diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Cato Street Conspiracy (23rd February 1820)

200 years ago today, in a Marylebone sidestreet, a plot to murder the entire top tier of British government was foiled. Terrorism is nothing new.

Britain was a restless country in 1820, the Tory government intent on keeping the emerging working class in their place with repressive legislation. A group of radicals called the Spencean Philanthropists set about hatching a plot, and saw their chance when King George III died on 29th January triggering a constitutional crisis. One of the gang spotted an advert in a newspaper announcing that the Prime Minister and all his ministers would be attending a 'grand Cabinet dinner' at a house in Grosvenor Square on a particular evening. Chief conspirator Arthur Thistlewood drew up a plan to storm the building with pistols, grenades and cutlasses, then round everyone up and behead the lot of them. He did not succeed.

On the evening of 23rd February the plotters met for one last meeting in a stable block in Cato Street, unaware that the whole thing had been a set-up. Thistlewood's second in command was actually a government spy, and the newspaper advert had been placed in the paper with the full knowledge of the Prime Minister. Twelve officers of the Bow Street Runners lay in wait at a pub across the street and at half past seven moved in for a mass arrest. In the resultant brawl Thistlewood killed one of the officers with a sword, then escaped out of the back window, while others either surrendered or were overpowered. He was captured the following day.

The conspirators were put on trial for high treason and sentenced to death. Five of them (including Thistlewood) were hanged and beheaded at Newgate Prison - the last time this particular punishment was applied on British soil. Another five had their sentence commuted and were transported to Australia for life. And in the midst of all this the Tory government called a general election, campaigning on a strong public order ticket, and won a sizeable majority over the Whigs. Cato Street was renamed shortly afterwards, becoming Horace Street, and only regained its former title in 1937 after its notoriety had faded.

To find Cato Street aim for the big Waitrose on the Edgware Road and head a couple of streets back. It's not an easy road to spot, a narrow mews-like backwater accessed at either end via a low arch. Don't try driving in, it's a yellow-lined dead end. Number 1A where the conspiracy took place, since renumbered 1, is the first house at the northern end and one of only two to have survived from Georgian times. As a coach house it still has stable-sized doors at ground level, since repurposed for vehicle storage. The rest of the western side of the street was redeveloped in 1972 as twenty mews flats, while opposite is a very recent brick apartment block, somehow almost sympathetic.

If you head to Cato Street today, the Harrowby and District Residents Association are organising a special bicentenary celebration starting at 12 noon. They promise horse-drawn tram rides, costumed musicians, playground games, a street magician and other things which didn't necessarily exist in 1820. The best fancy dress will win a prize, while two of the local pubs are doing 'conspiracy cocktails' and traditional 200-year-old food. It sounds fun, but if you want to experience the street in all its secluded notoriety I'd suggest visiting after all the hullabaloo has been cleared away.

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