Life and Ideas
Through a poverty-stricken and persecuted life Thomas Spence stuck to his ‘Plan’ for a free and equal world. He spenthis days in London from 1792 carting his pamphlets about for sale and providing a focal point for anyone with a dislike of aristocrats, landlords, the exploitation of children and oppression of all kinds. His is a story of radicalism from below.
Thomas Spence was a self-taught militant who believed that the land had been stolen from the people and should be returned to them. This idea was the corner stone of his Plan.
1. the end of aristocracy and landlords;
2. all land should be publicly owned by ‘democratic parishes’, which should be largely self-governing;
3. rents of land in parishes to be shared equally amongst parishioners;
4. universal suffrage (including female suffrage) at both parish level and through a system of deputies elected by parishes to a national senate; *
5. a ‘social guarantee’ extended to provide income for those unable to work;
6. the ‘rights of infants’ to be free from abuse and poverty.
*Although Spence’s notion of suffrage was universal (both men and women) he held that women should not be allowed to stand for national office or other ‘public employment’ (see, for example, ‘The Constitution of Spensonia’ on this site)
Spence’s Rights of Man
Spence may have been the first English person to speak of ‘the rights of man’.The following recollection, composed in the third person, was written by Spence while he was in prison in London in 1794 on a charge of High Treason. Spence was, he wrote,
the first, who as far as he knows, made use of the phrase “RIGHTS OF MAN”, which was on the following remarkable occasion: A man who had been a farmer, and also a miner, and who had been ill-used by his landlords, dug a cave for himself by the seaside, at Marsdon Rocks, between Shields and Sunderland, about the year 1780, and the singularity of such a habitation, exciting the curiosity of many to pay him a visit; our authorw as one of that number. Exulting in the idea of a human being, who had bravely emancipated himself from the iron fangs of aristocracy, to live free from impost, he wrote extempore with chaulk above the fire place of this free man, the following lines:
Ye landlords vile, whose man’s peace mar,
Come levy rents here if you can;
Your stewards and lawyers I defy,
And live with all the RIGHTS OF MAN
The cave where Spence chalked these words was dug out by ‘Jack the Blaster’. It is now a pub called the Marsden Grotto Restaurant which offers ‘delicious Gastropub food and will appeal to young or old with a love of the almost mythical maritime history of the Grotto, captured perfectly by the decor’. Anyway if you go into the back cave you will see an old fireplace (on the east wall, behind one of the tables). This fireplace is propably a mid-Victorian addition but it is of the sort that Spence would have seen on his visit. The cave has an entry on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsden_Grotto
Spence’s Rights of Infants
Spence’s angry defense of the rights of children has lost little of its potency. It is Spence at his best: furious and taking on the world. When The Rights of Infants was published in 1796 it was way ahead of its time. Perhaps it still is. Spence’s essay also expresses a clear committment to the rights of women (although he appears unaware of Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women, which responded to Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man, 1791).
Spence’s Ideas Catch On
To be a revolutionary in the early decades of the ninteenth century England was to be a Spencean. Despite their humble, ‘street-level’ origins, Spence’s ideas caught on. A report issued by a Government Secret Committee of 1817 noted that
‘the doctrines of the Spencean clubs have been widely diffused through the country either by extension of similar societies or by missionaries.’
The influence of Spence (even after his death) was taken so seriously that in the same year, 1817, being a Spencean was made illegal. You can find an image of the original Parliamentary Bill banning ‘All societies or clubs calling themselves Spencean or Spencean Philanthropists’ at the bottom of this page.
It is perhaps even more notable that, well after his death, support for Spence’s far-reaching radicalism was chalked up by ordinary people on walls:
‘We have all seen for years past written on the walls in and near London these words ‘Spence’s Plan’ (Letter from William Cobbett to Henry Hunt)
‘His disciples chalked the words [‘Spence’s Plan’] on every wall in London.’ (Letter fromT.J. Evans to Francis Place)
A 1807 poem by ‘Mr Porter’, included in Spence’s Songs of the same year runs:
SPENCE’S PLAN By Mr Porter
As I went forth one Morn /For some Recreation, /My thoughts did quickly turn, /Upon a Reformation, /But far I had not gone, /Or could my thoughts recall, sir, /Ere I spied Spence’s Plan /Wrote up against a wall sir.
I star’d with open Eyes, /And wonder’d what it meant sir, /But found with great surprise /As farther on I went, sir, /Dispute it if you can, /I spied within a Lane sir, /Spence’s Rights of Man, /Wrote boldly up again sir.
Determin’d in my mind, /For to read his Plan, sir, /I quickly went to find /This enterprising man, sir, /To the Swan I took my flight, /Down in New-Street-Square sir, /Where every Monday night, /Friend Tommy Spence comes there sir.
I purchased there a book, /And by the powers above sir, /When in it I did look, /I quickly did approve sir.
The diffusion of Spencean ideas amongst the social elite was minimal. He had almost no contact with such circles. But amongst many ordinary people his ‘Plan’ was important and articulated a profound political yearning. In 1817 Thomas Malthus observed that,
It is also generally known that an idea has lately prevailed among the lower classes of society that the land is the people’s farm, the rent of which ought to be divided equally among them ; and that they have been deprived of the benefits which belong to them, from this their natural inheritance, and by the injustice and oppression of their stewards, the landlords.
Spence’s activities, especially in London, were under continual surveillance and harassment. He was beaten up more than once and his bookshops attacked and plastered with ‘warning’ notices by the authorities or loyalist groups. The charge of ‘seditious libel’ arose from Spence’s selling of pamphlets, either his own or Paine’s Rights of Man . The following is a pretty thin list and may contain mistakes. It leaves out Spence’s central role in radical groups such as the London Corresponding Society.
1750 June 21st, born, Quayside, Newcastle
1775 lecture to The Philosophical Society, Newcastle, later published as ‘The Rights of Man’
1776 -1779 teacher at Free Grammar School, Haydon Bridge
1779 -1787 teacher at Sandgate Chapel School, Quayside, Newcastle
1781 married Miss Elliott in Haydon Bridge, son William born
1787 (or 1788?) moved to London
1792 set up bookstall in Chancery Lane
1792 arrested for seditious libel
1792 imprisoned for short period
1793 opens bookshop ‘The Hive of Liberty’ in Holborn
1793 arrested for seditious libel
1793 Pigs’ Meat (Spence’s penny weekly) first appears
sometime before 1794 married again, his first wife having died sometime between 1781-1792
1794 arrested for High Treason
1794 imprisoned for 7 months without trial (charge of High Treason)
1797 son William dies
1797 moves to 9 Oxford Street
1798 arrested on suspicion of inolvement with United Irishmen
1801 arrested and imprisoned for one year (seditious libel)
1815 Society of Spencean Philanthropists formed
1817 Spencean clubs and socities made illegal
The Old Quayside, Newcastle, 1838 by Henry Perlee Parker
Spence was one of 19 children. His mother, Margaret Flet, sold stockings, his father was a netmaker. Spence was an odd, difficult, utterly sincere man. A contemporary of Spence, Francis Place, described him as follows:
he was a very simple, very honest, single-minded man … he loved mankind and firmly believed that the time would come when it would be wise, virtuous and happy.
He was perfectly sincere, unpractised in the ways of the world to an extent few could imagine in a man who had been pushed about in it as he had been. Yet what is still more remarkable, his character never changed, and he died as much of a child in some respects as he probably was when he arrived at the usual age of mankind.
He . . . was querulous in his disposition and odd in his manners, he was remarkably irritable and seemed as if he had always been so, his disposition was strongly marked in his countenance, which marked him as a man soured by adverse circumstances and at enmity with the world. … In person he was short, not more [than] five feet high, he was small and had the appearance of feebleness at an age when most men still retain their vigour, this was however partly occasioned by a stroke of palsy from which he never entirely recovered. His face was thin and much wrinkled, his mouth was large and uneven, he had a strong northern ‘ burr’ in his throat and a slight impediment in his speech. His garments were generally old and sometimes ragged … he had not, therefore, many points of attraction.
Another contemporary, William Hone, had this to say of Spence:
Spence was a native of Newcastle, small in stature, of grave countenance and deportment, serious in speech and with a broad burr in his accent. He would sometimes relax at little evening parties where his plan was discussed. On these occasions he sang a song highly characteristic of himself and his plan, in which is a sentiment denoting the pleasing state of being “free as a cat” and indeed his love of personal independence was as great as any Man’s, or greater, with a fierce impatience of oppression and rigidly pertinacious of his plan, which was ever first in his thoughts and foremost in his purpose, it is not surprising that in his humble walk in life he lived with difficulty and died poor, leaving nothing to his friends but an injunction to promote his “Plan” and the remembrance of his inflexible integrity.
William Cobbett was present at Spence’s trial for seditious libel in 1801 (Spence received a one year sentence). In later life, when Spence’s name had become venerated amongst radicals, Cobbett recalled:
I was present in the Court of King’s Bench. He [Spence] had no counsel but defended himself and insisted that his views were pure and benevolent, in proof of which, in spite of all exhortations to the contrary, he read his pamphlet through. He was found guilty and sentenced to be imprisoned for I forget how long. He was a plain, unaffected, inoffensive looking creature. He did not seem at all afraid of any punishment, and appeared much more anxious about the success of his plan than about the preservation of his life. After he came out of prison, he pursued the inculcation of his plan, appearing to have no other care; and this he did, I am assured, to the day of his death, always having been a most virtuous and inoffensive man, and always very much beloved by those who knew him.
A Spence Coin: ‘The Cat’
The script reads:
IN . SOCIETY . LIVE . FREE . LIKE . ME . 1795
Spence’s New Script and Pronunciation System
Spence was a self-taught radical with a deep regard for education as a means to liberation. He pioneered a phonetic script and pronunciation system designed to allow people to learn reading and pronunciation at the same time. He believed that if the correct pronunciation was visible in the spelling, everyone would pronounce English correctly, and the class distinctions carried by language would cease. This would bring a time of equality, peace and plenty: the millennium. He published the first English dictionary with pronunciations (1775) and made phonetic versions of many of his pamphlets. A page from one of these pamphlets can be seen at the end of our page dedicated to Spence’s ‘Utopias’
In Spence’s system Newcastle become Nuk’as’il, whilst his title ‘The Restorer of Society to its Natural State‘, becomes ‘Dhe Restorr ov Sosiete tu its nateural Stat‘.
see the ‘English/Tokens’ page and the bibliography for more details
Spence’s name is well-known amongst coin collectors. This would have pleased him. Spence used his tokens to distribute his ideas and was so fond of them that his friends thought it fit to bury him with a couple of his favorites (including one called ‘the Cat’: remember Hone’s account of Spence: ‘He would sometimes relax at little evening parties where his plan was discussed. On these occasions he sang a song highly characteristic of himself and his plan, in which is a sentiment denoting the pleasing state of being “free as a cat”‘).
Spence wrote a work on coin collecting in 1795 (The Coin Collector’s Companion). This has now been re-issued (Gale ECCO print editions) and is available on Amazon.
I’m no expert in coins but from what I understand Spence issued three types: a) existing coins countermarked with radical phrases, for example ‘War is starvation’ and ‘Full bellies, fat bairns’ (a unique collection of these is shown on this site; see English/Tokens page); b) new coins, or tokens, with a political intent. The most common of these advertise Spence’s penny weekly Pigs’ Meat; c) tokens issued for the use of others, such as Spence’s brother. A few coins are shown below and others throughout these pages. Spence’s tokens have survived in greater numbers than Spence’s orginal written works and are regularly sold by coin dealers.
Spence’s tokens need to be seen as part of wider late eighteenth century fashion for using coins to advertise almost anything, including political convictions. In his Companion he notes the ‘universal rage of collecting coins’.Whether worn around the neck (well I am guessing so since they sometimes have holes at the top), collected or passed about as substitute coinage, there were many radical coins (such as the tokens announcing the acquittal for High Treason of London Corresponding Society activist Thomas Hardy) and anti-revolutionary ones.
The best overview of the coins can be found at:
A clear and useful recent (2007) academic article by John Barrell with good quality images of Spence’s coins and lots of contemporary reports (about half way through the article) of their reception (pretty mixed) can be found at: http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2007/v/n46/016131ar.html
A Spence token advertsing ‘Pigs’ Meat, Spence’s penny weekly
Pig trampliing on symbols of crown and papal authority, with cap of liberty at top
script: ‘Pigs’ Meat. Published by T. Spence London’
script: ‘MAN OVER MAN HE MADE NOT LORD’
‘PIGS MEAT PUBLISHED BY T. SPENCE LONDON’
It is a testament to the influence of Spence that his work and his followers provoked, not just Government legislation to suppress Spencean activity, but also lively satire. The picture below is from the front cover of Radical State Papers (1820). This work claims to be a compilation of State Papers from ‘the Spencean Commonwealth’ and takes readers through the advent and demise of an eccentric – what might be satirised today as ‘loony left’ – Spencean state. One can get a flavour of its contents by looking at the proposed Spencean ‘Bill of Rights’ (proposed under the new revolutionary calendar, in the month of Capricorn, Year 2 of the Spencean Revolution):
1. No Spencean shall wear clean linen; dirt covers a multitude of skins.
2. Premiums shall be given for burglary; no Spencean shall be obstructed in his calling on the highway.
3. Property is common; there shall be no palings nor walls.
4. Women are common – there shall be no monopoly
The print shows, far right on the platform, a Napoleon pig figure, a personification of Pigs’ Meat; to its right stands a personification of the most popular radical newspaper of the time, Black Dwarf. In the middle we have ‘Orator Hunt’. In front we have a grotesque rabble, ‘the swinish multitude’.