Spa Fields Riot
With the ending of the Napoleonic Wars Britain exchanged an external threat with an internal one, that of discontented veterans and the general populace angered by high food prices and poor economic conditions. Not the first time nor the last that such a concatenation of circumstances would arise.
A mass meeting at Spa Fields in Islington on November 15 1816 passed off peacefully, though radical speakers such as Henry Hunt promoted a reformist agenda there that included universal male suffrage, annual elections, and secret ballots. The more radical Spenceans, proto-communists who advocated common ownership of land and the payment of benefits to the unemployed, were heavily involved in the gatherings. Some 10,000 people are thought to have attended the first, perhaps double that the second. Hunt was refused permission to present a petition outlining such demands to the Prince Regent , causing further anger in his supporters.
On December 2 a further meeting was held at the same spot, but this time things did not go so quietly. One speaker quoted the words of a leading French Revolutionary, inflaming passions; it appears that some of the organisers were hoping to enlist disgruntled serving and ex-soldiers in a quasi-rebellion. Drink probably played as great a part as rhetoric, and some of the large crowd marched off to try and seize the Tower in spite of the aggressive efforts of 80 policemen. A gun-shop was ransacked en route, some sailors involved in the violence. One man, Joseph Rhodes, was stabbed to death in the chaos. The Royal Exchange became their new target, but seven constables led by an Alderman kept them at bay, and arrested three of the leading figures. The mob dispersed, but sporadic trouble continued until nightfall. The tinder-box had been ready, but failed to light.
The involvement in the riot of John Castle, an agent provocateur with a criminal record, was instrumental in ensuring the first leader tried for his involvement was acquitted, leading to the rapid release of the other three being held; but one sailor was later executed. Arthur Thistlewood, one of the three men released before coming to trial was indeed a confirmed rebel, who would be executed at Newgate in 1820 for his part in the Cato Street conspiracy.
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