23 February 1820: the Cato Street Conspiracy unravels

Life was tough for workers in the first two decades of the 19th century. Farmers left their fields for the factories in increasing numbers, only to be joined, after 1815, by soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars. Food supplies came under pressure and prices began to rise. It didn’t help that the government was unsympathetic to the plight of ordinary people. Rebellion was in the air.

Arthur Thistlewood sensed the time was right to foment revolution. Having previously failed to seize the Bank of England, he and his band of self-styled “Spencean Philanthropists” set out to overthrow the government. They learned that Lord Harrowby was to host a dinner for the entire Cabinet on Wednesday, 23 February 1820, at his home in Grosvenor Square. Thistlewood was to knock on the front door pretending to have official papers for Harrowby.

Having armed themselves in a stable in Cato Street, off Edgware Road, the rest of the conspirators were to rush into the house, throwing grenades to spread panic and confusion. The dinner party guests were to be ruthlessly massacred and their heads placed on spikes. However, the Privy Council had got wind of the plot and moved the dinner to the home of the prime minister, Lord Liverpool. The “Bow Street Runners”, an early police force, prepared to move in on the gang, backed up by soldiers from the Coldstream Guards.

At nine in the evening, the police kicked down the stable door, shouting “We are peace officers – lay down your arms”. Thistlewood was ordered to drop his sword and pistol, or else “I’ll fire instantly”, cried Officer Ellis. Officer Smithers moved in to make the arrest but was run through by Thistlewood, who ordered that the lights be extinguished. Shooting another officer in the hand, Thistlewood took advantage of the melee to escape out the back. The soldiers entered the street by the wrong end and arrived too late to be of any help.

The Bow Street Runners had the last laugh days later when they caught up with Thistlewood, who was found hiding in bed. Five of the conspirators were transported to Australia, while the remaining five, including Thistlewood, were publicly hanged on 1 May. Their heads were cut off as a warning to other would-be plotters.

Also on this day

23 February 1963: The case of the electrified Land Rover

On this day in 1963, an unsuspecting bobby gets a shock when he stumbles upon an electrified Land Rover. Read more here.