The Case of the Cato Street Conspirators: a Sad Tale of Suffering, Insurrection, and Ruling Class Crime
by Peter Linebaugh
May 1820 print showing London elites dancing around a May Pole displaying the heads of the executed Cato Street conspirators.
May Day’s a-coming and folks will be thinking of the eight hour day, a workers commonwealth, the martyrs of Haymarket, and how to kick the ass of the ruling class. Meanwhile, here’s a sad tale of suffering, insurrection, ruling class criminality, and (for those with eyes to see and ears to hear) the way that water inevitably wears away rock.
On May Day 1820 five men were hanged at Newgate in London. Arthur Thistlewood, apothecary, radical, and husband to Susan; Tom Brunt, artisan bootmaker, husband to Molly, and father; Richard Tidd, another shoemaker, father, radical, and husband to Eliza; James Ing, a butcher, father, radical, and husband to Celia; Will Davidson of Jamaica, cabinet maker, husband to Sarah, a Sunday school teacher and former milliner. These were the Cato Street conspirators.
Judy Meewezen has written a wonderful historical novel about them called Turtle Soup for the King.
The May Day hanging is not the center of her story. In fact, it’s scarcely alluded to, though we all know the ending. If you want a study of the hangings read Vic Gatrell: how they took a pinch of snuff or sucked on oranges, how they advised the placement of the noose, how they denied religion, and how the crowd yelled “butter fingers” when the executioner dropped a decapitated head.
The king in question was George IV, “the most disreputable and unrespected monarchy who has ever sat upon the British throne,” wrote the historians of the common people. His father George III, a tyrant gone insane, had died in January 1820.
As for the turtle soup it was the soup of the age at least for royalty, aristocrats, and the big bourgeoisie. Their palates were tickled by the majestic creatures starting in the 1740s and they continued to slurp and swallow into the 1860s. Like sugar the creatures were imported from the slave islands of the Caribbean. Lords, ladies, and fat cats consumed these ancient animals to virtual extinction.
George IV had a giant green sea turtle shipped from Sherbro Island (Sierra Leone) weighing nearly seven hundred pounds. Turtle soup was fattening but not as fattening as the proletariat whose labors gorged royalty and their ilk. The ruling class consumed the proletariat not so much at table as at loom, plough, and wheel, or by massacre and the noose.
The Cato Street Chronicles, to give the subtitle to this historical novel, is as fully faithful to the historical record as may be empirically possible. Based largely on the documentation of spies, police, informers, turncoats, and provocateurs, on the one hand, and on the other the documentation, of the trade union movement, the reform politicians, and radical press, an archive that was already censored or in peril of extinction.
The conspiracy arose after the massacre of Peterloo, August 1819, when men, women, and children were slashed dead with sabres wielded by charging Hussars of the Crown. The proletariat was enraged, hurt, traumatized, hungering for revenge. It found it in its revolutionary traditions which included insurrection, the art of taking over a government by force. Tender in its grief the proletariat was vulnerable to ruling-class provocation, nipping in the bud.
The Cato Street conspiracy was a kind of epilogue to the insurrectionary impulses that had punctuated English class relations between the Despard conspiracy of 1803 through the Luddite attacks on machinery (1811) past the dislocations and dearths (“bread or blood”) following the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, 1815) and concluding with the massacre (1819) in St Peter’s Field in Manchester known as “Peterloo.” Irish disturbances, Scottish uprisings, Caribbean slave rebellions, and colonial resistance from India to Cape Town (thousands of Xhosa attacked Grahamstown in 1819) accompanied, influenced, or reflected these conflicts in England.
The conspirators designed to capture the British cabinet while eating dinner at Grovesnor Square. They were prepared to cut the throats of Sidmouth and Castlereagh. Percy Bysshe Shelley described these men. Castlereagh, leader of the House of Commons (basically a fat herd of landlords), had crushed the United Irish in 1798, and was memorialized by Shelley in 1819:
I met murder on the way
He had a mask like Castlereagh
Very smooth he looked, yet grim;
Seven blood-hounds followed him:
All were fat and well they might
Being admirable plight,
For one by one, and two by two,
He tossed them human hearts to chew
Which from his wide cloak he drew.
Lord Sidmouth had been prime minister who organized a mass hanging to squash Despard’s attempt at a democratic republic in 1803 and who later became Home Secretary responsible for the massacre in Manchester. The poet Shelley imagined him thus:
Clothed with the Bible, as with light
And the shadows of the night
Like Sidmouth, next, hypocrisy
On a crocodile rode by.
It’s a terrible vision and yet Howard Zinn took Shelley’s poem as a hymn to non-violent resistance. But for the machinations of agents provocateurs it might have been that way for the conspirators who were easily duped and captured above a stables in Cato Street not far from Grovsnor Square.
Arthur Thistlewood was of some social status associated with the Lincolnshire gentry. His great uncle owner of a plantation or two in Jamaica was the worst slaver you could imagine, and on the forefront of imperial acquisition, accumulation, and extraction. His diaries vie with the Marquis de Sade for calculated pain, rape, and pure cruelty. There is nothing eccentric about this; it was the ‘normal’ of the time. Arthur Thistlewood became a follower of Thomas Spence, the advocate of the people’s farm, perhaps the most direct link between the democratic radicals of the 1790s and the sprouting forms of socialism, feminism, and communism of the 1820s.
Will Davidson was a man of color, part of the London cosmopolis. Descended from Jamaica slaves, he was part of a very long history of African descendants in England. (Angles came to the island in fifth century, several centuries after Roman legions with their African conscripts had peopled the place.) Modern capitalist slavery, however, not ancient Rome, is the pertinent background to Davidson. Nevertheless, he is the one who repeatedly cites (even recites) Magna Carta.
At the time there was an ideology associated with Magna Carta that went back to Anglo-Saxon liberties against the Norman conquest, an ideology that included direct democracy, common land, and equality. The theme fascinated Granville Sharpe, the English abolitionist of the eighteenth century, as well as Thomas Jefferson who toyed with it too in his retirement. The term Anglo-Saxon had not yet become a synonym for the “white race.” Davidson listened to his Jamaican countryman, Robert Wedderburn, the advocate of jubilee.
Davidson sent one son back to Jamaica for safety! “For all Will’s philosophizing, his recitations of high and mighty moralizing, he understood nothing about family responsibility.” At the same time he was the man responsible for drafting the constitution. Others dealt with the equal division of lands, or annual elections, or redistribution of wealth. What will Tidd’s daughter do? She replied in a flash, “The committee for the care of unwanted children and orphans.” There will be no need for “scrumping,” i.e. appropriating apples from private apple trees.
Yes, they are hanged on May Day 1820. The conjuncture includes the Denmark Vesey rebellion in South Carolina two years later, the organization of the cotton spinners and weavers in Scotland (“Scotland Free or a Desart”), and the migration of Irish people to England one of whom, Bronterre O’Brien, will translate Buonarotti’s History of the Babeuf’s Conspiracy of Equals (1828). O’Brien will also coin the expression “moral economy,” signifying not communism certainly but not neo-liberalism either.
We know the telescopic view of Atlantic or planetary interpretation; what is offered here is through a microscope. Misadventures and calamities affected children and poor women occuring well apart from the pompous (and manly) events of official narratives. However with the gentle pen of Judy Meewezen the dramas of kitchen and alley are as gripping as those of the patriarchs public forum.
What this novel does is look at the whole thing from the point of view of the wives, the women, and their children, the boys and girls. It does this by food even though the proletarians are close to starving. Rarely does a page go by without reference to something to eat. In this it is like The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens.
Thistlewood goes in search of bacon; Edwards, the informer, stood them a dinner of liver and bacon; everyone chose whiting and chips; the prince’s table was laid out with pigeons, beef-steak and brandy; Molly’s best dumplings; there’s always a tater warming on the fire; chunks of boiled bacon with rabbit pie and mash; a currant bun against the clawing of his belly; a left-over can of cream; the cheese and soft white bread accompanied by pickled onions; Susan Thistlewood served “parkin,” a bread made with treacle and ginger; and then finally in Newgate bread and water.
Molly Brunt cuts up a flannel sheet into little squares later to be made into gunpowder cartridges. It’s monotonous task so she relieves her mind by construing the men’s whispers as so much babble which would one day lead to the paradise which for her meant a full pantry. At the end two of the widows and the children share housing and the “determination that the children of heroes should face the world with pride, engaging their hearts their brains and all their talents in the construction of a better world for all.”
There was a little time for reading: John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress of course, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man and Age of Reason, Richard Carlile’s writings are mentioned; Schiller’s William Tell and The Robbers. Susan Thistlewood diverted herself with stories of medieval rebellion and execution, Felicia Hemans, The Widow of Crescentius (1819)
Turtle Soup for the King should become streaming series. We follow five threads for each those hanged and decapitated – Thistlewood, Brunt, Ing, Davidson, and Tidd. Then there is the engineer or Judas of the plot, Thomas Edwards, a villain through and through. Susan Thistlewood stands out in these pages for courage and intelligence.
The whole is divided in two parts, each part structured in chapters, and the chapters are broken into sections often virtually audible as dialogue. The dialogue is plentiful, lively, and full of apt and entertaining simile, “Brunt’s landlady as alert as a roe deer,” “Men, thin and colourless as rats.” It makes for easy reading. There are fascinating asides, one on drums (nine stroke roll, five-stroke roll, a series of paradiddles) and another on clogs, the footwear of the northern spinners and weavers some of whom wore clogs at Peterloo.
The folklore scholar, Susan Davis, quotes the proverb: “’Clogs up, clogs down’ conjures a lively image of people in clumping uphill to live in a mansion, and clomping back down again, in search of more modest digs,” or quoting another Lancashire proverb, “From clogs to clogs in three generations” to describe downward social mobility. Only later do wooden shoes (sabots in French) take on another meaning as sabotage. As Joe Hill explained,
If Freedom’s road seems rough and hard,
And strewn with rocks and thorns,
Then put your wooden shoes on, pard,
And you won’t hurt your corns.
To organize and teach, no doubt,
Is very good – that’s true,
But still we can’t succeed without
The Good Old Wooden Shoe.
The new King’s coronation feast starts with three soups and hundreds of side dishes, sauces and desserts. “If it’s not over-salted,” says his Majesty, “let us start with the turtle.”
Writing on death row Jimmy Ings asked that his body be conveyed to the King “that his Majesty, or his cooks, might make turtle soup of it.” After such a generous gesture of sacrifice Justice can only reply, “eat the rich.”
G.D.H. Cole and Raymond Postgate, The Common People (1946)
A.L. Morton, A People’s History of England (1996)
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963)
P.B. Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy (1819)
Susan Davis, “Of Clogs and Enron,” Counterpunch, 24 August 2002
Judy Meewezen, Turtle Soup for the King: The Cato Street Chronicles: a Historical Novel (New York: Adelaide Books, 2021)
V.A.C. Gatrell, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People (1994)