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date: 18 September 2020

London Corresponding Societyfree

(act. 1792–1799)
  • Michael T. Davis

London Corresponding Society (act. 1792–1799), radical society, was founded in January 1792 by Thomas Hardy and owed its origins to his rereading, in late 1791, of the political writings first published by the Society for Constitutional Information during the American War of Independence as well as to the enthusiasm generated by the French Revolution and the publication of Thomas Paine's Rights of Man. The London Corresponding Society (LCS) had a somewhat tenuous beginning. Only nine men attended its first meeting at The Bell tavern in Exeter Street, London, but its popularity grew quite rapidly, and within two weeks a further fifteen had joined. By May 1792 the LCS comprised nine separate divisions, each with a minimum of thirty members. Unfortunately there are no records of the exact number who joined, and some estimates by contemporaries seem unrealistic—with figures varying from 28,000 to 80,000 members. It is known that at its lowest point in mid-1794 the LCS numbered only 241 paying members, while at its peak it probably counted some 5000 men among its ranks. Of the thousands who joined the society, occupational details of only 347 men are known; a significantly smaller number of personnel have left behind a traceable career, and it is, in these relative terms, that the LCS remains, by and large, an obscure and elusive group.

However, in addition to the thousands of LCS members who remain unknown or known only by name, there were also those who had significant careers and held professional positions. Basil William Douglas Lord Daer (1763–1794) was born on 16 March 1763, the second but eldest surviving son of Dunbar Douglas, fourth earl of Selkirk (1722–1799), and Helen (1737/8–1802), daughter of John Hamilton of Blackadder, Berwickshire. A younger brother, Thomas Douglas, fifth earl of Selkirk, achieved prominence as an advocate of colonization in North America. Daer was educated first at Anna and Rochemont Barbauld's school at Palgrave, Suffolk, and later at Edinburgh University under the moral philosopher Dugald Stewart. In 1789 he travelled to Paris, from where he returned with an enthusiasm for the French Revolution, becoming an active protagonist in the British reform movement. He was one of the earliest LCS activists and held concurrent membership of the Society for Constitutional Information and the Scottish Association of the Friends of the People. This provided the LCS with an important early link to other reform societies. Though a strong critic of the union (1707), Daer called for English and Scottish radical societies to work together 'to have mutually beneficial results: providing Scots with greater say in government while relieving you of that vermin from this country who infect your court, parliament and every establishment' (Daer to Charles Grey, 18 Jan 1793, quoted in Bewley, 54–5). Daer's radical career, however, was cut short when he died, unmarried, from tuberculosis on 5 November 1794 at Ivybridge, Devon; he was buried in Exeter Cathedral.

Over the years the LCS continued to attract men of prominent social and professional standing. Although the egalitarian nature and constitution of the society meant that these men were treated equally, there were distinct advantages in recruiting members from the higher social ranks. Many brought a certain image of respectability to the LCS, while others maintained important links with middle-class reform associations and provided, through their professions, a certain strategic advantage. Barristers and attorneys were particularly useful in providing advice during the society's continual legal engagements. Members among this group included James Agar, Peregrine Palmer, Felix Vaughan, and John Pierce, who served as assistant secretary to the LCS. Joseph Gerrald was another attorney who played a particularly important role in the LCS during its formative years. In 1793, as delegate of the LCS, he travelled to the British Convention of the Friends of the People in Edinburgh, where he was arrested and subsequently transported to Botany Bay as one of the five ‘Scottish martyrs’. Maurice Margarot was another member of 'superior education, intellect, and information' (Thale, xxii) who accompanied Gerrald to the British Convention as an LCS delegate. Margarot was one of the first members, along with Hardy, to rise to a position of prominence within the society. He served as chairman, authored addresses, composed the society's correspondence, and contributed to the drafting of its constitution. His formal association with the LCS, however, ceased when he too was transported to Australia in 1794.

Physicians were also well represented, among them Richard Barrow, William Hodgson, and Robert Thomas Crossfield, who served as president of the society in 1798. Undoubtedly the most significant physician active in the LCS was James Parkinson, a prolific and powerful propagandist who was a regular contributor to the society's campaign. Another member, the surgeon John Gale Jones, was an accomplished orator who displayed his skills at LCS mass meetings. In 1796 he was sent, along with John Binns, on an important mission as a representative of the LCS to Birmingham, Maidstone, Portsmouth, Rochester, and other areas of southern England to gauge the state of reform activity and to enliven interest in the campaign for reform.

Apart from these well-placed members, the LCS also benefited considerably during the early stages from the contribution of educated men who were not formal members of the society but who were closely acquainted with Hardy and other early recruits. Veteran reformers such as Thomas Brand Hollis, John Cartwright, Daniel Stuart, and John Horne Tooke provided valuable advice which Hardy later acknowledged: 'Much political information I frequently received from gentlemen experienced in the cause of Reform which was communicated to the Society and received with great approbation, and which was of much use in regulating their conduct as a Society' (Thale, xxii).

Despite the influence of such individuals, the LCS was primarily conceived as a working-class organization—a forum for tradesmen, mechanics, and shopkeepers. As Hardy once asserted, the LCS was to represent those who were 'but few in number and humble in situation and circumstances' (Graham, 282). The low weekly subscription of 1d. reflected this aim, and the society's campaign for annual parliaments and universal manhood suffrage was designed to appeal to the disenfranchised citizens. Such inducements were indeed successful, with shoemakers, weavers, and tailors the three largest employment categories of the known members. To some contemporary detractors the LCS was nothing more than a group of illiterate rabble-rousers, 'the very lowest order of society … filthy & ragged … wretched looking blackguards' who were being unscrupulously led by a minority 'who possess strong but unimproved faculties' (Thale, xix). The general membership profile of the LCS was, however, quite unlike this characterization. The majority of members were recruited from a politically conscious and articulate artisan population, and those of higher social and professional standing were rarely placed in authoritative positions within the society for fear that, as Hardy stated, the ordinary members would be discouraged from 'exerting themselves in their own cause' (Goodwin, 197).

John Ashley (c. 1762–1829), shoemaker and radical, served as secretary to the LCS after Hardy's resignation in 1794. On 12 November 1795 he addressed an outdoor LCS meeting near Copenhagen House, London, which attracted a crowd of some 300,000–400,000 people. He resigned as secretary in December 1796, and as a delegate of his division several months later, before leaving the society in June 1797. Ashley, described by one colleague as 'a serious thinking man' (Thale, xx), moved to Paris in June 1797, where he is thought to have prospered in business. There he maintained his radical activities, providing the French directory with inflated estimates of the number of pro-French sympathizers in London who were 'active and decided men … ready to co-operate against the Government' (Goodwin, 437). He was also active in a militant circle of United Irish émigrés who worked for a rising in Ireland before his death in 1829.

It was Ashley who introduced Francis Place to the LCS. Place quickly rose to prominence in 1795, serving as chairman of the general committee, which co-ordinated the activities of the different divisions, and of the executive committee, which dealt with the society's correspondence and the writing of addresses and resolutions. Like Place, John Thelwall came from an artisan background to become a central character in London's reform movement, joining the LCS in 1793, where he proved a highly effective lecturer and propagandist. Not all working-class members were as gifted as Thelwall, nor did many have such enduring careers, yet the LCS provided ordinary and obscure men with the chance to acquire some standing within the society. Robert Oliphant, for instance, a tailor, and Anthony Beck, a saddler, served at various times as treasurer; John Philip Franklow, another tailor, James Savage, warehouseman, and Benjamin Pemberton Binns, a plumber and brother of John Binns, each served as assistant secretaries of the society.

John Baxter (fl. 1794–1816), silversmith and radical, also assumed some prominence within the LCS when he succeeded Margarot as chairman in 1794. He was arrested but not charged during the treason trials of the same year. Baxter was also a founder member, along with the bookseller Joseph Burks, of the Friends of Liberty, formerly division 16 of the LCS, which separated from the society in 1795. His New and impartial history of England from the most early period of genuine historical evidence to the present important and alarming crisis (1796) exhibited a politically articulate intellect. Details of his later career remain unclear: he was a known member of the United Irish movement, and in 1816 a satirical broadsheet, William Snow's The Polemic Fleet, listed him as a prominent member of the radical Spencean circle. Other sources suggest that the 'Impregnable' Baxter (Polemics) may by this date have been practising as a surgeon.

Like their middle-class counterparts, some of the working-class members of the LCS provided the group with strategic advantages through their occupations. With society meetings often held in taverns, publicans like John Barnes and Robert Boyd were particularly valuable associates. Of even greater use to the society's cause were the numerous booksellers and printers who joined the organization. In its campaign for parliamentary reform the LCS looked to use ‘moral force’ and to educate the people in their political rights through the publication of cheap democratic literature. The extensive publishing programme of the LCS consisted of about eighty separate pamphlets and broadsides between 1792 and 1798 as well as two periodicals, The Politician (1794–5) and the Moral and Political Magazine (1796–7). Booksellers and printers often subsidized and distributed these works for their society, and with the government's focus on the spread of seditious literature during the 1790s they were often faced with imprisonment. In the face of such adversity LCS members, such as Daniel Isaac Eaton, who worked in the book trades, required amazing fortitude and endurance to remain loyal to the cause. Thomas Spence, another bookseller who joined the LCS, showed similar tenacity and dexterity, and, like Eaton, composed radical propaganda of his own despite repeated intimidation. In 1794 he was one of the members imprisoned for six months without trial in the prelude to the infamous treason trials of that year.

Richard Lee (c. 1774–1798?), publisher and radical, known as Citizen Lee, also joined the LCS and emerged from obscurity to play an intriguing and important role in London radicalism during the mid-1790s. Nothing is known of his background, but he appears to have grown up in poverty, and by 1794, aged about twenty, he lived in Orange Street, Leicester Fields. At that time he worked as a clerk in a merchant's office and became a frequent visitor to Eaton's bookshop. In this radical milieu Lee acquired an interest in political writing and poetry, and during the course of his career he published no fewer than fifty titles under his own imprint. Under the sign of the Tree of Liberty he moved premises frequently during 1795, trading at various times from his mother's shop in St Ann's Court, Soho, 47 Haymarket, 98 Berwick Street, Soho, and then 444 Strand. Lee's connection with the LCS proved brief and unstable. As a Methodist he disapproved of the society's growing tendencies to support deism and atheism in the mid-1790s and he was reputedly expelled for refusing to sell Paine's Age of Reason and Volney's Ruins. Despite distancing himself from the LCS, Lee was arrested in November 1795 for publishing the regicidal handbill King Killing (1795), Edward Iliff's A summary of the duties of citizenship. Written expressly for the members of the London Corresponding Society (1795), as well as two extracts from the radical pamphleteer Charles Pigott. On 19 December 1795 he escaped custody and within days was bound for Hamburg, ironically eloping with the wife of James Powell, one of the most diligent government spies to join the LCS. Within six months Lee had moved to Philadelphia, where he peddled copies of his publications and published the American Magazine until 1797. According to William Cobbett, Lee was in gaol during 1798, but nothing further is known of his career; it seems likely that he died, possibly from yellow fever, soon after his release from prison.

While booksellers and printers were important allies in the society's educative and ‘moral force’ programme, some also had close links with ‘physical force’ activists. The booksellers John Bone and Thomas Evans, for example, both rose to prominence within the LCS and were members of the clandestine and revolutionary United Englishmen. Thomas Spence was also involved with a shadowy group known as the Loyal Lambeth Association (LLA), which drilled its members in the use of arms. There were significant overlaps in membership of the LLA and the LCS, with John Philip Franklow, one-time assistant secretary of the LCS, and John Shelmerdine, a hatter and member of division 12 of the Corresponding Society, the founders of the LLA in 1793. Thomas Stiff (b. c. 1740, d. in or before 1808), hairdresser and radical, the son of a victualler Bartholomew Stiff of Lawrence Haltham, Berkshire, was another LCS member with an apparent interest in arming the society. On 2 April 1754 he was bound as an apprentice for seven years to Stephen Goodson, a barber, and on 2 June 1761 was admitted to the freedom of the Worshipful Company of Barbers. A year later he established a barber shop in Paternoster Row, London, and remained there for his entire career. By 1793 he was a member of the LCS and served as delegate to division 13. His premises were sometimes used as the meeting place for LCS committees and in 1794 he drew a print showing military and arming exercises. The print proved particularly useful, with one colleague commenting that, as a result of the drawing, 'many of the Members [of the LCS] already know their Exercise' and that Stiff was very capable at training those who were yet to learn (Thale, 149). Stiff disappears from LCS records after 1794 and is marked as dead in the records of the Worshipful Company of Barbers in 1808.

The subversive activities of the LCS were a great concern to the government, which employed an intricate network of spies to infiltrate the society. Often recruited from the working classes, men such as Henry Alexander, linen draper, Edward Gosling, hairdresser, George Lynam, ironmonger, and Frederick Polydore Nodder, botanic painter, blended with other members of the LCS and moved freely among their radical subjects. James Powell, a clerk, was something of a double agent, acting as assistant secretary to the LCS in 1797 and reporting frequently to the government. William Metcalfe (fl. 1778–1799), attorney and spy, was another informer who operated effectively within the society. His background remains obscure, but on 16 June 1778 he was elected clerk of the Tallow Chandlers Company, a position which he held by annual election until he was discharged on 5 September 1799 for financial irregularities. As an attorney he had been employed by the government in conducting criminal cases in the mid-1780s, and in 1793 he was again working in an official capacity on 'business of confidence and secrecy' in Shropshire, Worcestershire, and Liverpool (Thale, 126). Early in 1794 he began spying on the LCS and at Thelwall's lectures, for which he was to receive a sum of £300 per annum. His usefulness, however, came to an abrupt end in September 1794 when, at the request of the government, he was revealed as a spy during the capture of Paul Thomas Lemaitre and other LCS members accused of the so-called Popgun Plot to murder George III. Following this Metcalfe virtually disappears from public record apart from his involvement until 1799 with the Tallow Chandlers Company.

Reports of spies often provided the government with the bulk of evidence required to take legal action against those society members suspected of subversive intentions, and it was the treason trials of 1794 which marked a decisive point in the history of the LCS. In May thirteen men, all members of the LCS or the Society for Constitutional Information, were indicted for high treason. Hardy, Tooke, and Thelwall were the only men eventually brought to trial, and though each was acquitted many LCS members were subsequently discouraged, disillusioned, and frightened. While the society's membership showed signs of improving during the next twelve months, the government's Treason and Sedition Acts (1795) effectively sent the LCS into a downward spiral. Internal schisms had also fractured the group, with secessionist organizations such as the London Reforming Society, the Friends of Liberty, and the Friends of Religious and Civil Liberty (consisting of disgruntled Methodists) forming in 1795.

During 1796 the society fell into financial trouble through a combination of declining membership revenue and legal expenses, as well as costs associated with staging massive outdoor meetings and the unprofitable publication of the Moral and Political Magazine. By 1798 the government again adopted repressive measures to quell radical activity, and in April of that year mass arrests crippled the LCS. The Habeas Corpus Act was suspended, and some of the men captured were detained in prison without trial for up to three years. A few defiant LCS members continued to meet following these arrests, but the society, along with the United Englishmen, United Scotsmen, United Britons, and United Irishmen, was outlawed by name in legislation passed on 12 July 1799.

Sources

  • J. Barrell, Imagining the king's death: figurative treason, fantasies of regicide, 1793–1796 (2000)
  • M. T. Davis, ed., The London Corresponding Society (2002)
  • A. Goodwin, The friends of liberty: the English democratic movement in the age of the French Revolution (1979)
  • J. Graham, The nation, the law and the king: reform politics in England, 1789–1799, 2 vols. (2000)
  • M. Thale, ed., Selections from the papers of the London Corresponding Society, 1792–1799 (1983)
  • G. A. Williams, Artisans and sans-culottes: popular movements in France and Britain during the French Revolution (1968)
  • H. Collins, ‘The London Corresponding Society’, Democracy and the labour movement, ed. J. Saville (1954)
  • C. Bewley, Muir of Huntershill (1981)

Archives

  • BL, minutes and letter-books, Add. MSS 27811–27813
  • BL, Francis Place papers, Add. MSS 27811–27817
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with the British Convention, Edinburgh, TS 11/953/3497
  • TNA: PRO, TS 11, HO 42, PC 1
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
British Library, London
G. E. C. [G. E. Cokayne], , 8 vols. (1887–98); new edn, ed. V. Gibbs & others, 14 vols. in 15 (1910–98); microprint repr. (1982) and (1987)