Divided We Grow

John Barrell

  • The London Corresponding Society 1792-99 edited by Michael T. Davis
    Pickering & Chatto, £495.00, June 2002, ISBN 1 85196 734 6
  • Romanticism, Publishing and Dissent: Joseph Johnson and the Cause of Liberty by Helen Braithwaite
    Palgrave, 243 pp, £45.00, December 2002, ISBN 0 333 98394 7

The London Corresponding Society was founded early in 1792 by a group of tradesmen who met in a pub off the Strand. The Society was to educate its members – expected to be artisans, mechanics, shopkeepers – about politics and history, and would function as a pressure group to persuade the Government to adopt the ‘Duke of Richmond’s plan’, the twin reforms of universal manhood suffrage and annual parliaments which the Duke had supported a decade before but had since abandoned. The LCS was never very large: at its most successful, it may never have contained more than three thousand active, paid-up members, though many more thousands must have attended a few meetings, even joined it briefly, then hurriedly left or slowly drifted away. In bad times its membership dwindled away to a few hundred. Its importance, however, is out of all proportion to its numbers. From 1793 to at least the end of 1795, the Society was the co-ordinator of the numerous popular reform societies scattered throughout the country, which together constituted the first nationwide popular political movement in Britain.

Especially in its first four years, the LCS was exceptionally busy and visible, publishing an abundance of addresses and resolutions, and holding large open-air general meetings attended by tens of thousands. When in the spring of 1794 the LCS proposed a national convention of reform societies, its leaders were arrested and charged with high treason. But by the end of the year they had been acquitted, and in 1795 the Society became stronger and more numerous than it ever had been or would be again. By the autumn, at a huge general meeting in what is now Caledonian Park, it again felt able to issue a direct challenge to the Government on the question of reform. The Government responded by passing, in particular, the Seditious Meetings Act, one of two new statutes which, without actually proscribing the Society, placed severe limits on how it could act. The history of the LCS thereafter is one of dwindling membership, clumsy reorganisation, increasing chaos and financial embarrassment, and a growing commitment among some of its members to insurrectionary politics. The Society was eventually proscribed in 1799, but its aims and some of its methods were inherited by the Chartists a few decades later.

The Government and its supporters, implacably hostile to universal manhood suffrage and unwilling to concede any measure of reform until Revolutionary France had been defeated, were extremely concerned at the rise and growth of the LCS. They certainly thought it was in their interest, however, to exaggerate the supposed threat from the Society, and it is unlikely that many ministers really believed in the reasons they gave for their alarm. It was pretended that the LCS was armed, and comprised, as William Pitt expressed it, a ‘Jacobin army’, but its members taken together seem to have owned fewer weapons than decorated the walls of an average country house. At the treason trials, the law officers claimed that the LCS was leading a plot to depose the King and usurp the powers of government, but the juries rejected this claim each time it was put before them, no doubt because it relied on arguments about what would count as usurpation and deposition which were figurative and technical to the point of absurdity. On at least two occasions the Government claimed that the LCS was involved in a plot to assassinate the King; but the evidence for the first plot was transparently fictitious, and there was no evidence at all for the second.

Ministers and their loyalist supporters were of course worried that, however small the popular reform movement might be, it would grow and spread; and they focused this concern on the organisational structure of the LCS, which they described in a language that sounds convincingly urgent, as if, in this case at least, they really did believe their own propaganda. The Society was split into divisions, ideally of thirty members each, to ensure that the numbers at meetings were small enough to enable everyone to participate in discussion. Many of these divisions – at one point the LCS claimed there were ninety – met twice a week, once to transact business and once as a study group at which political and historical texts were read and discussed. From mid-1794, each division was subdivided into ‘tithings’, groups of ten members living in contiguous streets, whose intimacy would help ensure attendance at divisional meetings and make it harder for spies to infiltrate the Society. The divisions were represented at a general committee of the Society by elected delegates, who were to carry down to their divisions the proposals of the general committee, and to carry up to the general committee the motions and resolutions of the divisions. This system worked well until the increasing persecution of the reform movement, and the increasing infiltration of the Society by government spies, made necessary a much greater secrecy in its actions, and the LCS developed a secret committee which kept even the general committee starved of knowledge.

This divisional structure meant that the LCS did not offer its members only jam tomorrow, a reform deferred to an uncertain future. A large part of the Society’s appeal was that it offered a sense of immediate, present participation, to whomever would join it and engage in its activities and debates. It offered the opportunity to stand for office, to be elected to a series of positions of increasing responsibility (tithing-man, divisional secretary, sub-delegate, delegate), and for many members the prospect of participating in the Society’s democratic structures may have been as powerful in persuading them to join as the uncertain prospect of eventual Parliamentary reform. For by and large the LCS appears to have been strong where local government was oligarchic. In the City, the opportunities for artisans and shopkeepers to participate in local government were very considerable indeed, and the LCS recruited poorly; the Society’s heartland was north and east of Charing Cross, in Southwark and in the metropolitan parishes of Middlesex, where such opportunities were mainly the reserve of the rich and polite, and where the LCS may have helped fulfil the frustrated civic aspirations of literate and intelligent tradesmen.

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