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The Cato Street Conspiracy


At the end of the 18th century and in the first three decades of the19th, Britain was still predominantly agricultural. But society was changing. Rural living was giving way to industrialisation and urbanisation. To add to these upheavals, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars - which had lasted for more than two decades - unemployed soldiers and sailors began to flood the labour market.

This newly industrialised world produced inflation, food shortages and new patterns of factory employment, and it was during this time of social change that a climate of discontent and radicalism developed. A series of riots and industrial unrest occurred. The government responded with a series of repressive measures, including the Combination Acts of 1799, which forbade the gathering of working men with a common purpose.

The Cato Street conspiracy (drawing of room) - opens new window
Conspirators' Hideout in Cato Street
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Davidson's testimony - opens new window
Davidson Addresses
the Court

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In 1820, a small group led by Arthur Thistlewood, a prominent radical in London, protested against the harshness of these measures. The group became known as the Cato Street conspirators, after the street near Edgware Road, London, where they last met. The group included a man named William Davidson, a Glossary - opens new window'Mulatto' born in Jamaica. Thistlewood's group aimed to overthrow the government by assassinating the entire Cabinet while they were dining at Lord Harrowby's home in Grosvenor Square.
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The authorities received an intelligence report about the conspiracy and stormed the room in Cato Street. Thistlewood killed a policeman in the fracas. After his arrest, one of the conspirators, James Ings, described how the plan was that he would be the first to enter the room at Lord Harrowby's house, armed with a pair of pistols, a cutlass and a knife. He intended to behead every member of the Cabinet, then take away the heads of Lords Castlereagh and Sidmouth in bags to display them on spikes on Westminster Bridge.

 

Davey, witness statement - opens new window
'A man of colour'
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Davidson, sentence book - opens new window
The Execution of
William Davidson

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During proceedings at the Central Criminal Court, William Davidson protested his innocence. It was argued that the evidence of a man named Edwards, an agent provocateur, was unreliable. Edwards seems actually to have instigated the murders, and it was on his evidence that the conspirators were convicted. A number of other witnesses provided statements, including John Davey, who confirmed that Davidson, 'a man of colour', was a cabinet maker.

In his defence before the court, Davidson told the jury '...you may suppose that because I am a man of colour I am without any understanding or feeling and would act the brute; I am not one of that sort; when not employed in my business, I have employed myself as a teacher of a Sunday-school...'.

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The presiding judge responded '...you may rest most perfectly assured that with respect to the colour of your countenance, no prejudice either has or will exist in any part of this Court against you; a man of colour is entitled to British justice as much as the fairest British subject'.

When sentences on the Cato Street conspirators were passed, five of the conspirators were transported. Davidson and four others charged with high treason were hanged on 1 May 1820.

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The Newgate Calendar states that 'William Davidson was the son of the Attorney-General of Jamaica and a native woman of colour. He was sent to England to receive an education suitable to the rank of his father. In Liverpool he studied mathematics; later on he was impressed into the king's service. He received a legacy from his mother of £1,200 and set up a business in Birmingham. After a failed attempt at marriage to the daughter of a Liverpool tradesman, Davidson married a Mrs Lane who was left with six children, two of them being Davidson's sons.'
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References and Further Reading

Costello, R., Black Liverpool, Liverpool, 2001

Edwards, P., and Dabydeen, D., Black Writers in Britain 1760-1890, Edinburgh, 1991

Fryer, P., Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London, 1984

Herzog, D., Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders, New York, 1972

Knapp, A. and Baldwin, W., Newgate Calendar, vol. IV, pp. 253-72, London, 1826

Wilkinson, G. T., An Authentic History of the Cato Street Conspiracy (1820), New York, 1972

For more information on Chartism, see:
http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/struggle_democracy/trade_unionism.htm


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