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Thomas Spence

John Simkin

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Thomas Spence is one of my heroes. He 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, Pig's Meat, but in May 1794 he 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". 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.

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.

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