Memorials of the Tower of London

De Ros, William Lennox






AMONG the last State prisoners confined in the Tower were some of the desperate men, who had engaged in what is commonly known as the Cato Street Conspiracy. The leader was one Thistlewood, who had been in Paris at the time of Robespierre, and had probably there imbibed those revolutionary opinions which eventually led him to the gallows. He had served a short time as an officer of the militia, and afterwards in the army. After quitting the service he had made himself notorious in Watson's attempt at a riot in London, in the year 1818 (on which occasion he was brought to trial at the same time as Watson, but obtained an acquittal. On his release he sent a challenge to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, who placed the case in the hands of a magistrate, and he underwent a short imprisonment in consequence). On his release in 1819, he did not take part in the ordinary mobs and riots of that year, but, entertaining more determined views, he contrived to collect around him thirty or forty discontented followers, from the class of workmen and London idlers; and by his influence and popular


discourses at meetings of a treasonable description, obtained great authority over them.

It never appeared that he had any definite plan for organising a provisional government in event of success; he relied upon the state of extreme confusion which he expected to produce in London, in order to overthrow the existing authorities; and his scheme for this purpose was of a nature as bloody and cruel as it was absurd. Having hired a loft over an uunoccupied stable, in a court called Cato Street (the name of which has since been altered to "Homer Street"), near the Edgeware Road, and communicating with John Street and Queen Street, he proceeded to hold nightly meetings there, which were attended, at most, by twenty-five or thirty persons; the loft being too confined to contain larger numbers. He had managed to persuade these men that if they could accomplish a wholesale and simultaneous murder of all the Cabinet Ministers, the executive would be so totally paralysed, that possession might be taken of the Tower, the Bank, and Government Offices, by which time the numbers and force of their partisans would be so increased, that all further opposition might be easily overborne. He assured his followers that the troops in the barracks would retire or be overpowered, and that London would in a few hours be in the possession of the conspirators.

As the first step, it was resolved to collect arms, and to prepare hand grenades and other explosive machines, while those who were most in Thistlewood's confidence were charged to be on the look-out for active and


determined associates, who should be ready, on a preconcerted signal, to take a lead in the riot, and guide the mob in the proper direction for their purposes.

A Cabinet dinner appeared to Thistlewood to be the best opportunity for the outbreak. All the Ministers would then be assembled, and being, many of them, elderly and infirm persons, defenceless and unprepared, might be slaughtered without noise, and in a very short space of time. Having ascertained that one of these dinners was about to take place at the Earl of Harrowby's, in Grosvenor Square, a part of the town very quiet at that time of day, and removed from any civil or military protection, he laid his plan in the following manner:-

Soon after eight o'clock in the evening the party selected for the attack were to issue, by twos and threes, from the loft in Cato Street, armed with daggers, pistols, and combustibles of a portable nature, and moving by different routes, so as not to attract notice, were to assemble along the railings on the south side of Grosvenor Square. One man was to keep watch near the diningroom windows of Lord Harrowby's house (No. 39), with a view of ascertaining when the servants should withdraw, after putting the dessert upon the table. On a certain signal two of the stoutest of the gang, armed with daggers, were to ring the bell, and, on the porter opening the door, were instantly to stab him, and, followed by eight or ten of their comrades, to rush into the dining-room. Each of the conspirators was then to seize and despatch one of the Ministers, while one or two


others should place themselves with pistols, at the top of the stairs leading down to the offices, and thus prevent any of the servants coming up, to the rescue. Not a moment was then to be lost in cutting off the heads of their victims, which they were to fix on poles, prepared for the purpose, and they were immediately to form a procession, and parade through the streets, with the heads carried in front, by Charing Cross, along the Strand, and eastward towards the City. Strange as it must now appear, there can be no doubt, from various evidence adduced upon their trial, that these misguided wretches were firmly convinced that an immense mob would at once follow and join them, and that before midnight the Bank, the Tower, the Mint, and all the important points of London would be in their possession.

Now if one thing could be devised more likely than another to set against them even the most turbulent of the London mob, it would have been that on which they chiefly relied, the exhibition of a number of bloody heads in the front of their procession. Nevertheless, whatever failure might have attended their schemes, there can be little question, that these desperadoes would have destroyed many valuable lives, and thrown the town into frightful confusion, had not a providential revelation caused the detection and prevention of their scheme at a critical stage of their proceedings.

About a week before the day fixed for the Cabinet dinner above mentioned, as the Earl of Harrowby was riding slowly through the Park on his way to his office in Downing Street, a man of respectable appearance stepped


from the foot-path, and, touching his hat, requested a few minutes conversation with his lordship, on a matter, which he averred was of great consequence to the Government.

Lord Harrowby paid little attention to the man, and telling him he could not listen to such matters there, trotted on, supposing his request to be a mere preamble to some begging imposture.

But a day or two afterwards, at about the same time and place, the man again presented himself, and was so urgent in his assurance, that it was a matter of deep importance to Government, and regarded a great impending danger to the State, that Lord Harrowby was induced to appoint an hour next morning to receive him, and hear what he had to say. Meantime he deemed the communication of sufficient importance to mention it at a Cabinet Council which happened to meet the same afternoon. Most of the Ministers were disposed to treat the matter as unworthy of serious notice, with the exception of the Duke of Wellington and Earl Bathurst, who, having heard rumours from various quarters, of secret meetings for some dangerous object, strongly urged the propriety of further investigation, by placing the matter in the hands of the Magistrates and officers of Bow Street, who at that time were the detective, as well as executive, police of London. Through their means a communication was opened with the person (one Hidon) who had addressed Lord Harrowby in the Park, and on promise of personal safety and reward, he disclosed the whole plot, averring that it was from scruples of conscience, that he had resolved to give warning to the Ministers, as soon as he learned


from Thistlewood that the insurrection (to which he had at first been a ready adherent) was to commence with a wholesale and atrocious murder. The Cabinet, having met to consider the fittest means of dealing with these discoveries, and of arresting as many as possible of the conspirators, it was proposed by the Duke of Wellington, as the surest plan of seizing the whole gang in the very act of outrage, that the Cabinet dinner should not be given up, but that, during the previous night, a party of twenty picked men of the Foot Guards, and a few of the most active Bow Street officers, should be introduced privately into the Earl of Harrowby's House, and concealed in the garrets; that two hundred men should be warned for duty at Portman Street Barracks, late in the afternoon, on some pretence not likely to cause suspicion, and that a squadron of the 1st Life Guards then in Hyde Park Barracks should be ordered as if for an escort of the King to the theatre; both detachments to be in readiness at seven o'clock. Two officers, in plain clothes, were to ride slowly through Grosvenor Square at halfpast seven, as if returning from a ride in the Park, and to loiter in Grosvenor Street and Audley Street, till they perceived the approach of the conspirators. Meanwhile the Ministers were to arrive in their carriages as usual, each having pistols in his despatch-box, and the dinner was to be served up. But after the second course, the servants were to close the dining-room shutters, and the Ministers to remove quickly, by the back stairs, up to the drawing-room, the front stairs being previously blocked up, at the first landing-place, with chairs and furniture,


and the twenty Foot Guards concealed in the garrets brought down into the entrance-hall.

At a quarter before eight, the hour fixed by Thistlewood for the attack of the house, these officers were to proceed, slowly at first, but, as soon as out of sight from Grosvenor Square, at full gallop, to summon the two hundred men from Portman Street, and the Life Guards from Hyde Park barracks. The Guards were to come at double quick, and to form a cordon across the square in front of Lord Harrowby's house, while the Life Guards were to gallop across the Park, pass quickly along Mount Street, and occupy it, as well as Charles Street, and the upper part of South Audley Street, so that the whole block of houses of which Lord Harrowby's formed a part, should be instantly and completely surrounded, and all escape, for those within the space enclosed, rendered impossible. Such was the Duke's scheme, and, had it been carried out, there can be no doubt that every one of the gang must have been killed or captured; but except Lord Castlereagh, none of the Ministers deemed it prudent to allow matters to go so far, considering the desperation of the conspirators, and the risk of mistake, or delay, by the troops. It was therefore determined, that steps should be taken to attack and seize the gang, in their own rendezvous in Cato Street, as late as possible before the moment of their start for Grosvenor Square, which seizure might be effected by a small force, and with less chance of the secret transpiring. No warning was therefore given to the troops, but at seven o'clock two Bow Street officers, with a warrant and authority from the Home Secretary, arrived


at Portman Street, and called for the officer on barrack duty for the day, and a party of forty men of the Coldstream Guards. Leaving directions for this detachment to follow them as fast as possible, the Bow Street officers hastened on to Cato Street, to keep a look-out, till the soldiers should arrive. Unluckily it had not occurred to them to provide a guide for the soldiers; and neither Mr. F. Fitzclarence, who was the officer, nor any of the men, had a distinct knowledge of where Cato Street lay, beyond a general notion of its being near the Edgeware Road. They had already missed their way, when they accidentally met a lad who had been in Mr. Fitzclarence's stable, and who, at his desire, undertook to guide them to the place. They arrived but just in time, for the Bow Street officers, hearing a considerable stir in the loft, and fearing lest some of the conspirators might escape, had rushed up the ladder, and one of them, Smithers, was just falling, having been stabbed to the heart by Thistlewood. Mr. Fitzclarence and Sergeant Legge rushed up into the loft followed by the men, and, the lights being struck out, a desperate struggle ensued, in which Mr. Fitzclarence's cap was cut through with a sword, close to his head, and though the greater number of the gang were captured, yet a dozen or more escaped and made for Edgeware Road and the Park, among whom was their leader Thistlewood.

Within two hours after this, the alarm had spread through London in a manner almost incredible. The troops were all placed under arms in their barracks; dinner parties, assemblies, and balls, were quickly dispersed; the wildest reports flew about in all directions;


nor was anything like tranquillity restored in London till long after daybreak next morning; when the astonishment of all, was great, at learning how few were the conspirators, and how quickly and completely their sanguinary plot had been frustrated. A strict search was now commenced for Thistlewood, and his capture was effected a few days afterwards, by Bishop, an active Bow Street officer, in the garret of an obscure lodging in White Street, Finsbury, by the treachery of one of his associates, who gave information of his hiding-place to the Magistrates. A man named Edwards also came forward with evidence against his fellow conspirators, and another named Adams, who had formerly been a soldier. A special commission was immediately issued for the trial of the conspirators, and their leaders were committed to the Tower, and placed in custody of the Warders in different parts of the fortress: Thistlewood in the Bloody Tower; Ings and Davidson (who was a negro) in St. Thomas's Tower; Harrison, Brunt, Tidd, Monument, and Wilson in the Byward and Middle Towers; and Hooper in the Salt Tower. The trials were proceeded with on the 17th of April; and the evidence of their guilt was so plain, that their sentences soon followed. Nor indeed did most of them deny the facts, but assumed a tone of bravado, and endeavoured to blame, and damage, those who had betrayed them. The five first were ordered for execution in front of Newgate, and the rest were transported for life.

It was determined to keep up to a certain degree the terrors of an execution for high treason, and yet to mitigate the details of the ancient executions, especially


in respect to the frightful protraction of the criminals' sufferings. On the 1st of May a scaffold was erected from the window over the gate of Newgate, and at eight o'clock the five men were brought out. In reply to the exhortations of the clergyman, Thistlewood said in a surly tone, " We shall soon know the great secret ;" the rest assumed a look of bravado, and Tidd, one of the most savage of the gang, actually attempted to dance on his way to the scaffold; but they were all evidently under the influence of extreme terror, when they took their places under the gallows, and the Executioner attached the ropes to their necks. The fall of the drop took place at exactly eight o'clock and in dead silence. They were left hanging till nine, when a coffin was brought to the front of the scaffold, and placed on tressels about two feet high. At one end of it, was placed a block, on the same level as the upper edge of the coffin. A man now made his appearance, with his face covered with crape, and a broad knife in his hand like that used by butchers, and placed himself by the side of the block. The Executioner an his assistant then cut down one of the corpses from the gallows, and placed it in the coffin, but with the head hanging over on the block. The man with the knife instantly severed the head from the body, and the Executioner receiving it in his hands, held it up in front, and on each side of the scaffold, saying in a loud voice, " This is the head of a traitor." He then dropped it into the coffin, which being removed, another was brought forward, and they proceeded to cut down the next body, and to go through the same ghastly operation.



It was observed, that the mob, which was very large, gazed in silence and fear at the hanging of the conspirators, and showed not the least sympathy; but when each head was cut off, and held up, a loud and deep groan of horror burst from all sides, which was not soon forgotten by those who heard it.

The people dispersed so quietly, that it was evident the conspiracy had found no favour among the masses, and had been confined entirely to Thistlewood's followers. In fact, this was so well known to the authorities, that although all the troops in London were kept in readiness in their barracks, 150 of the Life Guards, and the Bow Street constables, were the only force stationed in the neighbourhood of the scaffold during the execution.

It will be in the recollection of several persons yet living, that some months before the Cato Street Plot, a strange alarm took place at a grand full-dress ball given by the Spanish Ambassador in Portland Place, which was attended by the Regent, the Duke of York, the Duke of Cambridge, and the Duke of Wellington (all of whom wore Spanish Generals' uniforms in honour of the occasion), as well as by the ministers and other distinguished persons. At about one o'clock, just before supper, a sort of order was circulated among the younger officers, to draw towards the head of the stairs, though no one knew for what reason, except that an unusual crowd had collected in the street. The appearance of Lavender, and one or two well-known Bow Street officers, in the entrancehall, also gave rise to surmises of some impending riot. While the officers were whispering to each other as to


what was expected to happen, a great noise was heard in the street, the crowd dispersed with loud cries in all directions, and a squadron of the 2nd Life Guards arrived with drawn swords at a gallop from their barracks (then situated in King Street) and rapidly formed in front of the Ambassador's house. Lavender and the Bow Street officers now withdrew; the officers who had gathered about the stairhead were desired to return to the ball-room. The alarm, whatever it might have been, appeared to be over, and before the company broke up, the Life Guards had been withdrawn to their barracks.

Inside of the Ambassador's house all had remained so quiet, that very few of the ladies present were aware till next day, that anything unusual had happened; but it became known after a short time, that the Duke of Wellington had received information of an intended attack upon the house, which the precautions taken had probably prevented; and upon the trial of Thistlewood and his gang, it came out, among other evidences of the various wild schemes they had formed, that Thistlewood had certainly entertained the project, at the time of this ball, to attack the Spanish Ambassador's house, and destroy the Regent, and other Royal personages, as well as the Ministers, who were sure to be most of them present on the occasion.