Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Frost, John (1750-1842)

FROST, JOHN (1750–1842), secretary of the Corresponding Society, born in October 1750, was educated at Winchester School, and brought up as an attorney. He early devoted himself to the study of politics. In 1782 he was a prominent member of a society which met at the Thatched House tavern for the purpose of advocating constitutional reforms, and among his associates were William Pitt, the Duke of Richmond, Lord Surrey, Lord Mahon, Major Cartwright, Horne Tooke, and John Wilkes. Pitt engaged in correspondence with Frost, and assured him that he regarded a thorough reform of the representation as ‘essentially necessary to the independence of parliament and the liberty of the people.’ At the breaking out of the French revolution Frost was one of the most enthusiastic of those who adopted republican principles. In 1792 Frost secretly sheltered in his house a number of political prisoners. The same year he took a leading part in founding the Corresponding Society, for which body he also acted as secretary. The society began an active propaganda for a reform of the parliamentary representation, and one of its manifestoes prepared by Frost and Hardy showed that 257 representatives of the people, making a majority of the existing House of Commons, were returned by a number of voters not exceeding the thousandth part of the nation.

Contemporaneously with the foundation of this society was formed the Society for Constitutional Information. Branches of both societies rapidly sprang up in the provinces. The Constitutional Society elected Frost a deputy to the convention of France in 1793, his colleague being Joel Barlow, whose expenses he paid. In this character he was present at the trial of the French king (1792–3), and he was denounced in one of Burke's speeches as the ambassador to the murderers.

On the information of the attorney-general Frost was arrested in February 1793 on a charge of sedition. He was brought to trial in the following May, the indictment describing him as ‘late of Westminster, in the county of Middlesex, gentleman, a person of a depraved, impious, and disquiet mind, and of a seditious disposition.’ The specific charge against the prisoner was that he had uttered these words in Percy's coffee-house, Marylebone: ‘I am for equality; I see no reason why any man should not be upon a footing with another; it is every man's birthright;’ that on being asked what he meant by equality, he replied, ‘Why, no kings;’ and being further asked whether he meant no king in England, rejoined: ‘Yes, no king; the constitution of this country is a bad one.’ Frost was defended by Erskine, but in spite of his advocate's eloquence he was found guilty. He was sentenced to six calendar months' imprisonment in Newgate, to stand once during that time in the pillory at Charing Cross for the space of one hour, between twelve and two o'clock; to find sureties for his good behaviour for the space of five years, himself in 500l. and two others in 100l. each; to be further imprisoned until the sureties were found; and lastly to be struck off the roll of attorneys. While one of the witnesses against Frost was waiting to hear sentence passed he was seized with a fit. It is said that Frost taunted him with his sufferings as a proof of divine vengeance. On the expiration of his sentence, 19 Dec. 1793, Frost was brought out of Newgate almost in a state of collapse. He was placed in a coach, and rolled in blankets. Kirby, the keeper, accompanied him to the house of Justice Grose, in Bloomsbury Square, where, with two sureties, he entered into his recognisances. As soon as he was at liberty the multitude took the horses out of the carriage and drew him along the streets, stopping at every marked place, and particularly before the Prince of Wales's house, to shout and express their joy. In this state he was conducted to his house in Spring Gardens, where Thelwall made a speech, entreating the crowd to separate peaceably.

The Corresponding Society continued its work of agitation, and during a debate in the House of Commons in May 1794 Pitt stated that it had laid in due form before the Society for Constitutional Information a deliberate plan for assembling a convention for all England, to overturn the established system of government. At length, on 28 July 1797, the members of the Corresponding Society assembled in a field near St. Pancras, when the proceedings were interrupted by the magistrates, who arrested the principal speakers, and kept them in custody until they procured bail. The society itself was then formally suppressed by the government.

Frost was a candidate for the representation of East Grinstead in 1802, and petitioned against his opponent's return, but a committee of the House of Commons found that the petition was frivolous and vexatious. In December 1813 Frost received from the prince regent, acting in the name and on behalf of the king, a free pardon, in consequence of which, on 8 Feb. 1815, the court of king's bench was moved to replace his name on the roll of attorneys. The court held that his want of practice and experience in the profession made him presumably unfit for the employment.

The effects of his imprisonment remained with him for many years, but he lived to the great age of ninety-one, dying at Holly Lodge, near Lymington, Hampshire, on 25 July 1842 (Gent. Mag. October 1842, pp. 442–3).

[Papers of the Corresponding and Constitutional Societies; Ann. Reg. 1842; Edinburgh Review, vol. xvi.; State Trials, vol. xxii.; Hampshire Independent, 30 July 1842.]

G. B. S.