Power to the People

Two hundred years ago, Clerkenwell was the focal point for a campaign for reform that ended in a violent confrontation between radicals and armed troops. Simon Jones, a tour guide in EC1, looks at the revolutionary legacy of the Spa Fields Riots.

Tucked away behind Exmouth Market, Spa Fields Park is a small green space that’s home to the annual Clerkenwell Festival. But 200 years ago it was the scene of two great public meetings, one of which ended with a serious attempt to take control of the government.

Spa Fields was much bigger back in 1816 – on today’s map the approximate area of the park would stretch north from Exmouth Market to Sadler’s Wells Theatre, west to Farringdon Road and east to St John Street.

It was on this open ground that a crowd of about 10,000 people gathered on 15 November, 1816, to hear the radical speaker Henry “Orator” Hunt. His audience was hungry and frustrated. The wars with Napoleon had just ended, and after the elation at the news of Waterloo the hard reality of life in a war-impoverished Britain was sinking in. Prices were high, wages low, unemployment rife, and to make things worse those in power seemed utterly unconcerned.

As they listened to the Orator’s passionate delivery the crowd was enthused by his planto take a petition to George, the Prince Regent, standing in as Head of State for George III. This would ask for the vote for all men (women would be sidelined for some time yet), annual general elections by secret ballot, lowering of taxes and help to relieve poverty. All was peaceful, the supporters signed the petition and went their various ways.

Hunt tried to present it to the Prince Regent but was turned away, twice. The Prince was a dissolute spendthrift and generally uninterested in the lower classes, so realistically the project had been doomed from the start. The petition stayed undelivered. Another meeting, again at Spa Fields, was called for 2 December. The posters for the meeting were advertising genius, channelling the great hero Nelson’s last message at Trafalgar before listing the people’s woes: ENGLAND expects every Man to do his Duty. THE PRESENT STATE OF GREAT BRITAIN Four Millions in Distress !!! Four Millions Embarrassed !!! One Million-and-half fear Distress !!! Half-a-million live in splendid Luxury !!! Death would now be a relief to Millions – Arrogance, Folly, and Crimes – have brought affairs to this dread Crisis.

An angrier crowd, doubled to 20,000, answered the call. Among them were many Spenceans, disciples of a radical ex-schoolteacher called Thomas Spence, who wanted grassroots action and was not prepared to chase royal favour. Held up in traffic and getting to Spa Fields late, Hunt was shocked to hear that a group of radicals had urged the crowd to attack the Tower of London. Off they had gone, waving a tricolour flag, symbol of the French Revolution, and looting a gun shop for weapons on the way.

Frightened, the authorities took fast and drastic steps. Arriving at the Royal Exchange, the demonstrators were met by armed troops. In the fighting that followed, one soldier was killed but the crowd was eventually dispersed. The riot was over.

The legal follow-up was a shambles. Four ringleaders were charged with high treason, still punishable by hanging, drawing and quartering. The first trial, of James Watson, fell apart when the main prosecution witness turned out to be a government spy with a criminal record who may have helped provoke the unrest in the first place. His testimony was discredited, Watson walked free and the cases against the other three were dropped. One poor sailor, only recently demobbed from the navy, was hanged for his part in the rioting, scapegoat more than traitor. At first the riot achieved the opposite of its aims. Far from extending the vote or helping the poor, the government brought in repressive legislation.

In 1817 the Gag Acts were passed, banning secret clubs and any meetings of more than 50 people called to “deliberate upon any grievance, in church or state”, unless five days’ notice was given to a magistrate. Failure to comply could mean execution.

The most horrific outcome of this heavy approach was the Peterloo Massacre in 1819, when 15 innocent demonstrators in Manchester were killed during a cavalry charge. But things did ultimately change: yearly elections never happened but the 1832 Reform Act extended the vote, other acts followed and nowadays it is an accepted adult right in the UK. 

Poverty, sadly,is still here despite many efforts to solve it. The Spa Fields Rioters may not have got all they asked for – but they have a secure place in history. Simon Jones is a member of Clerkenwell & Islington Guides Association (www.ciga.org.uk), Islington’s official qualified tour guides. CIGA’s Spa Fields Riot walks take place at 11am on Saturday, 26 November and Saturday, 3 December. The tour starts at Islington Museum, which has a free exhibition on the riots, Commit Outrage!, until 7 January.