Cato Street Conspiracy

Cato Street Conspiracy

Cato Street Conspiracy: see Thistlewood, Arthur.

The Cato Street Conspiracy was an attempt to murder all the British cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Lord Liverpool in 1820. The name comes from the meeting place near Edgware Road in London.

Origins of the conspiracy

The conspirators were members of a group of Spencean Philanthropists, named after the British radical speaker Thomas Spence. Some of them, especially Arthur Thistlewood, had been involved with the Spa Fields riots in 1816. Thistlewood came to dominate the group. Most of the group were angered by the Six Acts and the Peterloo Massacre, as well as with the economic and political depression of the time. The plan was to assassinate a number of cabinet ministers, overthrow the government and set up a Committee of Public Safety to oversee a radical revolution, similar to the French Revolution. According to the prosecution at their trial, they had planned to form a provisional government headquartered in the Mansion House.

The Governmental crisis

King George III's death on January 29, 1820 caused a governmental crisis. In a meeting held February 22, one of the Spenceans, George Edwards, suggested that the group could exploit the political situation and kill all the cabinet ministers. They planned to invade a cabinet dinner at the home of Lord Harrowby, Lord President of the Council armed with pistols and grenades. Thistlewood thought the act would create a massive uprising against the government. James Ings, a coffee shop keeper and former butcher, later announced that he would have decapitated all the cabinet members and taken two heads to exhibit on the Westminster Bridge. Thistlewood spent the next hours trying to recruit more men for the attack. Twenty-seven men joined the effort.


When Jamaican-born William Davidson, who had worked for Lord Harrowby, went to look for more details about the cabinet dinner, a servant in Lord Harrowby's house told him that his master was not home at all. When Davidson told this to Thistlewood, he refused to believe it and demanded that the operation commence at once. John Harrison rented a small house in Cato Street as the base of operations. However, George Edwards was working for the Home Office and had become an agent provocateur; in fact, some of the other members had suspected him but Thistlewood had made him his aide-de-camp. Edwards had presented the idea with the full knowledge of the Home Office, who had also put the advertisement about the supposed dinner in The New Times. When he reported that his would-be-comrades would be ready to follow his suggestion, the Home Office decided to act.

Arrest and trial

On February 23, Richard Bimie, Bow Street magistrate, and George Ruthven, another police spy, went to wait at a public house on the other side of the street of the Cato Street building with 12 officers of the Bow Street Runners. Bimie and Ruthven waited for the afternoon because they had been promised reinforcements from the Coldstream Guards, under the command of Lieutenant FitzClarence, the late king's grandson. Thistlewood's group arrived during that time. At 7.30pm, the Bow Street Runners decided to apprehend the conspirators themselves. In the resulting brawl, Thistlewood killed a police officer, Richard Smithers, with a sword. Some conspirators surrendered peacefully, while others resisted forcefully. William Davidson failed to fight his way out. Thistlewood, Robert Adams, John Brunt and John Harrison slipped out the back window but they were arrested a few days later.

Eleven men were later charged for the plot. During the trial, the defence argued that the statement of Edwards, a government spy, was unreliable and he was therefore never called to testify. Police convinced two of the men, Robert Adams and John Monument, to testify against other conspirators in exchange for dropped charges. Most of the accused were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered for high treason on April 28. All sentences were later commuted, at least in respect of this mediaeval form of execution.

John Brunt, William Davidson (a Jamaica-born radical), James Ings, Arthur Thistlewood and Richard Tidd were hanged and then executed at Newgate Prison on May 1, 1820; the death sentences of Charles Cooper, Richard Bradburn, John Harrison, James Wilson and John Strange were commuted to transportation for life.


The British government used the incident to justify the Six Acts that had been passed two months prior. However, in the House of Commons, Matthew Wood accused the government of purposeful entrapment of the conspirators to smear the campaign for parliamentary reform. The otherwise pro-government newspaper The Observer ignored the order of the Lord Chief Justice Sir Charles Abbott not to report the trial before the sentencing.

The conspiracy is the subject of many books, as well as one play, Cato Street, written by the actor and author Robert Shaw. The conspiracy was also the basis for a 2001 radio drama, Betrayal: The Trial of William Davidson by Tanika Gupta, on BBC Radio 4.

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