On 23 February 2020, the 200th anniversary of Cato Street Conspiracy, I was travelling on a double decker bus on London’s Edgeware Road. I did not usually travel on buses in London when I visited, but the tube lines from Paddington were suspended due to engineering works and I had a connection to make at Kings Cross. This chance journey, on this particular day, would spark a series of strange coincidences throughout the remainder of the week.
‘Give me death or liberty!’
The Cato Street conspiracy was a plot to assassinate the entire Toy Cabinet in 1820. It came six months after the Peterloo massacre and was a culmination of social and economic discontent among the people, caused by the Napoleonic Wars. Even trades associations (trade unions) were rumoured to offer support to the conspirators. However, the assassination did not actually take place as police raided the hayloft on Cato Street, off the Edgeware Road, where the conspirators met. However, it is possible that the whole plan was hatched by the Government and egged on by their spy who reportedly attended all meetings and became involved in planning the plot. The five plotters involved were convicted and sentenced to be hanged. ‘Give me death or liberty,’ is what James Ing shouted, from the scaffold. There is a great article here from the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/feb/23/cato-street-conspiracy-200-plot-to-assassinate-tory-cabinet
The Trials of Cato
Later in the week, I went to see a folk band called The Trials of Cato, in a small village hall close to where I live. The trio met in Beirut. As their Twitter profile says they are, ‘the biggest British folk band to come out of the Levant.’ As a result, some of their music is a mixture of Balkan and eastern Asian tunes, but they are also influenced by Wales and sung some songs in Welsh. They used string instruments including guitar, balalaika and banjo. It was a fun night. The band described why they were called The Trials of Cato and too my surprise, it was not because of the 200-year-old plot to assassinate the British Government, but after a Norwegian friend of theirs, whose house in Beirut they practised their music in. Reportedly, Cato did not like the music much. So the link to the Cato Street Conspiracy might have been missing from the night, but they played a song that I like very much, called Dance to Tom Paine’s Bones. Here is a link to The Trials of Cato website in case you are interested: https://www.thetrialsofcato.com/
Tom Paine’s Bones
Tom Paine was born in Thetford, in 1737. He was a political activist and was involved in the French Revolution and the American Revolution. He wrote the book ‘The Rights of Man,’ and ‘Age of Reason.’ He was friends with the first Feminist, Mary Wollstonecraft and popular among the working classes with his utopian ideologies and political republicanism. Read more about his life here: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Paine
Tom Paine died in America. William Cobbett got permission to bring Tom Paine’s bones back to the UK ten years after his death, because he was disgusted about the neglected state of his memorial in America. The bones went missing on their journey home. It was this story that inspired Dick Gaughan to write the song, Dance to Tom Paine’s Bones. I have now heard three versions of it live, sung by the writer himself, the Young ‘Uns and now The Trials of Cato. Here is a link to the lyrics: https://www.elyricsworld.com/tom_paine’s_bones_lyrics_dick_gaughan.html
At the end of the week I went to Lakeside Arts Centre at University Park in Nottingham. While sheltering in the gallery from the wind and rain, I went into an exhibition. The exhibition was about King George IV. There was a display on the Cato Conspiracy using it as context, as George had inherited the throne only one month before the plotters were arrested. There was also a display about George’s wife, Queen Caroline. George did not like his Queen, barring her from his own coronation in January 1920 and she would not grant him a divorce. More about Caroline here: http://numberonelondon.net/2018/08/the-death-and-burial-of-queen-caroline/
Apparently, Caroline was however, popular with the people and when she died in August 1821, her funeral procession was rerouted away from the city of London, due to fear of popular unrest. However, people barricaded the route trying to force it back towards the centre. They also threw bricks at the accompanying soldiers and two people died in the chaos. The procession was eventually abandoned. However, Shelley quoted from Tom Paine’s Right’s of Man, to explain that, rather than be obsessed with the Queen, they should be commemorating the Cato Street Conspirators deaths. Details of the exhibition are here: https://www.lakesidearts.org.uk/special-collections/event/4165/georgian-delights-life-during-the-reign-of-george-iv-1820-1830.html
How strange that everything led back to the Cato Street Conspiracy, on the 200-anniversary week!