Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thistlewood, Arthur
THISTLEWOOD, ARTHUR (1770–1820), Cato Street conspirator, born at Tupholme, about twelve miles from Lincoln, in 1770, was the son of William Thistlewood of Bardney, Lincolnshire, and is said to have been illegitimate. His father was a well-known breeder of stock and respectable farmer under the Vyners of Gautby. Thistlewood appears to have been brought up as a land surveyor, but never followed that business; his brother, with whom he has been confused, was apprenticed to a doctor. He is said to have become unsettled in mind through reading the works of Paine, and to have proceeded to America and from America to France shortly before the downfall of Robespierre. In Paris he probably developed the opinions which marked him through life, and, according to Alison (Hist. Eur. ii. 424), returned to England in 1794 ‘firmly persuaded that the first duty of a patriot was to massacre the government and overturn all existing institutions.’ He was appointed ensign in the first regiment of West Riding militia on 1 July 1798 (Militia List, 1799), and on the raising of the supplementary militia he obtained a lieutenant's commission in the 3rd Lincolnshire regiment, commanded by Lord Buckinghamshire.
He married, 24 Jan. 1804, Jane Worsley, a lady older than himself, living in Lincoln and possessed of a considerable fortune. After his marriage he resided first in Bawtry and then in Lincoln. On the early death of his wife her fortune reverted to her own family, by whom he was granted a small annuity. Being obliged to leave Lincoln owing to some gambling transaction which left him unable to meet his creditors, he drifted to London, and there, being thoroughly discontented with his own condition, he became an active member of the Spencean Society, which aimed at revolutionising all social institutions in the interest of the poorer classes [see Spence, Thomas]. At the society's meetings he came in contact with the elder James Watson (1766–1838) [q. v.] and his son, the younger James, who were in hearty sympathy with his views. In 1814 he resided for some time in Paris. Soon after his return to England, about the end of 1814, he came under the observation of the government as a dangerous character. Under the auspices of the Spencean and other revolutionary societies, the younger Watson and Thistlewood organised a great public meeting for 2 Dec. 1816 at Spa Fields, at which it was determined to inaugurate a revolution. At the outset the Tower and Bank were to be seized. For several months before the meeting Thistlewood constantly visited the various guardrooms and barracks, and he was so confident that his endeavours to increase the existing dissatisfaction among the soldiery had proved successful, that he fully believed that the Tower guard would throw open the gates to the mob. The military arrangements under the new régime were to be committed to his charge. The government was, however, by means of informers, kept in touch with the crude plans of the conspirators, and was well prepared; consequently the meeting was easily dispersed after the sacking of a few gunsmiths' shops. The cabinet was, however, so impressed by the dangers of the situation that the suspension of the habeas corpus bill was moved in the lords on 24 Feb. 1817, and the same day a bill for the prevention of seditious meetings was brought forward in the commons. Warrants had already been taken out against Thistlewood and the younger James Watson on the charge of high treason on 10 Feb. 1817, and a substantial reward offered for their apprehension. Both went into hiding, and, although the government appears soon to have been informed of their movements, it was not thought fit to effect Thistlewood's capture until May, when he was apprehended with his (second) wife, Susan, daughter of J. Wilkinson, a well-to-do butcher of Horncastle, and an illegitimate son Julian, on board a ship on the Thames on which he had taken his passage for America. The younger Watson succeeded in sailing for America at an earlier date. Thistlewood and the elder Watson were imprisoned in the Tower. It was arranged that the prisoners charged with high treason should be tried separately. Watson was acquitted, and in the case against Thistlewood and others, on 17 June 1817, a verdict of not guilty was found by the direction of the judge on the determination of the attorney-general to call no evidence. This narrow escape had little effect on Thistlewood; the weekly meetings of the Spenceans were immediately renewed, and the violence of his language increased. A rising in Smithfield was projected for 6 Sept., the night of St. Bartholomew's fair; the bank was to be blown open, the post-office attacked, and artillery seized. This and a similar design for 12 Oct. were abandoned owing to the careful preparation of the authorities, in whose possession were minute accounts of every action of Thistlewood and his fellow-committeemen.
The want of success attending these revolutionary attempts seems to have driven Thistlewood towards the end of October 1817 to active opposition to Henry Hunt [q. v.] and the constitutional reformers, and to considerable differences with the Watsons and other old associates, who, though ready to benefit by violent action, were not prepared to undertake the responsibility of assassination. About this period he appears for the first time to have considered plans for the murder of the Prince of Wales and privy council at a cabinet or public dinner, if sufficient numbers for ‘a more noble and general enterprise’ could not be raised (Home Office Papers, R. O.). Though naturally opposed to all ministers in authority, Thistlewood entertained a particular dislike to the home secretary, Lord Sidmouth, to whom he wrote about this period a number of letters demanding in violent language the return of property taken from him on his arrest on board ship. Failing to secure either his property or the compensation in money (180l.) which he demanded, he published the correspondence between Lord Sidmouth and himself (London, 1817, 8vo), and sent a challenge to the minister. The result was his arrest on a charge of threatened breach of the peace. At his trial on this charge on 14 May 1818 he at first pleaded guilty but withdrew his plea, and was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment, and at the expiration of the term to find two sureties for 150l. and himself for 300l., failing which to remain in custody. A new trial was moved for on 28 May, but refused. Thistlewood was confined in Horsham gaol. His sentence and treatment appear to have been exceptionally severe. On 29 June he applied to the home secretary for improved sleeping accommodation, and described his cell as only 9 feet by 7 feet, while two and sometimes three men slept in the one bed. During his period of imprisonment his animosity towards Hunt appears to have increased, though Hunt wrote to him in friendly fashion of his attempts ‘to overturn the horrid power of the Rump.’
The full term of Thistlewood's imprisonment expired on 28 May 1819, and after a little difficulty the sureties requisite for his liberation were secured. Directly after his release he commenced attending the weekly meetings of his old society at his friend Preston's lodgings; a secret directory of thirteen were sworn, and more violent counsels immediately prevailed. In July 1819 the state of the country, especially in the north, was critical; the lord lieutenants were ordered back to their counties, and the authorities in London were in a constant state of preparation against meetings which it was feared would develop into riots. For a short time Thistlewood worked once again in apparent harmony with the parliamentary reformers, spoke on the same platform with Hunt, 21 July, and as late as 5 Sept. organised the public reception of the same orator on his entry into London; but the new union society was formed, 1 Aug., with the intention of taking the country correspondence out of the hands of Thistlewood and Preston, whose violence caused alarm to their friends. Thistlewood and Watson organised public meetings at Kennington on 21 Aug. and Smithfield on 30 Oct. which passed off without disturbance, although attended by men in arms. Thistlewood designed simultaneous public meetings in the disaffected parts of the country for 1 Nov., but this course was not approved by either Hunt or Thomas Jonathan Wooller [q. v.], from whom he appears now to have finally separated. The reformers were at this period so nervous about traitors in their midst that even Thistlewood was denounced as a spy (Nottingham meeting, 29 Oct.) Despite, however, increased caution and endeavours to secure secrecy, the government was in receipt of almost daily accounts of the doings of the secret directory of thirteen. In November Thistlewood and his friends grew hopeless as to their chances of successfully setting the revolution on foot in London. They now looked to the north for a commencement. Thistlewood was invited to Manchester at the beginning of December, but lack of funds prevented him from going. No effective support seemed coming from Lancashire; Thistlewood regarded a ‘straightforward revolution’ as hopeless, and concentrated his efforts on his old plan of assassination. One informer not in the secret wrote on 1 Dec.: ‘There is great mystery in Thistlewood's conduct; he seems anxious to disguise his real intentions, and declaims against the more violent members of the party, but is continually with them in private.’ His exact intentions were being reported to the home office by George Edwards, who was one of the secret committee of thirteen, and especially in Thistlewood's confidence. At first an attack on the Houses of Parliament was meditated, but, the number of conspirators being considered insufficient for the purpose, assassination at a cabinet dinner was preferred. A special executive committee of five, of whom Edwards was one, was appointed on 13 Dec.; and the government permitted the plot to mature. From 20 Dec. 1819 to 22 Feb. 1820 Thistlewood appears to have been waiting anxiously for an opportunity; his aim was to assassinate the ministers at dinner, attack Coutts's or Child's bank, set fire to public buildings, and seize the Tower and Mansion House, where a provisional government was to be set up with the cobbler Ings as secretary. About the end of January 1820, wearied with waiting, he took the management of the plot entirely into his own hands, Edwards alone being in his confidence. A proclamation was prepared and drawn up with the assistance of Dr. Watson, who at this time was, fortunately for himself, in prison. In it the appointment of a provisional government and the calling together of a convention of representatives were announced. The death of the king, George III, on 29 Jan. was regarded as especially favourable to the plot, and the announcement of a cabinet dinner at Lord Harrowby's house in Grosvenor Square in the new ‘Times’ of 22 Feb., to which Thistlewood's attention was called by Edwards, found Thistlewood ready to put his scheme into execution. The meeting-place which the conspirators had hitherto attended about twice a day had been at 4 Fox's Court, Gray's Inn Lane, but as a final rendezvous and centre to which arms, bombs, and hand grenades should be brought, a loft over a stable in Cato Street was taken on 21 Feb. Hither they repaired (about twenty-five in number) on the evening of 23 Feb., and, warrants having been issued the same day, the greater number of them were apprehended about 8.30 P.M. They were found in the act of arming preparatory to their start for Lord Harrowby's house. Shots were fired. Thistlewood killed police-officer Smithers with a sword, and escaped immediate capture in the darkness and general confusion. Anonymous information was, however, given as to his whereabouts, and he was taken the next day at 8 White Street, Moorfields. He was again imprisoned in the Tower, and was the first of the gang to be tried before Charles Abbott (afterwards first lord Tenterden) [q. v.] and Sir Robert Dallas [q. v.] and two other judges on the charge of high treason. After three days' trial, 17, 18, and 19 April, during which Edwards was not called as evidence, Thistlewood was found guilty and sentenced to a traitor's death. He was hanged, with four other conspirators, in front of the debtor's door, Newgate, on 1 May 1820. The criminals were publicly decapitated after death, but the quartering of their bodies was not proceeded with. Thistlewood died defiantly, showing the same spirit that he exhibited at the end of his trial when he declaimed ‘Albion is still in the chains of slavery. I quit it without regret. My only sorrow is that the soil should be a theatre for slaves, for cowards, for despots.’
In appearance Thistlewood was about 5 ft. 10 in. high, of sallow complexion and long visage, dark hair and dark hazel eyes with arched eyebrows; he was of slender build, with the appearance of a military man. A lithographed portrait of him is prefixed to the report of the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy,’ published by J. Fairburn, Ludgate Hill, 1820.[State Trials; Times, 2 May 1820; Annual Reg.; European Rev.; Gent. Mag.; Pellew's Life of Lord Sidmouth; Hansard's Parl. Debates, May 1820; Home Office Papers, 1816–1820, at the Record Office.]