been revealed to be insubstantial – “Juries are not composed of placemen and pensioners, or of men who are promised peerages. They do not cultivate party connections or indulge in party speculations” he said. The continued suspension of Habeas Corpus revealed the ministry would stop at nothing to get its way, he thought. Serjeant Adair said that, as a lawyer, his profession was disgraced by the suspension.

Sat 20th June 1795

A Bill for preventing ‘clandestine outlawries’ has been presented in the Commons.[28]

Sat 27th June 1795

Mutiny at Spithead – The Culloden (Trowbridge) ran aground entering Spithead and damaged its rudder. The Sampson ran aground at the same time and place and was seriously damaged. It required towing into Spithead. The Irish crew of Culloden were reluctant to assist the Sampson. They said the Culloden had become unseaworthy too.

Capt Trowbridge remonstrated with them but they insisted on going directly into harbour. The crew went below and stayed six days in command of the lower decks. They directed two cannon to cover the companion ways and kept lighted matches nearby throughout the period.

The Royal George and the Queen were then brought alongside the Culloden and ordered to sink the ship with the mutineers on board unless they surrendered. Capt Pakenham obtained permission to board and talk with the men. They surrendered to him and produced 6 Irishmen whom they said were the ringleaders. All six are landsmen (pressed farmers).

Sat 12th Sept 1795

Robert Thornton, MP for Colchester (from 1790 – 1812), presented in the Commons in early April a Petition from his constituents to the King:

“Two years ago we had full employment and prosperity. Now very many people are unemployed and depend on others for their necessaries. The war is ruining England. All our national wealth is diverted to the war. We have to abandon commercial employment and join the army to survive. Pity your distressed subjects and start peace negotiations.”

Sat 14th Nov 1795

London 14th July: A crowd collected at Charing Cross to attack the house of a crimp but was diverted into a general riot against Pitt’s ministry. They protested the shortage of bread and the continuation of the war. They were throwing stones at all the houses of the nobility. Lord Mornington was cut on the hand by a stone. A regiment of guards was called-in to disperse them.

The residue of some 12,000 protesters crossed Westminster Bridge and demolished an army recruiting centre. The army brought up cannon to confront the mob and a cavalry charge succeeded in dispersing the people, many of whom were trampled and injured

Sat 30th Jan 1796

London, 1st August 1795 – Lord Chief Justice Kenyon recently charged a Grand Jury at Worcester as follows:

On my circuit, I found rioting at Oxford due to the scarcity of grain. If it happens here in Worcester you should crush it. Rioting only increases the costs of corn – the farmer will not risk bringing it to a disorderly market. This year’s harvest has been good and only a few days is necessary to relieve shortages.

Sat 20th Feb 1796

Mutiny at Cork, Ireland on 5th September 1795:

The 105th and 113th Regiments mutinied. They took to the streets, showing their Conditions of Service to any who would look, and complained they are to be drafted into other regiments. There has been no violence but there are only a few fencibles to oppose them and orders have been sent to Mellow Cove and Spike Island to call the Louth and Meath militia to march to the protection of Cork.

General White offered to pay the mutineers ½ guinea each in cash and to secure the payment of their arrears of wages as soon as possible if they would submit to him. They insisted their regiments be maintained under their own officers or they would not serve.

General Massey then advocated strong measures to subdue the refractory men. He brought his militia to surround the square where the rioters were assembled and set-up two field-pieces loaded with grapeshot. The Irish troops did not believe that Massey meant business. He ordered them to ground arms. They hesitated but reluctantly complied.

They were then deprived of their arms and marched off. The sergeants and corporals were deprived of their badges of rank. The ringleader was identified and removed to prison. The riot then subsided. There were no injuries.

Sat 27th Feb 1796

Letter from Botany Bay:

M/s Palmer and Skirving (the Scottish sedition trial defendants), who arrived here on the India Company’s ship Surprise, were accused by the Captain en voyage of plotting to mutiny intending to take the Surprise to France.

Major Grose, the governor of the penal colony, has found no evidence of the Captain’s allegation and released the men. He proposes to charge the Captain for their false imprisonment as they were dreadfully treated. They are both very popular here.

They live near Muir and Margarot, two other defendants. Palmer was given a country house with a 2-acre garden by the residents. He has bought 150 acres nearby and proposes to farm.

Governor Grose is leaving for Europe soon and his replacement will be Hunter.

Sat 2nd April 1796

The latest French proposals for peace have been joyously welcomed by the British people but King George III has coincidentally had a strange experience:

On 29th October 1795 as the King was en route by carriage to the Lords to open parliament, he drove passed a reported 200,000 citizens who were milling around St James Park allegedly in response to a suggestion of the London Corresponding Society that the people should petition the King for relief. They were calling “No Pitt, no war” and “Peace and bread”.

As the King’s carriage passed through the crowd, a circular hole appeared in the window as though made by a ball. No gunshot was heard and Lords Westmoreland and Onslow, who were in the carriage with the King, suggested an airgun may have been used. No bullet was found in the carriage and no-one was injured.

When the King reached the Lords his first words on alighting were “they have fired on me.” Onslow and Westmoreland corroborated this. Unfortunately, no forensic examination of the state carriage was done. When the King concluded his business in the Lords, he returned home and the carriage was taken back to the stables. At that time it was captured by the mob and totally destroyed.

Pitt issued a Proclamation in the King’s name on 31st October offering £1,000 reward for information on the identity of the culprit.

On 4th November His Majesty send down another Proclamation to parliament requiring the suppression of all seditious assemblies. The cause of this further request was a meeting of the London Corresponding Society three days before the state carriage was pelted by the mob in St James’ Park. The King believes the two events are connected. Pitt prepared a Bill and presented it to parliament on 10th November. It passed its three readings the same day, each with a huge majority and was sent to the Lords.

Pitt described the broken carriage window to MPs on 10th Nov as “an outrage which not only threatened the destruction of the monarch but of the whole Constitution.”

Fox called it ‘a feeble pretext’ in his reply to Pitt’s speech. He said ‘revolutions were (not) owing to the freedom of popular meetings: On the contrary, was it not a fact that revolutions had always sprung from oppression?’

Stanley quoted Montesquieu ‘an increase in the penals of a country is the greatest cause and sign of its decline and destruction’.[29]

A joint open-air meeting of the Whig and Corresponding Clubs was held near the Copenhagen Hotel on 12th November. About 5,000 attended. The Dukes of Bedford and Norfolk were there with Fox, Erskine and about 50 MPs (all the dissident Whigs and independents). The opinions expressed were solidly opposed to Pitt.

The King’s Address on opening parliament calls for additional taxation although he contrarily expresses concern that the cost of grain is too high and the last harvest was small.

Sat 18th June 1796

The House of Commons, 16th November 1795:

Sheridan protested against the Seditious Meetings Bill. He thought stopping public meetings was a serious matter which ministers should fully justify. The previous Constitutional derogations had been carefully researched and explained. These new derogations had not.

It was one thing to resent an insult to the King (the hole in the carriage window) and another to legislatively remove popular rights, he thought.

If ministers were right there was a great body of Englishmen intent on subverting the Constitution. Or perhaps this new law was the mischievous machinations of the King’s minister to create doubt and fear where none was indicated. He thought it most probably the latter.

The government has told us there are plots to seize the Tower, attack the Palace, commence Revolution, etc., and to add substance to these whimsical fantasies, they have fortified the Tower and increased the garrison. When one looked at the evidence adduced in the treason trials one found nothing to support these exciting and romantic aims. The army of government spies who gave evidence against the ‘traitors’ revealed that the whole fabrication was groundless. The government nevertheless produced a report and the consequence of it was the suspension of Habeas Corpus.

Then we had the story (originating with ministers themselves) that the King was to be assassinated in a theatre, a place the King rarely attends. No instrument was found but the ‘conspirators’ were arrested and gaoled. All this ‘opera’ was to persuade the people that there really was a plot. The prosecutors did not themselves believe there was a plot – it was just a ministerial game. The reputations of the prisoners were ruined.

At commencement of this session the King asked that the people be relieved of the burdens of war and the ministry said one good effect of the war had been to change the sentiments of the people. Now they have this ‘hole in the carriage window’ thing and try to make an assassination out of it. Does anyone recall Pitt alerting us to the effect ‘the country is progressively moving towards revolution – handbills are everywhere, seditious meetings are continuous’.

Pitt has been put in the position of saying that the acts of a few required the punishment of everyone. He relied on what he says is happening in France to support his tyranny. He can get this oppressive piece of legislation approved only by exempting MPs from its effects.[30] Sheridan thought it absurd that Frenchmen, who had formerly had none or very few rights, should be compared with Englishmen who had enjoyed rights for over a century. The French were so oppressed it became intolerable and they eventually threw off the oppressors. Ministers in England wished to use the same oppression to prevent debate.

Sheridan suspected that the inflammatory handbills which the ministry complained of were most likely produced by the ministry itself – they seemed so familiar with them (most handbills seen in parliament are printed by ‘Citizen Lee’, the printer that the London Corresponding Society uses). Everyone must recall that when the minister’s spies gave evidence in the treason trials they agreed they had necessarily been themselves the most outspoken people advocating revolution. The obvious inference was that spies and informers had promoted the thing ministers feared because their incomes depended on it – there must be very little they would not have agreed to do. They are precisely the sort of protected villains who might persuade someone to throw a stone at the King with importunity whenever they were asked to do so as a £1,000 reward was payable for arrest of the culprit (advertised days later). He called for a committee to examine the allegations of the ministry.

Sat 14th May 1796

The Liverymen of London had a tempestuous meeting at the Common Hall on 21st November and agreed to petition parliament over the Seditious Practices (Meetings?) Bill by a majority of about 80% of the members.

On 16th November an immense number of electors in Westminster met at Old Palace Yard for the same purpose. The government sent an army of peace officers and retained several military units around the venue. Fox opposed both the Bill to better protect the King and the Bill to prevent seditious meetings. In future people might meet only in the presence of a magistrate and if anything is said that the magistrate finds disagreeable he may arrest you and disperse the meeting. If you decline to obey him he may call in the army to disperse you. There can hardly be a greater violation of popular liberties, he thought.

The Duke of Bedford said the existing laws were perfectly adequate to deal with the person who had broken the King’s carriage window but it would be necessary to mobilise extensive popular complaint to have the proposed law dropped.

Lord Hood spoke in support of the minister. The matter was then voted and a unanimous decision to petition for relief from both Bills was reached. Afterwards Fox, the Duke of Bedford and Sheridan got in their coach to leave but the people removed the horses and pulled it themselves. They paused outside St James Palace then continued through Berkeley Square to Fox’s house in South Street where the three men alighted. Fox then spoke from the 1st floor window to congratulate the people on their spirited character.

Another meeting of numerous freeholders of Middlesex was held on 21st November at the Hackney Mermaid. There were so many attendees that the meeting had to be removed to the bowling green nearby. The Duke of Norfolk said the English people would be subjected to the arbitrary decisions of the magistrate. Mr Perry of Blackwall was the only one who spoke in support of the minister and he was shouted down. A petition similar to the Westminster petition was agreed by all except four attendees.

At a meeting in Surrey last Friday Fox spoke again and the great majority of attendees voted for a petition against the Bill as well.

So far there have been 17 petitions from geographical areas and many more from societies and individuals.

Sat 2nd July 1796

The House of Commons, 23rd November 1795 – This was an angry sitting with voices raised louder than on any former occasion. Some residents of Gosport, Devonshire and Manchester have petitioned in favour of the two Bills; Bristol, Reading, Canterbury, Southampton, Norwich, Chichester, Sheffield have petitioned against them. Each petition had a few thousand names.

Sheridan queried the Bristol petition as it had not been signed by any of the merchants. Lord Sheffield, who introduced it, supposed it was unrepresentative.

Lord Belgrave queried the Chichester petition ‘as it is signed only by Jacobins’.

Strutt, MP for Malden, presented a petition of the London Corresponding Society with 10,000+ names. He said Citizen Lee, the LCS printer, had earned the attention of the authorities and his premises at Copenhagen House was searched but no inflammatory documents were discovered. Lee was nevertheless charged by the ministry in respect of a pamphlet headed ‘Tyrannicide’ and was called to the bar of the house. He said he was not the retained printer of London Corresponding Society he just did ad hoc work for it. He headed the objected pamphlet ‘Tyrannicide’ because he thought it would sell more copies. He supported parliamentary reform because he believed, without it, there would be revolution.

Strutt also objected to Pitt getting £4,000 a year when soldiers with missing limbs remained uncared for. He thought Pitt received a large income for setting Europe in flames. The London Corresponding Society was charged with treason and sedition but he was confident no British jury would convict. He noted the speakers at London Corresponding Society meetings routinely urged members to maintain peace and good order. He said Pitt had formerly held the same views but now he was in power he had abandoned them. Strutt then read a ‘treasonous’ pamphlet by a member of the Judiciary (Justice Reeves – see the Political Management chapter. Reeves was a witness in the sedition trial above) who wrote ‘the monarchy of England is like a goodly tree of which the two Houses of Parliament were mere branches that might be lopped off. The Constitution will still go on without their aid’. This judge should be prosecuted, he felt.

Sheridan complained the tactics of the ministry. He noted Lord Mornington (Richard Wellesley, later 1st Marquess Wellesley) had addressed the House on some misinformation he had received. In fact the case involved an affiliate of the London Corresponding Society called ‘the Friends of the People’. At a recent meeting the candle had been blown out and a pamphlet dropped on the floor in the darkness which was discovered when the room was relit. It was inflammatory and the person identified as dropping it (a ministerial spy) was expelled. The Society then quickly voted and minuted their unanimous abhorrence of the pamphlet.

Canning was in favour of both Bills.

Fox said the more these Bills are debated the more opposition they receive. He wanted some delay to permit opinion to manifest more clearly. Fox characterised the Bills as attempts by the minister to thwart the Constitution and if they passed the House of Commons on the mere influence of the minister he would advise his electors to acquiese only so long as it was prudent to do so.

Pitt accused Fox of ‘fomenting civil war’ He said the law was too strong for Fox to oppose. Fox denied it and declined to retract any words.

Windham said Fox’s views clearly showed the need for stronger laws.

Sheridan said ‘when plot-forming ministers meditated attacks on the Constitution; at a time when Secretary at War Dundas had garrisoned London, the seat of parliament, and talked of applying a vigour greater than law,’ he would advise every man ‘to resist the establishment of a system of Terror in this country. We do not want a British Robespierre harassing the people with pretended plots. Robespierre so divided the French he could not visit the Mayor of Paris without an armed escort.’ He deplored the fact that this was now emulated in England.

Sat 30th April 1796

The House of Commons has debated the Seditious Meetings Bill on 24th November. This is the Bill Pitt is trying to rush through parliament on the King’s report of his attempted murder in St James Park. Many petitions have been received against it:

Charles Grey presented petitions from the parishes of Killaton and Houston in County Renfrew and the journeyman tailors of London – 2,936 of them complained the law would prevent their occasional assemblies on business. Grey’s third petition came from the people of his constituency in Northumberland. Others came from Maidstone, Devizes and the traders of Edinburgh. They were all tabled.

Erskine presented a petition of 2,900 merchants and bankers of London. It was presented to him by Waddington who, for this service, had been instantly deprived by the King of his commission in the Surrey fencibles. Erskine noted there was a Constitutional right for anyone to petition parliament. He presented another petition from Portsmouth and Portsea signed by 1,544 persons, which was tabled.

Mainwaring presented a petition of several London and Westminister publicans fearing their trade would reduce if meetings of friendly societies were not permitted in their public houses. Pitt said there was no government intention to prohibit meetings of friendly societies. It was also tabled.

Lord William Russell presented a petition of the inhabitants of Southwark.

Fox presented one from 4,320 Mancunians, another from 2,350 freeholders and other inhabitants of Coventry and a third with 2,000 – 3,000 signatures from Paisley.

Sheridan presented one of 1,700 residents of Farrington Without, a huge constituency encompassing one sixth of London. Others were presented from St Albans, Hellstone, Kettering and Buckinghamshire. All were tabled.

Alderman Newnham said the London petitioners were not the big capitalists in the City but another petition representing the full weight of the City would soon be presented.

Alderman Lushington said few people had attended the meeting at which Erskine’s petition was agreed – it did not represent the views of 75% of Londoners who were generally in favour of repression, he said. Two other friends of the minister said the petitioners had been misled as to what they were signing and would not have signed if they had known better.

Fox said the Livery of London and several wards of the City, particularly Westminister, each contained a majority of people who opposed the restrictions. He thought the same view was expressed throughout the country and estimated public support for the Act at less than 20%. He wondered how Lushington had determined his 75% figure.

Pitt said Foxites had roused the country against the Bills when a proper view would show their wisdom.

Fox recalled that when he produced his India Bill it was Pitt’s group that went the length of the country to raise dissent. He did not like the practice but could not deny the right of people to express themselves.

Pitt said Fox based his Constitutional views on the conditions at the time of the Revolution in 1688. The situation had since changed. In 1688 the King had violated the Constitution and could only be stopped with violence. In 1795 the King was at idem with his minister and acting in accord with the wishes of a majority of Lords and Commons. He particularly complained that the Journeyman Tailors supposed the Bill would prevent their trade meetings – ‘a groundless alarm’ he called it. He resented that the weavers of London (a commercially important class of people) have been told that their meetings to demand wage increases will be illegal if the Bill passes – ‘a wicked artifice’ said Pitt.

Other pamphlets had been distributed throughout the country saying the Bills made private family meetings illegal – Pitt said he intended to remove that clause. He had also heard that the Bill prevented the right of Englishmen to petition their representatives. He said the powers of a magistrate to licence a meeting, attend it and if unsatisfied to disperse it, were powers that required careful drafting and he would leave as little as possible to the discretion of the magistrate.

Mr Onslow mentioned the recent Surrey meeting which had been poorly attended. Only 300 freeholders had felt it safe to attend due to the Bill.

Sheridan said the Bill as drafted diminished the liberties of the people and enhanced despotism. Meetings to discuss public grievances, misconduct of ministers or parliamentary reform were all grist to the magistrate’s mill and the magistrate is a government functionary. Sheridan concluded that the King had got this Bill by misrepresentation and Pitt misrepresents its thrust. He congratulated the House on obtaining some slight modification of the Bill from Pitt.

Sir Watkin Lewes said a majority of the Common Hall of London had opposed the Bill.

Charles Grey said it was already being used repressively. The Sheriff of Northumberland had refused to permit a meeting just a few days ago. England is approaching the situation in Russia where people are permitted to petition but if it is adjudged unfounded the petitioners are executed. People are going to play safe. They will not apply to the magistrate for licences to meet. It is not only Trade Associations but schools and science that will be affected.

And he identified the Constitutional principle – any parliamentary act against the sense and interest of the people permitted their resistance to it. He added it is a principle that Pitt’s father always maintained.

Sat 4th June 1796

The Seditious Practices (or Meetings) Bill is in the House of Lords. The opposition say the ministry would better address the causes of popular discontent than simplistically try to repress it. By this war, the people had been made destitute of food and their means of growing it diminished (by the transfer of agricultural workers to industry and the army and navy and the continuous privatisation of common land). The Foxites say ‘stop warring and the people will recover their food supply and become tranquil’.

Lord Mansfield attributed popular discontent to the Corresponding Societies which repeatedly reminded people that things could be better. He thought they allowed the inference that monarchy was a cause of popular hardship. He had been twice to France in an official capacity once fifty years ago and again since the Revolution. The difference in France then and France now was incredible.

Lauderdale resumed his opposition. Of the two associations – the Cabinet and the Corresponding Society – the latter was the least dangerous Constitutionally, he said.

Grenville immediately threatened Lauderdale “what you have said here could be actionable in a Court of Law”.

Thurlow said it is the duty of legislators to foresee the consequences of the Bill if it is passed – Lauderdale had merely sought to do this. He said there was doubtless a legal right to oppose tyranny and it overcame the usual legal and social duty to comply with law.

Norfolk noted Grenville had confirmed that the present Bill would prevent nothing that was not already an offence. He found it the most persuasive argument for abandoning the whole Bill. He thought any large crowd was likely to contain a few idiots who attend only to make trouble. It hardly evidenced the King’s contention that a gang of assassins is leagued against him.

Abington said Tory administrations always favour violent solutions and just as quickly abandon them. The existing laws were adequate and he would oppose the Bill. The 1st reading then passed 77/7 (with proxies a government majority of 72) and a 2nd reading was instantly held.

Sat 7th May 1796

The Seditious Practices (or Meetings) Act has become law. It is a capital offence of High Treason for any Briton in writing or in speech to intend the injury of the King or to deprive Him of any of His realms or to levy war on Him or incite any foreigner to invade His domains. Anyone adjudged a traitor will be executed and his property confiscated.

Anyone saying or writing words that incite a dislike of the King or his Government is guilty of High Misdemeanour and will be bound-over on the first offence and transported for 7 years on the second. All offences require the testimony of two witnesses for proof unless the defendant do confess. The ancient privileges of the members of the two Houses of Parliament are preserved notwithstanding anything to the contrary in this Act (see the Political Management chapter for the significance of the phrase “the ancient privileges of the members … are preserved”). The common law offence of Treason may not be charged unless the defendant has been first charged under this Act.

When the Bill reached the Lords, Lauderdale asked why it did not apply to Scotland. Lord Mansfield said the laws of Scotland already provided adequate safeguards.

The Duke of Bedford disliked the Bill – it was oppressive. The sole reason for it was the circular hole said to have appeared in the King’s carriage window and the speculative role of ‘certain unidentified societies’ in directing that insult.

Much had been said of France. Bedford did not believe the revolution in France resulted from the acts of societies, or from the press – it appeared to originate entirely in the government itself. The French Court had been morally dissolute and this had extended to its ministers. The national finances had not been preserved and the King persisted in hopeless wars which impoverished the people and brought-on the revolution. It was nothing to do with sedition.

The only difference between France and England was the extent of the King’s morality. Otherwise both governments were corrupt by creating offices and showering them on their dependants. Even Burke, ‘the preacher of economy,’ had accepted a lavish pension. Both governments persisted obstinately in an ‘unfortunate’ war. Both governments had difficulty financing the war and, whilst Britain was better placed, France might find unforeseen means to continue fighting and we would be embarrassed. He opposed the Bill.

Grenville supported the Bill. The behaviour of crowds was due to the incitement of the societies. The existing laws were inadequate and new legislation was necessary to deal with the case. No new crimes were created by the new law – there was no diminution of popular liberties. The only new thing was the penalties. He agreed that the cause of the revolution in France was the acts of the former monarchical government but the violence since was entirely attributable to the clubs and popular societies. He had hoped at first that the revolution would be a glorious event, equally beneficial for France as the rest of Europe, but it turned out to be extremely violent and created misery in France and concern throughout Europe.

Lauderdale asked how the existing laws can be called inadequate when they have not been tried. If they had been applied and failed to improve the situation, then ministers might ask for new law. If it was true, as ministers said, that the social situation had long been deteriorating, why had nothing been done. The Bishop of Rochester (Dr Horsley) has said the people have no business with the laws except to obey them – why then did he earlier attend a meeting for parliamentary reform in Southwark? Lauderdale condemned the pension given to Burke, whom he called an author of the war,[31] and said he would oppose the Bill.

Lord Abingdon would vote against the Bill as an unnecessary infringement of personal liberties. He equated Vox Populi with Vox Dei – it is Heaven that inspires people to do what they do.

The Bill was then approved 41/5. With proxies the government majority in the Lords was 59.

Sat 9th April 1796

Another packet of dispatches and letters has arrived at Bombay from Basra (the overland route via Mediterranean and Syria):

The Seditious Meetings Bill has passed. It is enacted at the demand of the King and diminishes the liberties of every Briton. It is deeply resented throughout the country. A large number of petitions have been received against it.

Sat 2nd July 1796

London, 23rd January 1796 – Declaration of the Whig club (translated from a French paper, hence the late date):

The circumstances in which England finds itself today can no longer be effectively influenced by our membership alone. We support the Constitutional amendments made after 1688. Those amendments empowered your representatives but can only be effective if controlled by the people. Democracy requires a personal effort from all of us, it does not work automatically. We invite the British people to petition for the revocation of the late Acts.

Public assemblies are hobbled with previously unknown restrictions. Attendees might be compelled to disperse or be shot. If the meeting is allowed to proceed, a magistrate will attend to censor public speech and induce self-censorship.

We imagine ourselves to live in a free country. This innovation is repugnant to our national character. Government should obtain its strength from justice. Public obedience follows an administrative willingness to be restrained by law. There is no reasonable basis for popular restraint and terror. If we surrender the right to free speech, we lose one of our Constitutional rights. The House of Commons protects us from the King; the House of Lords protects us from the Commons. If all three conspire there is nothing to protect us except our own efforts.

You must all freely express yourselves to the King and the legislature. You must publish your opinions to your neighbours. You should only take care to avoid disturbing the peace and not promote sedition or treason.

The Declaration (Bill) of Rights obtained in 1689 secures the right to petition. An inevitable corollary of that right is the inferred right to debate the subject-matter of these petitions. This was the agreement we made with the Dutch King Willem of Orange that inures to restrain his Hanoverian successors.

The other Act, speciously called An Act to Preserve His Majesty, belies the well known fact that “Kings, chiefs and governors of every Kingdom of every dominion and every community are in greater security from the love and attachment of their subjects, than by the fear and terror of laws that impose rigorous pains and excessive penalties.” Disposed to wholehearted concur in this, we are alarmed by the extension of the crime of treason beyond the bounds fixed by Edward III. We all know the happy domestic tranquillity that resulted from Edward’s Act and the agitations that result when its spirit is forgotten by zealous Ministers. This new Act provides for the banishment of offenders. It permits the minister to remove his opponents and those who dare to question his policies. Banishment will not rehabilitate offenders. It arguably transgresses Clause 10 of the Declaration of Rights against cruel and unusual punishments. The convict is shipped to join a herd of proscribed and abandoned people in a distant land far from his friends and family. By removing them from the scene the minister elicits our negligence and forgetfulness and mitigates public opprobrium. No constraint limits the oppressor whilst the oppressed is deprived of consolation.

The drafters of these Acts agree they are restraints of liberty but they say they are necessary – they have to remove liberty in order to protect it. We suppose it is conceivable that there might be an occasion when general principles should submit to the exigencies of the situation, but the rights of debate and remonstrance cannot be abridged at any time. Necessity is the invariable argument used to support abuse of Power. All enslavements of people have commenced with an act purportedly necessary for their security. On this occasion it is the acts of a few individuals (Pitt, Grenville, Dundas, etc.) that have produced the punishment of us all.

The ministry also suggests that existing law is inadequate. They can never establish this argument because it is untrue. It is not even suggested in the preamble to these Acts. These ministers are invading our Constitution. They promote and protect those opinions that tend to diminish it. They believe this country can avoid anarchy only by embracing despotism.

They have fomented a war with France and use the fears they have aroused to raise the political power of the King to the disadvantage of the people. They have begged and borrowed to amass a vast store of wealth to bribe their way to success. These laws are proposed at a time when the army is more numerous than ever before and is encamped near every population centre throughout the country. Ministerial efforts are directed to creating a schism between the army and the people and directing the virtuous opinions of the officers (who all swear for the King) to permit the oppression of the people.

Influence combined with illusion; corruption combined with terror – the drafters of these Bills believe the time is now right for them to impose silence on the people. These laws are a formidable instrument of political repression.

Those of you electors, who resist both enslavement and violence to attain your ends, must address the legislature for redress of these alarming innovations and the restoration of the Constitution. Their usurpation of our rights is still recent and is not yet entrenched – now is the time to protest. We want His Majesty to realise his security is best assured by mild Constitutional government.

We invite the people to make a national petition to parliament. “When the wicked conspire, it behoves the good to associate.” The undersigned offer their best efforts in abrogating the two Acts.

Sgd C J Fox et al.[32]

Sat 23rd April 1796

A note in this edition mentions Lushington MP, the great supporter of King and India Company, and an Alderman of the City, brought in a Bill in the last session of parliament (1794 / 95) to deprive defendants of trial by jury at the City Court in commercial cases above a certain sum. It was rejected.

Sat 29th Oct 1796

The India Gazette, Calcutta, 3rd October – the Marquis Cornwallis (Hogan) has arrived from Port Jackson in New South Wales. Of the four men banished to Australia as a result of the sedition trials in Edinburgh two years ago, Muir has just left for the Northwest coast of America. Skirving and Margarot have both died. Palmer alone survives at Rose Hill.

The Company recently sent a delegation to Australia to recruit volunteers for the forces. It is said they are having no luck.

Sat 21st April 1798

The anniversary of Fox’s first election to parliament for Westminster was celebrated at the Shakespeare Tavern, Covent Garden and Fox gave a fine Address. He regretted the country MPs supported Pitt so uncritically. He confirmed he would not attend the House in this session as there was nothing to be done against Pitt’s overwhelming majority. He particularly deplored the situation of the people of Scotland and Ireland. He said:

He had been in the Commons for 17 years supporting the rights won in 1688. He had opposed the King in his war with America and, once the people had been aroused, they had succeeded in ending it with the appointment as minister of the late Earl of Guildford, who revered the Constitution.

Pitt has examined the causes that checked his predecessors and identified a number of MPs (the country gentlemen) who represented large bodies in the House. Fox had wooed these MPs on the basis that, if they would defy the handful of their most vocal electoral constituents, they would find an even greater support amongst the majority. He regretted that some MPs would gratify their ambition for a title and noted that this mode of corruption was cheaper than doubling MP’s salaries and pensions, as he himself thought more appropriate.

He attributed the continued support that Pitt obtained, even after the two Bills that directly violated the Bill of Rights, to the exercise of corruption in the House. The people petitioned for relief and this was followed by a disastrous war in which we have now been abandoned by all our allies. Fox had fought this in debate until it was clear that Pitt had purchased sufficient MPs to get any measure approved with the appearance of having the approbation of a majority of the country.

Fox had then decided to cease attending parliament in the hope that the withdrawal of criticism would encourage the people to protest and demand a reform. Only the people can demand a reform and only reform can presage a reinstatement of their Constitutional rights.

As examples of the arbitrary proceedings of ministers, he mentioned that the freedom of the press in Ireland had just been abolished and all printers were in fear since the army went to a printer’s house and, finding him not at home, burnt it down. He said the army killed people in Ireland as they killed animals when hunting and these marauding units were often commanded by teenage ensigns. The army had the support of ministers for these acts which were said to be done ‘for the benefit of the people’.

In Scotland the same principles are pursued. Ministers had tried to exclude Tranent for his profession of advocate because he advised a client to publish an article that was not illegal to publish.[33] The same modus operandi was adopted against Henry Erskine to remove him from a place of honour – ‘suppose it had been done against his brother’ Fox said.

Fox mentioned these events in Ireland and Scotland to indicate that the people of England would not be immune to the same oppression. He mentioned the English meeting of 31st July (Ferguson’s meeting) which, before the attendees had started to discuss their grievances, was deemed illegal by the Bow Street magistrates and ordered to disperse. Some were arrested and only by their non-violence was bloodshed avoided. He identified a torpor in every part of the country that caused people to submit to ministerial innovation rather than risk querying or criticising.

Concerning the peace negotiations at Lille, the published details showed our minister was insincere.[34] Malmesbury preferred insurrection in France to pacification. Fox supposed that, under the present system, the war would continue for many years until our finances had been depleted to the level of our political rights.

Sat 9th June 1798

Thomas Muir, a Scottish refugee in Paris,[35] responded to a toast being drunk here with the words ‘to the victims of despotism in England, Scotland and Ireland’.

He says he had seen the bloodshed and protested at it and that was the cause of his banishment. On behalf of all Scottish and Irish people, Muir assures France that the Republic is not contending with the English people but only a core of about one hundred scoundrels. ‘When they fall, universal peace will be established.’

Sat 9th June 1798

Charles Fox’s birthday has been celebrated at the Crown and Anchor Tavern. Horne Tooke was there. Numerous songs of freedom were sung.

The Duke of Norfolk gave an address – ‘…. freedom is threatened. Twenty years ago General Washington had only 2,000 men to rely on when his country was attacked. America is now free. Well, we have 2,000 assembled here today…..”

The toasts were ‘the rights of man’, ‘constitutional redress for wrongs’ and ‘parliamentary reform’.

Sat 25th Aug 1798

Part of the Judges’ address to Jurors at commencement of the Treason trial in Maidstone (Arthur O’Connor’s trial):

“We have full security for our freedom, for no law can be enacted which will not render every Member of the Legislature liable to its effect the same as the poorest subject in the Realm[36] … the difficulties and perplexities of government are … almost innumerable, and the people at large have not sufficient judgement. Much mischief is done by dwelling on imperfections that are inseparable from every human system, by imputing all evils that befall a state to the corruption of the rulers. People would do well to reflect that government, by its nature, must soon fall into the hands of a few. Etc.”

Sat 11th Aug 1798

House of Commons, 12th April – Pitt has obtained from MPs an extension of the suspension of Habeas Corpus to 1st February 1799:

The renewal of suspension was contemporary with the publication of treason plots discovered by the government – one case each at Manchester and in Ireland and another in London.

Sheridan objected. There has been no proven evidence of treason – all we have is ministerial pamphlets and allegations. The main support for Pitt was a Grand Jury which had found a true Bill of Indictment against O’Connor, etc. He thought Pitt was also using the threatened French invasion as pretext for oppression. He noted that over a hundred people had been arrested before the most recent treason cases of whom only five had been charged and they had all been acquitted.

Pitt said the English people are supporting government and need protection from democrats. It would be unjust to expose them to the acts of dissenters. Anyone espousing democracy was a friend of France and ipso facto an enemy of England. We do not have legal evidence but we have convincing documents. And the people in preventive custody might have spent just as long in gaol if they were suspected of some other crime.

The MPs then voted 113/14 in favour of a continuation of suspension.

Sat 23rd June 1798

London, 20th February – Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, premier Duke in the Kingdom, is to be punished for his speech at Fox’s birthday party. The Duke of Portland as Home Secretary has told him the King has divested him of the sinecures of Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding and Colonel of its 1st battalion of militia. Earl FitzWilliam takes the West Riding lieutenancy; the militia sinecure has not yet been awarded.

Fox spoke of the King’s act at the Whig Club last week. He said he had learned of the alleged statements of the Duke from the London press:

“The Duke was constantly opposed to the American War and admired Washington’s perseverance for America. The reverence that all humanity feels for Washington in his struggle for popular rights is not the sole possession of the Duke. Perseverance in the demand for parliamentary reform is the sure route to success. But Washington’s recourse was to armed struggle whereas we Whigs seek reform through the application of law.

“The abuses of the British Constitution that have slipped in over the last century are maintained by the corruption of parliament. The Duke of Norfolk reminded the people at my (Fox’s) birthday party that perseverance in a just cause, even from very small beginnings, is always effectual. I completely agree. I am myself a Privy Counsellor. At least I have heard nothing to the contrary yet. I should be awarded the same token of the King’s displeasure.

“Another address that gave regal offence was the toast to ‘the majesty of the people’ which was accompanied by observations on their sovereignty. This is not some new idea – it is the basis to our system of government. If I am wrong then King William was a usurper. How otherwise did he ascend the British throne if not by a sovereign act of the people? The foul and blasphemous idea of ‘Divine Right’ is erected to misled the people into a belief that God appoints Hanoverian Kings whereas British Kings are actually appointed by Act of Parliament. It is true that King William called that parliament but he did so as a right conferred on him by a Convention of the people. The parliament then settled the crown on him and his heirs. It is whimsical that, had the Duke of Norfolk made his alleged statements during the reigns of George I or George II, they would have been considered unexceptional. Indeed if he had not made the statements, he would have been exposed to a charge of Jacobinism, an adherent of a deposed family. The King might just as well have dismissed Norfolk for being a Protestant as most of his ancestors were Catholics.

“This entire spat is absurd, considering the policy of the present government. Ministers are pleading for unanimity and requesting a united front against the French – they then expel a powerful man from their ranks. It seems that whoever has a different opinion is untrustworthy. Will France be impressed? Will they abandon their invasion? What the King has told France is this country is so distracted that even the premier Duke of England is not trusted after a lifetime of zealous support for our Constitution. He cannot be trusted to head a regiment of militia.

“It is possible that the French Directory will not be misled. Perhaps they will not see this outrageous act as an indicator that an invasion of Britain would be welcomed. There is no precedent for taking a militia regiment from a Lord Lieutenant during war without any cause assigned. If it is a qualification for supporting England that candidates must abjure the Whig principle of sovereignty of the people, there will be few left to defend the country. I shall certainly not and I am still a Privy Counsellor. If that is an offence then I am as guilty as the Duke. So are all those people who have fought for any former Prince of the House of Brunswick.”

The Duke of Norfolk spoke. He thought the cause of his dismissal must be found in some, as yet, unknown error in his administration of the West Riding or of the militia corps formed from those people. His comment concerning ‘2,000 people’ was intended to motivate the party with the understanding that great objects have small beginnings and that 2,000 people might well obtain a reform of parliament. We need that reform to end subversion of the Constitution and restore its pristine clarity.

Sat 15th Sept 1798

London newspapers:

The Whig Club held a meeting in the Freemasons’ Tavern with Fox in the chair. The toast was ‘the sovereignty of the people of Great Britain’. The Duke of Norfolk proposed another ‘the man who is, and dares be, honest in the worst of times – Mr Fox’. Fox then delivered a harangue which, if the Whig papers have it right, appears highly inflammatory but we will report it as the country is fully united against the common threat:

“I have not been to parliament in the present session but after the Sedition Bill repealed the Bill of Rights, after the surrender of parliamentary control over the public purse (the remittance of millions to foreign powers without a vote), after the adoption of the system employed in Ireland (a template for the system Pitt is likely to introduce in England, he said), I wonder whether it is a perceived want of power or a lack of public interest that prevents the English people from resisting tyranny. This is a system of Terror, a system of Robespierre, etc.,”

And he proposed a toast – ‘may the ancient nobility of this country think it their first duty to support the rights of the people’.[37]

The Duke of Norfolk responded ‘when the people have no rights, the nobility can have no privileges worth enjoying’.

Erskine was present but said nothing. Sheridan proposed another toast – ‘our absent friend Habeas Corpus’

Sat 6th Oct 1798

The Irish barrister James Agar has been arrested at his chambers in Hare Court, Temple by the Home Secretary Lord Portland. Mr Curren, son of a barrister, was also taken. An arrest warrant against Barrister Traynor was also served.

The Hon V B Lawless, son of the Irish peer Lord Cloncurry, was arrested with his French valet at his Pall Mall house and a chap named Stewart was arrested in Piccadilly under the same authority.

They are all accused of treason and their papers have been taken for examination. An Irish chap called Gratton was also arrested but turned out to be a known British sympathiser and was released.

Sat 25th Aug 1798

A London newspaper has promised to provide regular information on the progress of the Maidstone treason trial by sending transcripts of evidence to London every two hours.

The Attorney General told the Court that if anyone did that, he did so at his peril.

Justice Buller said publishing the proceedings was a contempt of court.

Sat 6th Oct 1798

The theatrical state trial of O’Connor and his group at Maidstone has been vandalised by the Defence. Barrister Plommer read a letter of the Reverend Arthur Young to Gamaliel Lloyd in which the clergyman says he dined with three jurors from the Blackburn Hundred to persuade them to hang the defendants whatever the evidence. Young refused to identify the jurors and the whole contingent from the Blackburn Hundred had to be discharged. A prospective Juror, I Raikes of Bromley, was discharged for shaking his fist at the defendants and calling them ‘damned rascals’. The Crown prosecutors took up the business and launched challenges against 12 other jurors but without stating reasons. The defence protested but was over-ruled. 12 men were eventually selected under foreman C Hoskins of West Wickham.

The Bow Street runners produced an inflammatory pamphlet in evidence which they said they had found on one of the defendants. It was a letter from the Secret Committee of England to the French Directory. It says:

“ …. taxes increase but overall revenue collections reduce. Pitt’s attempts to borrow more are frustrated by the lack of security he can offer. It seems his system of borrowing is threatened. The voluntary contributions are only voluntary amongst the rich. The poor people pay because it is a condition of their employment. Even soldiers are forced to contribute to evidence their patriotism. There is widespread fear and anger.

“The English people need your protection. Their constitutional rights are diminished by a docile parliament that partakes in their plunder and they need protection from their own representatives. All Ireland and Scotland is saddened and dissatisfied – we have representatives of both countries on our Committee. Soldiers and sailors are likewise suspicious and doubtful but we have no leader to unite our efforts. The greedy have thrown their support behind government whilst the fearful are staying indoors. A few of the aristocracy, who should be beyond serious danger, have spoken on behalf of the people but they offer words not action.”

Lord Moira and Thomas Erskine gave evidence for the defence. Moira was prevented giving hearsay evidence of a conversation he had with O’Connor. Erskine said he knew O’Connor for three years and he is a fine man. Fox, the Earl of Suffolk, Sheridan, the Duke of …, M A Taylor, M Grattan, Lord John Russell, Lord Oxford and Mr Whitbread all gave good character evidence for O’Connor.

O’Connor, Binns, Allen and Leary were found not guilty; O’Coigly was found guilty and sentenced to death (executed on Pennenden Heath near Maidstone 7th June. He was hanged for 12 minutes then cut down and beheaded. Only about a thousand people attended the spectacle). On sentence being passed, O’Connor assumed he was a free man and started to leave the dock. The officers rushed at him making use of two swords, exhibits in the case, that had been on the table. O’Connor was beaten down and a new arrest warrant signed by the Duke of Portland was served on him.

Mr Justice Buller said an acquittal did not automatically lead to release in England. He said O’Connor might make an affidavit to the King’s Bench to Shew Cause why he should not be released. In any event the Court’s jurisdiction ceased with the verdict and he could do nothing more.

The other three acquitted men were released. O’Connor was given into the charge of the King’s Messengers and ordered detained in their custody in London.

Lord Holland took-up the result of this case in the Lords on 23rd May. He reminded the Lords that the act suspending Habeas Corpus contained an express clause that it only applied to persons charged with High Treason. He vigorously asserted the absence of any legal power to arrest an acquited man for the same offence.

Lord Sydney accused Holland of intemperate language.

Holland said the present ministry had no respect for persons or property.

Lord Bulkeley said O’Connor should not be allowed to avoid the severest punishment on a legal technicality.

The Lord Chancellor said O’Connor was re-arrested on a second charge and there was no impropriety in government’s actions.

Sat 1st Dec 1798

In May 1798 the British government enacted a new law preventing anyone publishing information that tended to bring contempt on the government.

The names and residential addresses of all the printers, editors and proprietors of published material are to be given to the Stamp Duty office on Oath; every subsequent change is to be sworn; the above affidavits are deemed conclusive proof in law of the information they contain; the proper names and addresses of all employees must be kept; name and address of the printer and publisher to be shown in every publication; stamp duty must be paid on every paper sold; penalties are enacted for sending a newspaper to France or any other King’s enemy; penalties are made for un-named persons selling newspapers – only employees may do so. The novel offence is printing or publishing anything that brings the King, government or Constitution into contempt, even if it has been already printed in another paper.

The American government has now also introduced legislation against press freedom. It seems to be a harsher law than ours – the penalties are severe.

Sat 26th Sept 1801

A Secret Committee of the Lords has reported on Democracy:

When the Act prohibiting Seditious Meetings expired, the democrats started quietly meeting again in March 1800. The Act suspending Habeas Corpus had not yet expired and they took care. Several of the democrats created Benevolent Societies as a mask for their political agenda. These were obviously political because only democrats were eligible for membership and the membership subscriptions were expressly agreed to not form part of the stock of the Society. These Societies were organised with a supervisor for each group of ten members. The hierarchy above the supervisors has not been elucidated.

The Societies no longer repudiate religion as that has proved unpopular. They are unconstitutional as they seek to raise the common people to political power. The organisers took advantage of the recent poor harvests and famine to secure greater membership. Now Habeas Corpus is restored, the members have become bolder. They visit workmen’s and soldiers’ clubs where they spread their insidious democratic ideas without revealing their own beliefs. They say food is too expensive and wages are too low. Only the magistrates are able to suppress them but they have to be alert and vigorous which is not always the case.

Our spies have discovered two secret committees of disaffected citizens who are supported by France. They importune the members of these Societies to subvert government. They welcome a French invasion. The Irish are particularly well represented in the membership of Benevolent Societies.

Sat 26th Sept 1801

A Secret Committee of the House of Commons has also reported on 1st and 2nd April 1801:

The rebellion in Ireland in 1798 was fomented by seditious Societies in league with France. We reported on that in 1799. Those Societies continue to operate secretly and have taken advantage of the high price of food to again stir-up trouble. They wish to procure an invasion of Britain by France and the substitution of our Constitutional monarchy for a Republican government.

Many of these trouble-makers were detained under the Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act but are now free again. Our information comes from spies in exposed positions in the seditious Societies – we cannot identify our sources without prejudicing our ability to continue to obtain information. The traitors have learned lessons and no longer prepare writings. We can only obtain details of their plans by joining their Societies.

The committee recommends an indemnity for spies involved in collecting information and that the Acts (for Prevention of Seditious Meetings and Suspension of Habeas Corpus) be renewed.


The following articles appeared in the chapter titled Libel in previous editions. It is added to the former Sedition chapter and the whole bundle of articles is renamed Dissent. Approximately the first half of the following reports detail government use of legal proceedings to stifle dissent, particularly against newspaper editors and publishers.

The Ministry’s position is that they make the news and Editors profit from publishing it with the tacit corollary that the media should self-censor its publications and be uncritical of government.

There is an interesting explanation of how the British Constitution works in the matter of Sir Francis Burdett’s alleged libel on the House, which reports start in July 1810 below. This explains some background to the 1688 Revolution and is well worth reading.

There is a report dated 3rd October 1812 in which the Lord Chief Justice reveals the Christian religion is incorporated in the Laws of England and another of 9th May 1818 in which the AG quotes that great jurist Hale ‘Christianity is parcel of the common law of England’. It was therefore deduced by the AG in the latter case that a failure in one’s Christianity is a criminal offence.

I have also included items concerning dissent generally, the reason for renaming this chapter. They are mainly concentrated in the latter half of the period (except the Luddites of 1812), from about 1818 onwards, and deal with government intimidation generally after the wartime soldiery had been discharged from their employment and released upon the country and the ministry was deflating the economy on the way to recovering the gold-value of Sterling.

This and the effects of repression then transmuted into a popular demand for justice, generally expressed throughout this period as “jobs and bread.”


Sat 22nd Sept 1804

Cobbett is charged at the King’s Bench with inciting hatred in England by suggesting in the Political Register editions of 5th November and 10th December 1803 that Ireland is misruled.

In the articles Lord Hardwicke is libelled as “a wooden head” and Lord Redesdale is libelled as “a corrupt Chancellor”.

The defendant has been writing publicly in America and England for 12 years. He is the son of a farmer and grandson of a day-labourer. His sole education was provided by his father in the evenings until he left home aged 13 years. He writes according to his conscience.

Character evidence was given by Liston, late British minister to America, Lord Henry Stuart, Lord Minto, Mr Windham, Mr Yorke and Mr Reeves who each described Cobbett as a lover of the Constitution and the King.

Ellenborough summed up to the Jury who found Cobbett guilty.

In a civil action arising out of the same publications Plunkett, the Solicitor-General of Ireland, sued for libel on behalf of Hardwicke and Redesdale and got £500 from Cobbett.

Sat 26th Oct 1805

On 17th December 1803 the True Briton and the Sun published the suggestion that it was two months after the start of renewed war before the Admiralty sent instructions to the fleet in Asia. During the hiatus the British Admiral Rainier acted on his own initiative. This was said to be criminal negligence by the ministry. (there is an inference that Rainier had Admiral Linois’ squadron within his power at one time but permitted its escape for lack of instructions.)

Earl St Vincent, on reading the article, sent it to his lawyers who said it was libellous and, as it reflected poorly on the Admiralty at large, it should be referred to the Attorney General for a criminal prosecution. St Vincent showed it to Addington who concurred and suggested Erskine be retained. Erskine’s Advice strongly confirmed lay opinion but wondered if a prosecution was politic. He noted that government was often libelled and seldom took action. Perceval further noted that government witnesses would be exposed to cross-examination and might reveal matters that ministers would rather not have revealed.

St Vincent checked with the cabinet who were generally not keen but he could not be restrained. He caused a Writ to be issued against Herriott the publisher and Editor of both papers. Perceval declined to permit it to be prosecuted. Addington’s cabinet ultimately ordered Perceval to proceed but the ministry fell before he had done so.

By September 1804 Pitt’s ministry had resumed the reins of power and decided not to proceed. St Vincent asked for a nolle prosequi to maintain his rights under a subsequent ministry. Eventually the new ministry was encouraged to proceed and the case was heard before Ellenborough. The defendant was convicted.

Sun 26th Oct 1806 Extraordinary

Fox’s new ministry is reforming the administration of Justice in Scotland. Everyone remembers the magical way Scottish judges found guilt in the evidence in the sedition trials in 1790s.

Sat 20th Oct 1810

An attempt to murder HRH the Duke of Cumberland at St James Palace has been made by a trusted servant and long-time favourite of the Duke’s named Sellis, who was very recently replaced in his personal duties to the Duke.

The Duke had retired when he says Sellis entered the room and set about him with a sword. The Duke fought back and called for his new attendant Cornelius Neale. Sellis then ran away. The blooded regimental sword of the Duke was found on the floor. A trail of blood was followed from the Duke’s bedroom to Sellis’ room where the servant was found with his throat cut from ear to ear. He also had a wound on his left arm.

Sellis is said to have exercised an authority over the other servants which the Duke invariably supported until a few days before this incident when the Duke sided with Neale. Sellis had enjoyed the Duke’s favour and been extraordinarily allowed an apartment in the palace for his family with free supply of coals and candles.

The Duke is convalescing with the Prince of Wales at Carlton House. He has a nasty cut on his right hand.

Sat 11th Sept 1813

On 30th August and 27th September 1812 Henry White Jr published a supposed libel on the Royal Duke of Cumberland. The AG has now prosecuted him ex officio ‘on Information’:

Using the name Philo Junius, White published a long article which appears to accuse the Duke of adultery and murder.

One of the Duke’s servants named Sellis attacked the Duke and then killed himself, according to the Coroner. White’s article speculates on why the razor that inflicted the fatal wound and Sellis’ blood-soaked jacket were both found far from the body. He says there are other unsatisfactory aspects in the evidence, not least that a large number of Jurors were found unsuitable to hear the case – the usual indicator of a search for an accommodating jury. His article expresses a belief that the servant could not have killed himself and, proceeding from there, speculates as to who did. The Jury found White guilty.

Sat 14th July 1810

The ministry has instructed the Attorney General to commence an action on Information for libel against the publisher Perry and printer Lambert of the Morning Chronicle.

This is the second time the Morning Chronicle has been prosecuted for libel; the previous charge arose from their reprinting an Address from the people of Derby to the King in 1793. They were acquitted of that charge.

In the 2nd October 1809 edition, the paper said “What a crowd of blessings might be bestowed on the country in the event of a total change of system. No monarch indeed, since the Revolution, will have so fine an opportunity of becoming nobly popular as the successor to George III.”

The AG, who is acting ex officio, characterised this paragraph as a malignant insinuation against the King, in whose name the ministry acts, charging him with interposing himself between his people and their best interests; cutting them off from those advantages that are considered blessings. The aim of the newspaper, said the AG in his Information, was to disparage the King and diminish the allegiance that his people owed to him whereas in fact the people already enjoyed the ‘blessings’ that the paper says are being withheld from them. In other words, the AG reasoned, the inferred libel was that no improvement in the happiness of the British people could be anticipated until George III’s reign ended.

Perry conducted his own defence. He said his entire life had been devoted to the best interests of England. He denied the paragraph was libellous and showed several other articles in the same day’s paper that were loyal and respectful to the King.

Ellenborough summed-up for the Special Jury – wishing for a change of system and expecting ‘blessings’ to result from that change is not libellous. The article inferred a successor to George III, it was not proposing the end of Monarchy. He saw no malice in it. He more or less directed the Jury to a finding of Not Guilty which they confirmed in a couple of minutes.

A similar prosecution against The Examiner, another London paper, for reciting the same paragraph was then withdrawn by the AG.

Sat 21st July 1810

Sir Francis Burdett is in trouble with the other MPs.

It has transpired that the commitment to Newgate of Mr Gale Jones on a Warrant of the Speaker resulted from a motion of Charles Philip Yorke MP (3rd Earl of Hardwicke) to call J Dean, the printer of a handbill, to the bar of the House to answer Yorke’s charge of a breach of privilege. The obnoxious Handbill asked the reader ‘which is more egregious – Yorke’s motion to exclude strangers from the House during the Walcheren Expedition enquiry (see the Europe chapter) or Windham’s attack on the freedom of the press?’ The handbill proceeded to consider the matters in a way that Yorke thought was censorious of the proceedings of the House.

Dean arrived next day and told the Commons that Gale Jones was the author. Jones in turn appeared and acknowledged he wrote the Handbill. A vote determined he had violated MP’s privileges. Yorke moved his committal to Newgate which was agreed by a majority. Burdett was not in the House at the time but when he arrived he argued that the House could not call a citizen to its bar and charge him unless the offence had occurred actually in parliament before the MPs. This was easily defeated 153 / 14 but Burdett maintained his opinion and recited it in a letter to his constituents.

His case was later debated by the House in detail and the decision to gaol him in the Tower was approved without a division.

Sun 15th July 1810 Extraordinary

Sir Francis Burdett, MP for Westminster, is to be imprisoned in the Tower of London in consequence of a resolution of the House of Commons.

The Speaker issued a Warrant for the committal to Newgate of Mr Gale Jones for publishing some uncomplimentary comments on two MPs which the House of Commons considered a breach of the privileges of Members.

Burdett moved that the Speaker’s Warrant was illegal but the House decided otherwise. He then wrote to his constituents on 24th March setting out his reasons for thinking the Warrant illegal and the letter was concurrently published in Cobbett’s Register. Burdett contended that the Jurisdiction of the Speaker only covered the House of Commons and did not extend outside the House.

Three days later Lethbridge MP moved that the letter was libellous and a breach of MP’s privileges (Burdett is leading the popular demand for parliamentary reform whereas the country members, excluding ten independents, are mainly there for the money). The motion was debated on 4th April and the House voted with Lethbridge. Sir Robert Salisbury then moved Burdett’s confinement in the Tower and the Speaker issued another Warrant to do so.

The Earl of Moira is the Constable of the Tower and he is preparing a cell for Burdett. Three field pieces have been placed overlooking the entrance and the moat has been filled. A double guard has been placed outside. Tower Hamlets militia and a brigade of artillery have been put on stand-by. All access to the Tower is being regulated.

The ministry is alarmed by the great crowds surrounding the House of Commons. Several MPs have been verbally abused although Sheridan and Whitbread receive ovations.

The electors of Westminster are collecting signatures to a petition protesting the detention of their Representative. On Sat 7th April, a crowd of several thousands assembled outside Burdett’s house. All the shops in the neighbourhood are closed and every street, window and balcony is crowded. Burdett came out for a ride and returned about 12.30pm. The House of Commons Sergeant-at-Arms and his messengers presented the Warrant and Burdett declined to obey it. The messengers then withdrew and a troop of cavalry arrived. Several people were trampled. The horse guards were then drawn-up opposite the house with swords drawn. The horse guards were taunted by hecklers and they attempted to make arrests but were deterred by stone-throwing. They eventually charged along Constitution Hill to disperse that part of the crowd. They fired on the people but details of casualties are unavailable. The entire London garrison has been brought to a state of instant readiness.

That night Sir J Anstruther’s house was damaged by stone-throwing crowds. Lords Castlereagh and Dartmouth lost their windows as did Perceval at No 10. At midnight the horse guards were withdrawn and the Westminster Volunteers, who had been under arms in a nearby Mews all day, were dismissed but 12 pieces of artillery continued to be deployed at Lincoln’s Inn Fields with a detachment of light horse.

Burdett has written to the Sheriffs of Middlesex reporting that his house is surrounded by an armed military force and stating emphatically that he will resist the execution of any ‘illegal’ Warrant. He calls on the Sheriffs, as the officers constitutionally empowered to protect the people of Middlesex, to relieve him from violence and oppression. He asks them to call out the Posse Comitatus for his protection.[38] The Sheriffs complied and the Posse took up positions in front of Burdett’s house. The Sheriff asked the officer of the Guards to withdraw his force from the street. He compromised by dividing his force and placing about one hundred men at either side of Burdett’s house and some distance from it. The Posse then took possession of the steps leading to the front door and published a notice saying peace would be preserved by the civil power without the involvement of the army. They called on the people to disperse peacefully.

The cabinet has met several times but apparently no decision has been reached. A considerable amount of artillery has been sent from Woolwich and stationed in nearby parks. There is a howitzer and 6-pounder at Soho Square with matches lighted. The King’s German Dragoons (mostly non-English speaking Hanoverian subjects) have marched into town from Windsor. They were hooted by the crowds.

The Lord Mayor has protested to the Home Secretary. He resents the minister’s intention of marching an army through the City to escort Burdett to the Tower. Burdett is married to Sophia Coutts, daughter of the banker who has influence in the City.[39] The minister affirmed his respect for the City and conceded to send Burdett by a roundabout route. On Mon 9th April, a magistrate arrived outside Burdett’s house and read the Riot Act. Some streets were closed, the parks were closed, the horse guards charged up Piccadilly and a timely rain shower helped them to disperse protesters. The sound of drums beating to arms and the appearance of so many troops with sabres drawn in central London made a fearful scene.

With parks and streets closed, the crowd was forced off towards Pimlico. Many were wounded but the immediate area around Burdett’s house was cleared of his supporters. An entry was forced through the kitchen the next morning. The House of Commons’ Sergeant-at-Arms entered and served the Speakers’ Warrant on Burdett somewhat earlier than the crowds had hitherto assembled. Burdett protested the break-in and the Sergeant held it was authorised by the Warrant. A glass coach (i.e. windowed) was brought to the front door, Burdett was bundled in and a couple of hundred cavalrymen surrounded the coach to escort it via the back streets to Tower Hill where another huge crowd had already collected.

On this occasion there was a sufficiently large military presence to prevent the crowd interfering. The guards flourished their swords menacingly and got the Baronet passed the people and into the Tower. When the military forces withdrew, the last platoon (cavalry) was pelted with stones and mud. The horsemen fired their pistols at the crowd generally and a man was killed.

Sat 25th Aug 1810

John Lambert and James Perry’s (Morning Chronicle) libel case is reported at length in this edition. Perry conducted the Defence on his own behalf.[40]

Sat 15th Sept 1810

Sir Francis Burdett has replied to the Speaker’s letter from his cell:

I was elected by the people of Westminster to represent them and maintain the laws. I have taken an Oath of Allegiance to the King to maintain the laws. I will never obey anyone who acts contrary to those laws.

Privilege and power are different. Privilege is an exemption from power granted to the Legislature to protect the representatives in their protection of the people. Privilege should not be used to attack the people or their representatives.

I know your Warrant is illegal. I am imprisoned by your superior force. I will not voluntarily associate with people who have illegally seized the power of the realm. I will accept the meanest office to vacate my seat – I just wish to remove myself from the company of your gang.

The Speaker read this letter to the House of Commons. Wynne thought it was contemptuous but the other MPs agreed to adjourn further debate.

The Sergeant-at-Arms was called. He was questioned at length by a great many MPs. He said he had got the AG’s approval to forcibly enter Burdett’s house. He arranged for 20 police officers and a detachment of cavalry and broke-in through the kitchen. He took Burdett to the Tower and delivered him to the Deputy Lieutenant.

Under questioning by Whitbread and others he said that the Speaker had threatened him with commitment to the Tower himself if he did not serve the Warrant instanter. He had taken instructions from the Cabinet as to his mode of proceeding. Perceval (he’s a lawyer) told him he could break-in. He was promised as much force as he needed whereas the magistrate only permitted the use of military force if resistance was encountered. The force he requested for was 300 infantry and 500 cavalry.

Whitbread wished to clarify the AG’s role but that minister declined to answer any questions unless a majority of the House ordered him to do so and Perceval supported him – ‘the AG’s Advice had been given to the Privy Council and is not discoverable.’ Whitbread said Westminster has been in anarchy for four days and riots are still continuing. Many people have been killed, and we are trying to ascertain if ministers have done their duty. You ministers should be assisting the process not obstructing it. Whitbread supposed that ministers were themselves doubtful of the legality of their proceedings against Burdett. Perceval denied it but then allowed the AG to answer the question. The AG said he had not been consulted on the legality of the Warrant but solely on the legality of using force to execute it.[41]

Sat 15th Sept 1810

20,000 people have protested in Westminster. The city is in turmoil. They have petitioned the Commons to reconsider Burdett’s arrest. They say Perceval and Castlereagh can sell seats in the House of Commons and get away with it, but Burdett is persecuted for looking after us.[42]

Sat 22nd Sept 1810

The inquest into the death of Bryant, the Londoner who was killed by Life Guards at Crutched Friars on the day Burdett was arrested (9th April), has been completed and the Jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide.

Strangely, the entire jury was composed of elderly paupers from the Whitechapel Workhouse who precisely followed the directions of the Coroner.

Sat 22nd Sept 1810

The Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Livery of London have signed a petition to the House of Commons on behalf of the people of London. They believe the Commons has acted as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner in the cases of John Gale Jones and Sir Francis Burdett. They write:

“You have no jurisdiction. We believe you have imprisoned two people unlawfully and you have used military force to do so, breaking into one man’s house and killing another in the process.

“More than 300 Members of the Commons are not elected by the people but nominated by 150-odd peers and others who really run the country. This complaint was made to your House in 1793 and has never been controverted. On the contrary the then minister (Pitt) threatened to punish the petitioner for libel. We will never forget your vote not to enquire into the sale of parliamentary seats by Spencer Perceval and Lord Castlereagh, then two of the King’s ministers. Seats in your House are bought and sold like cattle at a fair. You avow this traffic and screen those involved in it because it is committed equally by all factions. We feel indignation and disgust.

“Your unplanned expedition to Walcheren has cost much blood and treasure and made our country the ‘laughing stock’ of Europe. We have lost confidence in your House.”

Secretary of State Rider said this petition is not the opinion of the people. It is an insult upon the dignity of the Commons. It should not be received.

Alderman Coombe for the petitioners said the wording had been agreed by a majority of the Liverymen. There are 12,000 Liverymen of whom some 3,000 attended the meeting and most of them voted for the petition. The people putting-up their hands against the petition numbered about 50. If that background was not considered representative of the Liverymen one might conclude that the acts of House of Commons are not representative of the country. A counter-meeting had certainly been held and a counter-Declaration adopted but that involved the fifty dissenting Liverymen. There should be no doubt which is the majority opinion and which the minority.

Sir James Shaw, Sir Charles Price and Sir William Curtis presented the Counter-Declaration. It had been signed by 1,400 Liverymen. Shaw reminded the House of Commons that it had agreed to imprison Sir Francis Burdett by a majority of 38 MPs.

Whitbread noted that when Yorke MP had recently been made Teller of the Exchequer he had properly vacated his seat. He then tried to get back in through the electors of Cambridge county but they rejected him. Yorke then found another successful route for returning to the House (the seat for St Germains – tiny electorate). He was later made First Lord of the Admiralty.

The House previously rejected the petition of the electors of Middlesex by saying their words were insulting and inadequately submissive. The Livery of London was aware of that decision and endeavoured to make their petition acceptable on those grounds. Ministers still object. What they abhor is being criticised; they are unwilling to be answerable to the people. They introduced the infirmity of the King as reason for not accepting petitions.

Whitbread said presenting petitions to the King is an old Constitutional right. On this occasion ministers had denied it, saying the King could not receive Petitions at a levee. The people have an absolute right to bring the deficiencies of a ministry to the attention of the King (this reveals a major limitation of sacerdotal monarchy – the Kings of Europe can today intervene in political matters, the King of England, then and now, cannot).

Sat 29th Sept 1810

The death of a second man, Thomas Ebrall, who was shot by a Life Guard during the riots over Burdett’s arrest, has been considered by a Coroner in Westminster. It was said the youth of 18 years was in Piccadilly when a couple of cavalry men trotted passed and one fired at the boy for no apparent reason. The shell passed through the spleen and the lad died of an infection five days later. The Jury returned a verdict of murder against an unidentified Life Guard.[43]

Sat 6th Oct 1810

The Earl of Moira is required to identify all visitors received by Sir Francis Burdett and report their names to the cabinet. The Earl has just been served with Burdett’s Writ requiring him to identify his authority for imprisoning Burdett. He has told the cabinet he will say that he believed the Speaker’s Warrant and the personal instructions of the Secretary of State to him were both valid.

The House of Commons has been told by a Select Committee that it can issue an ‘inhibition’ against any Court endeavouring to seize jurisdiction in matters involving the ‘privileges of the House’ and thus thwart judicial review. The House is also advised it may commit any Judiciary process-server although that will not stop the legal action. The committee advises the House that the best course is to warn-off judicial intervention by a bold denial of the Courts’ jurisdiction. It is said to be imperative that the Speaker not be made amenable to Courts of Law. If the courts get hold of this case, the appeal is ultimately to the House of Lords and we cannot have them setting limits on MPs privileges. “Our parliamentary privileges are not matters for the Courts to concerned themselves in” said the liberal Lord Milton.

Lord Folkestone thought that any proceeding that did not permit of redress cannot be a good proceeding.

The Attorney General said no court had the right to interfere in the privileges of the House. The House ultimately decided by a large majority that its Speaker and its proceedings were not amenable to judicial review.

A Committee has been appointed to search the journals and discover a precedent that might bear on Burdett’s case. Its first report says all libels are treated as contempt of the House and MPs routinely punished authors whether they were other MPs or members of the public. Whitbread looked at the report and described it as ’a farrago of nonsense’. It was agreed to recommit the report.

Sat 6th Oct 1810

The Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Liverymen of the several Companies of the City of London have met in the Guildhall on 21st May 1810. A majority agreed that the rejection of their petition by the Commons was unconstitutional. They agreed the rejection demonstrated the inadequacy of the Representation and revealed a need to reform the House of Commons.

They have also considered the counter-petition that was launched by a dissident group of 1,400 Liverymen purporting to act in their official capacity. They note that signatories to the alternative petition are contractors, tax-gatherers, placemen and place-hunters and a good number of their agents, clerks and other dependants and only a few of the 1,400 signatories are actual Liverymen.

In the present confrontation of arbitrary privilege with Constitutional freedom, they deplore this attempt to maintain the old familiar corrupt ways. They published the following resolutions:

“Resolved that this City has a glorious tradition of petitioning for the redress of grievances. In 1673 and 1680 we asked Charles II to call a sitting of parliament and the same opposition was raised then. A variety of counter-petitions were submitted asking Charles II to not call a parliament into being on the basis that it would impinge on the Royal Prerogative. A Parliament was eventually called on 21st Oct 1680 and it immediately voted that there exists and has always existed a right of subjects to petition the King for the redress of grievances. It found that any attempt to frustrate such petitioning is a subversion of the Constitution. It proceeded to expel those MPs who had attempted to stifle the right. It petitioned the King to remove from power those other dissident MPs who held office. Sir Francis Withers et al were the Constitutional abusers in that instance. The denial of a right to complain is characteristic of slavery. The City’s arguments were then over-ruled by the Judiciary and thus began a sequence of events that concluded with the eviction of the Stuarts from the throne.

“The Bill of Rights subsequently obtained in 1688 entrenched the right to petition formally, however it has again been questioned, this time by the Commons, and an attempt has been made to reassert the Stuart doctrine of passive obedience.

“Is it the minister’s intention to procure another dynasty?

“We call on the people of England to uphold the real principles of the Constitution and to use every legal means to obtain their full, fair and free Representation in parliament:

  • “Resolved that we have never consented to grant to King, Lords or Commons a power above the law.
  • “Resolved that we chose to remonstrate with the Commons to bring them to a proper sense of their duty and this remonstrance will be prepared and signed in the usual way and presented to the Commons assembled by our Alderman Harvey Christian Combe MP.
  • “Resolved that the thanks of the City be given to Lord Erskine, Sir Samuel Romilly and S Whitbread for their independent conduct in the Commons on this matter.”

The Lord Mayor, Aldermen and Liverymen of London have marched in procession to the Tower and visited Sir Francis Burdett. The Earl of Moira sent them a note warning them off but they ignored it and in the event he was quite gracious. They delivered a copy of the above Resolutions to Burdett and assured him they were doing what they could for his release.

Burdett deplored the two factions, Whig and Tory, that have for so long acted like thieves and crucified the nation. “I hope the time is not far distant when we will put an end to peculation, to the borough-mongering system, to grinding the faces of the poor and undermining the security of the rich.” He looked forward to the re-establishment of legal government.

Later the City officials held a dinner at the London Tavern where Mr Lemaitre sang this song:

The sun of olde England can never be set
Whilst freedom is seen in hand with Burdett.
A free British spirit runs high in his veins
So here’s to the Right which unfetter’d remains

Burdett was freed from the Tower once parliament had been prorogued on 27th June 1810.

Sat 27th Oct 1810

The 2nd Report of the committee searching for precedents to justify the arrest of Burdett has been re-committed, like the first. There is still no progress in finding justification for executing the Speaker’s Warrant beyond the Houses of Parliament. Mr William Wynne has joined the committee as he has some ideas.

Sat 8th Dec 1810

Castlereagh and his group have issued at Writ at Clerkenwell Sessions against John Gale Jones for libel. The Grand Jury returned a true Bill.

Sat 18th May 1811

The case of John Gale Jones has been heard – he was convicted of libelling Lord Castlereagh. Jones is the Editor of the British Forum which had averred Castlereagh acted oppressively to the Irishman Finnerty during the Walcheren expedition. Finnerty was resident in Antwerp but was taken unwillingly in a British warship and brought a prisoner to England.

Finnerty’s complaint was published in the Morning Chronicle and taken up by the British Forum but only the latter paper was sued. Finnerty pleaded guilty to libelling Castlereagh which pre-judged Jones’ trial. Jones made a mitigatory statement – “I do not know Castlereagh or Finnerty. I just commented on the Morning Chronicle article.”

Another libel of Jones in the same article concerns Orr whom Castlereagh sent to Ireland for execution although the English Judge seized of Orr’s case had told Castlereagh he believed Orr was innocent.

Jones was sent back to Newgate for later sentencing. His prosecution is one of the AG’s ‘on information’ actions wherein he controls all the timings. He will apply for Judgment when he thinks fit.

Sat 12th Jan 1811

The King v Cobbett – The Court of King’s Bench has disposed of the case of libel against Cobbett the author, M/s Budd & Bagshaw the publishers and Hansard the printer.

The Court finds Cobbett published the libel to increase circulation, i.e. for profit. It impugned the reputations of foreigners in British military service, particularly the King’s German Legion which put down the riots in Ely. Cobbett had called their act an ‘atrocious tyranny’.

There was popular dissatisfaction with German troops enforcing the Riot Act on British crowds, particularly as some protesters were killed, and Cobbett had sought to capitalise on the dissatisfaction.

He is sentenced to two years in Newgate and fined £1,000. On release he must enter a Bond to keep the peace for the subsequent 7 years. Cobbett left Court with a smile on his face.

Sat 26th Jan 1811

Sir Francis Burdett has issued three Writs – one against Lord Moira, the Custodian of the Tower, another against F J Coleman, the Sergeant at Arms of the House and a third against Charles Abbott MP, the Speaker.

The trials are set down for hearing on 20th November 1810.

Burdett complains the government is delaying the actions whilst he has acted timely. Moira says his chief witness (now Brigadier General Coleman, the former Sergeant at Arms) is serving in Spain and cannot be made available for many weeks. Government is arguing for the legality of the Warrant whilst Burdett has focused on lack of Jurisdiction and the consequent illegality of the break-in to his home to serve it.

Sat 1st June 1811

Lovell is the proprietor of The Day newspaper. He is prosecuted by the King for libel. The recent popular protests of poor people in and around London caused the government to call out the army to disperse the crowds. Lovell then published an article saying the Magistrate’s reading of the Riot Act had been the signal for the military execution of many Londoners. The Attorney General says a good subject should not say such things; the army did what it was told to do. This article might incite the people against the government – that is the libel.

Lovell has also libelled some Commissioners of Taxes in an undisclosed way.

He got a year on each count consecutively where after he must enter a secured bond of good behaviour for three years.

Harvey and Fisher were the printer and publisher of The Day. They submitted to the Court and pleaded for mercy. They got 1 year each where after they will have to find security and be bonded for good behaviour.

Sat 29th June 1811

Guildhall 19th December; Hugh Bell v Byrne:

Bell is a City merchant and Byrne is the sole proprietor of the Morning Post, a government-sponsored newspaper. Bell is represented by the barrister Topping and the Defendant is represented by the Attorney General.

When the Speaker was attempting to arrest Sir Francis Burdett, it was discovered that Mr Roger O’Connor was an occasional visitor to Burdett’s London house. He is the brother of Arthur O’Connor, the Irish patriot presently in preventive detention in Ireland.[44]

The Irish parliament has debated connections between its State prisoners and gentlemen in London and inter alia it was mentioned that the Plaintiff Bell had been arrested for High Treason in England in February 1798. This was untrue but no-one checked in England. The Morning Post belatedly learned of the Irish parliamentary debate, presumably from one of its ministerial sources, and published the comment about Bell again. He protests he has been damaged in his reputation and business.

Topping said there was nothing new in this case except for the Attorney General acting in the unfamiliar role of Defendant’s advocate. The Defendant relied first on a letter indicating Arthur had written to Roger introducing Bell as his agent for the sale of some property to Burdett; and second on the subsequent arrest of Bell on suspicion of High Treason, based on this intercept and his interrogation by the Privy Council. Government had since queried Roger’s loyalty due to the ideology of his brother and it had been unimpeachably established in the public eye by publication of a series of his letters relevant to the matter in hand. As Bell had never been prosecuted or convicted of High Treason the article was inevitably libellous.

The Attorney General characterised the prosecution case as a slander on his character. Topping justified his claim at length. His position ultimately was – if there was a conviction of the Plaintiff for Treason there is no libel and vice versa.

The AG proved the arrest of Bell on a Warrant of the Duke of Portland. Cox, the King’s Messenger who effected the arrest, gave evidence of searching Bell’s house and seizing his papers for examination. He arranged a postal intercept on his correspondence and sent all the letters to Wm Wickham for vetting. Cox recalled Bell was interviewed by the Privy Council for 2+ hours on 7th March 1798. Subsequently, the case developed no further but the AG invited the court to note that, obviously, Bell is a bad man.

The Jury found for the Plaintiff, damages of £500.

Sat 27th July 1811

Lord Holland has drawn House of Lords attention to the Attorney-General’s predilection for issuing ex officio Writs for libel ‘on Information’ against critics of the ministry. During the six years 1801-06 some 14 such Writs were issued but since Sir Vicary Gibbs’ appointment in April 1807 there have been 42 Writs issued.

Chief Justice Lord Ellenborough opposed Holland’s motion for investigation which was defeated 24/12.

Sat 24th Aug 1811

House of Lords, March 1811 – Lord Holland has told the House of Lords that the House of Commons routinely appoints a Committee of Justice at the start of every session to oversee the administration of justice and ensure the spirit of law is maintained.

He believed the House of Lords also concerned itself with this subject as it had recently enquired of lower courts for the number of prosecutions for revenue offences that entailed capital punishment. He mentioned this because some Lords had said his motion impinged on the independence of the judiciary.

He is pursuing his concern at the Attorney General’s predilection for suing political commentators ex officio on Information for libel against the state. The AG also has a new power (enacted 1807) of bailing people he proposes to thus sue. The period of bail is unrestricted. He wished to ascertain if the AG’s acts had deterred state libels or diminished the licentiousness of the press. He is satisfied with the state of the libel law – he merely wished to understand why actions under it had become so frequent in recent years. He suspected that libel was replacing or supplementing treason and sedition as the common ministerial response to public criticism.

To protect against such abuse English law required a Jury of 12 men to pronounce on the evidence. Otherwise any free discussion of political acts might often come close to libel when it is fundamental in our system that free public discussion is the foundation of good government. Innocence should not be criticised or punished otherwise the libel law will become a law of terror.

Concerning the AG’s libel cases ex officio, many people thought it was illegal. He mentioned Lord Hale’s obiter dicta that if these ex officio informations were questioned they would fall but Lord Hale had said he was opposed to the Informations ex officio and not opposed to the AG.

Libels are prosecuted in three ways – by civil or criminal action, by indictment and on Information. Any action by indictment required the use of a Grand Jury whereas actions ‘on Information’ can be pleaded by permission of the Court or ex officio, and government lawyers used both channels. However the legal position was that prosecutions ‘on Information’ should not proceed in capital cases because it was manifestly less favourable to the defendant; and they had better not proceed at all in criminal cases, the wish being to have the defendant tried by twelve of his peers.

Blackstone, who adulated English Law, said the purpose of the ex officio action was to permit the ministry to act expeditiously against serious impediments to good government and / or the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. It was for this reason that the power of instant prosecution, ex officio, was given to the AG. It appears that if the ex officio action does not satisfy Blackstone’s test it is unlawful; not only that, but Defendants are put to considerable expense defending themselves. It was particularly egregious that many of the AG’s ex officio prosecutions are left suspended in mid-course and of the forty-two that Sir Vicary Gibbs has commenced only 16 have been concluded. These 26 suspended actions are the evidence that the AG has used the ex officio process as a means of harassment.[45]

When the previous AG, Pigott, was in office (for only a year) he introduced only one ex-officio prosecution against an inflammatory address that the Morning Post published to several regiments that were on the point of embarking for foreign service. That address had the tendency of discouraging the soldiers from embarking or indeed from following orders. It appeared a proper use of the power. However when this present AG assumed office he entered a nolle prosequi in favour of the Morning Post (it is the present ministry’s newspaper) and the prosecution has not yet been revived.

Finally, when an action is taken and lost in the King’s name, the Defendant still has to pay the costs. The King never pays. As a result, innocent people pay the costs of both parties, often £60 – £100. It is also well-known that the AG prefers to prosecute publishers rather than authors, that he permits considerable delays in bringing his cases to Court and that he procrastinates for months after the Hearing before applying for Judgment during which period the defendants remain in goal. This appeared to reveal a systematic bias towards the interests of the ministry. Holland thought it all evidenced the misapplication of ex officio prosecutions by the AG and he asked for a list of all the ex officio prosecutions for libel in the last ten years.

Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough (who has himself heard nearly all of these cases) says there is no problem. He categorised Holland’s complaint as conjectural. He thought Holland had invented Lord Hale’s obiter dicta.[46] He said the Law of Informations was as old as the Common Law and equally as reliable. He said there had been a single instance of the AG bailing people he intended to sue and that involved a chap called Gorman who was already being prosecuted for a libel when he recited the same libel in his publication.

Holland characterised Ellenborough’s speech as an evasive misunderstanding of the facts. Ellenborough became ruffled but did not reply.

Erskine said some unexceptional things and the Lords divided 24/12 against Holland

Sat 2nd Nov 1811

The hearing of Sir Francis Burdett’s Writ against Lord Moira and the Sergeant-at-Arms of House of Commons Coleman is postponed to 19th June.

Sat 2nd Nov 1811

The government’s libel cases against Drakard, the publisher of the Stamford News, and Collier, the Mancunian who published disapproving comments on the Commissioners for Taxes, have both succeeded. They were fined and imprisoned for 18 and 12 months respectively. Drakard will have to provide secured bonds for his good behaviour thereafter.

Sat 11th Jan 1812

Lord Folkestone moved the Commons to consider the sentences for criminal libel awarded to Drakard and Collyer. He thought they were too harsh.

The first libel appeared in Drakard’s own newspaper the Stamford News and was then copied by the Hunt Brothers, owners of a London paper, leading to the Attorney General’s ex officio prosecution on information of the owners of the latter paper. When the case came up the Jury found the Hunts ‘not guilty’. The AG was undeterred by failure and launched a second prosecution on the same facts, this time directly at Drakard for the original publication. He was tried at the Assizes and found guilty.

It has been a constant theme of the Attorney General’s prosecutions that all these publicists are working for France to bring down the rule of law in England.

The AG also asserted to the Court that the libel tended to produce a ‘breach of the peace’. To counter this, Drakard, when called upon to mitigate his offence before sentencing, produced volumes of his newspaper to illustrate the patriotic position he had taken for several years. This was portrayed by the AG as making Drakard’s offence more heinous by lulling his readers into false assumptions of his patriotism. Drakard was then gaoled for 18 months, fined £200 and required to provide securities for his own good behaviour for the three years subsequent to his release. Folkestone thought it strange that the same libel should result in two disparate judgments.

Turning to Collyer’s case, he was a dyer in Manchester and had been surcharged for income tax. He swore that his income was about £150 whereas the tax was assessed on an income of £300 but was reduced by the Commissioner after negotiations to an income of £250. Collyer still refused to pay and his goods were distrained and his horse & cart sold. His neighbours supposed he had done something wrong and his local reputation and credit diminished, particularly when it became known that the Commissioner disbelieved Collyer’s evidence.

Collyer then elected to publish a vindication of his own conduct and, being illiterate, he applied to Cowdray, the Editor of a Manchester newspaper, to write up a fair copy of his complaint in his newspaper and he (Collyer) would pay for it as though it was a trade advertisement. The evidence reveals he particularly asked Cowdray to avoid contention and just state the facts. The draft was made, read to Collyer who approved it, and published. Later some alterations were made and Collyer took it to another Manchester newspaper which published the amended version. Here it was seen by Lovell the Editor of a London paper now serving 12 months for having published it as well. Collyer likewise got 12 months and he felt aggrieved as the original libel was drafted by another whom he had expressly asked to stick to the facts.

Folkestone noted that many people were today being convicted of felonies at the Old Bailey and sentenced to 1, 2 or 3 months gaol but these libel cases attracted severe punishments in comparison. Folkestone then read Collyer’s libel to the House. He noted that the Commissioner for Taxes at Manchester had no complaint about the article and indeed Editor Cowdray, who drafted it, was a friend of the Commissioner’s, the supposed victim in the AG’s pleadings. The newspaper staff and the Commissioner’s staff had all sought to alleviate Collyer’s concerns but then the AG got hold of the case.

Folkestone thought the AG’s attitude to libel cases could only be understood as a ministerial attempt to muzzle the press. He said he had employed a solicitor to obtain copies of all the Writs in consideration of producing them at this debate. He was denied copies at each of the Court Registries and eventually obtained them directly from the Defendants. Only Collyer’s attorney declined to provide a copy – when he learned it was for a legislator he became alarmed it would get to the knowledge of the AG and his own career would be ruined. He thought this well indicated the state of intimidation that the law worked under.

It was a dangerous state of the law to have legal precedents, as we have, for the position that posting a letter at the Post Office was publication of it. Even our private letters might be criminal if they were read, as many are, by the ministry.

The AG replied that he had always done his duty. He never portrayed criminal acts in other than their true colours. He said the libel in the Hunts’ case differed slightly from the libel in Drakard’s case and this probably accounted for the different verdict. He was not being oppressive.

In Collyer’s case the AG said he had examined minutely into the facts. The duty of the Tax Commissioners was laborious and invidious. It was apparent that Collyer had evaded his tax liabilities for five years. He had only commenced his prosecution when the Commissioners themselves said Collyer had undermined their authority and they could not continue in office unless he was punished. He would normally have prosecuted the printers but the Commissioners were only concerned to deter Collyer, so he overlooked the publisher and printer and went after Collyer alone. He had nothing to hide.

Whitbread said libel sentences were too harsh. He had previously presented a Petition to the House from White and Hart who had been gaoled for 3 years for libel and were shortly to be released. He had heard that government was preparing another charge against White as soon as he was released in order to secure his further imprisonment.

The decision of the House, without a division, was to deny Folkestone’s motion for disclosure of the relevant papers.

Sat 28th Dec 1811

On 13th May 1811 several libel actions were commenced at the Court of King’s Bench, amongst which:

  • The AG is suing Rous, Hurley and Laurence for libel. They are the printers at Canterbury of The Whim, in which paper the Mayor of Canterbury, Charles Pout, says he was libelled. Pout was an upholsterer and auctioneer until his election as Mayor last December 1810. Shortly after his election a poem appeared in The Whim which scurrilously defamed him and the Writ was issued.
  • Mansell Philips MP is to be sued for a libel against the Bishop of Derry which was published in the Swansea paper The Cambrian.

Sat 18th April 1812

The procedure of suing people for libel under ex officio Informations, that has been revived in England against the press, has been extended to Ireland.

Saurin, the Irish Attorney General, has filed two ex officio Informations against the Earl of Fingal whilst presiding at Catholic meetings in July and August 1811.

Sat 2nd May 1812

Sir Francis Burdett has appealed the judgments on his Writs against the Speaker of the House of Commons and its Sergeant-at-Arms. The Court of Exchequer Chamber has jurisdiction over the Courts of Westminster Hall and will hear the Appeal. It is actually the twelve Judges of the Westminster courts sitting jointly.

If these Judges do not assist Burdett, his next step is an Appeal to the House of Lords by way of petition. Then we might have the Upper House making decisions on the powers of the Speaker in the Commons.

Sat 30th May 1812

Brigadier General Coleman, the erstwhile Sergeant-at-Arms of the House of Commons who arrested Sir Francis Burdett, is reported to have died in Portugal after a fever.

Sat 3rd Oct 1812

The printer Daniel Isaac Eaton has been prosecuted by the ministry for libelling God. He printed a book casting doubt on the authenticity of the bible, even the New Testament. The author is not identified but the printer shares his opinions.[47]

The prosecution proved the libellous publication and the Defendant commenced his defence which was a lengthy justification. After he had reviewed some of Genesis and Esdras, Lord Ellenborough told him he did not come to Court to hear Christianity reviled and advised Eaton to omit all contentious passages. The defendant said his Defence was all the same. Ellenborough said ‘your Defence is an offence’ (laughter). The Defendant said the pamphlet had circulated in America for over six years without complaint and America was far more religious than England. Ellenborough said the Christian religion is incorporated in the Law of England. The Jury convicted and the defendant was gaoled.

On 30th April 1812 the Attorney General applied for judgment (it is an ‘on Information’ prosecution whereby the AG controls the timings) and Eaton, who has been imprisoned since his first arrest, put in an affidavit maintaining his opinion that the book was not a libel on God. He said he was 60 years old and unwell. “The government has burned £2,600 of my books and I had to pay them £280 to get back my furniture. If publication was a mistake, I acknowledge it.” Eaton thought there was a natural human curiosity about religion that should not be suppressed. He protested the Attorney General’s ex officio informations were a bar to all natural enquiry. Eaton was remanded by Ellenborough for another week prior to sentencing.

Sat 24th Oct 1812

General Gascoigne, MP for Liverpool, has presented a petition from his constituents. 6,500 Liverpudlians signed it in four days. They say 15% of the population is existing on charity. The streets are littered with beggars. They feel they have done nothing wrong and pray for relief. They want the Orders-in-Council and the Licensing system repealed. They attribute the reduction in commerce and revenue to these two political measures.

The ministry then moved a vote for £90,000 to construct new cantonments near Liverpool, Bristol and other disturbed population centres.

Burdett said it appeared that barrack construction had nothing to do with the war and everything to do with oppressing the people. He adverted to the extensive recent use of the army against Midland protesters. He thought it impolitic to make the people pay for army forts that were built for their oppression. These barracks are intended to provide safe areas from which the army can sally out against the people whenever required. It is also murder when a soldier is ordered to kill citizens. Popular dissent is not insurrectionary – the protesters just want food and clothing.

He was amused to hear ministers talk of the military government of France when England was exactly the same.

When Queen Elizabeth was asked where her guards were, she pointed to the people; when this ministry is asked, they point to the army. Their acts are unjust and lack popular sanction. He stated his opinion, as a matter of law (he is a lawyer), that reading the Riot Act did not authorise violence by the soldiery.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer[48] accused Burdett of making cheap points for his constituents. Voicing these wild ideas will destroy our liberty, he said.

Sat 24th Oct 1812

Government attempts to put down rioting in the north of England by violence have not been successful for long. Trouble broke out again in the West Riding of Yorkshire and spread to the manufacturing towns of Lancashire, Cheshire and Nottinghamshire. The level of mob violence has worsened. Its not just machinery being destroyed but employers as well – some factory owners have been murdered.

The people are infuriated by a lack of jobs, unilateral reduction of wages and now a shortage of food. Even if you have some savings it has become expensive to feed yourself. General Maitland has been ordered to prepare his artillery and firmly suppress dissent.

A Chester man named Walker has been leading the protesters there. He marches at the front of the protesters wearing a large cocked hat and calls himself General Ludd. He has just been arrested and six guineas was found in his pocket – it seems it was not poverty that motivated him.

Luddites placarded Nottingham town at night with a poster offering a reward for the capture of mayor Wilson, dead or alive. The mayor had just offered a £600 reward for the identification of the murderers of Treatham, one of the factory-owners slain by the mob.[49]

Sat 7th Nov 1812

Ryder proposed the death penalty for making or administering an illegal Oath. The Luddites are swearing to never betray each other on pain of death. The numbers of murders in the industrial districts had since increased. Ryder wants a Bill to execute anyone administering or making such an Oath with intent to commit felony.

Wynne said the legal principle was to distinguish intent from actual commission. This Bill conflated the two. If the punishment for the Oath is the same as the punishment for the felony, it might inspire an even greater number of murders. We would do better to transport the people we expect to convict, he thought.

Horner said this is yet another instance of Draconian punishment for a specific event. The rioters were not whimsically destroying property – they relied on their employers for jobs and wages and had been let down. Parliament should closely investigate the cause of discontent and legislate a remedy. All legislators should by now be aware that harsher punishments do not procure tranquillity. We would do better to invoke the Act of 1797 and send a special commission to the Midlands to investigate and make recommendations.

Perceval said he was making enquiries but in the interim the destruction is continuing. He needs a temporary solution to protect property. He believes people are being forced to make the Oath. Perceval denied that the lack of employment was due to ministerial policies. He says the Luddite ring-leaders are men of property who employ ignorant workers to destroy industrial machinery on the basis ‘remove the competition and there’s more work for me’. He thought Ryder’s proposal was merited if it had no retrospective effect and provided a route for Oath-takers to confess and renounce. Perceval recalled the House had faced a similar problem before. We enacted a law to deter the seduction of soldiers from their officers, executed a single soldier two days after passage of the Act and mutinies stopped. Temporary solutions work, he said.

Stephens said it was too early to take a view on the Bill. We should discuss it further. Now the House is more evenly divided, there is no prospect of its passage without debate.[50]

Whitbread feared the predilection of ministers for harsher and harsher penalties would soon arrive at Henry VIII’s boiling punishment or the adoption of torture as has been practised and defended in Ireland of late. The objection to Ryder’s Bill is the absence of a distinction between administering an Oath and killing a man.

Abercromby said all insurrections have a cause.

Bathurst said we should put down the insurrection first then identify and remedy the cause.

George Hibbert asked why we did not use the existing law.

Davies Giddy said he thought the French were behind it and we should immediately annihilate any rioters.

It was then agreed to bring in Ryder’s Bill.

Sat 7th Nov 1812

The minister reports that a plot has been discovered at Stockport to overturn the ministry. The conspirators have contacts all along the mail route to London. The mail coaches were to be stopped as a signal to the towns on the route to simultaneously rise.

St John Fleming Leicester has responded with alacrity. He has the Earl of Chester’s Legion, consisting of six troops of yeomanry and 300 infantry, and he has posted them around Stockport to act decisively at the first signs of insurrection.

Sat 13th Feb 1813

London, 12th July – a party has been held at the Crown & Anchor Tavern to celebrate the release of Cobbett from Newgate after an imprisonment of 2 years. He was found guilty of libelling the ministry in respect of a critical article he published about flogging. He has been held in the felon’s section of Newgate. To obtain his release, Cobbett had to pay a fine of £1,000 and provide securities for his good behaviour for the next 7 years.

Sir Francis Burdett and several of the City Aldermen attended the celebration.

Cobbett is bitter about the AG’s use of ex officio Informations – a form of proceeding that was abandoned after the Court of Star Chamber was annulled, he says. The AG lays the Information and the defendant is detained, but the venue and timing of the hearing, the selection of Jurymen, the request for judgment and sentencing, and the location of the gaol are all in the control of the AG who takes his time. It is a biased and oppressive form of proceeding that has been used to stifle press commentary on ministerial acts and keep the people ignorant. Cobbett hoped Englishmen would not be cowed into silence; that they would discuss issues fearlessly and insist on their freedom to do so.

Sat 20th March 1813

Lascelles of the Secret Committee of House of Commons has reported on the Luddites. He says they are not out-of-work labourers but a conspiracy of organised revolutionaries. They have targeted arms and ammunition for theft and have committed many daring robberies to amass capital. These are not the impulsive acts of starving workers but an organised resistance to our government. They have rockets and signal lights for communications. They have various types of organising committee. They use Masonic signs to identify each other. They do not use the Post Office to communicate so we cannot read their letters. They swear an Oath to help each other. They all pay 2d a week subscription to the cause.

Lascelles detects a prospect that the riots will extend to London and Ireland. He says government’s traditional methods of control and subversion (infiltration, bribery, misinformation, surveillance of communications and a broad variety of legal remedies) are unlikely to work. When the people work together like this, there is a real danger to the peace and security of the country, he said.

Sat 22nd May 1813

Court of King’s Bench, 9th December – John and Leigh Hunt, Irish proprietors of The Examiner have been prosecuted by the Solicitor General for libelling the Regent in their edition of 22nd March:

They object H M’s Address to his regiment on its embarkation for Portugal. They say this Adonis of loveliness is a corpulent gentleman of fifty years. They call him a libertine, a debtor and a liar. He has lived half a century without giving a single cause to invoke the gratitude of his country.[51] This is all highly libellous.

Brougham is defending:

He says the article was a report on a St Patrick’s Day dinner at which a toast to the Regent was widely hissed.

The ministerial newspapers reported the event differently. The Morning Post said it was attended by worthless people who should be treated with sovereign contempt.

In fact the Marquis Lansdowne presided and the Marquis Downshire, Lord Moira, Sheridan, the Lord Mayor and a city sheriff all attended.

The first occasion the ministry prosecuted these defendants involved an article they published about the Duke of York and concerned the then rumour that he was going to Spain to command our army there.

The second occasion was when they discussed the range of corporal punishments approved for the army.

These are important topics, worthy of national attention. It is difficult for a newspaper proprietor to do his duty to his readers and still satisfy the ministry.

The defendants are retiring, studious men. They write on history, poetry and politics. They belong to no faction. The motto of their newspaper is “party is the madness of many for the gain of a few”. They are concerned with bettering the condition of man and they frequently comment on our government of Ireland – resenting that we pillaged their ancestors, disqualified them for their religion and destroyed their churches so we could replace them with our own. Perhaps their opinions are wrong but they are genuinely held.

Lord Ellenborough is the Judge. The Solicitor General is prosecutor. Both object to the line of Defence. Brougham is told he may present evidence but not read from former publications.

The Jury found both defendants guilty. They will be imprisoned until next session when they will be sentenced.

Sat 21st Aug 1813

Trials and executions of unemployed factory workers are proceeding in the north of England. They are all young men in their twenties and thirties who have been attacking factory owners and wrecking machinery. Their cause is popular but government is on top of it.

The executions at York Castle were held with two troops of cavalry and a detachment of infantry to prevent a rescue.

The crowd was much larger than usual at that event but totally and dismally silent. The three lads were hanged in their irons and their bodies were convulsed only briefly. Another seven youths are on trial in Leeds for riotous assembly. They attacked a mill in Liversedge. Five were convicted and sentenced to death. The other two were found not guilty.

Sat 23rd Oct 1813

Creevey MP made a speech in the House of Commons and later published it in a letter to his constituents. He is prosecuted for libel.

The original speech was considered libellous but escaped punishment because MPs are allowed to say anything in parliament. The article however was available to the people at large and must be subject to law.  (Recalling that MPs are not amenable to law – one of their “ancient privileges” recited in the preamble of every law.)

Creevey’s defence was that the House of Commons published the proceedings of its Committees even if the debates were unpublished. The trend was towards publication and therefore it should be legal.

The Court ruled that the letter was subject to law.

Sat 30th Oct 1813

Bristol, 24th March – On Monday a small group of protesters climbed over the railings of Portland Square and pulled down the statue of George III that was placed there by public subscription two years ago. They threw a rope around the neck and pulled it off its plinth. It was destroyed in the fall. One protester was arrested.

Sat 30th July 1814

William Earle, publisher of the London monthly The Scourge, is prosecuted for libel. The Defendant pleaded Not Guilty then adduced an apology he published in the following edition as his defence.

The AG is prosecuting. Its one of his ex officio ‘on Information’ proceedings.

He says the Defendant’s attempt to avoid liability by apologising to Buckhardt is not a defence. The libel was gross – Buckhardt was said to be the son of a Dutch fisherman, of being uneducated, of attending meetings of the London Corresponding Society – and such a base attack must be punished otherwise all the newspapers will publish libels in one edition and apologies in the next.

Earle was imprisoned for 6 months and fined £100. He will be required to provide sureties in £400 for his future good behaviour before his release.

Sat 14th Jan 1815

The Prince Regent has received a Petition from the citizens of Westminster that encapsulates the tragedy of the Great War:[52]

3 million soldiers dead, 1½ million British workers unemployed and the rest of the populace paying-off a debt of £800 million – what have we learned? Monarchs should recognise the truth that “representation is the happiest discovery of political wisdom”. Representation must be perfected.

We have fought for 20 years to crush the infant liberties of France only to find that those liberties are the only hope of permanent tranquillity in Europe. Reform the House of Commons and give us real representation.

The borough-mongers trample the rights of both the Crown and the people. That gang threatens the independence of the Crown, destroys the liberties of the people and predates on the national revenue. When our freedom is ended what use to us is peace?

The borough-mongers feloniously usurp the powers of the Constitution and misconstrue them to maintain their power – they are worse than war. That small group has stolen our birthright and tyrannises us to permit our robbery. We are forced to submit to audacious corruption. These people will never voluntarily relinquish the power they have stolen from the Crown and the people.

A truly representative parliament responds to the wishes of the people. It should be impossible for parliament to make war on its own people.

Since the splendid arrangements made at Paris on 1st April, you have been urged to approve a shameful hostility towards Norway. If one nation can assert the right to find its own happiness, it must apply to all nations. We entreat You to save England from this dishonour.[53]

We expect the law concerning the maritime rights of neutral countries to be firmly re-established and our present lamentable hostility with America to be brought to an early end. The misery of war will then be ended and the people will resume their social and moral duties, practise the arts and accomplishments and enjoy true happiness.

Sat 9th Sept 1815

The Livery of London (i.e. the City) has petitioned against renewed war and the increased income tax. The petition is phrased in a way that suggests the petitioners do not expect to be satisfied – it is not humble. The petitioners accuse ministers of negligence and being out-of-touch with the people.

Petitions invariably reprobate the policy of ministers and House of Commons routinely construes its rules strictly against petitioners.[54] The City asks for negotiations with France. They are opposed to war without talk. The MPs were commended to reject the petition without debate and did so 107/50.

Sat 25th April 1818

Morning Herald, 27th Oct 1817:

Derby, 10th October – Jeremiah Brandreth alias John Coke, and a group of some 20 friends, is on trial for High Treason. They intended to take the town of Nottingham as a first step to overturning the government. Brandreth told his group that concurrent risings were planned in Manchester, Chesterfield, Sheffield and other places. He quoted a poem:

Every man his skill must try
He must turn-out and not deny.
No bloody soldier must he dread
He must turn-out and fight for bread.
The time is come, you plainly see
When government opposed must be.


They planned to occupy the Butterley Ironworks, kill the management and make weapons. They took lead from church roofs for bullets. They needed gunpowder and went to Nottingham Forest to make charcoal and politicise the hundreds of unemployed people living there on forest food and wild animals. Several of Brandreth’s group were identified and co-opted as special constables when the plot was first reported. They were directed to collect evidence of the conspiracy and have since provided the case for the prosecution. In the course of preparations, Brandreth had gone to Hepworth’s house and killed a servant while stealing guns. That was the event that made the case High Treason – a man had been killed.

One defence witness was called who said Brandreth is on poor relief from the town of Welford. He was a frame-maker but has long been unemployed.

They were all sentenced to hanging, beheading and quartering, their bodies to be placed at the disposal of the King (i.e. denied burial – usually the bodies were gifted to medical schools). Brandreth appeared unmoved but the others cried. Some sang hymns. The Lord Chief Baron, who was seized of the case, was visibly affected. The convicts were followed from the court to the gaol by several thousand people.

Next day 19 other conspirators were produced. The Crown Solicitor said if they changed their pleas from Not Guilty to Guilty he would strongly recommend mercy. They changed their pleas and were remanded.

A final batch of 12 conspirators were produced who maintained Not Guilty pleas and declined all attempts to influence them. The prosecutor told the jury he would offer no evidence against them. He said the purpose of justice was to deter citizens from crime and that had already been achieved in this case.[55]

Sat 9th May 1818

A rare triumph for the ordinary man:

King’s Bench 18th December – The Attorney General (AG – Sir Samuel Shepherd) has prosecuted Hone for libel. Its one of his ex officio proceedings ‘on Information’ that the Bar has criticised.

Hone has profaned the Anglican catechism, the Apostle’s creed, the Lord’s prayer and the ten commandments. He pleads ‘not guilty’. The AG said that great jurist Hale has told us ‘Christianity is parcel of the common law of England’. The book of common prayer and the form of the Liturgy were established by Act of Parliament under Charles II. He said it follows that a failure in one’s Christianity is a criminal offence.

A few excerpts from the holy documents and Hone’s absurd parodies were then read in Court and caused amusement amongst the audience. Hone has been selling the parody from his shop on Fleet Street for 2d a copy. There have been similar parodies (in Blackwood’s Magazine and elsewhere) published prior to his. He started selling on 14th February and stopped on 22nd of that month when he heard friends had been offended.

The pamphlets are political attacks:

  • “I believe in George, the Regent Almighty, maker of new streets and Knights of the Bath;” and
  • “The present ministry was conceived in Toryism, brought forth of William Pitt, suffered loss of place under Charles James Fox, was execrated, dead and buried. In a few months they rose again from their minority, they re-ascended to the Treasury benches and sit at the right hand of the little chap in the wig from whence they laugh at the petitions of the people;” and
  • “I am the minister, the lord thy liege, who brought thee out of want and beggary into the House of Commons. Thou shalt have no other patron but me. Thou shalt not support any measure but mine. Thou shalt not take the pension of the minister in vain for I will force him to take the Chiltern Hundreds who takes my pension in vain.”

The entire libel is reprinted in the law report and seems to be popular.

Hone appeared in his own defence. He had enquired the costs of defence but he says the price estimate of £100 would have ruined him. He regretted this now because, had he paid the fee, he would have learned the nature of his offence. He was arrested on Ellenborough’s warrant in May and has been imprisoned ever since. During that time the ministry had published its own version in its newspapers and politicised the country against him. He was told of the trial this morning. He had guessed his offence but was not told until charged just now. He declined to plead as he was denied a copy of the Information and he held that proceedings ‘by Information’ were unconstitutional.

He contended that trial by jury was a privilege of Englishmen and that trial ‘on Information’ removed the influence that juries should have on proceedings. However, the timid Jury hears the AG’s information and the Judge’s construction of the law and makes its finding. Judges customarily remind Jurors to beware of their Oath. Hone denied an intention to blaspheme – he was solely concerned to ridicule the ministry.

He objected to the method of Jury selection. Jurors were nominated by a Master from a list prepared by the Crown. The Master was a servant of the Crown. It appeared as though the prosecution got its own Jury.

He then set upon his Defence which was to show by an endless succession of delightful examples that ridicule was a common form of expression and not libellous. It created happiness amongst the audience, so much so that when the AG summed-up he was thought boring and the audience booed. The Jury retired for 15 minutes and returned a verdict of Not Guilty.[56]

Sat 13th June 1818

House of Lords, 28th January 1818 – the Bill for the repeal of the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act was read for the first time. Sidmouth tenaciously argued against it. Holland equally tenaciously supported it.

The latter said there had been no need for a suspension in the first place.

The Bill was then read a second and third time and sent to the House of Commons. Several MPs protested the ministry’s recent initiatives under this Act. Ministers have bound-over on recognisances all those people who had been imprisoned then released a few weeks before this repeal – ‘if you knew you were going to release them all, why bind-over so many?’ The AG said he would move in King’s Bench for the cancellation of the recognisances.

Sat 27th June 1818

London – 22 named people (and some other illegible names) have applied for discharge from recognisances they made with the Attorney General at King’s Bench under the Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act. Most recognisances are in £100. They come from gaols all over the country[57] and apply to Ellenborough one by one for discharge. He told one if he is discharged, he should make affidavit. They say the AG’s recognisances require their daily attendance at King’s Bench until discharged. They all ask for finality. Ellenborough declined – “I am not a Counsel, I am a Judge. I receive advice, I do not give it.” He said the Court cannot discharge recognisances. Eventually the Attorney General came along and applied for the discharges which the Court then granted.

Sat 4th July 1818

House of Commons, 2nd March – Bennett moved the repeal of all those Acts that authorised rewards to policemen for arresting suspects who were later convicted. It was commonplace for a known felon to remain undisturbed by the police until he achieved a certain ‘weight’, commonly £40, whereupon a police party would arrest him. This unwillingness to act against suspects for whom no reward was offered was encouraging crime. When suspects did attract rewards, there was repeated Judicial evidence of police conspiracies to encourage their further criminal activity in order to entrap them.

He recalled that in 1786 a species of this type of police conspiracy had resulted in the conviction and execution of 70 people. In 1772 there had been a similar case. Recently, the conspiracy of Brock, Pelham and Vaughan – which excited public censure – has again occurred with Kelly and Spicer.[58]

Bennett wished to repeal all the rewards available except two – the Tyburn ticket should be continued but be made non-transferable[59] and a reward of £40 should be available to Executors of Estates of people who had died in the prevention or apprehension of highway robbers. He also wished to introduce a clause to permit remuneration of witnesses.

Most of the complaints derive from people imprisoned as a result of Lord Sidmouth’s circular.[60] Jonathan Buckley of Warrington, the bookseller who was said to have sold copies of ‘a political litany’, was seized, loaded with irons, handcuffed and imprisoned, etc., for 19 weeks until recently discharged on his own recognisance. His stock of books had been seized at the time and has not been returned, having been deemed improper without further explanation. The stock contained no copies of ‘a political litany’ and he himself says he had ceased selling it before his arrest when he learned the authorities disliked it.

A similar petition for redress had been received by the House of Commons from Samuel Billings.

The Attorney General said he had no formal notice of the complaints and could take no action. He said the matter had become contentious because of Hone’s acquittal. In fact, several booksellers had recommenced selling Hone’s disgusting pamphlets after the verdict. He said libel is a complex matter and he might decide to prosecute others for the same offence he had alleged against Hone.

Sat 1st Aug 1818

An enquiry was made in the House of Commons as to whether Brock, Pelham and Vaughan, the three accessories before the fact in a case of counterfeiting 18 months ago, had been pardoned. Members recalled that three Irishmen had been convicted of counterfeiting and passing five silver-plated brass shillings. It had transpired in evidence that they were acting on the instructions of Brock, Pelham and Vaughan who were government agents charged with the suppression of counterfeiting. It was rumoured that there was some legal obstacle to convicting policemen which the MPs wished to understand.

Bathurst, the Attorney General, confirmed the pardons had been given but said the nature of the case could not be discussed in the House of Commons.[61]

Sir Francis Burdett urged the minister to obtain a judicial pardon rather than issue it himself.

Bathurst said he had prosecuted Vaughan and some other police officers for inciting crime in precisely similar circumstances and obtained convictions but the safety of the convictions was questioned. The case was considered by the 12 Judges and the convictions overturned. The facts in Brock’s case were similar to Vaughan’s so the minister pardoned them as well.

At that point Castlereagh said there was no motion before the House and all discussion should end.

Sir Francis Burdett thought, if there was an obstacle to prosecuting the policemen on the original counterfeiting, at least they might be charged with conspiring to take life for reward.

The debate was then ended on Castlereagh’s point of order.

Sat 4th July 1818

House of Lords, 3rd March – The Habeas Corpus Indemnity Bill is being debated in parliament. It is to protect those ministers and their informers who identified people for preventive detention.

Auckland disliked the principle of the Bill – the spy is protected but the innocent man is defamed. He did not mind indemnifying the ministers and the magistrates but this was a step too far.

King said the Bill will protect those magistrates who committed innocent people but he doubted that assassinations would ensue if the Bill was not passed. The imprisoned people should be allowed to meet their accusers and talk through their suspicions, he thought. Protection of secret informers made the government appear like the Inquisition.

Bathurst supported the Bill. The informations made by secret informers had been given on Oath – they must be true – and the deponents deserve protection.

Sat 4th July 1818

Lord Erskine and nine other Lords have dissented from the majority decision of House of Lords to pass the Habeas Corpus Indemnity Bill.

They say the great body of the people are loyal. The Secret Committee found no evidence of widespread disaffection. Those people who had been inveigled into supporting the rebels (Brandreth’s farcical rebellion) had thrown away their pikes before the military appeared. Only very few real insurgents existed. We have an enormous loyal army and the idea of a successful rebellion is ludicrous.

This Bill fails to distinguish real information from malicious information. If the ministry had been able to bring just one genuine conspiracy to court it might be different. The principal characteristic of government spies was their mercenary nature. Maintaining secrecy about their impure evidence is oppressive.

A better course would be for ministers and parliamentarians to adhere to the principles of the Constitution.[62]

Sat 11th July 1818

Allegations of Treason in London are attracting public attention:

Sidmouth recently arrested 44 people for Treason. He discharged 7 people after initial enquiry by a ministerial committee and imprisoned the other 37 on suspicion. One died in prison, another was discharged for ill-health and a third was released. The remaining 34 were supposed to be indicted in a great public show trial but that plan now seems to have been abandoned.

The Secret Committee’s report on disaffection in the country, which was Sidmouth’s reason for the intended trial, turns out to not be an original production. Its report was copied from the transcript of proceedings in Brandreth’s trial in Derby.

Earl Grosvenor was disappointed the report contained no new information. On the contrary, the people of Manchester had petitioned that there has been no evidence of rebellion in their town contrary to the suggestion in the report. The Commons has also received Petitions from at least four people complaining of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment for supposed Treason. It seems the Committee report is useless and meanwhile we have 34 people long imprisoned for an as yet unidentified crime.

The Lord Mayor and Common Council of the City of London has petitioned the House of Lords on 23rd February for an enquiry into the conduct of ministers. They are accused of maladministration in respect of the Suspension of Habeas Corpus Act. They have filled the prisons with suspected traitors. They are aware from proceedings in the House of Commons that the evidence of spies against these supposed traitors is doubtful and they have taken no action to confirm or refute that.

The fact is it is a commercial thing – the spies get more for arresting traitors than they get for arresting criminals.

Sat 11th July 1818

King’s Bench, 7th February – The King v Arthur Thistlewood.

Thistlewood was committed to the Tower for High Treason in March last year. On 3rd February this year he wrote to Sidmouth, the man signing his arrest papers, demanding the satisfaction of a duel. Sidmouth applied to Ellenborough, the Lord Chief Justice, for protection from his prisoner.

Thistlewood said he made the challenge under his right to trial by battle, which is reserved to a defendant by Norman law. Several old British legal authorities were quoted in support, ending with Lord Coke (who said it was restricted to defendants charged with murder). There was authority to say the right could be supplanted in cases of incontrovertible proof of guilt, an exception that appears in the Charter of the City of London.[63]

Ellenborough remanded Thistlewood to April saying the Court was very busy.

Sat 1st Aug 1818

Sir Samuel Romilly is trying to get his Act through parliament again. Twice in the last session, and twice the session before, he obtained House of Commons agreement to enact a new law on capital punishment. People convicted of theft of goods worth 5/- or more are both hanged and denied benefit of clergy. He thought hanging was sufficient. Every time he succeeds in the Commons he gets rebuffed in the Lords.

(NB – Benefit of Clergy was available to anyone who could recite the first verse of Psalm 51. It permitted the claimant to the ‘benefit’ of avoiding the Common Law and being tried by his Bishop under Canon Law. Such trials were usually settled by an award for performance of penance.)

Between 1805 – 1817 there were 655 indictments for this type of theft. 365 were found guilty of simple larceny (a lesser non-capital offence); 113 were found guilty and sentenced to death but all had their sentences remitted. Romilly thought the 365 Jury convictions for simple larceny revealed an unwillingness of the British people to execute petty thieves. Thus 365 x 12 Englishmen were violating the Oath they took as Jurymen in order to display mercy. It was also the case that 5/- was a lot of money when the Act was introduced but had since become far less valuable.

He noted that burglary of 40/- was necessary before it became a capital offence. In the 8 years before 1816 1,697 people had been indicted for this type of burglary of whom 293 had been capitally convicted and none executed. The others had either been acquitted or convicted of lesser (non-capital) offences.

It was rumoured anecdotally that Judges were reluctant to order the execution of thieves but this mercy was reversed in cases of fraudulent bankruptcy (where a bankrupt person hides assets) and forgery. The offence of fraudulent bankruptcy had been on the statute book for 85 years but only 4 people had been executed for it in that time. The great preponderance of convictions had both creditors and defendants begging the Court’s mercy, the former to preserve their chances of recovery. Likewise forgery had been seldom tried in British Courts before the introduction of paper money. Now there were any number of banks printing money in their local printing shops and the offence had grown like Topsy – two women were executed last week and two teenagers were condemned this morning (Spicer and Kelly – see above). In their case there was compelling evidence that they had been induced by reward into committing the offence and were not themselves the principals in it. He thought the Legislature should routinely endeavour to inculcate a respect for life amongst the people. He mentioned the case of a man accused of a capital offence who had found the delay of trial intolerable and killed himself in a frightful way. The Sheriff had exhibited the mutilated body with a small gallows above it. He thought Sheriffs should not assume judicial functions as it brought the law into disrepute.

J Smith MP[64] said many cases of forgery were not taken forward due to reluctance of victims to prosecute. The bankers of London had a committee to review all cases of which they were victims to ensure that no complaint was made against anyone who might have a claim on public sympathy.

Sat 20th March 1819

Old Bailey, 30th September – Lawrence O’Halloran has been prosecuted for forging a 10d frank with intent to avoid payment of postage charges. He is an elderly man and was formerly a tutor, having taught the present Solicitor General et al. He says his prosecution results from a quarrel he had with his local vicar.

As a result of that quarrel, six men broke into his house and attacked him. They were acting for a bailiff who held a warrant for his arrest. He was imprisoned for three months pending for trial. After he had been restrained and arrested, his house was searched and his papers seized although there was nothing about search and seizure in the Arrest Warrant. He was convicted on the evidence of a policeman who said, inter alia, that O’Halloran goes about with a brace of loaded pistols in his belt so they had to use violence to arrest him.

He says he does not use guns, is a nice chap and the imprisonment is bad for his health. He has twenty years of testimonials from his academic clients. The frank he is supposed to have made is dated 7th Jan 1817 and was well out-of-date but he had carelessly revealed its existence to the vicar, hence the prosecution.

The Recorder said he should have said all that before the policeman gave evidence. The Court has a clear case against him and has no discretion on sentencing which is a mandatory seven years transportation. The appeal route is to the minister who may request a Royal pardon.

Sat 5th June 1819

The ministry is under attack by an MP concerning the conditions aboard the convict ships that carry emigrants to Australia. Dr O’Halloran, one of the prisoners transported to New South Wales (convicted of forging an out-of-date 10d frank), has petitioned for improvement of the conditions.

He travelled on the India Company’s ship Baring which carries up to 300 banishees in tiers of cribs in the hold. Each crib is 78 inches wide and 66 inches long and contains six people. Any vomit or effluent from the upper cribs falls onto the lower ones. The space per passenger was rather less than required in the old slave trade Transportation Regulations (slaves got the regulation 18” whereas banishees get 13”). The voyage to Australia averages six months duration. The ship Sally took 200 convicts to Australia last year and lost 20% en voyage.

Bathurst said the character of these convicts was such that parliamentary solicitude was inappropriate. O’Halloran had threatened the ship captain that he had a friend in the House of Commons (the MP presenting this Petition) – he has no respect for authority. The comparison with slave ships is specious – slaves are chained down, banishees are not. It may be unusual for a middle-class doctor to be transported but there is no special law for the rich.

Even when concentrated in the holds as at present, it still cost the government £80 a head in fees to the India Company’s shipping cartel for a single passage to Australia. A doctor is provided on each ship – they are attentive to the needs of passengers (laughter).

Clive MP said average deaths en route to Australia were only 6%. On some voyages only one or two died. These people are being punished – its not a pleasure cruise.

Harvey said some prisoners were transported for a few years, others for life. The egregiousness of their offences differed and the quality of their accommodations should also vary.

O’Halloran’s petition was tabled.

Sat 29th May 1819

Morning Chronicle, 11th December – There is a law in the Greek islands that a person distributing oregano before the Sultan receives his own portion of the annual harvest is liable to capital punishment. There is another law awarding capital punishment to anyone disturbing the King when playing chess. We should import these laws into England. They fit well with the trend of our recent legislation.

We have about 200 capital crimes in England. Apart from treason, murder, burglary and rape, for which offences a capital sentence is often justified, we also have shoplifting over 5/-, pick-pocketing over 1/- and a surfeit of other minor crimes against property. They all require a death sentence on conviction and only the King can vary the award.

In 1805 4,605 people were committed for trial; in 1816 it was 9,091 and this year 13,932. It seems superficially that Draconian punishments do not deter crime.

It is also well known amongst lawyers that many victims refuse to prosecute crimes because they say they are appalled at the possibility of serious punishment. This is particularly the case with young offenders who, instead of being checked by discovery, are allowed to continue.

It is equally well known in the legal profession that Jurors prefer to be fined for non-attendance than become enmeshed in the law; that Jurors break their Oath and find offenders guilty of a lesser crime than the one proved in order to avoid the death of the culprit; that in one notorious case the twelve Jurors dealing with a case of theft of a £10 note from a house (larceny of £2 or more from a dwelling house is capital) found as a matter of fact that a £10 note is worth £1.19.0d. Thus are they and the law both injured.

The Court of Common Council of the City of London has petitioned both Houses along these lines and requested a review of the criminal code. They note that many parliamentarians and lawyers criticise the awards but nothing gets done. They suggest that Britain emulate feudal Russia where the Tsar Alexander has restricted the death penalty to cases of treason and murder.

Sat 7th Aug 1819

House of Commons, 2nd March – Sir James Mackintosh has given a speech on the state of the criminal law. He says the British statute book contains 200 felonies that require capital punishment but between 1749 – 1819 only 25 of them have been prosecuted to conviction and sentence. The superfluity of capital offences seems to flow from the Revolution of 1688 whereby a parliament was created and every MP was welcomed to introduce a law creating a new capital felony.

Burke used to say that as his parliamentary career progressed he was enabled to obtain a felony without benefit of clergy (a pecuniary advantage from the minister).

This frivolous parliamentary procedure produced a separation between the words of the law and the provision of justice to the people. Almost all the legislative proscriptions awarding capital punishment resulted from personal experiences of MPs and led Sir Wm Grant to observe that the principle of law was opposed to its practice.

Thus on the one hand we had legislators producing a river of new law and on the other a confederacy of judges and attorneys endeavouring to provide justice. The great increase in crime in England has been contemporary with the great war with France. In that war we used deception and bribery as well as violence to achieve our ends and our skills in these have overflowed into society (i.e. the increased crime rate is commercial crime).

Sat 28th Aug 1819

There is a wind of change in Europe and it seems mainly due to Napoleon. Even in exile he troubles us. All the countries upon which he bestowed Constitutions are discontented by the return to feudalism. It is the same in the toeholds of Europe that we managed to hang onto – Spain and Sicily – where the Constitutions we provided in emulation of Napoleon were withdrawn on the return of their Kings.[65]

The continuing example of America does not help either. Tens of thousands of Dutch, Germans and French have emigrated there and, whilst they are not yet doing very well, their letters suggest its more hopeful that staying at home.

Another element in the change is the British parliament. Throughout the war the preponderance of MPs were submissive to the Minister but since the peace they have become unruly and make ministerial government difficult. The changed attitude in the House of Commons is palpable. Debates are more free and more wide-ranging; formerly forbidden subjects are now discussed. In the past the country MPs attended to enjoy the quality of debate rather than the subject-matter; now they are starting to talk of what concerns them. The minister is often in difficulties in assembling a majority and has to proceed with care.

The German states along the Rhine are scarcely better than feudal with laws that are hostile to every wise principle of good government. They are obliged now to reform – even Hanover is not exempt.

The other force for change is the merchants. Many are educated and quite rich but in Germany their wealth counts for little. They are not admitted at Court and are still required to leave a public room when a nobleman comes in and chooses to dance or play cards. The nobility owning the German states are determined not to work. They get a stipend of about £100 a year and free supply of wax candles – just enough to avoid work – and they are proud.

There have also been assassination plots, the latest against the Austrian Emperor at Mantua. Another against Kotzebue succeeded. The assassin Charles Sand is a Bavarian. He is a graduate of law at Tubengen University and seems to be a thoughtful fellow. He said he acted in the interests of the German people and had published a paper calling on the people to arise and unite the German-speaking countries. A third attempt was by eleven men against the Tsar Alexander. Five have fled, one is missing and another is a French army officer. They planned to capture the Tsar en route to Aix-la-Chapelle and force him, on his life, to sign a Proclamation to the French recalling Napoleon to take up the government. They were betrayed to the magistrates and arrested. They have been imprisoned. One of them, Buchoz, is to be pilloried and branded.

Sat 4th Dec 1819

The Stockport Union has published a Democratic Manifesto which will upset the ministry. About 12,000 people approved it. They say it is an appeal to the British people to form a National Union. Its all about freedom, equality and the Rights of Man. Whether the Bank of England should be permitted to continue was one of the subjects discussed. Sir Charles Wolseley told the meeting that reform was imperative and he did not care how many Sidmouths and Castlereaghs heard him say so. Indeed Sidmouth was convicted of High Treason by the meeting in a mock trial. His offence was intercepting the City of London’s petition to the Regent. There is widespread doubt whether any of the popular petitions are getting through to the Regent. A London Committee was appointed to collect provincial complaints against the ministry.

Workmen in several counties are in rebellion. They demand more pay. The army has been sent into Dalston and Cockermouth to restore order.

The Sun says this Manifesto might be the means of spreading rebellion throughout the country.

Castlereagh talks of the flourishing state of the country and the improvement in manufacturing and commerce but he bases himself on the London experience. The bankers and merchants there are indeed doing very well but it extends no further. The value of wages has decreased a third in purchasing power (from issuing paper money in excess of the increase in economic activity). In Carlyle 4,000 labourers work 14 hours a day for 5/9d per week and Castlereagh is increasing taxes. The increase in malt tax has redirected popular drinking from beer to distilled spirits which are easy to make at home and comparatively cheap.

Sat 11th Dec 1819

The ministry says it has evidence of a subtle conspiracy behind the Stockport Union. It says it has been created to mislead the workers and destabilise the country. Well, we have heard this too many times to believe it any more.

It seems the minister wants to resort to those violent and oppressive but futile measures of yesterday. Hunger is not assuaged by suspension of Habeas Corpus and yet another Bill of Indemnity to absolve ministers of liability for their acts may not be so easily obtainable this time round.

Sat 22nd Jan 1820

The Manchester Star, 18th August 1819 – Peterloo.

About 50,000 people, mostly unemployed spinners and weavers of both sexes, assembled here on Monday to express their grievances. The density of population in this part of England is unique.

This was a completely new type of assembly – people did not arrive in small groups but marched-in in platoons. They assembled around a stage where five flags were raised. One said ‘taxation without representation is unjust’ and on the back was ‘unite and be free’. On another was ‘no corn laws’. The French ‘cap of liberty’ was conspicuously displayed (NB – in 1792 France was represented by a woman in classical dress wearing a Phrygian bonnet, the symbol of freedom for the slaves of ancient Rome – this orange bonnet is the cap of liberty).

The magistrates arrived at noon and said some local businessmen were fearful of trouble. They read the Riot Act.

Just after 1 pm Henry (Orator) Hunt arrived in a carriage with an Amazon seated in the box seat. She is Mary Waterworth and she looked magnificent, proudly waving the flag of the Stockport Female Reformers.

It was known that a large contingent of yeomanry and regular army regiments was nearby out of sight and Hunt and the other organisers kept a firm grip on the proceedings. His first words to the assembly were instructions to maintain order and not give the authorities an excuse to attack. He told the crowd “if any man makes the slightest attempt to break the peace, put him down and keep him down” (a precaution against ministerial spies) but just as he uttered these words the Salford and Manchester Yeoman Cavalry galloped down Morley Street and Peter Street and ranged themselves across the south side of the meeting where the magistrates were assembled. It was discovered later that the Yeomanry had sharpened their sabres in anticipation of an engagement. The 15th Hussars were also in attendance.

Many people in that vicinity ran away but the mass of the crowd was too great to permit complete dispersal. There was silence for a few minutes (when the magistrates were said to have read the Riot Act again) then military orders could be heard and the cavalry charged the crowd, hacking their way through to the rostrum. All the organisers on the stage were arrested and led away under repeated bludgeoning by the constables. About 80 people were trampled in the cavalry charge but the details of deaths and injuries are unknown.

The magistrates say carrying the ‘cap of liberty’ is a treasonous act and Hunt certainly had one in his hand when he arrived. The streets were patrolled by the army and until late at night all the roads out of Manchester were filled with men, women and children, clothes torn and dirty, walking back home.

Local newspapers have blamed the military for the deaths and injuries. They seemed to really relish their role. Deputy Constable Nadin performed better than expected. He has been ridiculed by the reformers but it is certain Hunt would have been sliced to pieces if Nadin had not restrained some of the wilder Yeomanry.

It is a shocking thing to remember that these young yeomen are volunteers, ordinary people like the ones they attacked. The magistrates arrested thirteen people and issued warrants for many more.

Sat 5th Feb 1820

From an un-named right-wing newspaper report, datelined Birmingham 13th June:

The people of this burgeoning unrepresented industrial town have taken the law into their own hands. They have usurped the right of the King and elected their own representative to parliament, claiming a constitutional right to do so. The dissent is organised by several school-teachers.

Some 50,000 people assembled yesterday and elected Sir Charles Wolseley as their representative although there is no seat for Birmingham in the House of Commons. They proceeded by a show of hands and, whilst no-one precisely counted the result, it was manifest that a preponderance favoured his appointment. They have dealt with the absence of a Writ by giving Wolseley their individual Powers of Attorney. The meeting was a hopeful and joyous affair with no wildness or violence.

Some people from Leeds took the opportunity to advertise a similar event in their town next week. It seems intended to form a national union of the electorates of several of these ‘representatives’ to ensure popular rights are protected.

The ministry has responded by assembling a Grand Jury in Warwickshire which has returned true Bills of Indictment against Wolseley and against the Reverend Joseph Harrison. They were involved in the Stockport affair as well. They are both accused of making seditious speeches and will be liable to transportation if convicted. The democrats will characterise this prosecution as based on the ‘perjured evidence of government spies’ and if the Jury convicts they will be become ‘betrayers of liberty’. We are convinced that the democrats have little real support. It will only take a few large orders in the factories to satisfy everyone and restore peace.

The rise of female reform groups is the same. The Ellesmere Female Reform Society celebrated its first anniversary last week and all the fashionable people of Shropshire and the surrounding counties converged on Ellesmere. They had an excellent band and the parish priest gave a good sermon. They then went down to the Bowling Green and had tea and danced until 9 pm.

Sun 6th Feb 1820 Extraordinary

Bristol Gazette – Henry Hunt’s group of Manchester conspirators have been offered bail at several hundred Pounds each.

A meeting has been held at Norwich to consider the intervention of the military in the Manchester affair. Its constitutionality is to be discussed. Birmingham is also arranging a meeting on the same subject.

The Norwich assembly concluded that the Manchester crowd had been attacked because the magistrates there are stipendiary magistrates, reliant on the government for their appointments and salaries and therefore prone to endorse ministerial policy regardless of merit.

It was argued that if the ancient Constitutional privilege, whereby freemen are empowered to elect their own magistrates, had been available to Mancunians, the assembly would have remained peaceful.

The Regent has called Tierney to interview and asked him to liaise with the Duke of Bedford and see if a replacement ministry can be assembled.

Sun 6th Feb 1820 Extraordinary

Henry Hunt and the Manchester conspirators have appeared at Lancaster Assizes. When the prosecution named the Grand Jury, Hunt objected to several nominees saying he would shortly prefer indictments of murder against several Manchester magistrates and their relatives on the Jury might become biased.

Baron Wood is seized of the case. He directed the involved Jurors to retire when Hunt’s indictments were preferred. Hunt then preferred charges against three officers of the Manchester yeomanry. The charges were dismissed by the Jury.

Hunt et al were then accused of assembling on 16th August a riotous crowd of 60,000 armed people displaying seditious posters. The defendants pleaded not guilty.

Sun 6th Feb 1820 Extraordinary

The Common Council of London has resolved that the Manchester riots resulted from the magistrates calling in the army with no or inadequate warning to the assembly and at a time when the proceedings continued peacefully. The cavalry charge is said to have caused the death of many people by trampling or sabre cuts. They have petitioned the Regent for an inquiry and the punishment of any persons thought to have acted improperly.

A majority of the Aldermen thought it inappropriate to censure magistrates as they are people in authority and the Council had relied entirely on news reports of the events complained of. The commoners noted that the Regent had given public thanks to the magistrates three days after the event whereas the Council had waited 20 days to take a mature view of the matter. The vote in favour of the London petition was 71 / 45.

Meanwhile the printing press used to print Sherwin’s Register which contained Carlyle’s exciting account of the affair has been identified as Wroe’s Press. The proprietor has absconded but his workers are under arrest. This Press is described in government documents as ‘the grand market of seditious publications.’ Wroe’s workers are under threat of prosecution for sedition and are assisting the authorities.

A committee has been appointed at Liverpool to enquire into the Manchester affair and has sent a solicitor to Manchester to gather evidence.

A group calling itself ‘the Friends of Reform’ at Bury St Edmonds has started a collection for the Manchester defendants and to finance an investigation into the merits of the government case against them.

Sat 12th Feb 1820

Manchester, 20th August – the prosecutor at New Bailey says he has new evidence and has charged the eleven Manchester defendants with High Treason. It is a capital offence with a slow and complex means of killing. Henry Hunt was quite assured but the other defendants, particularly the woman Elizabeth Gaunt, were visibly anxious. Hunt complained it was more noisy in the courtroom than at the demonstration.

The Manchester Chronicle has published a list of people killed and injured. Some had been shot, others had fractured limbs and ribs, rather few have sabre wounds. One patient is R Campbell, a special constable, who was beaten-up by the mob and is in critical condition. Forty people were treated and discharged. The Manchester Observer says 5-6 people died immediately and a similar number succumbed to their injuries soon after. Three hundred were more or less injured. The Observer makes a general supposition that blood was spilled unnecessarily.

The democrats have recalled and published the act of Lord Chief Justice Holt in about 1710. He was in office when a riot occurred in Holborn. Word was sent to Whitehall and a regiment of guards was sent to restore order but the commander had the prudence to send an officer to Holt to advise what he had been ordered to do and obtain a Posse Comitatus. Holt asked the officer ‘if the people do not disperse, what will you do?’ and got the reply ‘we have orders to fire upon them’. Holt then gave the officer notice that if one rioter was shot, and the soldiers appeared before him, ‘you and every one of the responsible soldiers will be hanged’ and he declined to send any judicial officer to accompany the troops. He took the view that the Laws of England were not to be executed by the sword but by the civil power.

The democrat Sir Francis Burdett has adopted Nelson’s famous signal to the movement for reform – ‘England expects every man to do his duty’. It has popular resonance.

The Manchester case is seen as a challenge to Prime Minister Sidmouth specifically and the ministry generally which latter, when the case eventually came on for trial, caused the Treason charges to be withdrawn and substituted for an offence of ‘trying to change the law by force’. Hunt said he wanted justice. The defendants were committed to Lancaster Castle until the Assize.

Sat 12th Feb 1820

This whole edition is full of similar reports of social disorder.

Sat 19th Feb 1820

We have received English newspapers to 4th October and the discontent in the country has spread to Scotland. Riots have occurred at Paisley and Glasgow, both manufacturing towns with large populations of unemployed. Further meetings have occurred in Leeds and many other towns. Parliament has been prorogued to November and will probably not reconvene until January.

In spite of many mercantile failures and widespread unemployment, the funds remain stable with 3% consols at 70 and Omnium at 1½ discount.

The value of owning a newspaper has increased and proprietors have found they possess one of few investments that benefit from hard times. Perry, who owns the London Morning Chronicle, has offered to sell for £100,000.

The ministry believes it has found a way to resolve its problems. Ireland, which is and has long been at least as impoverished as the British manufacturing towns, has no assemblies or protests at all. There is a history of violent suppression in the country which influences some people, but the main reason appears to be the lack of a Poor Law – there is no safety net to fall on in Ireland.

The ministry is persuaded that if people are required to expend all their energy in subsistence, they will not protest.[66] It should be said that there is a slight difference between Ireland and England that may also contribute to its more peaceful aspect – the franchise is more extensive there than in England.

Sat 19th Feb 1820

The Lord Mayor of London, John Atkins, has told the Common Council that dissidents intend to burn down the City. John Stocks of the Needlemakers Company riposted that the Mayor seeks to frighten everyone. Stocks wants Atkins to explain himself and has requested the Aldermen to issue a summons ordering the Mayor to attend the Council, reveal his evidence and explain why he has done nothing about his information other than to inform the Council members. The Aldermen disclaimed jurisdiction over the Mayor and asked Stocks to approach the Mayor himself.

Stocks was not to be stopped. He thinks the Mayor has no evidence of a plot but he did recall that Atkins wants a knighthood. He thinks the Mayor is promoting a scheme of Prime Minister Sidmouth who has a long history of deception. It was sufficiently plausible for the Aldermen to approve Stocks bringing the matter before the Common Council.

Sat 11th March 1820

Parliament was recalled on 23rd November 1819. The ministry wants to increase the establishment of the army by about 10,000 to deal with civil unrest. The plan is to restore the Chelsea pensioners to full pay and put them, under half-pay officers, on garrison duty throughout the country. This will free a similar number of younger troops from the garrisons for active duty against the democrats.

Earl FitzWilliam, who has been sympathetic to the popular cause, has been dismissed as Lord Lieutenant of the West Riding (of Yorkshire).

These two measures indicate the direction of future ministerial policy towards the people. Lord Liverpool’s group has gone along with the plan in return for progress on Catholic emancipation. It is supposed that Sidmouth will be sacrificed to appease the reformers.

Sat 25th March 1820

Henry Hunt attended the Court of King’s Bench on 8th November to apply for a criminal Information against the Manchester magistrates. The Judge was opposed to the application from the outset and held that both the law and the practice directions denied the right of private individuals to move for criminal Informations. They are all at the suit of the King and can only be moved for by King’s Counsel.

Sat 8th April 1820

Henry Hunt wants to institute a prosecution of the Manchester magistrates but the Lord Chief Justice is not in agreement. Hunt regularly attends the Court but has been ignored and delayed. Eventually he insisted on a hearing.

He says he has a precedent in the prosecution Pitt instituted against Huskisson that Ellenborough approved whilst Lord Chief Justice.

The Chief Justice said he thought that decision of Ellenborough’s was wrong. Justice Best said anyone presenting a criminal case in the Courts of England was an advocate of the King – members of the public cannot do it. They are effectively imposing themselves on the King and requiring him to prosecute one of his subjects.

Hunt said ministerial influence on the Bar ensured no member would prosecute this case. He returned a few days later and requested leave to institute a civil proceeding against the Attorney General. He wished the court to direct the Attorney General to investigate the acts of the Manchester magistrates. He had a letter from the Attorney General refusing to do so. The court asked if he sought a Writ of Mandamus, which he denied.

The court suggested he approach every member of the Bar, and if they all refused to take the case, the Court might assign Counsel to consider it.

Sat 22nd April 1820

The new parliament is hurrying through legislation to regain control of the country. A new onerous Bill for punishment of blasphemous or seditious libels is enacted to facilitate easier prosecutions in cases like Carlyle’s (he eventually got 3 years and a £1,500 fine).[67] All premises in the Midland and Northern counties are opened for searches for arms without a warrant; other counties may do so on application to their Quarter or General Sessions. Training and military exercises by civilians is made an offence – culprits transportable for 7 years.

Another Bill seeks to deem as seditious all meetings of more than a stated number of people, but this is still being debated as it has many other restrictions. Magistrates and all types of constable are to be indemnified for killing citizens in the course of their duty.

An increased Stamp Duty on political newspapers has been enacted. The Suspension of Habeas Corpus is again anticipated and a censorship of the Press is commended by some ministers.

Motions by Lansdowne in the House of Lords and Althorp in the House of Commons for a Select Committee to consider the state of the country were rejected by large majorities. The Regent, in his address opening parliament, referred to the seditious spirit of the people who attempt to change the political institutions of the country in opposition to the Constitution. Property must be protected and he wants parliament to act – its a crackdown.

Brougham ridiculed Castlereagh’s efforts – he has not indicated whether meetings indoors are allowed; assemblies for literary, charitable or religious purposes are caught, etc.

Baron Rancliffe, MP for Nottingham, said it was all unconstitutional.

Sat 6th May 1820

Sidmouth has written to all the Lords Lieutenant of the Northern counties on 12th December requiring them to impress upon their magistrates the need to enforce the new restrictive laws with ‘active vigilance.’

The leaders of the unemployed have called-off planned meetings and army patrols have not been required to take action.

The inmates of prisons in the manufacturing districts have been moved to Renfrew to make room for a new intake.

The Reverend Harrison of Stockport has been arrested. Some constables, who infiltrated his congregation, noted seditious words in a sermon.

Sat 6th May 1820

John Cam Hobhouse MP has been arrested on a warrant of the Speaker for libel of the Legislature. It was published by Robert Stoddart who is now assisting the Speaker in his enquiries. Hobhouse was taken at a friend’s house in Spring Gardens. It is a re-run of the arrest of Sir Francis Burdett and appears similarly illegal. A messenger of the House of Commons was specially elevated to Sergeant-at-Arms to effect the arrest.

Hobhouse said the ex parte hearing that condemned him and the warrant were both illegal. He is imprisoned in Newgate.

Sat 27th May 1820

Grenville has compared the state of the country in 1794 (when the great state trials, executions and banishments occurred) with the present. He says English society is like the French before the Revolution – the government ignoring Petitions and suppressing popular meetings violently, thus tending to force dissenters to respond violently. He thinks we create our own problem. Pitt and Fox and Sir George Savile had all commended parliamentary reform for four decades but nothing has come of it.

We have just seen Sir Manasseh Masseh Lopes convicted of bribery in connection with sale of seats in this House.[68] He is imprisoned and fined. The Judge said in his summing-up that ‘whilst seats in parliament were available for purchase, buyers will indubitably seek to make a profit on the investment.’ The fact is that many representatives are here for the money and the concerns of the electorate are hardly noticed.

Sat 3rd June 1820

The British ministry’s newspaper, The Courier of 24th February, reports a despicable attempt to assassinate the entire ministry. The ministers were to dine at Lord Harrowby’s house which is situated close to open fields permitting its approach by the assassins undetected. The ministry already had intimation of the plot from its spies and the finger of suspicion had pointed to Arthur Thistlewood and some of his friends. The attempt was to be made yesterday (23rd February).

The conspirators assembled in Cato Street in one of the poor districts that the magistrates seldom visit. Police reported them arriving in twos and threes. On the previous day the police had seen them delivering bags of equipment. The staircase to the assembly room was so narrow only one person could pass it at a time. The conspirators placed a guard at the foot of the stairs. At 8 pm the magistrate Birnie, armed with a warrant and supported by 12 officers, arrested the staircase guard. A detachment of troops under Captain FitzClarence, the adopted son of the Royal Duke of Clarence, was in attendance. The police then burst-in discovering 25-30 people loading firearms. Thistlewood killed a policeman with his sword and the other policemen opened fire. The lights went out and firing continued in the dark. Several of the conspirators escaped by a window onto a flat roof.

Then FitzClarence and his men arrived, the house was surrounded and the assassins rounded-up. Nine well-known radicals, all artisans, were arrested. They have often been seen in the company of Watson and Henry Hunt (the reputable front of the dissident movement – he is a Wiltshire land owner). Sidmouth co-ordinated the operation from his office and did not attend the ministerial dinner.

The Courier says the plot required Thistlewood to appear at Harrowby’s house as a King’s Messenger, deliver a despatch and await an answer. Having gained access by this ruse, he was to let some accomplices in whilst others threw grenades through the dining room windows. Thistlewood escaped Sidmouth’s raid and a £1,000 reward was offered for his capture. He was captured in bed in Wood Street by policemen. All the local people turned out as he was driven away shouting ‘hang him’ and ‘that villain’. The prisoners are being examined by ministers. They are all charged with High Treason – some are committed to the Tower, others to Coldbath Fields.

The Courier says it was the incautious way of sending arms to Cato Street that was the means whereby the police discovered the plot, but it is more plausibly rumoured that one conspirator revealed the plan to Harrowby for reward.

Several were found guilty. The Lord Chief Justice Abbot said they planned to kill fourteen ministers who were unknown to them. As such, the victims could not have caused them offence, he averred. He sentenced five to hanging, beheading and quartering. Five others who had changed their plea to Guilty were transported for life and another who had pleaded Guilty was not sentenced.

Alderman Wood tried to interview the condemned men but Sidmouth has ordered they be permitted to see no-one except a clergyman. Wood was annoyed as Newgate is within the City, his constituency, and he particularly wants to ascertain the role played by George Edwards, a known police spy.

The ministry intends a joint public execution and the City Surveyor is required to construct a new and more extensive gallows outside the Debtors’ Gate of Newgate. A large audience is expected. The cost of a good view is 3 guineas but a seat not too distant from the scaffold can be had for 2/6d. People started turning-up after 4 am and by 6 am about 700 had assembled. A detachment of infantry was marched into nearby buildings in case of need but kept out-of-sight. Troops of Horse Guards were placed across each end of Old Bailey.

Davidson was saved for Christ during the night. The Reverend Cotton was able to induce his sincere and unbounded repentance. The other defendants were intransigent. The condemned men asked to take their last meal at 6 am together but the gaoler was apprised of their intention to consult on their last words on the scaffold and refused it. They were then marched out to the execution place.

Alderman Wood was there and convinced the Sheriffs to permit him to question Thistlewood who confirmed he had met Edwards at Preston’s house and had received a few Pounds from him. Wood is pursuing a suspicion that Sidmouth encouraged the conspiracy using Edwards who is the source of the arms and originally proposed the crime.

The convicts’ wrist and ankle shackles were then knocked-off but it was thought prudent to tie their arms again. As they shuffled out of the gate and came in sight of the scaffold, and the executioner testing his devices, they raised a feeble cry of ‘liberty or death’. Davidson was late out – he was engaged in continual prayer and seemed to expect divine intervention. Meanwhile the executioner completed his tests and assisted in bringing out the coffins and a large block of wood, for the beheadings. Thistlewood refused the cap which the executioner tried to draw down over his face. This earned a cheer from the crowd. Ing also refused it and said ‘I die an enemy of all tyrants’ but the crowd did not hear it. The caps were then pulled down over all the men’s faces. The trapdoors were opened and they all died without a struggle except Ings who was a trifle convulsed. Some calls from the crowd impugned Monument, another informer who had infiltrated the group, and there were cries of ‘murder’.

Exactly 30 minutes after hanging, they were cut down, placed face-up in each coffin with their heads overhanging the end. A new person then arrived in a mask. He used a surgical knife to sever the heads – it was a dexterous and skilful performance. The axe was not employed. The man is reportedly a surgeon and performed the same service at Despard’s execution. He received 20 guineas in fees on this occasion. He required three scalpels to sever five heads. The King had already remitted the sentence of quartering. The five wives petitioned Sidmouth for return of the bodies (they are at the King’s disposal) but were refused. Meanwhile the wives of the banished men sought for a last meeting with their husbands but were told they had already gone.

Sat 23rd Sept 1820

The result of the last election has hardly changed the complexion of the House of Commons. The numbers of opposition MPs is unchanged. The table of the House of Commons is groaning under the deluge of Petitions. Agricultural, commercial and industrial interests are all disappointed in the state of the country and beg for relief.

Sat 30th Sept 1820

Alderman Wood has continued his enquiry into the role that Sidmouth’s spy played in the Cato Street conspiracy. It appears George Edwards was permitted to escape although a true Bill of Treason has since been found against him by a Grand Jury in Middlesex. Wood relies on Sidmouth’s Proclamation that all people assisting traitors are likewise guilty of Treason as Principals. It appears to be settled law in England. He suspects Sidmouth assisted Edwards.

Edwards played an important provocative role in the conspiracy. However he sought to promote a conspiracy to kill the King whilst the real conspirators only wanted to kill the ministers. Edwards provided the money to procure the arms that were essential to the success of the plot. There can be no doubt that the whole gang planned to create mayhem but Wood wants to know why Edwards was not produced as a witness in Court. Sidmouth said on 26th April that he would be a witness and that was why he had not been charged with the rest. Wood asked him to ensure Edwards did not leave the country and Sidmouth replied on 3rd May that he lacked the powers to detain him. Wood replied 4th May that he has already given Sidmouth the evidence to detain Edwards. Sidmouth replied the same day refusing to arrest the man. Edwards was then sent to America, days before the true Bill was found against him.

It is supposed that Edwards was the man who alerted Lord Harrowby to the intended assassinations but Harrowby swore to the Judge he knew nothing of the matter or of the identity of the informant who warned him. He is President of the Privy Council but superficially appears to have remained ignorant of what Sidmouth was doing.

The main thing is that a group of dissidents have really conspired to commit Treason and have been tried and convicted and executed in a magnificent spectacle that should cow the liberals for years. It is most unlikely that the magistrates will diligently pursue their duty in discovering Edwards and bring him to Court as their employment is in the gift of the ministry. It really is a tremendous coup for Sidmouth who now only needs to assure himself of Edwards’ silence.

Sat 30th Sept 1820

Alderman Wood MP has asked the Commons for a Secret Committee to investigate the activities of Edwards and his colleagues over the last two years. He believes that Edwards bought the arms and ammunition and directed the Cato Street plot. He rented the premises in Davis Street that were used by the conspirators. He waited until the £1,000 reward was published before leading the magistrates to the place wherein he had housed Thistlewood for refuge and where they arrested the conspirators. Wood referred to Watt’s case at Edinburgh many years previously in which Watt had given money (obtained from Dundas) and other assistance to some conspirators to procure their acts against the government and the dissidents had been hanged for it.

Alderman Wood is the man who previously indicted three government spies for fomenting crime in anticipation of reward (the Brock case). He knows Edwards comes from Windsor and is a protégé of Colonel Taylor of the Guards, the man appointed to read King George III’s dispatches in 1805 after His Majesty’s sight failed. It appeared from his own enquiries that all the conspirators had been motivated and directed towards the crime by Edwards. For six weeks after payment of the reward, Edwards lived the high life in a rented apartment at Buckingham Gate using the name Walls. During that time the Sheriffs wished to interview him and he told the landlord, should anyone come looking for Edwards, it was him they sought for.

The Attorney General said government had relied on Edwards’ information but had not employed him. He was merely the means whereby they had defeated a horrible conspiracy.

Burdett said the evidence of all the conspirators established that Edwards was the guiding hand. Why should the ministry be reluctant to investigate. Spies are only employed by the most odious and tyrannical governments. Their use in suppressing the discontent of the people reveals something is wrong in the government.

Canning ridiculed Wood – half these defendants admitted their crime and the other half were found guilty after a careful hearing. They did it and did not try to take procedural points in their defence.

Brougham did not defend the system of employing spies and informers but thought it was pressed upon government by the exigencies of the times.

Wood offered to withdraw his motion and substitute a legal proceeding through the Courts if the Attorney General would undertake not to frustrate it. The gallery was cleared, supposedly for a division, and the reporters left. It transpired that no division took place and, after some further unreported discussion, Wood’s motion was negatived.

Sat 30th Sept 1820

Wood returned to the fray on 16th May by endeavouring to portray the use of spies as a breach of privilege. As a City magistrate he had taken depositions from seven witnesses. From these it appeared that in 1819 Edwards had gone from pub to pub inviting patrons to join him in a plot against the government. He proposed to select 6-8 men to enter the House of Commons and attack the membership. They could enter carrying books which the sentries would permit into the chamber. These books were to contain iron pipes filled with gunpowder to be thrown into the body of the House during full attendance. At that time Edwards could hardly pay for his beer but he soon revealed greater financial ability.

The man Edwards selected to lead the plot was Thistlewood who was due for release from Horsham Gaol at about that time. Wood told the deponents to take their story to Sidmouth, who had jurisdiction in the City, and ask for a Warrant. Sidmouth declined to see the witnesses and they left their depositions in his office. Wood then moved that Edwards be brought to the bar of the House to answer the allegations.

Bathurst said the grounds for the breach of privilege were improper. It was a criminal allegation and should be made in the usual way. Wood said he could get no action from the magistrates or Courts.

Brougham said spies always exaggerate. Edwards was employed by government but so long as people like Thistlewood existed it was right that government should employ spies.

Canning then asked Wood to withdraw his motion which he did.

Sat 3rd June 1820

Sir Francis Burdett MP is on trial at Leicester Assizes (eleven of his twelve Jurors are JPs in the pay of the ministry). The AG has filed an Information against him for Seditious Libel contained in a letter Burdett wrote to his constituents about the Manchester riots.

Sir Charles Wolseley and others are on trial at Warwick (Birmingham residents elected Wolseley to represent them by giving him their individual Powers of Attorney thus threatening the minister’s power); other dissenters are appearing at Birmingham and Henry (Orator) Hunt and the group arrested at Manchester are being tried at Lancaster.

If Sir Charles Wolseley survives the Warwick proceedings he will be tried again at Chester for sedition at Stockport. That charge alleges he sought to foment insurrection in the Realm, a capital offence.

Sat 29th July 1820

John Cam Hobhouse has been feted and dined on his release from prison. He says the Romans, Danes and Normans invaded and occupied our country but they discovered they could not overcome the institutions of freedom they found here. The toast was ‘the people, the only free source of legitimate power.’

Some appropriate songs were sung – ‘kick the rogues out’, ‘Britons strike home’ and ‘rule Britannia’. The eaves-droppers, spies and characterless masters of corruption (that’s the ministry and its friends) had acted unconstitutionally and prevented his access to the Courts but, whilst the Judiciary was unable to act, the people had spontaneously given their verdict.

Hobhouse said there is an old legal maxim – there is no wrong without a remedy – and his case lucidly demonstrated that there was nothing for the people to fear.

He predicted that the current attempt to force the people of the north into submission would fail – we merely have to guard against the frauds of the power-holders, he said.

The ministry has put into the King’s mouth (in his Address to parliament) a verdict against the Manchester defendants who are yet to be tried. Those defendants are on trial for their lives. The ministerial faction has combined with the Royal Family into one immense centre of patronage and authority controlling the church, the armed forces and the political institutions of England. How can the defendants receive fair judgment when all authority is arrayed against them?

We have shown the ministry that force will not avail them. We now have to take care that we are not misled, by deception and guile, into surrendering our ancient and most valuable rights. I will not be considered as the impartial chronicler of the late parliament. We have had bad parliaments before and bad ministers who sought to diminish those rights we obtained in 1688. As Sir Francis Burdett has said ‘we must take care to control the borough-mongering oligarchy’. In the last weeks of that last parliament, the freedom of the press was threatened, the right to carry arms in our defence was diminished and the right to speak openly and freely had been curtailed by a ubiquitous army of spies. The most extraordinary aspect of the times is that good honest men have been deluded into supporting the system.

Sat 12th Aug 1820

Wolseley, Burdett and Hunt have been tried and convicted.

Sat 16th Sept 1820

In the prosecution of Sir Charles Wolseley, 7th Baronet Wolseley, at the Lent Assizes in Chester, the newspaper called Wheeler’s Manchester Chronicle was described as ‘a ministerial paper’. One of its reporters, Jeremiah Garnett, was a defence witness. Another paper, Wardell’s Manchester Observer, was not so described.

The evidence revealed the prosecution case. Wolseley had said it was useless to Petition the Crown because Sidmouth would not forward petitions and they could not be given to the Regent directly.

All the dissenters (Wolseley, Burdett, Hunt) were found guilty and sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment.

Hunt got 2½ years and fled to Paris to avoid it.

Sat 14th Oct 1820

London, 24th April – the Attorney General has addressed the Court of King’s Bench concerning the recent Treason trial. The Court, in the person of Lord Chief Justice Abbott, had directed the Press to make no publication of the proceedings until they are completed.

The Observer, a Sunday paper of 169 The Strand, published a complete account of Thistlewood’s trial and a précis of Ings trial notwithstanding that the publisher was on notice of judicial wishes. The publisher’s knowledge of the judicial prohibition is established because he had published it as well.

He is William Innell Clement and he commenced business as publisher of The Observer in 1816. During the week previous to the objected publication, Clement obtained 40,000 stamps from the Stamp Office (each newspaper sold is an individual contempt of court). The Judges called Clement to explain himself but he did not appear. The Judges discussed together and concluded the publisher had endeavoured to obstruct the course of justice. The Courts wish Jurors to attend with their minds free of information about previous trials.

In the Treason trial, the defence had required prosecution witnesses to be examined separately so they could not easily conspire. The Observer’s publication was said to have defeated that admirable precaution.

All the other newspapers had complied with the Court’s wishes. Why not Clements? If he had been present he would certainly be imprisoned. As he is not, he is fined £500 summarily and ex parte.

Sat 18th Nov 1820

House of Commons, 1st June – There are about 25,000 foreigners in Britain and Castlereagh wishes to renew the Aliens Act. He is concerned foreigners might come here and use London as a base to disturb tranquillity on the continent. He says it is also a preventive measure. So long as foreign trouble-makers know the ministry has the power of deportation, they will not come.

Under the Act, every arriving alien must be immediately placed under police supervision; he must report to the Aliens Office at Westminster within a week of arrival or face a month’s imprisonment; he must reside at his registered address and may not remove without government permission. It duplicates the wartime provision. After peace was restored, aliens were allowed to come. They merely gave their personal details to the police.

Castlereagh said that during the last two years the country had witnessed cases of Treason. Internal security had deteriorated. There are riots of students in Vienna, riots in Paris, a Brussels newspaper had to be closed for inciting rebellion. The state of Britain and the continent is unsettled and the renewal of wartime legislative powers is desirable. Ministers are solely concerned for public safety, he said. The power to remove aliens without declaring reasons should be available to government.

Sir Robert Wilson said Castlereagh had pledged to the other signatories of the Treaty of Vienna to prevent subversion of continental governments by people in Britain. Last session there was a move to abolish the Act but it was dropped when it appeared the ministry would do so voluntarily. In fact all continental governments point to our Aliens Act as the British part of a continent-wide effort to restrain dissent. The Dutch no longer permit their nationals to come to England without first getting a passport from the Foreign Secretary which costs £2.6.0d. They are unwilling to pay the fare and not be welcomed on arrival. Wilson was concerned that putting 25,000 people under close control would likely lead to cases of injustice. He noted that Magna Carta expressly allows foreigners free access and egress from these islands.

He said that in fact the sanctuary that England had historically offered to Europeans has already been provided by Spain which is where all the dissidents now live since the renewal of the liberal Constitution in that country (see the Iberia chapter). The Aliens Act is not a suitable piece of legislation for a supposedly free country.

The Solicitor General said the provision in Magna Carta was solely to encourage European merchants to come here for trade. They had formerly been restricted.

Sir James Mackintosh agreed it was reasonable for a country’s government to have the right to remove people it found undesirable but this Act goes further – it specifies where they are to be sent instead of leaving it to individual choice. We will be sending people to countries they have chosen to leave. The Act is clearly a part of a pan-European attempt to stifle dissent. Who knows what might happen to them on their return to their homes.

Castlereagh’s motion was nevertheless approved 149 / 68

Sat 25th Nov 1820

The renewed Aliens Act has been passed by the House of Commons.

Sat 6th Jan 1821

Stirling, Scotland, 6th July – A Treason trial is commencing here. The ministry’s case is being argued by London barristers but none could be found to represent the defendants who will retain Scottish barristers. They all pleaded ‘not guilty’ and were returned to prison. The trial date will be fixed later.

Sat 27th Jan 1821

The Treason trial at Stirling has produced 22 convictions and they are all sentenced to death but twenty have recommendations of the Jury for mercy.[69]

Sun 10th June 1821 Extraordinary

Sir Francis Burdett has been sentenced at last to 3 months imprisonment and fined £2,000 for his libel. He had expected 1-2 years. He has the same cell that Lord Cochrane occupied.[70]

Sat 10th Nov 1821

Ministerial involvement in an attempt to control the press has been detected. The Loyal Constitutional Association (LCA) was established surreptitiously by government to prosecute sedition on its behalf. Prosecutions originating from a supposedly popular society were thought likely to be better received by the Judiciary. The Association’s Honorary Secretary and Solicitor is Charles Murray and he launches the prosecutions.

Edward King, a Chancery Lane bookseller, has written to The Times. On 6th May he was approached in his shop by a youth asking for a copy of the Political Dictionary. King did not stock it but agreed to obtain a copy later and gave it to the lad that afternoon. Later King’s wife said the boy collected the copy and asked for another. She also told him they did not keep a stock of that title and he left.

King soon learned that the LCA had applied for an Indictment against him for selling the Political Dictionary. He inspected the Indictment. On the back was the name of the only witness in the case – Horatio Orton. He went to the office of the LCA in Bridge Street and found Horatio Orton was a clerk in the office and he recognised him as the man who had solicited and bought the copy of the Political Dictionary.

King accordingly classified his prosecution in the same category as several recent ministerial prosecutions for political libel.

Several similar Indictments came before the Middlesex Grand Jury and were all dismissed without hearing.

The LCA appears overtly reputable – for example, the Duke of Wellington is a member and he is currently a cabinet member.

Sat 15th June 1822

House of Commons, 11th February – Sir Francis Burdett and Hobhouse have proposed and seconded a motion requesting that the House urgently debate its own reform.

Burdett said the Civil List since 1818 had averaged £27 millions a year whereas in 1792 it had been £10 millions of which £3 millions had been management charges. Castlereagh said he was looking forward to discussing reform but the affairs of Ireland were more urgent. Burdett’s motion failed 58 / 186

Sat 13th July 1822

House of Commons, 5th February – The Habeas Corpus Act Suspension Bill was continued today. The gallery was cleared and no reporters were permitted to be present during the debate or vote.

Sat 24th Aug 1822

It appears the ministry has lost the co-operation of the Judiciary that it enjoyed under Ellenborough and a brief period thereafter. Many of the recent sedition prosecutions have failed as have some of the libel cases.

Now a series of prosecutions of Londoners for confronting the soldiery at Hyde Park and elsewhere during the funeral of Queen Caroline and for a fortnight afterwards, are being thrown-out too.[71]

There is a widely-held popular wish to end the garrisons throughout the country and shrink the army to its pre-war size.

Sat 2nd Nov 1822

London newspapers – Ministerial weakness is as apparent in England as anywhere. The House recently voted not to enquire into the state of Ireland. The decision was won by the minister 108 / 60 solely due to the influence of the King on his friends in that House.

The 2nd reading of the Aliens Bill in House of Commons was similarly approved 109 / 75 in spite of the patriotic appeal of Sir James Mackintosh. The House of Commons is the only place in the entire Kingdom that does not agree with Mackintosh’s analysis.

The voters of Westminster have heard from their two representatives, Sir Francis Burdett and Lord John Russell, on the state of the country. Those gentlemen trace dissatisfaction to two principal causes – the corruption of parliament and the use of special juries to obtain convictions. They trace popular satisfaction likewise to two causes – freedom of the press and trial by jury.

Mde de Stael wrote in 1816 of her astonishment that British MPs are paid by the minister for their votes. Soon afterwards Castlereagh was convicted of bartering seats and got promoted. The trouble is the Constitution is like Harlequin’s horse:

Thus Harlequin extolled his horse,
Good for field and road and course,
One fault alone he had, its said,
And what was that? – the horse is dead.


Tues 16th Sept 1823 Extraordinary

Lord John Russell’s motion for parliamentary reform was lost at end April 280 / 169 but the vote indicates the cause is gaining ground.

Vol 13 No 25 – 23rd June 1840

The Queen’s Speech on opening parliament (extract):

I regret the commercial embarrassments in England and elsewhere that have so distressed our manufacturing districts. The spirit of insubordination amongst some workers broke out into violence and force was required to suppress it.

I rely on the law, on your loyalty and wisdom and on the good sense of the people for the maintenance of order and the protection of property.

Vol 14 No 50 – 14th December 1841

Queen’s Speech – extract:

She hopes her Commons will enact means to relieve the distress of widespread unemployment (i.e. repeal the Corn Laws).

Peel is the new PM and Aberdeen the Foreign Secretary. The government fell in August over the Corn Laws – they increase fluctuations in supply, cause embarrassments to trade, derange the currency and produce hardship for the people.

Friend of China, 21stApril 1842:

A hundred people (the maximum allowed in the public gallery) marched to the Commons on 10th February to the cry “give us bread and labour” to object the lack of both.

They listened to Robert Peel’s speech then adjourned to Brown’s Coffee Shop where it was agreed:

“the government measures just announced held no prospect of relief for the people and insulted their patience and suffering. The proposals indicate the landed aristocracy have no sympathy for the poor and their selfishness will destroy the country.”

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. The Special Jury was sufficiently partisan to not require to hear the Prosecutor after Thomas Erskine’s case for the Defence. Paine remained in France as a legislator and wisely did not attend the proceedings.
  2. This is also the basis to Burke’s view in his book on the French Revolution – natural rights are compromised on entering society and replaced by legislative permit. It appears to be the basis to judicial approval of inequality in the British social contract.
  3. Pitt had the King require parliament to search out the authors, printers and distributors of ‘seditious writings’ (undefined but deemed to be those promoting Republicanism or democracy) and ‘enforce submission to the law’. This caught both reformers and levellers. Only Fox opposed it ab initio.
    A couple of weeks later in debate Charles Grey embarrassed Pitt with the recollection he (Pitt) had said in 1782 that only reform could end the corruption of the representation. By then it was too late for the Minister to resile. The King’s Proclamation was resented in France too, but on the ideological objection of denying the reasonable aspirations of the people.
  4. All three documents are essays on democracy by Thomas Paine.
  5. Pillorying left the convict’s body exposed to the stones, faeces and dead vermin that riff-raff threw. It always caused injury, occasionally death.
  6. This refers most likely to the French Declaration defining liberty as the right to do anything so long as it does not inconvenience others.
  7. They are both current cabinet members. The Duke is Master General of Ordnance. They were founder members of the ‘London Corresponding Society’ one of the oldest English reform clubs.
  8. In remembrance of the ‘gunpowder plot’, 5th Nov 1605, that was subsequently honoured as the final defeat of Catholicism as the state religion of Britain.
  9. This appears to be the formal British objection – that equality threatens the legally-regulated master / servant relationship on which employment rests.
  10. Richmond wrote to the Colonel in 1784 outlining the unrepresentative nature of the British parliament. Colonel Sharman was then leading an army of 10,000 men who had not sworn allegiance to George III and might have landed in the West Country to effect the political changes that Pitt and the 3rd Duke of Richmond wished to make in London. The reader will recall that, a century before, another group of nobles had successfully invited Willem of Orange to assume the government of Britain.
  11. Apart from the unpublished pecuniary benefits of being an MP, the job is supposed to be full-time and a failure to get re-elected means unemployment. On the other hand a great many MPs never appear in the Commons year after year e.g. the merchant bankers acting as Honorary Consuls around Europe, the army and navy officers and Wm Bentinck. They are the source of the many proxy votes the minister controls.
  12. A reference to the foreign troops in British service – mainly the King’s German Legion and the corps of émigrés and, apparently, some Austrians.
  13. The carnage of Austrian, Prussian and British troops in the Low Countries and on the Rhine has been appalling. Conscription has allowed the French to attack repeatedly. Old soldiers fighting for the allies say they have no prior experience of such prolonged and violent battles.
  14. Recalling that from the time of Magna Charta to the ministry of William Pitt in late 18th / early 19th century, the value of money was represented by gold and silver and stayed constant (apart from occasional monarchical attempts at fraud). £1,000 is about 4 lbs of gold.
  15. This Address was approved by the Strand meeting but not published until the Secret Committee of the Commons found it in the Society’s archives.
  16. See the Toulon & Corsica chapter for details of the allied occupation of Toulon.
  17. All the Petitions have been either tabled or rejected.
  18. Contained in the Bill of Rights, 1689, but restricted to Protestants.
  19. In the British system the minister acts for the King who himself can do no wrong.
  20. Not only Pitt is in Court. Fox and Sheridan are witnesses for Tooke’s defence. Erskine defends Tooke. The courtroom is an assembly of the leading men of the time.
  21. This duplicates the Chinese social contract – ‘the Emperor rules justly, the people obey; the Emperor rules unjustly, the people rebel’. There appear to be many similarities between the French philosophers’ writings and the traditional form of Chinese administration. The demise of Jeffreys is also reported to have occurred in the Tower as a result of alcoholic poisoning.
  22. Lord Eldon was ridiculed by his parliamentary colleagues for his endless address to the Court – they opined it contained all the elements necessary to establish the defendants’ innocence.
  23. Printers are closely regulated by government for the protection of the paper currency as well as to control spread of information. There is no evidence that Hardy solicited Gale’s letter or responded to it. The pikes are said to have been made by Henry Hill of Sheffield. 6’ – 7’ wooden shafts were produced by Moody at 20d a piece.
    The Bill of Rights confers a right on British Protestants to carry arms for their own defence. Its one of the few rights of citizens, the majority of them belonging to parliament. There is evidence that government spies provoked violence amongst the reformers, apparently to have a better complaint against them by getting them to arm themselves in self-defence.
  24. Three famous songs of the French Revolution.
  25. Erskine is a master of the light touch. At one point he noted that the British Convention at Edinburgh had received a 5/- donation from an admirer – ‘this surely marks their attachment to a crown’, he said.
  26. Windham’s father had a special relationship with George III which may have inured to the son.
  27. This is clearly a reference to John Scott (Lord Eldon) who had been promoted from Solicitor General to Attorney General in 1793.
  28. I had assumed this was another of the many repressive measures, mostly drafted by Eldon, that were enacted at this time but have since learned it was a traditional event at the start of each parliament to remind MPs they may debate anything.
  29. Pitt’s policies were often intended to enhance the interests of the merchants – the practical face of his question to the House ‘what is to be gained from war,’ given the King’s insistence on it. A union of France and the Netherlands threatened to open the trade of central Europe via the Scheldt to those two countries and attract the neutrals – Denmark, Sweden and America – who would then be poised to dominate European maritime trade. These developments, if not checked, would diminish British influence throughout Europe.
  30. The quaint phraseology exempting MPs from compliance with law, which appears in the preamble to the Ordinance and other repressive Acts of Parliament, is along these lines – “the ancient privileges of the Members are preserved.” Its a nice point whether a British Minister could be adequately supported without an ability to exempt. It has been well said that a law that does not apply to all is a bad law.
  31. Probably a reference to Burke’s dramatic gesture of throwing a dagger on the floor of the House which shocked all the country members into submission to the Minister and helped to shape parliamentary opinion against the people and in favour of war (see the Political Management chapter for the report). Conceivably, it might refer to Burke’s erroneous polemic against the French Revolution, but that had been ably refuted by the books of Sir James Mackintosh (Vindiciae Gallicae) and Thomas Paine.
  32. This article reveals the oligarchical value of an unwritten Constitution such as Britain is said to have. The Acts comprising it may be amended by simple majority vote.
  33. Not the massacre at the town of Tranent by the Cinque Port Dragoons which occurred at about this time, but another incident coincidentally involving a lawyer also named Tranent which I have failed to identify or elucidate.
  34. See the Peace chapter for this astonishing piece of bribery and deception.
  35. One of the 1793 sedition defendants in Edinburgh mentioned above. He was banished to Botany Bay but later escaped to America and thence to Paris. The practice of prosecuting democrats was an important means of popular suppression throughout the war. Once overt sedition and treason had been controlled, the oligarchy dealt with published criticism by prosecutions for libel by the Attorney General acting ex officio on Information. This form of prosecution gave control of Jury selection to the Crown and ensured a more certain result.
  36. The Judge seems unaware that legislators are exempted from the exercise of many of the Constitutional derogations that Pitt had forced through parliament – it is part of the price of their parliamentary support.
  37. Fox was anathema to George III at least since the spat in 1773. The latest monarchical jest has been to remove Fox from the Privy Council reciting the laughable wordings of Fox’s exclusion from North’s cabinet (“I don’t find your name on the list”) when he turned-up for a meeting – see the Political Management chapter for further reporting. This was to punish Fox as well as Norfolk.
    It must have irritated Fox who always saw government as a responsibility of parliament, the sort of duty a man might owe to his servants. The King contrarily and primarily saw British citizenship as a boon which entailed a duty on the citizen to do as he was told. He was a religious King with a great affection for the soil and the orderliness of nature and it seems he may have believed in his Divine Right. It was the religious clauses in the Coronation Oath that underlay the King’s constant opposition to Catholic Ireland
  38. A means whereby a citizen may receive protection from oppression, specifically the predilection of ministries at this time to employ the army to enforce domestic law.
  39. City support for political change has increased since the loss of the Baltic convoy of 700 ships – see the Economy chapter.
  40. The Defendants were acquitted and published a book “The Case of Libel, Rex v John Lambert et al” on the proceedings later in 1810. It is still being reprinted today.
  41. The newspaper report goes on for pages. The difficulty is that none of the lawyers know much about Speaker’s Warrants. The force and jurisdiction of the Writ has puzzled the Sergeant-at-Arms, the Speaker, the Bow Street magistrates, the Attorney General and the entire Cabinet.
  42. See the Political Management chapter for sale of seats in the Commons
  43. The City has conducted its own investigation into the two killings and concluded that both were due to shots from the rear-guard of the cavalry as they withdrew. The shots were fired under provocation of stone- and mud-throwing by the crowd.
  44. And a member of the Irish Directory provisionally appointed in Paris, see the Europe chapter.
  45. The Defendants are commonly imprisoned before and after sentencing far from their homes and friends to deter visits. Timings of hearing and sentencing are under the AG’s control.
  46. An apparently common occurrence of the times.
  47. It turns out to have been a recital of the third part of Paine’s Age of Reason.
  48. The Chancellor was Perceval until end March. Vansittart was appointed mid May. This outburst sounds like Perceval.
  49. The unemployment and distress in the manufacturing districts is genuine but the mill and factory owners assert some of their fellow proprietors are employing laid-off workers to eliminate competitors in expectation of improved business.
  50. The government majority has greatly declined since the commencement of the Regency due to alienation of country members, forced on them by constituents.
  51. George IV was an unfortunate man. His father denied him access to all employment that might have allowed him to build a following and thus have a political dimension. After George III’s final sickness the ministerial intention, effected by Castlereagh, was to diminish monarchy to a thoroughly controllable level. The efforts of father and Minister funnelled George IV into architecture and similar apolitical interests and gave rise to the frustration that characterised his entire life. That seems to have manifested in personal excess and was repeatedly captured by a couple of cartoonists whose work underlays his present laughable reputation.
  52. The twenty plus years of War with France was popularly known as the Great War until the 1914 – 18 war with Germany, which then became known to that generation as the Great War.
  53. Castlereagh’s ‘off-the-cuff’ foreign policy required Norway be given to Sweden. The Royal Navy blockaded Norwegian ports to starve the people into submission. Ultimately the country’s leaders submitted but made Protests on all the documents..
  54. A frightful admission given the way the British Constitution is supposed to work. Petitioning parliament is the only means available to citizens to remedy grievances between elections.
  55. Twenty of the convicts had their capital sentences remitted to banishment. They were sent to Australia. Brandreth was hanged. Marjie Bloy’s fine site – http://www.historyhome.co.uk/ has details and a picture of the execution.
  56. The London press, which felt it had been manipulated, announced the verdict as a vindication of ‘a free press makes for a free people’. A second charge against Hone for libelling the Litany was dismissed later. These trials become a cause celebre in London and Lord Ellenborough’s reputation was damaged. He directed the Jury in the second case to find Hone guilty and they acquitted him. Ellenborough is a learned and capable jurist but has permitted his support for the ministry, and the influence of that peer group, to pervert his thinking. A third charge of libel over ‘the sinecurist’s Creed’ is heard last. All three prosecutions are effectively one prosecution – libelling the Anglican Church – but the AG is instructed to nail Hone and took three shots. The AG objected to a couple of Jurors. He is not obliged to give reasons. Hone spoke in his own defence for 7½ hours. Ellenborough came to try the case himself. The Jury again found Hone Not Guilty. The crowd was ecstatic.
    A fascinating aspect in this prosecution was the Attorney General’s exposition of a legal requirement for Christian morality in English Criminal Law.
  57. Sending dissenters to remote gaols, both to await trial and after conviction, is a feature of this period.
  58. I was unable to find a record of the 1786 case. Brock, Pelham and Power were policemen who framed Irishmen for coining. They were pardoned. Their victims were released and compensated by public subscription. The teenagers Spicer and Kelly were sentenced to death for passing forged bank notes made at the direction of Finney, a police runner, in prospect of arresting them for the available reward.
  59. An assignable certificate given to the AG on his successful prosecution of a felony. It exempted the bearer from payment of parish tithes.
  60. This circular letter to the lords lieutenant of counties, directed them to require their magistrates to bail persons charged with selling libellous publications until a convenient time for hearing. Bail was usually set high and most defendants were gaoled
  61. The Attorney General is Sir Samuel Shepherd. The Earl of Bathurst is Secretary for War & Colonies.
  62. The liberal Whigs are whistling in the wind. The ministry and particularly Sidmouth, the internal security minister, are opposed to public discussion. Sidmouth can rely for a supportive majority on the clients of the borough-mongers and the docile country members in the House who attend to enjoy the cut and thrust of debate. In the House of Lords it is the King’s appointees, the landowners and bishops, who determine the results of votes. Some of these ‘kept’ representatives are thoughtful people but they know which side their bread is buttered. There are no more than 50 – 60 MPs supporting the Constitution in the House of Commons and some ten Peers in the Lords – they are easily out-voted by those who are there for the money. Sidmouth’s acts in political life are instructional on the mindset that infects politics to this day. He illustrates the fragility of a ministry without public support.
  63. Thistlewood is trying to introduce the underlying concept of British foreign policy into the domestic administration of law. It is basic to the adversarial nature of English legal procedure; in factional elections; parliamentary debating, and in the national obsession with athletic contests but this private attempt fails.
  64. Either John, MP for Nottingham, or Joshua, MP for Devizes. Familiarity with London banking practice tends to suggest it is the former – John Abel Smith.
  65. Bentinck’s Constitution for Sicily is said to be a particularly inspiring codification of popular rights.
  66. Evocative of the situation in UK since commencement of Sunday trading. There is a Puritan belief that characterises some English-speaking peoples – poverty indicates a lack of moral worth whilst self-help is the mark of God’s Elect
  67. For publishing his account of the Manchester demonstration in Sherwin’s Register
  68. He was awarded a baronetcy for making his boroughs available to the minister.
  69. Arising out of the Radical War – an attempt by striking weavers of Glasgow and Stirling to replace the UK government, according to the ministry. All the ministerial evidence was from agents provocateur and spies. Three workers were hanged and beheaded and some twenty others banished.
  70. See the Europe chapter for details of Admiral Lord Cochrane’s offence and the South America chapter for details of his later life.
  71. See the Caroline chapter for better details.

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