Guinea Pigs

Barbara Taylor

  • The Spirit of Despotism: Invasions of Privacy in the 1790s by John Barrell
    Oxford, 278 pp, £53.00, January 2006, ISBN 0 19 928120 3

In the 1790s revolutionaries on both sides of the Channel abandoned wigs and powder for hair worn au naturel. The English jacobin John Thelwall, tried for treason in 1794, cut his short in the Roman manner. A radical songster celebrated the look: ‘Each Brutus, each Cato, were none of them fops/But all to a man wore republican crops.’ In 1795 the style took on added significance when Pitt introduced a guinea tax on hair powder. Now every poor man who could not afford to be a ‘guinea pig’ looked like an enemy of the state. This could be hazardous: an army of spies and informers was crawling across Britain, bribing servants, stealing letters, listening in to conversations. Thelwall’s friend Tom Poole, a left-wing tanner and philanthropist living at Nether Stowey in Somerset, was denounced by local spies who took note of his short unpowdered locks. In Pittite Britain it took a brave man to expose his neck.

John Thelwall was a very brave man, but by 1797, after years of unremitting persecution, he’d had enough. Vilified by press and government, even after his acquittal, he had been attacked repeatedly by mobs, his correspondence intercepted, his family hounded. He retired from the battlefield, charging his enemies with violating every ‘consideration of private justice’: ‘The ordinary transactions of life have been interrupted – the intercourses of the closest relationships violated and impeded.’ But even in his rural retreat he was besieged by vigilantes. His friend Coleridge, also a target of attention, denounced their persecutors as a modern-day plague of frogs: ‘little low animals with chilly blood and staring eyes, that come up into our houses and bed-chambers’. Britain had become a land of ‘imposture and panic’. ‘Our very looks are deciphered into disaffection,’ Coleridge said, ‘and we cannot move without treading on some political spring-gun.’

Coleridge and Thelwall were entitled to be indignant, but they should not have been surprised. Britain’s ruling elite was rattled. Several decades of hard campaigning by parliamentary reformers had shaken the rich and powerful. Lower down the social ladder, economic dislocation and hardship had generated fierce, often violent discontent. Now insurrectionary winds blowing from Paris brought the nightmare prospect of a revolutionary alliance between genteel reformers and the ‘swinish multitude’. In 1792, a small band of metropolitan radicals, mostly tradesmen and artisans, formed the London Corresponding Society. By 1794 the LCS had grown into a national network of plebeian activists causing the government to panic. The LCS was ‘an enormous torrent of insurrection’, the ‘most powerful combination … the world ever saw’. Repression was imperative – of the organisation, its intellectual gurus (notably Tom Paine), the levelling delusions it encouraged. The revolutionary imagination had to be quashed, literally: in the treason trials of 1794 the charge against Thelwall and his LCS comrades was that of ‘imagining the King’s death’. ‘Imagining’ was medieval legalese for ‘intending’, but in the political hysteria surrounding the trials even regicidal fantasies, expressed or attributed – the ‘levities of imagination’, as John Thelwall wrote, a touch disingenuously – were enough to hang a man.

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