The page recounts how some London Chartists tried to organise an armed rebellion – known as the Orange Tree conspiracy – following the rejection of the third national petition for the Charter.
If, after the reverses of the Kennington Common rally and the off-hand rejection of the third great petition by the House of Commons, Chartism stood defeated in the summer of 1848, then the Chartists were yet to find out about it.
Monster meetings, rallies and riots throughout the country continued to demand the Charter – and nowhere more so this time round than in the capital – where troops were once more brought out in June to defend the Bank of England and other public buildings against possible attack.
But behind the scenes, some Chartists now tried to move beyond random acts of protest to develop plans for an insurrection. On 12 June 1848, Peter M’Douall (or McDouall), who had been a delegate at the first Chartist convention and had fled abroad with a price on his head after the general strike of 1842, took the chair at a meeting in the Albion beershop on the Bethnal Green Road where preparations were set in motion for an uprising.
In his book London Chartism 1838-1848, Dr David Goodway records that even at this early stage the police were kept well informed of developments, by George Davis of Greenwich, who attended meetings throughout the summer as a delegate, and by Thomas Riordain Reading, the Northern Star’s London Irish correspondent.
The conspirators never stood a chance, but this they were yet to discover.
Four members of a secret committee – Henshaw, for East London; Pitt, for the West; Honeybold, North London; and Percy, south London – drew up a plan of attack.
In his report to the police, Davis claimed that a map of London was produced and a series of possible plans of attack formulated.In one, barricades would have been constructed on the Strand, Ludgate Hill, Cheapside and other City streets from Clerkenwell to the Barbican and Hatton Garden (see below). Theatres and other buildings were to be fired, and pawnbrokers’ and gunsmiths’ shops ransacked for arms. Across Waterloo Bridge at Kent Road, the police station was to be attached and the artillery’s march on London halted and their weapons seized.
Goodway argues that “definite arrangements” were being made for an uprising, probably on the weekend of 16-18 June 1848. But on 14 June the Chartist Executive moved to disband the general committee of 24 individuals overseeing preparations. The executive, it appears, was well aware of the plans, and had panicked apparently because it became aware of police spies in the midst of the conspiracy. M’Douall himself named Mander, May and Plume.
Though the conspiracy then folded, violent public speeches remained the norm, with M’Douall and his co-conspirator John McCrae (or M’Crae) prominent on the platforms. But with habeas corpus suspended in Ireland, an uprising there reported to be imminent and the police now arresting Chartist leaders in London, meetings of the would-be insurrectionaries resumed.
Plans were hatched to rescue the arrested Ernest Jones and others from police custody as they were moved from Newgate to Coldbath Fields Prison. Goodway says that this second conspiracy was unknown to the Chartist Executive – but not to the police, whose sources were now Davis, and Thomas Powell (alias Johnson) of Cripplegate, neither of whom knew of the other’s role.
Between 20 July and 16 August, when the uprising was scheduled to begin, the conspirators met in one form or another on 16 occasions. Fear of police spies, troubling news of the suppression of the Irish revolt, and new tensions between the Chartist and Irish conspirators saw committees come and go. Nevertheless, after making contact with Chartists in Manchester, Liverpool, Leicester, Nottingham, Birmingham and possibly Bradford, the London conspirators agreed that the rising would take place on Wednesday 16 August. The localities were to meet at 8pm and to be ready to move at 9.20pm.
At 6pm on the night of 16 August, 11 men were arrested at the Orange Tree public house. Later, at 9pm, 13 more were held at the Angel in Southwark, and within 20 minutes more a large mob had been dispersed at Seven Dials. For four more days arrests continued and quantities of weapons discovered and seized. Joseph Ritchie, William Lacey, Thomas Fay, William Cuffay, William Dowling, and later George Bridge Mullins were transported to Australia for life. Fifteen others were imprisoned for up to two years.
David Goodway notes that this was the last in a line of revolutionary attempts dating back to the 1790s. He argues that Cuffay, commonly held responsible for the rising, had in fact only become secretary of the “ulterior committee” of organisers three days before the rising. Nor did the Chartist Executive know anything of the conspiracy. The true leaders, he says, were Payne, John Rose, Brewster, James Bassett, and most of all the 22-year-old surgeon’s apprentice George Bridge Mullins.
The following account of the moment police armed with pistols and cutlasses broke the plot and arrested the ringleaders is taken from a contemporary newspaper account.
ARREST OF ARMED CHARTISTS IN LONDON
On Wednesday night a scene of the utmost confusion took place in Webber Street , Blackfriars which, for two or three hours, created considerable sensation in the neighbourhood.
It appears that, from private information received by the Government, about half-past nine, Superintendent Rutt, with nearly 300 men, marched to the Angel Tavern in Webber Street kept by Mr Smith. Mr Rutt, with a pair of loaded pistols and a cutlass at his side, entered the house, accompanied by a strong body of constables, and, at the same time, upwards of a hundred officers were drawn up in front of the premises under arms. The moment the police entered the tap-room or parlour, a general movement took place on the part of the persons assembled there, and Mr Rutt cried out, “If any man offers the least resistance I will run him through,” at the same time showing his drawn cutlass. This had the desired effect, and little or no resistance was attempted. The police then in a body seized fourteen men who were in the room, and conveyed them, under a strong guard, to Tower Street , where, upon being searched, pistils loaded to the muzzle, pikes, three-corner daggers, spearheads and swords were found upon their persons, and others were found secreted under the seats on which they had been sitting. Some of them wore iron breast-plates, and others had gun-powder, shot and tow balls. Under one man no less than 75 rounds of ball cartridge were discovered. The prisoners having been duly charged, their names and addresses were taken, and scarcely a man was brought forward who was not well known to the police as being a prominent Chartist. The whole of the prisoners were locked up at Tower Street under a strong escort of police. Soon after, Superintendent Rutt and Inspector Russell, from private information which they received, proceeded to Blue Anchor-yard, York Street , Westminster , where, it was stated, a gant of armed Chartists were waiting to march out and join the other portions in the event of a procession being formed. On entering the house of a well known leader, the man and a large pike were found.
Upon the police proceeding to the house of Samual Morgan, one of the men taken in the Angel Tavern, the police found the leg of a chair loaded with lead, and a number of nails driven in at the extremity. It was about the length of a policeman’s truncheon, and so heavily laden that a blow on the head with it must have caused instantaneous death. Swords and weapons of various kinds have been found at then residences of the other prisoners.
The whole of the military quartered at Buckingham palace, the Tower, Mint, Bank of England and the various barracks were under arms.
From what has already transpired, it is supposed that the Chartist and Confederate clubs intended to march out well armed, as they did some weeks back, and attack such buildings as may be pointed out to them.
Shortly after the capture was made in Webber Street , a meeting was attempted to be held at the South London Chartist Hall, in the same street, when one of the leaders rushed into the building, and advised them, for God’s sake, to disperse as their lives were in danger. In an instance a general rush took place for the street, and one man, in leaping from a side window, severely injured himself, and, it is rumoured, broke one of his legs.
In consequence of information received at the Home-office that a Chartist demonstration on a large scale was intended to be held at a house in Moor Street, Seven Dials, orders were issued to the superintendents of the various divisions of police at the wet end of the metropolis, to muster all their men and keep them in reserve till further orders. At four o’clock in the afternoon, a strong body of police, under the direction of Superintendents Pearce and Grimwood, went to the Orange Tree public-house in Orange Street , and having satisfied themselves that a number of armed Chartists were in the house, proceeded with several constables into the place, and arrested about eighteen men, armed with pistols, pikes, and blunderbusses. The landlord was also arrested, and several cabs having been procured, the whole of the prisoners were handcuffed and conveyed to the police station in Bow Street . The public house in question is now closed. About eleven o’clock an alarm was given that upwards of 500 Irish Confederates armed with pikes were about marching from Moor Street to meet the Confederates in Webber Street, and in consequence of the alarm manifested by the inhabitants, the whole of the C division, fully armed, under the orders of Superintendent Beresford, proceeded to the spot, and found that a number of Irish had assembled at a public house in the street under the pretence of having a raffle, in order to raise funds to defend the Confederate leaders on their forthcoming trial. This, however, turned out a mere subterfuge, for one the house being entered, the whole of the persons assembled there were found with arms in their hands. A violent resistance was offered on the part of the Confederates; but on the police drawing their cutlasses, they speedily threw down their arms and ran out of the house. Four fellows who were more violent than the rest were taken into custody. Quiet was not restored to the neighbourhood till a late hour.
Source: The Scotsman , 19 August
Originally from Chartist Ancestors.