Thomas Spence

Thomas Spence

Thomas Spence was born in Newcastle in 1750. Spence became a schoolmaster and he gradually developed radical political views and in the 1770s began to argue that all land should be nationalised. Spence was strongly influenced by the writings of Tom Paine. In Newcastle he sold Paine's work on the street as well as pamphlets that he had written.

In December 1792 Spence moved to London and attempted to make a living my selling Tom Paine's Rights of Man on street corners. He was arrested but soon after he was released from prison he opened a shop in Chancery Lane where he sold radical books and pamphlets. In 1793 he started a periodical, Pigs' Meat. He said in the first edition: "Awake! Arise! Arm yourselves with truth, justice, reason. Lay siege to corruption. Claim as your inalienable right, universal suffrage and annual parliaments. And whenever you have the gratification to choose a representative, let him be from among the lower orders of men, and he will know how to sympathize with you."

Francis Place got to know him during this period. He later pointed out: "Thomas Spence was not more than five feet high, very honest, simple, single-minded, who loved mankind, and firmly believed that a time would come when men would be virtuous, wise and happy."

In May 1794 Spence was arrested and imprisoned and because Habeas Corpus had been suspended, the authorities were able to hold him without trial until December 1794. After his release from prison Thomas Spence moved to a shop he called the "Hive of Liberty", in Little Turnstile, Holban but in 1801 he was arrested and imprisoned for selling seditious publications. At his trial Spence called himself the unpaid "advocate of the disinherited seed of Adam".

Trade token produced by Thomas Spenceshowing William Pitt on the gallows (c. 1800)
Trade token produced by Thomas Spence
showing William Pitt on the gallows (c. 1800)

After Spence's release he opened a shop in Oxford Street. The business was not a success and he eventually ended up selling broadsheets, handbills, newspapers and pamphlets from a barrow. To increase trade he also sold a hot drink called saloop. Spence wrote a great deal of the work that he sold. Spence was one of the first radicals to advocate women's rights. He also campaigned for changes in the law to make it possible for working people to be able to obtain a divorce. He argued in Divorce and the Common People (1805): "What signifies reforms of government or redress of public grievances, if people cannot have their domestic grievances redressed."

By the early 1800s Spence had established himself as the unofficial leader of those Radicals who advocated revolution. James Watson, was one of the men who worked very closely with Spence during this period. Spence did not believe in a centralized radical body and instead encouraged the formation of small groups that could meet in local public houses. At the night the men walked the streets and chalked on the walls slogans such as "Spence's Plan and Full Bellies" and "The Land is the People's Farm". In 1800 and 1801 the authorities believed that Spence and his followers were responsible for bread riots in London. However, they did not have enough evidence to arrest them.

Thomas Spence continued his campaign and was one of the eighteen radical journalists who was tried in British courts between 1808 and 1810. When Thomas Spence died in September 1814 he was buried by "forty disciples" who pledged that they would keep his ideas alive. This group of men formed the Society of Spencean Philanthropists and continued to meet for the next six years. It was Spenceans such as Arthur Thistlewood, James Ings, John Brunt, William Davidson and Richard Tidd that organised the Cato Street Conspiracy in 1820.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Thomas Spence, Private Property (c. 1780)

Landed property always was acquired by conquest or encroachment on the common property of mankind. The public mind is being suitably prepared by reading my little tracts. A few parishes have only to declare the land to be theirs and form a convention of parochial delegates. Other adjacent parishes would follow the example, and send their delegates and thus would a beautiful and powerful new Republic instantaneously arise in full vigour. The power and resources of war passing in this manner in a moment into the hands of the people.

(2) Thomas Spence, Pigs' Meat (1793)

Awake! Arise! Arm yourselves with truth, justice, reason. Lay siege to corruption. Claim as your inalienable right, universal suffrage and annual parliaments. And whenever you have the gratification to choose a representative, let him be from among the lower orders of men, and he will know how to sympathize with you.

(3) Francis Place was one of those who was influenced by Thomas Spence.

Thomas Spence was not more than five feet high, very honest, simple, single-minded, who loved mankind, and firmly believed that a time would come when men would be virtuous, wise and happy.

(4) In 1801 Thomas Spence wrote and published a pamphlet attacking large landowners, including the Duke of Portland, the Home Secretary. Spence was arrested and found guilty of seditious libel.

What must I say to the French if they come? If they jeeringly ask me what I am fighting for? Must I tell them, "for my country"? My dear country in which I dare not pluck a nut? Would they not laugh at me? If the French came I would throw down my musket, saying: "Let such as the Duke of Portland, who claims the country, fight for it."

(5) Thomas Spence, Divorce and the Common People (c. 1805)

The "Chains of Hymen" would be among the first that would be broken in case of a revolution. What signifies reforms of government or redress of public grievances, if people cannot have their domestic grievances redressed.