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The attempted assassination of the Prime Minister and British Cabinet in 1820

By Edited Sep 15, 2016 1 2

Robert Jenkinson, Lord Liverpool

It may seem to modern politicians that their lives are endangered every time they speak or make visits and that this is a twentieth century phenomenon. It is not, as the attempt of 1820 to murder the Prime Minister and Cabinet clearly showed.

In 1820 the Prime Minister of Great Britain was Robert Jenkinson,  2nd Earl, Lord Liverpool who was to be longest-serving Prime Minister the country ever had. His rule saw momentous wars with the last Napoleonic war in 1812, war with America but also a desire for peace which followed for some years after the wars had ended.

On the domestic front there were problems, the wars had to be paid for and taxation was high in order to cut the countries national debt.There was also unemployment now the war was over and famine as corn imports were stopped in order to maintain an artificially high price for British farmers.  As reaction to high taxes, poverty and famine rose ,Liverpool's government imposed a new "Six Acts" series of legislation which took away a man's right to freedom of speech and action and also the right to meet together in groups, which was used to avoid a repetition of the Peterloo Massacre where at a political meeting 15 men were killed and at least 400 injured by over zealous troops.

Site of the Cato Street Conspiracy , now Lisson Grove, London
Credit: By Simon Harriyott (http://www.flickr.com/photos/harriyott/4369028604/) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Spencean Philanthropists

The conspirators were a group of men called the Spencean philanthropists, named after the radical leader Thomas Spence (died 1814). Their aims were to organise a Committee of Public Safety which would take control of the government after the assassination of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, on similar lines to that of the French Revolution. The group was led by Arthur Thistelwood and his deputy George Edwards. In January 1820 King George III died  and the government was in some confusion, the group wanted to act whist this confusion still existed. The campaign to recruit more members to the group was stepped up and in all 27 men joined.

The Cabinet Dinner at Lord Harrowby's home

The conspirators found out that the Prime minister and his cabinet colleagues were a meeting at the home of Lord Harrowby who filled a major government function as Lord President of the Council. According to evidence given at the trial by Robert Adams the group had prepared weapons and would attack and kill as many ministers as possible.  Thistlewood was also quoted as saying that it would be necessary to mobilise supporters and possibly capture the new King at Brighton as in his opinion the crown had been in their family "long enough".

William Davidson, a former employee of Lord Harrowby went to his Lordship's home to find out more information about the dinner.  He was informed by a servant that Lord Harrowby was not at home and when he reported this to Thistelwood he was not believed. It was thought by the conspirators that all the cabinet were there as planned and that the attack should take place at once.

The whole plot was a set up by the police to catch the conspirators. George Edwards who had suggested and encouraged the action was actually leading a double life as he also worked for the Home Office, responsible for National Security. It was the Home Office who had arranged for the note in "The Times" about the dinner taking place, although clearly this was not actually happening.

Wiliam Davidson conspirator(107406)
Credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Headquarters at Cato Street

The conspirators met at their headquarters, a house on Cato Street giving the name to the plot of the Cato Street Conspiracy.  A magistrate, accompanied by a dozen Bow Street Runners ( forerunners of the Police Service) sat in a Pubic House further down the street awaiting military reinforcements. When they did not show they raided the conspirators headquarters and a bloody battle ensued. A bow street runner was killed by Thistelwood and whilst some surrendered peacefully most did not. Three men, Adams, Brunt and Harrison managed to escape and go on the run but were captured quickly because Edwards knew them so well and knew where they would try and escape to.

Lord Liverpool in a portrait painted in 1828
Credit: Thomas Lawrence [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charges brought against the conspirators


The men were charged with eleven offences ranging from conspiracy to devise plans to subvert the constitution to Conspiracy to Murder.

Surprisingly at the Trial held in April 1820, the defence successfully argued that the evidence of the Home Office spy, Edwards was unreliable and therefore inadmissible, which was agreed by the Judge. However two of the conspirators Robert Adams and John Monument turned King's evidence and gave full details of what had happened in return for the dropping of all charges against them.

The conspirators were all found guilty to the serious charges a summation of which was High Treason. As a result the men were sentenced to be Hung, Drawn and Quartered, the traditional sentence for High  Treason but not perfomed for many years owing to its barbarity. The sentences were later commuted to hanging and beheading (after they were dead) for some and transportation for others.

Execution of the Cato Street Conspirators
Credit: By George Theodore Wilkinson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Political turmoil followed the

What political consequences did the conspiracy have? In modern days terms it was a "sting" an operation set up to catch men conspiring to take action and encouraging it and finding a suitable place for it to take place.  There was some political feeling that it had been set up by the Goernment to justify its tough stance and Six Acts legislation, reducing the rights of man. In the House of Commons the MP Matthew Wood declared it to have been used to deter any thoughts of parliamentary reform.

The ful transcript of the trial can be found on line at the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court.



Aug 1, 2012 7:25am
Great article. Had not heard of this episode before. And congratulations on your featured article.
Aug 2, 2012 12:48am
Thanks for the visit andrewlemon- I like to write about all those things forgotten over time
Aug 2, 2012 12:49am
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Aug 2, 2012 12:51am
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Aug 2, 2012 12:46am
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