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date: 01 July 2022

United Englishmenfree

(act. 1796–1802)

United Englishmenfree

(act. 1796–1802)
  • Michael T. Davis

United Englishmen (act. 1796–1802), was a clandestine revolutionary organization that advocated a republican uprising and attempted to co-ordinate rebellions in England, Ireland, and Scotland with a French invasion.

The foundations of the United Englishmen lay in the disillusionment of English reformers with constitutional methods of popular politics and, in the wake of the passage of the Two Acts in 1795, the increasing legislative repression of the democratic movement by the government of William Pitt the younger. These circumstances created a favourable environment in which an expansive United Irishmen organization sought new recruits. At much the same time that United Irish emissaries were facilitating the growth of the United Scotsmen, they also toured England agitating for the formation of societies to make common cause with them. During winter 1796–7 United Irish agents in England reported finding 'many good men … ready & willing to join the standard of Freedom & overthrow Tyranny' (Wells, 72). The United Irishmen were determined to seek collaboration with radicals in England as well as Scotland, with a view to establishing what one member of a Manchester corresponding society, turned government informer, described as societies in the 'three kingdoms being all united for the same Purposes to rise at the same time' (evidence of Robert Gray, 23 March 1798, TNA: PRO, PC 1/41/A136).

The United Englishmen directly modelled its strategic aims and organization on the United Irishmen. The clandestine proceedings, oath taking, and advocacy of physical force mirrored that of their Irish inspirators. In Manchester, where one of the earliest United Englishmen cells was established in late 1796, the United Irish branch system was first adopted as the society's organizational structure. Each branch comprised a minimum of fifteen members and divided into two divisions when that membership reached thirty or thirty-six. Each division elected a treasurer and secretary, with the latter and two other divisional members deputed to a baronial committee. An elaborate network of baronial, county, provincial, and national committees—underpinned by a code of secrecy to ensure the names of committee members were not known to persons other than those who elected them—provided the United Englishmen with an operational system that lent weight to notions of insurrectionary plotting and helped provide some protection from governmental penetration. New secret signs were taught to members by their Irish compeers while immigrants from Ireland, like James Dixon, a leading member in Manchester, were responsible for distributing Irish oaths and radical literature to English democrats. In June 1797 the influential Irish nationalist and Roman Catholic priest James O'Coigly brought to Manchester activists copies of an Irish address that encouraged the assassination of 'the petty tyrants of Manchester … and the rest would fear as they did in Ireland' (Graham, 753).

Such heated discourse first inflamed the minds of reformers in the areas of north-western England that had established commercial and cultural connections with Ireland. Former members of the Manchester Constitutional Society were attracted to the local United cell. For instance, the cotton merchant Thomas Walker was implicated in United Englishmen affairs in 1797 and the same year William Cowdroy, publisher of the Manchester Gazette, was responsible for issuing the Declarations, Resolutions, and Constitution of the Society of United Englishmen. Isaac Perrins, pugilist and one-time employee of James Watt and Matthew Boulton, joined the United Englishmen and kept a public house called The Engine where meetings of local United Englishmen divisions regularly took place and where O'Coigly stayed in the early summer of 1797. Perrins, a man of huge stature and renowned fighting ability, ensured that O'Coigly stayed 'in a private parlour, & would suffer none but his associates to come to him' (examination of Mary Perrins, 14 April 1798, TNA: PRO, PC 1/41/A139). While the exact number of United Englishmen is not clear, the organization's expansion in Manchester during 1797 appears to have been rapid. About fifty divisions were in existence during the spring of 1797; within several months, a further seventeen divisions had been established. United societies also took root in Leicester, Nottingham, Wolverhampton, and Birmingham. In Lancashire Robert Gray reported that there were 900 members in mid-1797, while in the Cheshire town of Stockport the number of United men was increasing 'very fast every week' during April 1797, with about 'six or seven hundred' determined 'to have a Revolution as soon as they should be able' (Graham, 755).

While the accuracy of Gray's evidence remains uncertain, and was questioned by officials, the government magistrate William Wickham wrote in March 1798 to Edward Cooke, under-secretary for the civil department in Dublin, of 'many facts … that carry an appearance of truth', and Cooke later referred to the 'probable' accuracy of Gray's testimony (TNA: PRO, HO 100/75). On the basis of this evidence eleven United Englishmen were arrested in Manchester in March 1798; the ringleaders, James Dixon and William Chetham, were detained until 1801. Gray was subsequently brought to London for questioning by Wickham and the duke of Portland.

At the same time that the United Englishmen were developing in the north of England and the midlands, cells were being established in London. London members, known at various times as the True Britons and United Britons, drew significant overlaps in membership with the London Corresponding Society (LCS). Among the most prominent LCS members to join the United Englishmen were the Irish immigrant plumbers Benjamin and John Binns; Alexander Galloway, the engineer and president of the LCS in 1797; John Bone, bookseller and secretary of the LCS in 1797; and Thomas Evans, the insurrectionist and secretary of the LCS in 1798. Furnival's Inn on the Strand was one of the main public meeting places of the London United Englishmen—described by John Binns as 'the very resort of the most radical Jacobinical politics in London' (McCalman, 11). The house of Thomas Evans in Plough Court, Fetter Lane, was another important rendezvous, housing Benjamin Binns, the radical printer John Smith, and O'Coigly on his visits to London in June 1797 and January–February 1798. These overlaps make it difficult to distinguish the official line of United Englishmen and LCS politics. Jenny Graham suggests that, apart from its explicit policy of physical force and its clandestine character adopted from Ireland, 'the fundamental ideology of the United Englishmen … and even their personnel, can arguably be interpreted as a further development of a movement wholly frustrated in all its previous attempts to alter the political system by means other than force' (Graham, 754). Parts of the Declarations, Resolutions, and Constitution of the Society of United Englishmen certainly reflect the reformist ideals of the democratic movement of the early 1790s, presenting the United Englishmen as a network of 'societies in every quarter of the kingdom, for the promotion of constitutional knowledge, the abolition of bigotry in religion and politics, and the equal distribution of the rights of man throughout all sects and denominations of Englishmen'. The appeal to knowledge and education was not hollow rhetoric. National schools were identified as an objective in the society's constitution, debates were sometimes held in divisions, and cells were responsible for distributing didactic pamphlets and sheets to members.

However, intellectual enlightenment was conceived as the necessary prerequisite for revolution, which was central to the United Englishmen ethos. While sections reportedly armed and drilled, any uprising was to be a co-ordinated effort between England, Ireland, and Scotland, with the assistance of a French invasion. To this end delegates of the United Scotsmen toured the manufacturing districts of northern England in 1797 and, in October of that year, a representative 'from the United Scotch, [was] sent expressly to London to know how far the English patriots were willing to assist their brethren in Scotland and Ireland in the great work of overthrowing Tyranny' (Goodwin, 434). The men these delegates met in northern England and London were imbued with revolutionary spirit. In Manchester the secret oath of United Englishmen promised to 'Remove the diadem and take off the crown. This shall not be the same, exalt him that is low and abuse him that is high. I will overturn, overturn, overturn it' (T. Coke to Portland, 19 March 1801, TNA: PRO, HO 42/61). In London members swore 'to overthrow the present Government, and to join the French as soon as they made a landing in England' (examination of John Scotson, 12 March 1798, TNA: PRO, HO 42/42).

One of the main agents in linking the United societies with the French was James O'Coigly. Subscriptions were raised to finance his travels to and from France, with, according to Robert Gray, the express 'Purpose of giving Intelligence to the King's Enemies' (Graham, 816). In December 1797 O'Coigly returned from France with news of French plans for an invasion and on 3 January 1798 he met the national committee of the United Britons (a sister organization overlapping in membership and structure with the United Englishmen) with advice that 'France is watching for an opportunity to be given from hence by some popular commotion as anxiously as their friends here wait for some direct assurance of force to warrant their showing their faces' (ibid., 843). Within days O'Coigly and Benjamin Binns were travelling to Dublin with an address from the United Britons to the United Irishmen. However, on 28 February 1798 O'Coigly, John Binns, Arthur O'Connor, and John Gale Jones were arrested at Margate with a letter from the 'Secret Committee of England' to the French directory, inviting Napoleon Bonaparte to invade Britain. Despite some rallying among the United Englishmen in the immediate aftermath, further arrests of leading members in April 1798—including Evans, Galloway, and Thomas Spence—and the execution of O'Coigly in June 1798 for high treason, curtailed the activities of the remaining United men. One year later further arrests were made, netting more United Englishmen, among them John Baxter [see under London Corresponding Society], Wallis Eastburn, and John Blythe.

On 12 July 1799 the United Englishmen, along with the United Scotsmen, United Irishmen, the London Corresponding Society, and the United Britons, were outlawed by name in government legislation. However, despite the legal repression and legislative suppression of radical societies, remnants of the United Englishmen continued to meet. Economic conditions added to popular discontents in 1800–01, and when Thomas Evans and other state prisoners were released in March 1801 they sought to capitalize on the popular unrest to reinvigorate the United movement. By the end of 1801, Evans, Galloway, and the radical hatter Richard Hodgson were part of a shadowy United Englishmen national committee. In spite of United Irish efforts to invest new energy in United cells in northern England and London in 1802, the movement collapsed when Edward Marcus Despard—acting in collusion with militant Irish labourers and survivors from the United Englishmen—was arrested in November 1802 while conspiring to attack key government sites in London. Despard and four co-conspirators were executed for treason in 1803, and those who still held United sympathies were forced underground to become apostles of Thomas Spence.

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National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London