In fact, great distress and dissatisfaction prevailed, not only in England, Ireland and Scotland, but all over Europe, which was in a calamitous state, produced by the reaction of the war, the fatal effects of which now began to be felt most severely. The distress amongst the farmers was very great, and the agricultural gentry began to cry out most unmercifully. The fools now began to find out that what I had told them was true, namely, that the Corn Bill would not ultimately serve them, that it was never intended by its promoters for any other purpose than to enable the Government, by means of keeping up the price of corn, to continue to extract from the farmers high rents and high taxes. In many parts the manufacturers likewise suffered greatly, particularly in Staffordshire, South Wales, and the Metropolis, and especially amongst the poor weavers in Spitalfields. The truth was, that the Bank of England had curtailed the issue of their notes, in order to meet the demands of their creditors, which they expected they should be compelled to pay in cash, instead of being longer protected by a pretended restriction, designed to prevent them from being called upon to pay any thing more than "I promise to pay," in exchange for "I promise to pay." This restriction was nothing more nor less than a Government protection against the demands of their creditors, which enabled them to refuse to pay their just debts with impunity, and according to Act of Parliament. Distress and discontent therefore prevailed from one end of the land to the other, but in no place more than the metropolis, which was full of discharged seamen, who had been dismissed from the British Navy, which was now dismantled almost universally. These poor fellows, who had fancied that they had been fighting the battles of their country, who had suffered all the hardships of a sailor's life, during a long and bloody war, and who had been successful against every power for such a length of time, had become exceedingly disheartened by the checks and defeats they had experienced in the naval warfare with the Americans, who, if I may use a familiar phrase, had completely taken the shine out of the British seamen, a race proverbial for being very superstitious. They had always boasted that an English sailor was a match for two Frenchmen, or any other seamen; but Jack found in the American sailor not only his equal in bravery and skill; but more than his match. Thus dispirited and almost broken hearted, and the British Navy being laid up, our sailors were discharged and treated worse than dogs; they were put on shore at any port, and they had to march to London, barefooted and pennyless, to receive the little pay and prize money that was due to them. Hundreds and hundreds did I relieve, as they passed by Middleton Cottage; broken down in body and in spirit, they were made to feel that they had been fighting for despotism instead of Liberty. Soup Committees were established, and subscriptions raised all over the kingdom, to supply the starving poor with soup; but to the offer of it they replied, that they did not want charity, they wanted work, and they would much rather live upon a scanty meal, the fruit of their own labour, than be feasted by charity.
Some time in the early part of September, I received a letter from London, signed A. Thistlewood, requesting me, when I came to town, to do him the favour of a call, as he had to communicate to me matters of the highest importance, connected with the welfare and happiness of the people, to promote whose interest he had always observed that I was most ready and active, &c. &c. As Mr. Thistlewood was a perfect stranger to me, and as I was a stranger even to his name, I wrote to a Mr. Bryant, a quondam attorney, and Clerk of the Papers at the King's Bench; a man who was said to know every body and every thing that was going on in London, both in high and low life;—I wrote to this gentleman, and requested him to inquire at such a number for Mr. Thistlewood, and let me know who and what he was, as I had received rather a mysterious letter from him, and I wished to know something of him before I gave him any answer. The answer which I received from Mr. Bryant was such that I never replied to the letter of Mr. Thistlewood, or took any further notice of it.
Some time, however, in the beginning of November, I received a letter from London, signed Thomas Preston, Secretary, to say that a public meeting of the distressed inhabitants of the metropolis was advertised to be held in Spafields, on Monday, the 15th of November, and that he was instructed by the Committee to solicit my attendance. This letter was dated from Greystoke-place, and the writer requested an answer, which I gave him by return of post, desiring to be informed what was the object of the meeting. I received a reply, stating, that the object was to agree to a memorial to the Prince Regent, setting forth their grievances, and praying for relief. I instantly wrote, to say that I accepted their invitation, and I would attend the meeting at the time appointed.
On the next day I rode over to my friend Cobbett, at Botley, to consult with him what was best to be done. When I mentioned the circumstance to him, he looked very grave, and said it was a dangerous experiment, and he scarcely knew how to advise me, whether to go or not. "Oh," said I, "make your mind quite easy upon that point; there is no difficulty in it, I have accepted the invitation, and I mean to attend the meeting. The moment that I ascertained that it was for a legal purpose, that of addressing the Prince Regent upon the distressed state of the people, and praying for redress, I no longer hesitated, but accepted the invitation, and promised to be there in time. All that I want you to do, therefore, is, to assist me in drawing up some resolutions, and preparing a proper address to be presented to his Royal Highness upon the occasion." "That," said he, "I will do with great pleasure." After due consideration the resolutions and the address were agreed upon, and drawn up by him. Mr. Cobbett never mentioned one word to me that he had been invited by the same party to attend this said meeting; but he said he should be at his lodgings in London at the time.
I arrived in London the Saturday before the intended meeting, and called at Graystockplace, to inquire for Mr. Thomas Preston. I found no one there but two or three dirtily dressed, miserable, poor children, who told me that I should find their father at some house in Southampton-buildings, Chancery-lane. Thither I repaired, meditating as I went along on the wretched emblem of the distresses of the times, which I had just witnessed in the family of Mr. Thomas Preston. When I reached Southampton-buildings, I knocked at the door, and inquired for Mr. Preston. The servant said there was no such person there, but she would go and inquire of Mr. Thistlewood and the Doctor. She then desired me to walk in, and I was shewn into a very neat and well-furnished dining-room. I could not avoid observing to myself the contrast between the elegant apartment I was now in and that which I had just quitted in Graystock-place; the name of Thistlewood was still tinkling upon the drum of my ear, I having quite forgotten where I had heard it before.
In a few minutes two gentlemen walked in; the one dressed in a handsome dressing-gown and morocco slippers, the other in a shabby-genteel black. The former addressed me very familiarly by name, saying, that he was Mr. Thistlewood, and he begged to introduce his friend Dr. Watson. They at once informed me that they were part of the Committee, for whom Mr. Preston acted as Secretary; that they had called the meeting, and directed their Secretary to invite me to attend it, and that they had also written to invite Sir Francis Burdett, Major Cartwright, Mr. Waithman, Mr. Cobbett, and several other political characters. I then inquired what was the nature of the memorial or address which they meant to submit to the Prince Regent? They answered, that they had it not then by them, but that, if I wished it, they would procure me a sight of it before I went to the meeting. To this I replied, that I certainly did not wish merely for a sight of it, but for something more; as, if I attended the meeting to take any part in it, I should choose to have time to peruse the memorial very minutely before I undertook to give it my support. This they promised I should have an opportunity of doing, and the Doctor appeared anxious to have my opinion upon it. I could, however, see that Mr. Thistlewood had set his heart upon this memorial as it stood, and he slightly intimated that the Committee had made up their minds on the subject, and that it was finally settled that the memorial was to be submitted to the meeting. I inquired who the Committee were composed of, and I soon found that Mr. Thistlewood and Dr. Watson, the two gentlemen before me, were in reality the Committee; young Watson, Preston, Hooper, Castles, and one or two others, who formed the remainder of the Committee, being merely nominal members. I informed them that I was staying at Cooper's Hotel, in Bouverie-street, which makes part of the Black Lion Inn, in Water-lane, where they promised to wait upon me in the evening with the memorial, that I might look it over.
Mr. Thistlewood and the Doctor came at the appointed hour, and brought the document with them. It was very long, and filled several pages closely written upon foolscap paper. As soon as I had read the first resolution, I was satisfied in my own mind as to how I ought to act with respect to this voluminous production; but when I had read to the bottom of the first page I closed the book, and very seriously informed my visitors that it evidently contained treasonable matter, and that nothing more than the overt act of holding the meeting, to carry the scheme into execution, was required to make all that were concerned in it liable at least to be indicted for high treason. I certainly should not, I told them, countenance any such measures as were proposed even in the first page, and the project of marching in a body to Carlton House, to demand and enforce an audience of the Prince Regent (which formed a part of their design), was quite preposterous, as well as unjust and unreasonable. As a private gentleman, I myself would not submit to be intruded upon in such a manner, and it was very unreasonable to expect that it could be endured by the Chief Magistrate of the country. I found, in fact, that the whole affair was made up of Spencean principles, relating to the holding of all the land in the kingdom as one great farm belonging to the people, or something of that sort. I told them my ideas upon the subject, which were, that the first thing the people had to do, in order to recover their rights, was to obtain a Reform of the Commons' House of Parliament. When once the people were fairly and equally represented in that House, such propositions as were contained in their memorial might then be discussed, but for one set of people to dictate to any other what should be the law, I maintained to be arbitrary and unjust. The Doctor very readily concurred with me, and he asked my advice as to what was best to be done. I replied, that the only course to be pursued was, to pass certain resolutions, pointing out the distressed state of the country, and the absolute necessity of Reform, to save the wreck of the constitution, and declaring that the only Reform that would be of any avail must be upon the principles of Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot. They both at once agreed to the propriety of my suggestions, and requested that I would prepare some resolutions, and an address to his Royal Highness, which they also begged me to propose to the meeting, and they would support them. I asked them if they did not expect the attendance of any other of the public characters to whom they had written? To this they replied, that I was the only person who had accepted the invitation. The Doctor and Mr. Thistlewood promised to take care about the hustings being erected in Spa-fields, and the former was to call on me on Monday morning, to prepare and transcribe the resolutions and the petition which were to be submitted to the meeting.
The Doctor came at the time appointed, and he copied the resolutions and the petition which I had drawn up, which, with some few alterations and additions, were the same as were agreed upon by Mr. Cobbett and myself at Botley. Before we had finished these, a messenger arrived, to say that an immense number of persons were assembled in the front of the Merlin's Cave public-house, in Spa-fields, and that they were impatient for our arrival. Upon this, the Doctor and myself got into a hackney-coach, and drove immediately to the spot, which was covered by much the largest concourse of people I had ever seen together in my life. We were hailed with the most deafening shouts, and, with some considerable difficulty, we were driven to the summit of the hill, surrounded by the multitude. Upon inquiry where the hustings were, I found that nothing had been done or thought of towards the erecting of them. In this dilemma I mounted upon the top of the hackney-coach, and was immediately followed by the Doctor and another person, which person, without further ceremony, hoisted a tricoloured flag, red, white, and green! The bearer of this flag was no less a personage than the notorious Mr. JOHN CASTLES, a gemman that I had never seen before. I soon found that it was impossible to address such an immense multitude from such a situation as that of the top of a coach, and as the wind blew very sharp, our birth was a very disagreeable one. While we were looking round for a better situation, we were hailed by some gentlemen from the window of a house in the neighbouring row, and a young person, whom I afterwards found to be Mr. William Clark, having made his way to the coach, invited me to enter the house opposite, and to address the multitude from the window; and, as the party who were assembled in that room still kept beckoning me to join them, I readily assented. We dismounted and followed Mr. Clark, who led us up stairs into the front room of the Merlin's Cave public-house, which I afterwards found had been taken by, and was partly occupied by, the Magistrates, accompanied by a number of the officers of the police and the reporters of the public press. The sashes were immediately removed from the window, and I presented myself to the assembled multitude amidst universal shouts of applause. I found myself surrounded by strangers, there being scarcely a man in the room I had ever before seen, with the exception of Mr. Clark and some of the reporters of the public press. I proposed that Mr. Clark should take the chair, which proposal was seconded, and carried by acclamation. I was the only person present who was known to the multitude as a public man. I had often appeared before the people at Palace-yard, and at the Guildhall of the city of London, and I was instantly recognized by them. In fact, I believe that it had been publicly placarded and advertised that I had accepted the invitation to attend, which had been sent to me by the Committee, and I was, therefore, expected. The Chairman having, in an appropriate speech, briefly opened the meeting, I stood forward to move the resolutions, which I prefaced by a speech of about an hour in length. I pointed out the enormous sums paid by the public for what is called the Civil List, amounting in the last year to 1,038,000L; and in the same year, on account of deficiencies of the said Civil List, 584,713L more; and for the Civil List for Scotland, 126,613L additional, making in the whole, for the Civil List of that year, ONE MILLION SEVEN HUNDRED AND FORTY-NINE THOUSAND THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-SIX POUNDS. I showed that the expense of keeping up the army, including the ordnance, was 26,736,017L; that the additional allowance to the Royal Family that year was 366,660L; that the secret service money was 153,443L; and that the sum voted for the poor clergy of the Church of England was 100,000L. I also read a list of some of the most profligate sinecurists and pensioners, male and female, in which I included a sufficient sprinkling of ladies and gentlemen belonging to both the great factions of Whigs and Tories, taking as nearly as I could an equal number from each of them. Among those whom I specified were the Marquis of Buckingham and Lord Camden, the two Tellers of the Exchequer, whose sinecures at that time were about thirty-five thousand a-year each; Lord Arden, the elder brother of Perceval, thirty-eight thousand a-year; Lords Grenville and Erskine, &c. &c. &c. Amongst the number of lady pensioners I noticed Lady Auckland, Lady Louisa Paget, Mrs. Hunn, the mother of Mr. Canning, &c. &c. I represented these persons as contributing to the distresses of the country, by taking such large sums out of the taxes, without doing any thing for it. I contended that the enormous weight of taxation alone produced the misery under which the people were groaning, and that the sole cause of such heavy impositions being placed upon the people, arose from the corrupt state of the representation in the Commons' or people's House of Parliament; and I laboured strenuously to convince them that the high price of bread and meat did not originate with the bakers and butchers, as was falsely asserted to be the case by the corrupt conductors of the daily press. I demonstrated to them the folly of wreaking their vengeance upon unoffending tradesmen, who were suffering from the weight of taxes nearly as much as themselves; and I endeavoured to convince them of the superiority of mental over physical force; contending that it would be an act of injustice, as well as folly, to resort to the latter while we had the power of exercising the former. Above all things, I took the greatest pains to promote peace and good order, as the only means by which they were likely to obtain any redress for their grievances, or any alleviation of their miseries, and to convince them that to commit acts of violence was to prove themselves unworthy of relief. I concluded by reading and recommending to their adoption the four following resolutions. These resolutions were received with long continued shouts of approbation:
Resolved 1st, That the country is in a state of fearful and unparalleled distress and misery; and that the principal immediate cause of this calamity, which has fallen upon all classes of persons, except that class which derive their incomes from the Taxes, is, that enormous load of taxation, which has taken, and which still takes, from the Farmer, the Manufacturer, and the Tradesman, the means of maintaining their families, and paying their debts, and of affording, in the shape of wages, a sufficiency to employ and support their Labourers and Journeymen.
Resolved 2d, That the causes of this intolerable burden, are, 1st, the amount of a Debt contracted by Boroughmongers for the purposes of carrying on a long, unnecessary, and unjust War, the main objects of which now appear to have been to stifle Civil, Political, and Religious Liberty, and to restore Despotism and Persecution; 2d, The maintenance of an Army in France, in order to uphold the restored Despots and Priests in opposition to the express wishes of the whole French Nation; 3d, The keeping up of an enormous Standing Army in these Kingdoms, with a view of overawing the People, and compelling them to submit to War Taxes in time of Peace; 4th, A lavish and profligate expenditure of the Public Money on innumerable men and women, who are the holders of Sinecures, Pensions, Grants, and Emoluments of various descriptions, without having ever performed the smallest service to their Country.
Resolved 3d, That the sole cause of these desolating measures and practices, is the want of the People being represented in the Commons' House of Parliament, and the return of Members to that House by those base and corrupt means, which were by the Members themselves shamelessly confessed to be "as notorious as the sun at noon-day."
Resolved 4th, That a Petition be presented to the Prince Regent, beseeching him to take into his gracious consideration the sufferings of this industrious, patient, and starving People, praying that he will be pleased immediately to cause the Parliament to be assembled, and to recommend to them, in the most urgent manner, to reduce the Army, to abolish all Sinecures and all Pensions, Grants, and Emoluments not merited by Public Services; and to apply the same to feed the "HUNGRY AND CLOTHE THE NAKED," so that the unhappy and starving People may be saved from desperation; and above all, to listen, before it be too late, to those repeated prayers of the People, for being restored to their undoubted right of enjoying the benefit of Annual Parliaments chosen freely by the People.
Dr. Watson seconded these resolutions, and they were carried unanimously, amidst the cheers of the multitude, without one dissenting voice. I then read the following petition, which, after having been seconded by the Doctor, was unanimously adopted by the greatest concourse of people that had ever, within the memory of man, been known to assemble for any political purpose.
"To his Royal Highness the Prince Regent of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
"The Petition of the distressed Inhabitants of the Metropolis, held in Spa-fields, the 15th day of November, 1816,
"HUMBLY SHOWETH—That this kingdom is in a state of unparalleled distress and misery, and that the principal immediate cause of this calamity, which has fallen upon all classes of persons (except that class which derive their incomes from the taxes), is that enormous load of taxation which has taken, and which still takes, from the farmer, the manufacturer, and the tradesman, the means of maintaining their families, and of paying their debts, and of affording, in the shape of wages, a sufficiency to employ and support their labourers and journeymen.
"That the causes of this intolerable burden are—First, The amount of a debt, contracted by Borough-mongers and their agents, for the purpose of carrying on a long, unnecessary, and unjust war, the object of which now appears to have been to stifle civil, political, and religious liberty, and to restore despotism and persecution. Second, The maintenance of an English Protestant Army in France, in order to uphold the restored Despots and Priesthood, whom we have been taught to hold in abhorrence. Third, The keeping up in these kingdoms of an enormous Standing Army, with all its colleges, barracks, and arsenals, with a view of overawing the people, and compelling them to submit to War Taxes in time of Peace. Fourth, A lavish and profligate expenditure of the public money on innumerable men and women, who are holders of sinecures, pensions, grants, and emoluments of various descriptions, without having ever performed the smallest service to the country.
"That the sole cause of these desolating measures and practices is, the want of the people being represented in their own House of Parliament, and the return of Members to that House by those base and corrupt means, which means were, by the Members themselves, shamelessly confessed 'to be as notorious as the sun at noonday.'
"Upon the ground of these facts, the existence of which must be familiar to the mind, and painful to the heart of your Royal Highness, we earnestly beseech your Royal Highness to take into your gracious consideration the sufferings of this industrious, patient, and starving people; and we earnestly pray,
"That your Royal Highness will be pleased to cause the Parliament to be assembled immediately, and, as the friend of your Royal Father's people, to urge the two Houses to reduce the Army, to remove those barracks, military colleges, and all those menacing parades so hateful to our eyes and so hostile to that Constitution which your Royal House were placed on the Throne to defend; to abolish all sinecures and all pensions, grants, and emoluments not merited by public services, and to apply the amount of the same to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; and, above all, to listen, before it be TOO LATE, to those repeated prayers of the people for being restored to their undoubted right of annually choosing their own Representatives. In the mean time we implore your Royal Highness to appropriate a few hundred thousands of the enormous Civil List for the immediate relief of the numerous suffering, starving, and dying people.
"And we shall ever pray, &c. &c."
The following resolutions were then proposed and carried unanimously:Resolved 5th, That Sir Francis Burdett, Bart. be requested to wait on the Prince Regent, and deliver this Petition into his hands as soon as possible.
Resolved 6th, That Henry Hunt, Esq. be requested to accompany Sir F. Burdett.
Resolved 7th, That Sir Francis Burdett, Bart. assisted by Major Cartwright, be requested to prepare and bring into Parliament, as soon as they meet, a Bill for a Reform thereof, agreeable to the Constitution.
Resolved 8th, That this Meeting do adjourn to Monday fortnight, then to assemble to hear the answer of the Prince Regent, in Spa-fields, at One o'Clock precisely.
Resolved 9th, That this Meeting do re-assemble the first day after the meeting of Parliament, in Palace-yard, Westminster, at One o'clock, to petition Parliament for a Reform thereof, agreeable to the Constitution.
Resolved 10th, That our fellow-countrymen of Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leicester, Glasgow, Paisley, and of every City, Town, and populous place in the United Kingdom, are hereby invited, and requested by this Meeting to assemble and meet on the same day, at the same hour, and for the SAME PURPOSE.
Resolved 11th, That the Thanks of the Meeting be given to H. Hunt, Esq.
Resolved 12th, That the Thanks of the Meeting be given to Mr. Dyall and Mr. Preston, and those Gentlemen who called the Meeting.
Resolved 13th, That the Thanks of the Meeting be given to the Chairman, William Clark, Esq.
The parties thanked having briefly returned the compliment, the meeting was dissolved by the Chairman, who accompanied me into a coach, which the multitude immediately took possession of, and drew amidst the most unanimous cheers, to my inn, the Black Lion, Water-lane, where I had appointed to meet a friend to dine. As soon as they had safely conveyed us, they dispersed to their several homes, in the most peaceable manner.
Just as we were sitting down to dinner, four of us, Mr. Bryant, his son, Mr. Clark, and myself, to our great surprise in marched Messrs. Watson, Thistlewood, and three or four strangers, whom they introduced as Mr. Watson, jun. Mr. Castles, Mr. Hooper, &c. who had followed us from the meeting, with an intention, as they said, of dining with me. I was very much disconcerted by this intrusion, and told them that I had private business to settle, that I had no idea of dining in public, and that dinner was only ordered for four. As, however, they did not appear to take the hint (although it was a pretty broad one), Mr. Bryant ordered more fish and some chops to be added to our dinner, and the table being lengthened, down we all sat together. Mr. Bryant took the chair, at my request.
Dinner being ended, Mr. Bryant drank the health of the King, which toast passed round till it came to Mr. Castles, who, having filled a bumper, substituted the following vulgar and sanguinary toast for that of the King—"May the last of Kings be strangled with the guts of the last priest;" a piece of brutality which had not even the miserable merit of being original, he having copied it from one of the French anarchists. This was a pretty specimen of the company that had intruded upon us! I remonstrated against such blackguardism, and declared that I would not remain in the room if there was any repetition of it. Mr. Castles, nevertheless, soon began again in a similar strain, and having put forth some most outrageous speech, as vulgar as it was seditious, both myself and Mr. Bryant insisted upon the worthy gentleman leaving the room, or holding his peace. He promised to do the latter, and he soon dropped off, or appeared to drop off, into a very sound sleep. This was a circumstance which struck me as being very suspicious, and therefore I was particularly guarded in what I said, and in what was said by others. At length two of the party, young Watson and Hooper, made a move to retire, and I insisted upon it that they should take their friend Castles with them; but he shammed so sound a sleep that it was with difficulty he was got out of the room, and it was only effected by my pulling the chair from under him; upon which he was in an instant as wide awake as any man in the room. This convinced me that his sleep was all a mere pretence. Soon after this the rest of the party left us, and Mr. Bryant and myself remained to talk over the curious adventures of the evening. We were both convinced that Castles was at any rate a great villain, and I was determined in future not to be in a room where he was.
On the next morning, Dr. Watson and Mr. Thistlewood came to apologise for the ill-behaviour of their friend Castles, who they assured me was at heart a very good fellow, but that he was overcome with liquor on the preceding evening, and that he now wished very much to have an opportunity of making an apology in person, for which purpose he was waiting hard by. I, however, positively refused to see him, saying, that I believed him to be a great scoundrel, and that I would on no account suffer him to come into my room again; and I not only cautioned the Doctor against him, but I believe I told him to take care, or Castles would bring him to the gallows. In fact, I made up my mind that as long as the Doctor and Mr. Thistlewood kept company with such a fellow, I would have nothing to do with them in private, nor would ever see them alone. The Doctor will recollect that, when they called on me in the evening afterwards, to make some inquiry about the proceedings which were to be adopted on the following meeting, intended to be held on the 2d of December, I declined to enter into any particulars, and did not even ask them to take a seat, although Mr. Mitchell, a liveryman of the city, was with me. I felt that I had been in very dangerous company, and, though I would not neglect my public duty, I was determined that I would not place myself in the power of such a man as Mr. Castles appeared to me to be.
On the day of the meeting of the 15th of November, the Courier newspaper roundly stated that HUNT had arrived at the meeting about one o'clock, and, after having addressed the multitude in a most inflammatory speech, had submitted to them a memorial to be presented to the Prince Regent, full of treasonable matter; and the corrupt knave, who conducts that paper, actually inserted one of the resolutions of the memorial which Dr. Watson and Mr. Thistlewood had submitted to me, and which I had rejected. The truth was, that the Government had previously procured a copy of the said memorial, from a person of the name of Dyall, one of the party who had called the meeting, and as this memorial had been unanimously agreed to by the Committee, my Lord Sidmouth, the Secretary of State, and his agents, made so certain that I should fall into this trap, and propose it to the meeting, that their principal organ, the editor of the Courier newspaper, actually inserted a copy of it in the paper, as having been proposed by me at the meeting. But they soon found, to their sorrow, that old birds were not to be caught with chaff; for that I had blasted their fondest hopes of bloodshed, by proposing a petition to the Prince Regent, of a nature totally the reverse of the said memorial; which petition was universally adopted by the meeting; and that I had undertaken to present it to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, and had also promised to report the answer, if I received any, at the next meeting, which was appointed to be held on Monday, the 2d of December.
On the following day, not only the Courier and the Morning Post, but every paper published in the metropolis (with the exception of the Statesman, which was then conducted by Mr. Lovell), joined in pouring forth a torrent of falsehood, misrepresentation, and abuse of me. I do not know that I can give a more correct account of what took place in London, more fairly represent the conduct of the public press upon this occasion, than by giving an extract from Mr. Cobbett's Register, which was published the ensuing week, as follows, headed "SPA-FIELDS MEETING:"
"Since my long acquaintance with the press, I do not think that I have ever witnessed so much baseness of conduct as this Meeting has given rise to. If Mr. Hunt had been the most notorious pick-pocket; if he had been a raggamuffin covered with a coat hired for the day; if he had been a fellow who took up his lodgings in the brick-kilns or in the niches on Westminster Bridge; and if he had actually proposed to the Meeting to go directly and plunder the silversmiths' shops and cut the throats of all those who opposed them; if he had drank off a glass of human blood by way of moistening his throat: monstrous as this is, it is a real fact, that, if he had been and had done all this, the London press could not have treated him in a worse manner than it has. The Statesman newspaper is an exception; but, I believe, that it is almost the only exception. Talk of violence indeed! Was there ever violence like this heard of in this world before? And, what is the monstrous crime which has emboldened these literary ruffians to make this savage assault, and which induces them to suppose that they shall finally escape with impunity? They, the vile wretches, are the real mob. They attack in body; they know that defence is impossible; they know, that a hundred times the fortune of Mr. Hunt would not purchase enough of their columns to contain an answer to their falsehoods. Is this manly, is this fairness, is this discussion, is this liberty of the press? Infamous cowards! They merit to be dragged by a halter fastened round their necks, and whipped through the streets. They talk of decency and decorum indeed! They call people blackguards and ruffians! They pretend to complain of misrepresentation and exaggeration! They! who set up one common howl of foul abuse and viperous calumny.
"But, what is the act which has awakened all those filthy curs, and put them in motion? Some persons, no matter who, but, I believe, some suffering tradesmen, in London, agreed to call a meeting of distressed people in Spa-fields, in order to present a petition on the subject of their sufferings: one of the Committee, who had called this Meeting, wrote to Mr. Hunt to come and assist at it. This he did. Being there, he proposed a Petition, which was agreed to. This Petition has appeared in the Statesman newspaper, to which I refer the reader; and when he has looked at it, he will be convinced, that, if the language of moderation be desirable, the language of this petition is much more moderate than that of almost any petition, which has recently appeared in print. Upon what ground, then, is this outrageous abuse founded? The Meeting separated very quietly; never did any Meeting partake less of riotous behaviour. In the evening of the same day, a mob of boys and others attacked some bakers' and butchers' shops. But, whose fault was this? Was it Mr. Hunt's, who seems to have spent a quarter of an hour in endeavouring to convince his hearers, that to commit such acts was to prove themselves unworthy of relief; or, was it the fault of those pestiferous vehicles of falsehood, the Courier and the Times, who are incessantly inveighing against the avarice of bakers and butchers?
"It is clear, that these proceedings of the evening had no connection with the Meeting, but, on the contrary, that every thing which was said at the Meeting had a natural tendency to prevent them. As to the attack on the office of the Morning Chronicle, that might possibly arise out of what Mr. Hunt said at the Meeting. And, what then? Was he to endure the calumnies, the unprovoked calumnies, of that paper for years, and never reply a word? It would have cost him hundreds of pounds to cause to be published in that paper answers to a hundredth part of the base attacks upon him contained in that same paper. And, was he never to answer in any way? Was he, when he had a hundred thousand men within his hearing, to abstain from expressing his indignation at the conduct of that paper, lest, by possibility, the indignation might be catching? The Morning Chronicle, The Courier, and Times, make no scruple to endeavour to cause him to be knocked in the head; they point him out for either hanging or murdering; they are ready beforehand with an apology for any one who may take his life. And is he, who can find no entrance into their columns, without covering his paragraph with gold, to abstain from uttering a word against them when he comes before a public meeting, lest the people should espouse his cause and demolish their windows? Whence have they derived this privilege of assaulting him with impunity? He has no newspaper in his hands. He has no means of answering them through the press. They assail him, sitting snugly in their offices. They assail him daily. And, is he never to open his lips at any time, or at any place?
"Where, then, is the ground of all this infamous abuse? After accusing Mr. Hunt of having raised a mob for treasonable purposes, some of the papers have, in the most serious manner, asserted that he was insane, and that he had been to a madhouse! Is not this a pretty stretch of calumny? Is a man bound to endure this in silence? 'He has his redress at law.' Oh! the base cowards! Their answer is worse than their crime.
"Was it any fault in an Englishman, living in the country, to come to London to take part at a Meeting of Englishmen in distress? Was this any fault? No one can say that it was.—The Meeting had been advertised many days before any knowledge of it reached Mr. Hunt; he was requested to come up; and who can blame him for coming? However, it is not a question of blame or no blame; he had a right to come, and he chose to exercise his right. If, indeed, the invitation had been from persons in prosperity, he might have easily declined; but, I do not see how he was to resist the call of people in distress.
"But his speech, that was 'inflammatory.' Good God! what is not inflammatory now-a-days? But, though the speech might, and, I dare say, did contain matter much stronger than that which I have read in the report of it, I am very sure that it could not surpass what I have read in the Morning Chronicle within this month; and that it could not surpass (for nothing can surpass) the inflammatory matter in the Times and the Courier on the subject of their alleged extortions of the Bakers and Butchers. Besides, as to the printed reports of the speech, Mr. Hunt was wholly at the mercy of the Reporters. They have made him say just what they pleased, and he has no redress; no means of correction; no chance of being heard in explanation. They impute to him the having asserted, that Lady Oxford is on the pension list. This was false, as he has since proved to me by the list which he read. It has been asserted, that he went to the Meeting with a tri-coloured flag. This is also false, he never having known of the existence of any flag until his arrival on the spot; and, was he to go away merely because some whimsical persons had hoisted a flag and a cap of Liberty? Besides, are there not flags enough at contested elections? Do not freemasons and others parade about with flags? Why was this meeting not to have a flag, if it chose it? Call the thing nonsensical if you please, and I shall not dissent. But, where was the harm? Where was the justification for all this vile, this atrocious abuse?
"It is said, that Mr. Hunt urged the people to use physical force if their petition was not granted. This also is false; or, at least, he assures me that it is; and I believe him, because it was too foolish for him to think of. But, how often have we heard of resistance being recommended? Mr. Fox once recommended it, and he never was calumniated in this outrageous manner. I have no doubt that many things escaped Mr. Hunt during his speech, that he himself wished he had uttered in more select phrases; but, who is there who is so very choice upon such occasions? If any one say, that he would do better to remain in Hampshire or Wiltshire, and take care of his farms, the answer is, that he is seemingly of a different opinion. He chooses to take a part in public matters. He prefers this bustle to the tranquillity of a country life. The boisterous hallooing of multitudes is more pleasing to his ears than the chinkling of the plough traces, the bleating of lambs, or the song of the nightingale. His taste may be bad; but, a'God's name, do not cover him with all sorts of infamous names and imputations, on account of his want of taste. Besides, if this sort of objection were made to leaders at Public Meetings, we should, I imagine, have very few meetings. One might be told to keep to his snuff shop, another to his haberdashery, and so on. Indeed, the tools of Corruption are so very nice upon this head, that I have never yet heard of any one trade, or calling, which they did not despise, if a man who came forward against abuses happened to be of that trade or calling; and, on the other hand, there is nothing too low or vile for them, if it be put forward in Corruption's defence, or employed as one of her agents.
"We shall see in the end how this most calumniated gentleman conducts himself. He has engaged to carry the Prince's answer to the Spa-fields Meeting next Monday week. Now, if, in the conducting of this business, he shall be found to have acted the part of a stupid country jolterhead, or of a head-strong insolent ass, let him be left to the public contempt; but, if he shall be found to have carried the matter through with due respect towards the Prince and his Ministers, and at the same time, with the spirit and resolution of an independent man, let him have the praise that will be his due.
"In the meanwhile it must be not a little mortifying to the Morning Chronicle in particular to see, that votes of thanks to Mr. Hunt have been passed at many of those meetings, in different parts of the kingdom, the proceedings at which meetings Mr. Perry has very highly and very justly praised! How will this calumniator of Mr. Hunt account for this? And how will he account for the speech of Mr. Hunt, at the late Westminster Meeting, having been re-published in Norfolk, and widely circulated in that county? There can have been no trick made use of by Mr. Hunt to produce these effects. He has no acquaintances and cronies about the country. Ten times his fortune would not have purchased him these marks of popularity. And, why should the people of Spa-fields be abused for having chosen to ask the assistance of him, who has received votes of thanks from those very meetings, both in England and Scotland, the proceedings of which meetings Mr. Perry of the Chronicle has praised to the skies? Surely, the people in Scotland, in Norfolk, in Lancashire, cannot have had their judgment unduly biassed in his favour! They have heard the former outrageous abuse of Mr. Hunt; never have heard, except by mere accident, a word in his defence; and, yet they have most solemnly decided, that his efforts are worthy of their praise and of their specific thanks.
"Were I, who am acquainted with Mr. Hunt, to say to him, 'why do you not stay quietly at home and attend to your country affairs, and pursue the foxes, and hares, and pheasants, when you find yourself in need of recreation? You will be much happier in so doing, than in getting into all this turmoil of politics, and exposing yourself to so much calumny, and, indeed, to the hatred of those, whose hatred is full of danger to you.' If I were to say this to him, would he not be fully justified in asking me, why I did not myself act upon the principle of my own advice? Times and circumstances create men; or, at least, they call men forth, who would otherwise have remained unknown to the end of their days; and the present are times when it is impossible for such men as Mr. Hunt to remain dormant.
"Since writing the former part of this article, I have discovered, that the report of Mr. Hunt's speech in the Statesman was taken, word for word, or nearly so, from the Chronicle. The evening papers have, I find, no reporters. So that no true account has gone forth; and thus has the misrepresentation circulated without the possibility of defence! There is a gentleman in Wiltshire, whose name is Benett, whose speech, at an agricultural meeting, about the Corn Bill, was published in all the London papers, and which speech, as published, drew down on him the execrations of those same papers, and, indeed, of the public in general. He said, that he never uttered such words; that he bad been very grossly misrepresented. He wrote to some of these same papers a contradiction of the statement; a defence of himself. But, in order to get in a short paragraph, he was called upon to pay to one paper nineteen guineas! and, though he has a fortune of, probably, 10,000l. a year, he declared that his fortune would have been insufficient to obtain the means of defending himself through the same channels which had attacked him. A hundred such fortunes would not have obtained the means of such defence; for, the moment he had paid for inserting a defence against one calumny, he would have found another to defend himself against. What, then, is a calumniated man to do? The law! The reptiles know how to evade that; and, besides, where is the fortune sufficient for law? Therefore, the calumnies must go and take their course. If men cannot hear up against them, they must hold their peace, and retire from before the public. Whether Mr. Hunt is to be driven off by these means remains to be seen.
The reader, who is old enough to recollect this circumstance, will never forget the infamous conduct of the public press at that time. Mr. Cobbett's description of it, in the above extract, is by no means an exaggeration. The younger branch of my readers may thus form some faint idea of what a bold and straight-forward friend of the people had to encounter in the year 1816. While this cry was yet at its height, I wrote to Sir Francis Burdett, who was then staying at Brighton, with General Halse, the Aid-de-Camp of the Prince Regent, and I informed him of the resolution which had been passed, requesting him, at the same time, to present the petition to the Prince Regent, a copy of which and of the resolutions, I enclosed to him as they were published in the Statesman newspaper. I likewise begged that he would favour me with an answer, to say when he would please to present it, as I wished to accompany him, agreeable to the instructions of the meeting. I received a very laconic answer from the Baronet, saying, that "he did not choose to be made a cat's-paw of, neither would he insult the Prince Regent." As I had for many years been upon terms of intimacy with Sir Francis Burdett, and had always acted in strict conformity with his political principles, I own that I considered that answer to me as a direct insult, and, in the heat of the moment, I was disposed at once to resent it as such. From this, however, I was dissuaded by Mr. Cobbett and Major Cartwright, who were extremely anxious not to do any thing to risk the loss of Sir Francis Burdett's support to the numerous petitions which had been agreed to, and were preparing to be sent up to the Parliament, from all parts of the kingdom.
Mr. Cobbett had addressed several of his Registers to Sir Francis, pointing out what sort of Reform it was necessary and just the people should have. In these letters he contended for Annual Parliaments, and that all direct tax-payers should have a vote, but no others. In his Register, No. 16, of Volume 31, published on the 19th of October, after having in a very elaborate manner maintained this doctrine, he says, "All, therefore, that the Reformers have now to do, is to adhere to the above-stated main points. Every man who pays a direct tax to have a vote; and Parliaments to be elected annually." The test to ascertain whether a man should have a vote or not, is laid down by Mr. Cobbett as follows:—"When a man comes to vote, the Church-wardens who have the charge of the ballot-box ask his name; the Overseers look into their rate-book, to see whether he be a TAX-PAYER; finding his name there, they bid him put in his ballot, which done, home he goes to his business. If the Overseers do not find him to be a tax-payer, he, of course, does not vote." This was the sort of Reform which, on the 19th of October, 1816, Mr. Cobbett proposed as competent to work our salvation.
Mr. Cobbett, very properly, attributed a great portion of the evils which the people endured to the corrupt state of the public press, which he denominated "blind guides." "They are," said he (in speaking of the provincial papers), "some of them tools of corruption, and some of them dumb dogs, that have not the courage to take the part either of right or wrong; they are neither one thing nor the other; they are quite vapid, and, therefore, will the public 'spew them out of their mouths.' Not, indeed, such papers as the Nottingham Review, the Stamford News, the LIVERPOOL MERCURY, and some others, the proprietors of which do honour to the press, and the pages of which will always be read with pleasure and advantage." This is the way in which he spoke and wrote of Mr. Egerton Smith, the proprietor of the Liverpool Mercury, in the year 1816.
After the great public meeting, which had been held in Spa-fields, on the 15th of November, Mr. Cobbett, in the very next Number of his Register, published on the 23d of that month, came round all at once to Universal Suffrage; and he says, "In Nos. 16 and 18 I gave my reasons for excluding from the vote all persons who did not pay direct taxes." He then very clearly demonstrates the justice of every one having a vote, and adds, "But, it appeared to me, when I wrote Nos. 16 and 18, to be too difficult to put this right in motion all at once; and therefore I recommended the confining of the right of voting to the payers of direct taxes, until there should be time for a reformed Parliament to change the mode of taxing. Since, however, I have come to London, I have had an opportunity of consulting MAJOR CARTWRIGHT upon the subject; and the result is, my THOROUGH CONVICTION that nothing short Of UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE would be just, and that such a system is perfectly practicable." This was published on the 23d of November, 1816. The reader will have to recollect these things when I come to detail what took place at the meeting of delegates, in London, on the following January. Now, Mr. Cobbett says that "there are three things for which I contend—Universal Suffrage, Annual Parliaments, and Vote by Ballot."
As soon as I received Sir Francis Burdett's letter, declining to present the petition of the distressed people to the Prince Regent, I took the earliest opportunity of proceeding to Carlton House by myself. When I arrived there, I was informed that Colonel McMahon, his Royal Highness's secretary, had left town, and would not return till two o'clock the next day. I informed the under secretary, who was in waiting, who I was, and what was my business, and I made an appointment to wait on Colonel McMahon at two o'clock on the following day. I took care to knock at the gate at Carlton House at the appointed time, and the moment that the gate was open, the porter took off his hat, and, ringing a bell, accosted me by name, and requested me to walk forward to the front door, which I had scarcely reached before the large folding doors of Carlton House were thrown open, and I was politely requested by the attendants to walk in, as Colonel McMahon was ready to receive me. I was ushered into his apartments in great state, and was immediately introduced to him by name. I was most graciously received by the Secretary, to whom I stated that I was deputed to present to his Royal Highness a petition, agreed to at a meeting of nearly one hundred thousand of his distressed subjects of the metropolis, assembled in Spafields on the 15th, and that I wished to know when I could have an audience for that purpose. The Colonel then took his book, and informed me that the next levee would take place in about three weeks, which was the first opportunity that I could have of being introduced to his Royal Highness the Prince Regent. I told him that would be too distant a date, and I begged to know if there were no means of presenting the petition earlier, as I had promised to deliver the Prince's answer to the people on the second of December, when they would assemble again to hear what the answer was. To this he replied, that the only other means was to forward the paper through the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who, he had no doubt, would deliver it to his Royal Master immediately, as he knew it was considered by the Ministers as a matter of very considerable importance. I thanked him for his polite attention and obliging information, and I then retired with the same form as I entered, the Colonel attending me to the doors, which were thrown wide open as before.
I immediately wrote a letter to Lord Sidmouth, to appoint a time when I could have an audience, for the purpose of delivering to him the petition to be presented to the Prince Regent, and I carried this letter myself direct to the office of the Secretary of State, and sent it up to his Lordship, saying, that I would wait in the ante-room for an answer. In a very few minutes the servant in waiting returned, attended by an under secretary, who said that Lord Sidmouth would give me an audience immediately, and he desired that I would follow him. I did so, and was forthwith introduced into the audience room, where his Lordship received me with all that parade of overstrained politeness which belongs to a finished courtier. He was surrounded by some half-dozen lordlings, who, from the manner in which he ordered them out of the room, appeared to be hungry expectants, seeking and supplicating some place, office, or boon. They vanished in a twinkling, and his Lordship could not hear a word for the world, till I did him the honour to take a seat, which he politely drew for me. My letter had explained the object of my visit, and, after having briefly apologised for intruding at a time when he was surrounded by others, I expressed my wish to have the petition of 100,000 of the distressed inhabitants of the metropolis, who had assembled in Spafields the preceding Monday, presented to the Prince Regent; and I then put into his hands the petition: he read it over attentively, and having finished the perusal of it, he said that it was a most important paper, and was couched in such proper language, that he should feel it his duty to lay it before his Royal Master the very first thing on the following morning, and he had not the least doubt but every attention would be paid to the prayer of it. I begged to know if I might expect any reply from his Royal Highness. He answered, certainly not; it being the practice never to give any answer to petitions; but, if it was thought advisable to attend to the prayer of it, his Royal Highness's Ministers would immediately act upon it, and indeed he had no doubt that it would receive due attention. He then entered into familiar conversation as to the nature and extent of the meeting; and I embraced the opportunity of pointing out, in glowing terms, the great and severe distress under which the mass of the people were labouring, and expressing my earnest hopes that some relief would be granted to them. He next introduced the subject of the Memorial, a copy of which, he informed me, he had received several days before the meeting was held; and he declared, that if any attempt at going in a body to Carlton House had been made, it would have been resisted by the military, and that bloodshed would have been the consequence. He was perfectly aware that I had been the cause of setting aside the Memorial, and substituting the petition in its stead; and he emphatically added, "his Majesty's Ministers are greatly indebted to you, and they are fully sensible that you have been the cause of preventing a great public calamity; you have prevented the spilling of human blood." I told him that I had promised to attend another meeting, in the same place, on the Second of December, to acquaint them with the result of my application, and I promised him that I would represent it fairly. With this he appeared perfectly satisfied, and he repeated the assurance, that he would lay the petition before his Royal Highness the moment he could gain access to him in the morning, and that he had no doubt it would receive due attention.
In the evening paper, the Courier, of the next day, it was announced that the Spafields petition bad been presented to the Prince Regent, who had graciously ordered FOUR THOUSAND POUNDS to be paid to the Spitalfields soup committee; which sum was to be taken from the Droits of the Admiralty. In consequence of this grant from his Royal Highness, the soup committee met, and called a public meeting in the city, for the purpose of promoting the subscriptions, and devising the best means of relieving the distress which now was admitted universally to prevail amongst the labouring classes in the metropolis; so that it was quite evident that our Spafields meeting had produced infinite good, that in all probability it had been the means of saving the lives of thousands, and relieving the distresses of tens of thousands. Mr. Fowell Buxton attended this meeting, and, after having described the unparalleled distress and misery of the people, he made a most animated and feeling appeal to the humanity of the public, to come forward to relieve them. This and all the other meetings that followed, and all the subscriptions that were raised, may very justly be ascribed to the meeting at Spafields; for till that meeting took place, the general overwhelming distress was little known, and less regarded, by the opulent and powerful, who alone had the means of relieving it. Notwithstanding this was undeniably the fact, yet the whole public press of the metropolis, with very few exceptions, was daily employed in spreading the most atrocious falsehoods and calumnies against me, for having attended that meeting. I was represented as a traitor, and one who wished to overturn the sacred institutions of the country, and to produce revolution, confusion, and bloodshed. The Times, the Chronicle, the Morning Post, and the Courier, held me up to public execration, and even pointed me out for destruction. The editor of the Times, who was then the notorious Dr. Slop, alias Dr. Stoddart, the present proprietor of the New Times, urged my assassination over and over again. As, however, no one would kill me in reality, he determined at least to kill me in print. Accordingly along article was inserted in the paper, announcing, in the gravest manner, the death of Hunt. It stated that I bad got drunk, at Mr. Thompson's gin-shop on Holborn-hill, and had fallen into one of the areas of the new buildings at Waterloo-place, opposite Carlton-House, where I was found dead. A few days afterwards, it was declared that they were misinformed as to my death, but that I was taken in a melancholy state of insanity to Bedlam; and the writer gave an account of the incoherent conversation which I had held with Major Cartwright, Mr. Cobbett, and Sir Francis Burdett, who had been to visit me. These accounts were given in such a serious manner, the details were so minute, and they had altogether so much the appearance of truth, that many of my friends and relations in the country were exceedingly alarmed, not having any idea that the editor of a respectable newspaper would have the impudence to put forth such barefaced falsehoods. There was also generally one scoundrel or other who gratified his malignity by writing to my family some dreadful story of my death, or of some serious injury which I had received.
On the Saturday previous to the 2d of December I drove again to London, and as I was sitting, in the evening of that day, in the room at the Black Lion, Water Lane, Dr. Watson and Mr. Thistlewood called to consult me upon what I meant to propose on the following Monday. I declined, however, to have any conversation with them upon the subject. I should, I told them, be there at the time appointed (one o'clock), on the ensuing Monday; but that I was going out of town on the next morning, and should return on the following day in time for the meeting. On Sunday morning I left London with my servant, and drove to a friend's, at Wanstead, in Essex, where I passed the day and slept, on purpose to be out of the way of the party which I had before met at Spafields; as, after what I had seen and heard when Mr. Castles was present, I was determined to avoid having any communication with any of them, unless it was in public.
About twelve o'clock I started from Wanstead in my tandem, and, as I was driving down Cheapside at a pretty smart pace, I met a considerable crowd going towards the Mansion-House; and, just after I passed Bow- Church, I saw Mr. John Castles amongst those who appeared to be going in a contrary direction from that which led to Spafields. He beckoned me, and I drew up to the pavement to inquire the cause of what appeared to me rather extraordinary. Before, however, I could put the question to Mr. Castles, he inquired where I was going? to which I replied, "to Spafields, to be sure." "Oh," said he, "the meeting has been broken up these two hours nearly; young Watson has got possession of the Tower, and we are all going thither; turn your horses' heads and come with us." I gave him a look that appeared to strike him dumb, and laying my whip upon my wheel-horse, I passed rapidly on, exclaiming "what a ——— scoundrel!" I looked at the clock of Bow-Church, and saw that it wanted a quarter of an hour to one. I drove on at a smart pace towards Spafields, and observed to my servant, that I had no doubt in my own mind that Castles, the villain whom we had met, was an agent of the Government, a spy; and the suspicions which I entertained of him when I first met him, were now fully confirmed.
When we reached Spafields, the throng was very great, much larger than even at the first meeting of the 15th of November. By the kindness of the multitude I was enabled to drive up to the door of the Merlin's Cave, in the front of which the people were assembled. My servant returned with my tandem, with orders to have my horse Bob, which I drove as leader, ready in the evening with a saddle and bridle on, that I might ride him home to my Inn from the meeting. The cheers of the congregated tens of thousands were almost insupportable; I never heard such before. I made my way into the Merlin's Cave with difficulty, as it was again taken possession of by the police. When I entered the room, I found very few persons there except the newspaper reporters, and the police magistrates with their officers, and none of those that had taken any part at the previous meeting but Mr. William Clark, who was again appointed to take the chair. Watson, Thistlewood, Preston, and all that party were absent, but I had no knowledge of the cause, any farther than the intimation which I had received from the very worthy Mr. John Castles, not one word of which did I believe to be true.
After having addressed the people, I moved a string of resolutions, the first of which inculcated the necessity of peaceable conduct, and denounced as the greatest enemies of Reform all those who should commit any act of violence, or any breach whatever of the peace. Another resolution was, to agree to petition the House of Commons for a Reform in the representation of the people, upon the principle of universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and vote by ballot. The resolutions being seconded by Mr. Haydon of Welbeck-street, were all passed, and the petition which I proposed was unanimously agreed to, and was, as will hereafter be seen, signed by twenty-four thousand of the suffering unrepresented people, and which was presented to the Honourable House by Lord Cochrane.
Towards the latter end of the meeting information was brought to me that, in the course of the day, there had been some serious riots in the city; I therefore immediately cautioned all those who had attended our meeting to avoid mixing themselves up in any way with those illegal and foolish proceedings. I told them that I should ride home to my hotel upon my favourite horse BOB, and, as I knew they would attend me, I earnestly entreated them that, as soon as they had protected me to my abode, they would each of them peaceably and quietly return home, and not give the enemies of Reform an opportunity of attributing disorderly conduct to any part of the meeting. This advice they promised me they would attend to. I then mounted my horse, and almost the whole assembly accompanied me to my inn. As we passed in the front of the House of Correction, in Cold Bath Fields, I observed great numbers of constables and police officers assembled, armed with their staves of office, &c. &c., as if for the purpose of protecting that building from the fury of the populace. But there was not the slightest occasion for this, as the people did not evince the least disposition to do any harm to any one; and, notwithstanding the immense pressure of the crowd, I do not believe that there was a single pane of glass broken.
When we arrived at the Black Lion in Water-lane, I stood up in my stirrups, and demanded of the people if they would grant me one favour? A thousand voices exclaimed "Yes, Sir, any thing that you wish." I then requested them to disperse immediately, and return to their homes. They answered, "We will, we will!" I alighted and went into my inn, and in a very few minutes afterwards the whole of this immense multitude had dispersed, and were on their way homeward, without doing any mischief.
It was now for the first time that I heard any thing of the riots which had taken place in the city. A second edition of the Courier gave a most exaggerated account of them, misrepresenting every thing, and heading the statements "Spafelds Meeting;" when the truth was, that so far from any of the persons who attended the Spafields meeting having had any hand in the riots, they actually knew nothing of the matter, till they heard it from their neighbours, after they had returned home from the meeting. The fact was this: Watson and Thistlewood found that I would not have any thing to do with their wild schemes, whatever they might be; they therefore assembled in Spafields about eleven o'clock in the morning, more than an hour before the persons who meant to attend the meeting began to meet together; they mounted the waggon, and addressed the few individuals that surrounded them, perhaps at the time two or three hundred; the elder Watson harangued them upon the advantages of the Spencean plan, and young Watson, urged on by Castles, having briefly addressed them, jumped from the waggon, and called upon those who wished to be led on to victory to follow him; the villain Castles taking care to leave a few bullets, wrapped up in an old stocking, so exposed in the waggon, that those who remained could not avoid seeing them. The whole of what occurred was reported by Mr. Spectacle Dowling, a confidential reporter of the Sunday Observer, who swore to the particulars afterwards with an astonishing degree of minuteness, although other reporters who were present declared, that not one-tenth of what was said could be heard.
About forty persons followed young Watson, accompanied by his friend Castles; and Mr. Dowling the reporter followed this little squad of desperadoes, no doubt for the purpose of giving a faithful detail of what passed, although he was sent by Mr. Clement, of the Observer, to report the proceedings of the meeting to be held in Spafields at one o'clock. It appears that having been reinforced by a party of distressed sailors and others, who were returning from the Old-Bailey, where they had been to witness the hanging of some criminals, these gentry attacked and began to plunder the shop of Mr. Beckwith, a gun-smith, in Skinner-street. It is said that young Watson was seized there by a man of the name of Platt, and that, in order to save himself, he fired a pistol loaded with powder and wadding only, which wounded the said Platt in the groin. Young Watson was, however, seized and taken up stairs into a back room, and the front doors of the shop and the windows were closed. During the confusion Platt escaped over a back wall of the premises, and as young Watson was left in the house a prisoner at large, he walked into a front room, opened a window that looked into the street, and waved his handkerchief to the multitude, to make an effort to relieve him. This they immediately attended to: a sailor volunteered his services, and being hoisted up by the people, he threw himself through the fan-light over the front door, which he soon opened, and Watson was released without any resistance. They then seized some of the guns, and pushed forward towards the Exchange, firing in the air as they passed along Newgate-street and Cheapside. They entered the Exchange; upon which the doors were closed upon them, and Alderman Wood, who was a second time Lord Mayor, and Sir James Shaw, seized a sailor or two, one of whom proved to be Cashman, who was then bearing the tricoloured flag. The rest of the party, headed by Watson, marched off to the Tower, where, as it was afterwards sworn, Thistlewood demanded of the soldiers upon duty on the parapets to surrender the Tower to them. Some of the party broke into a gunsmith's shop in the Minories, and carried off several of his guns, some finished and others not finished. By this time, however, a half-dozen of horse soldiers made their appearance upon Tower-hill, upon which the authors of this mighty insurrection all fled with the greatest precipitancy, helter skelter, the devil take the hindermost, without the soldiers having made a charge, raised an arm, or even approached near to them.
So much for this disgraceful and contemptible riot, during the whole of which not one life was lost, and, with the exception of Platt, not one person was even wounded or hurt. While these things were going on, it has been seen that Castles had contrived to way-lay me, in Cheapside, on my road from Wanstead towards Spafields; and, as I have before observed, kindly invited me to accompany him to the Tower, which he said young Watson had got possession of for more than an hour before.
In the evening the elder Watson and Thistlewood were taken near Paddington or Islington, as they were endeavouring to make their escape into the country. The worthy Mr. John Castles no doubt surrendered himself, and soon after Preston and Hooper were apprehended, and they were all five committed to prison. I believe a reward of 750l. was offered for the apprehension of the chief conspirator, young Watson. The next day the London papers were crammed full of the most wonderful accounts of this most wonderful plot and insurrection; attributing the whole of it to ME, and to the Spaflelds meeting. The London press had raised such an outcry as never was heard of before; and if ten thousand of the inhabitants of the city had been massacred, there could not have been greater consternation produced throughout the whole country; which consternation was sedulously kept up by the most abominable falsehoods promulgated by almost the whole of the country provincial newspapers. As a faithful account of the whole transaction was published at the time by Mr. Cobbett, in his Register of the 13th of December, in a letter which he addressed to me on the subject, and as it contains matter worthy to be recorded in my Memoirs, I shall insert it verbatim.
"A Letter to Henry Hunt, Esq. of Middleton Cottage, near Andover, on the London Plots.
"London, 13th Dec. 1816.
"Sir—The summer before last, when you came over to Botley and found me transplanting Swedish turnips amidst dust, and under a sun which scorched the leaves till they resembled fried parsley, you remember how I was fretting and stewing; how many times in an hour I was looking out for a south-western cloud; how I watched the mercury in the glass, and rapped the glass with my knuckles to try to move it in my favour. But great as my anxiety then was, and ludicrous as were my movements, ten thousand times greater has been that of Corruption's Press for the coming of a PLOT, and ten thousand times more ludicrous its movements in order to hasten the accomplish ment of its wishes! You remember how my wife laughed at me, when, in the evening, some boys having thrown a handful or two of sand over the wall, that made a sort of dropping on the leaves of the laurels, I took it for the beginning of a shower, and pulled off my hat and held up my hand to see whether more was not coming, though there was nothing to be seen in the sky but the stars shining as bright as silver. Just such has been the conduct of Corruption's sons upon hearing of the discovery of Mr. Watson's and Mr. Preston's papers.' They sigh for a PLOT. Oh, how they sigh! They are working and slaving and fretting and stewing; they are sweating all over; they are absolutely pining and dying for a Plot!
"In these their wishes it is hard to say which character is most prominent, the fool or the knave; for, if by any means, they were to make out the real existence of a Plot for the destruction of the Government, would such proof tend to the credit of that Government in the eyes of the world at large, or in those of the people of this kingdom? Would it tend to make the world believe that the Government is good, and is beloved by the people? Would it tend to lessen the mass of misery that is now in existence? Would it tend to enable the Landlords and Farmers to pay the interest of the Debt? And, if it would have no such tendency, what good could arise to the Government from the producing of even undeniable proof of the existence of a Plot of any sort, however extensive?
"But, as clearly appears from all their publications, the main hope of Corruption's sons has been to trace a Plot to YOU! In order to effect this, they have stuck at no thing that villainy could suggest. They have asserted as admitted facts hundreds of falsehoods. As a specimen of these, the Times, Sun, Courier, and others have stated 'on authority,' that you and I were in close consultation, on the Sunday before the riots, with Lord Cochrane, in the King's Bench Prison. You know that you were at Wanstead, in Essex, all that day; and I know that I was at Peckham, in Surrey, never having seen you on that day, and not until the succeeding Tuesday. The wretched man who conducts the Sun newspaper asserted, that I came up for the express purpose of organizing the Plot; and that, having prepared every thing, I set of to Botley the night before it broke out.—Here I have been in London, however, without having stirred out of it one minute from that time to this. I could mention a hundred other falsehoods which the sons of Corruption have sent forth with equal boldness, with equal impudence, and with equal baseness. But, the Times newspaper, always preeminent in infamy, asserted, that 'Young Cobbett' was one of the persons who spent the evening with you after your return from the Spa-fields Meeting on the Monday. The object of this falsehood was to alarm his mother and sisters for his safety, seeing that that statement was accompanied with other falsehoods calculated to excite a fear that all who were with you that evening would be implicated in some state crime! It is for the Courier, the Sun, the Post, and some others to be guilty of premeditated falsehoods, but it is only, I believe, for Walter, the Proprietor of the Times, and the instigator to the killing of the brave Marshal Ney, to be guilty of such baseness as this.
"However, even these falsehoods will tend to good. There are yet many very worthy people, who have believed in the statement of these sons of Corruption; who, judging too much from their own hearts and minds, have not been able to work themselves into a belief, that other men could be so totally void of all sense of moral feeling as coolly to put upon paper, in the most serious and solid manner, and to send forth as acknowledged truths, that which they know to be utterly false. To such worthy persons it seems to be a libel on human nature to suppose, that such black-hearted villainy can be in existence. They cannot conceive how a man can dare walk the streets, or how he can look even his acquaintances or his own family in the face, after being guilty of such shameful conduct. They now see, however, that this really is the case; and, though there are some who will still, from corrupt motives, affect to believe in the statements of these corrupt men, there will, I hope, be found a great many to say, that they have been deceived, and that they will be deceived no longer.
"The unfortunate men, whom want and ruin have driven to deeds of desperation, are not, with all their temptations, more desperate in their way than are the sons of Corruption in theirs, without any temptation at all. The numerous and ponderous facts, the clear and forcible arguments, by which they have been assailed, leave them no means of defence.—They have been driven to the wall, beaten, subdued. They dare not show themselves, in the field of dispute. They, therefore, resort to false accusations; and, unable to find any thing upon which to put a false construction, they have, at last, thrown aside all attempts to discover the means of misrepresentation, and have had recourse to open, unblushing, to sheer invented falsehoods. That love of fair play, for which all orders of Englishmen in all ages have been so famed, finds no place in the bosoms of these degenerate men.—They enter the ring with seeming bravery, but being, round after round, knocked down and crippled, they use, like a Dutchman, their remaining strength to draw out a snigarsnee to run into our bowels. Let us, however, by a steady and cool perseverance in the cause of our country's freedom and happiness, endeavour to break the arm that wields this hateful instrument of malignity and cowardice.
"You, conscious of your honourable motives, and listening only to your courage, have always been deaf to the intreaties of those who cautioned you against the danger of spies and false-witnesses. But, do you think that the wretches who could be base enough to publish falsehoods such as I have enumerated above: who could coolly represent you as having been sent first to gaol and then to Bedlam; and who, in order to deter me from my duty, could exhibit my son as being in danger of his life, and thereby cause alarm in his mother and sisters: do you think that men so lost to all sense of shame, and so devoted to every thing that is corrupt; do you think they would hesitate one moment to bribe villains to swear falsely against you or against me or against any man, whom they thought it their interest to destroy? Nay, do you think that they would hesitate one single half moment to be guilty, for such a purpose, of the blackest perjury themselves? Be you assured, that there is nothing of which such men are not capable; intimidation, promises, bribes, perjury, any thing such men are capable of recommending to others, or of doing themselves. Your country life, your sober habits, your dislike of feastings and carousings; these are great securities; but, while you follow the impulses of your public-spirit and your valour, I hope you will always bear in mind, that there are such things as false-swearing in the world, and that a defeated coward has never been known to be otherwise than inexorably cruel. The proprietor of the Morning Post, in his paper of last Monday, says, that Cobbett and Hunt ought at least to lose their lives; and the author of the Antigallican has, I am told, put the drawing of a gallows in his Paper, with a rope ready for use, having my name on it, or very near it.—And, you may be well assured, that, if the false oaths of these men could do the job, those oaths would be very much at our service. Therefore, though I am quite sure, that these menaces will not deter you from doing any thing, which you would have done if the menaces had never been made; yet, as being proofs of the shameless, the remorseless, the desperate villainy of these tools, their present conduct ought to impress on your mind the necessity of being on your guard, so far, at least, as not unnecessarily to expose yourself to the consequences of false-swearing. These men and their associates call the younger Mr. Watson (whom they, without proof, charge with shooting Mr. Platt) an assassin, though they themselves state, that the shot arose from the seizure of Watson by Platt, and that the former, like a wild enthusiast as he appears to have been, expressed his sorrow on the instant, and actually went to work to save the life of the wounded man. Nobody justifies, or attempts to justify, the shooter; but, if he were an assassin, what are these men who, while they keep their names hidden, are endeavouring to produce persecution and ruin and death in every direction? The man who shot Mr. Platt, though highly criminal, is not a thousandth part so criminal as these men, who to premeditated bloody-mindedness add a degree of cowardice such as was never before heard of.
"Let me now, before I proceed to other topics, hastily trace the progress of the developement of the Plot, as given to us through the channel of these same Papers. When Mr. Watson the elder was taken, the sons of Corruption promised the public a series of grand discoveries. His answers to the questions put to him, appear, however, to have been perfectly open and frank. All that was really found out from him was, that he was a surgeon who had lived in great esteem, and had a family who had been rendered so miserable by want, that 'a lovely daughter of his had died for the want of the things, such as wine, &c. necessary to her recovery.' His story, of the truth of which there appears to be no doubt, would have softened any hearts but those of the sons of Corruption, who, instead of expressing compassion for his calamities, are as loudly vociferating for his blood, as they did for the blood of Marshal Ney. They tell us, that he attributed all the sufferings of himself and others 'to the Oligarchy;' but, not a word does he seem to have said, that can justify these detestable writers in imputing to him any share in any Plot or in any Riot.
"The lodgings of himself and his son have been searched, and all their papers seized, amongst the rest, we are told, a Letter from you to the younger Watson. Oh! what a prize! How the eye must have glistened upon the sight of your name at the bottom of a letter to the 'Chief Conspirator,' as they call him! With what eager haste were the contents run over! With what trembling, what slavering expectation must those contents have been perused! Alas! how the head must have turned slowly away and the Letter have fallen gently upon the table, when those contents became intelligible to the fluttering senses, now returned to a state of coolness!
"Corruption's darlings confess, that there was nothing in 'this' letter that showed you to have bad any criminal hand in 'the conspiracy.' How came these newspaper writers to know the contents of your letter? Who was it that authorized them to publish this account of your letter? Either they know its contents, or they do not: if the latter, they have published what they do not know to be true; if the former, why do they not publish the whole of those contents? The reason is this: the contents of your letter would convince every man who should see them, that you were not only ignorant of any Plot or Conspiracy; but that, if your correspondent really had any such views (which I do not believe) your letter was calculated to check any hope that he might have entertained of having your co-operation. This is what, I venture to say, the contents of your letter would have proved to the satisfaction of every well-wisher to the peace and happiness of the country; and because they would have proved this, these base writers have carefully kept them out of their columns!
"But, Mr. Preston, they tell us, boldly avows the intended 'insurrection,' and confesses all that can be wished, except, indeed, the main thing, which is, that you had a hand in the said 'insurrection.' However, this is all a falsehood; and, if the proof of its falsehood be not made clearly appear before this day month, I will be content to pass for an ideot for the rest of my life. The account of Mr. Preston's 'confessions,' as the sons of Corruption call them, you shall have in their own words. The Lord Mayor, it seems, went to Mr. Preston's home, and having examined him and his papers, found no grounds for detaining him; but, since that he has been, it appears, taken up and kept in custody, and the following is the account which Corruption's Press gives of his examination: "'The next person of importance who has been apprehended is Thomas Preston, who is called the Secretary to the Spa-fields Committee. This poor wretch lives with his two daughters in a small room in Greystoke-place, Fetter-lane. He has undergone two or three examinations, in all which be has been as communicative as the most zealous could have wished.—The substance of all he related is accurately thus—that a plan of insurrection was formed—that it was as general as it was good, but that precipitancy had injured its progress, though it had not defeated its object. The plan, he asserted, must still be carried into effect—it was too powerful to be resisted when properly undertaken; and the only resource left to the Government, in order to its being averted, was, by the Prince Regent answering the petition of the people, and the immediate adoption of Parliamentary Reform. 'The soldiers,' he added, 'were not firm;' their friends were starving, but they having a provision, forgot their pledge and duty. He acknowledged his connection to the fullest extent with the Spa-fields Meetings, to which he was joint Secretary. He knew the two Watsons, and had frequently acted with them upon the Committees, and various other occasions. He denied having taken the slightest part in the riotous proceedings of Monday, and deprecated in the strongest manner the horrid system of taking away the life of a fellow-creature. He frequently repeated, that the plan was constitutional, and delivered the whole of his account in the most undisguised and enthusiastic manner.' In another examination he is stated to have said, that 'the PLOT had been going on for EIGHT YEARS, and that he himself HAD WRITTEN TO THE LATE MR. PERCEVAL ON THE SUBJECT, urging him to ADOPT it, as the only means of SAVING THE NATION!'
"Now, when your laughing fit is over, let me ask you, whether you ever heard of a Plot and Insurrection like this before? What! an eight years' Plot! a good Insurrection! Dennis, in his criticism upon Addison's silly play of Cato, ridicules the idea of the conspirators against Cato's life picking out Cato's own hall for the scene of their consultations; but these modern Plotters beat Syphax and his associates hollow; for they, in order to further their view of destroying the government, communicate their Plot to the Prime Minister himself!
"What must the people in the country think of all this? What a mass of absurdities and contradictions! What madness it all appears to be! Good insurrections; constitutional attacks on the government! Plots which the prime Minister has been urged to adopt in order to save the nation! What can the people at large make out of such a strange medley? The sons of Corruption it is who have made the medley. They wanted a Plot. The mad riots in the city afforded them a pretext, and they have put the words PLOT and INSURRECTION into Mr. Preston's mouth in order to favour their views. Now, let us see how a plain tale will put them down and expose their malice to the world.
"About sixteen years ago, a Mr. SPENCE, a schoolmaster in Yorkshire, conceived what he called a PLAN for making the nation happy, by taking all the lands into the hands of a just government, and appropriating all the produce or profit to the support of the people, so that there would be no one in want, and all would live in a sort of Christian Brotherhood. This plan, accompanied with some political remarks, he published in 1800, for which he was pursued by a Criminal Information Ex-Officio, by the present Chief Justice, who was then Attorney-General. When brought up for trial I was present in the Court of King's Bench. He had no counsel, but defended himself, and insisted that his views were pure and benevolent, in proof of which, in spite of all exhortations to the contrary, he read his pamphlet through. He was found guilty and sentenced to be imprisoned for I forget how long. He was a plain, unaffected, inoffensive looking creature. He did not seem at all afraid of any punishment, and appeared much more anxious about the success of his plan than about the preservation of his life. After he came out of prison, he pursued the inculcation of his plan, appearing to have no other care; and this he did, I am assured, to the day of his death, always having been a most virtuous and inoffensive man, and always very much beloved by those who knew him.
"We have all seen, for years past, written on the walls, in and near London, these words, "SPENCE'S PLAN:" and I never knew what it meant, until, a little while ago, I received a pamphlet from Mr. Evans, Newcastle-street, Strand, detailing the Plan very fully. This Mr. Evans, I understand to be a very worthy man, and his pamphlet, though I do not agree with it in opinion as to many of its propositions, contains some interesting observations, and breathes a spirit of benevolence throughout the whole.
"Mr. Preston and the Watsons appear to have been followers of Mr. Spence; and the 'plan' of which Mr. Preston is said to have 'confessed' the existence, is, as you will see, 'Spence's Plan,' and nothing more; and nothing more, no, not a hair more, will Corruption's sons, with all their torturing and twisting, with all their falsehoods and affected alarms, be able to make of it! Thus, you will clearly perceive, that the 'confessions,' as they are called, of your correspondent, Mr. Preston, are no confessions at all. You will clearly see, that Corruption's Press has foisted in the words insurrection and plot; for, unless you see this, what sense is there in the words good and constitutional? What absurdity to believe, that a man, and a guilty man, too, would talk about a good insurrection and about a plot that was constitutional, and which plot had been going on for eight years, and had been communicated to Mr. Perceval as the only means of saving the nation! But, strip these lying accounts of the words insurrection and plot, and leave the word plan, and then the whole, however wild in itself, becomes perfectly consistent; and such, you may depend on it, and no other, has been the 'confession' of Mr. Preston.