Spa Fields riots
The Spa Fields Riots was public disorder arising out of mass meetings at Spa Fields, Islington, England on 15 November and 2 December 1816. Revolutionary Spenceans, who opposed the British government, had planned to encourage rioting and then seize control of the government by taking the Tower of London and the Bank of England. Arthur Thistlewood and three other Spencean leaders were arrested and charged with high treason as a result of the riot; James Watson was on trial during June 1817 with Messrs Wetherell and Copley as their defence counsel. Watson was acquitted and the other three were released without trial.
The first Spa Fields meeting, on 15 November 1816, attracted about 10,000 people and passed off peacefully in the main. Its official object was to seek popular support for the delivery of a petition to the Prince Regent, requesting electoral reform and relief from hardship and distress. Henry Hunt addressed the meeting and was elected to deliver the petition, along with Sir Francis Burdett, although the latter subsequently declined to go. The second meeting, on 2 December, was called after Hunt was refused access to the Regent to deliver the petition, and may have been attended by 20,000 people. To advertise for the meeting, the radicals used placards such as the one below, mimicking Nelson's famous call to his sailors to do their duty at Trafalgar in 1805.
Expects every Man to do his Duty
The Meeting in Spa Fields
Takes Place at 12 o’clock
On Monday, December 2nd. 1816
To receive the answer of the PETITION to the PRINCE REGENT, determined upon at the last meeting held in the same place, and for other important Considerations
THE PRESENT STATE OF GREAT BRITAIN
Four Millions in Distress !!!
Four Millions Embarrassed !!!
One Million-and-half fear Distress !!!
Half-a-million live in splendid Luxury !!!
Death would now be a relief to Millions –
Arrogance, Folly, and Crimes – have brought affairs to this dread Crisis.
Firmness and Integrity
can only save the Country!!!
At the meeting Hunt spoke as planned, and most of the crowd listened to him, but some disorder broke out according to the Spenceans' agenda. A group of protesters moved away from the main crowd, accompanying James Watson and his son toward the Tower of London, looting a gun shop along the way. They were met by troops at the Royal Exchange and dispersed or were arrested. One man was stabbed during the disturbances, and a John Cashman was later found guilty of stealing weapons from the gun shop, and sentenced to death. The main witness to the 'plotting' was a government spy, John Castle, who had infiltrated the Spenceans. He may have been working as an agent provocateur, and his character and reliability were discredited at the trial of the first accused, James Watson. Watson was acquitted and the case against other the arrested men was dropped.
Henry Hunt's role in the events is disputed. He claimed afterwards not to have known about an uprising and tried to distance himself from events.
The Spa Fields meetings were one of the first cases of mass meetings in public, and contributed to the government's conviction that revolution was possible and action must be taken. The Gagging Acts were passed in February and March 1817, and the Blanketeers march followed in the same month.
- State Trials, vol. xxxii, 1817, p. 86
- Sutton, David C. (2009). "The Spa Fields Riots of 1816" (PDF). Retrieved 29 August 2012.
- A Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period to the Year 1783, with Notes and Other Illustrations. Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown. 1816.
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