Regency Era Unrest: The Spa Fields Riots, the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act, and the Treason Act of 1817

The Spa Fields Riots were public disorder arising out of mass meetings at Spa Fields, Islington, England, on 15 November and 2 December 1816. Revolutionary Spenceans, who opposed the British government, had planned to encourage rioting and then seize control of the government by taking the Tower of London and the Bank of England. Arthur Thistlewood and three other Spencean leaders were arrested and charged with high treason as a result of the riot; James Watson was on trial during June 1817 with Messrs Wetherell and Copley as their defence counsel. Watson was acquitted and the other three were released without trial.

The first Spa Fields meeting, on 15 November 1816, attracted about 10,000 people and passed off peacefully in the main. Its official object was to seek popular support for the delivery of a petition to the Prince Regent, requesting electoral reform and relief from hardship and distress. Henry Hunt addressed the meeting and was elected to deliver the petition, along with Sir Francis Burdett, although the latter subsequently declined to go.

The second meeting, on 2 December, was called after Hunt was refused access to the Regent to deliver the petition, and may have been attended by 20,000 people. Hunt spoke as planned, and most of the crowd listened to him, but some disorder broke out according to the Spenceans’ agenda. A group of protesters moved away from the main crowd, accompanying James Watson and his son toward the Tower of London, looting a gun shop along the way. They were met by troops at the Royal Exchange and dispersed or were arrested. One man was stabbed during the disturbances, and a John Cashman was later found guilty of stealing weapons from the gun shop, and sentenced to death. The main witness to the ‘plotting’ was a government spy, John Castle, who had infiltrated the Spenceans. He may have been working as an agent provocateur, and his character and reliability were discredited at the trial of the first accused, James Watson. Watson was acquitted and the case against the other arrested men was dropped.

Henry Hunt’s role in the events is disputed. He claimed afterwards not to have known about an uprising and tried to distance himself from events.

The Spa Fields meetings were one of the first cases of mass meetings in public, and contributed to the government’s conviction that revolution was possible and action must be taken. The Gagging Acts were passed in February and March 1817, and the Blanketeers march followed in the same month.

The Treason Act 1817 (57 Geo 3 c 6) was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. It made it high treason to assassinate the Prince Regent. It also made permanent the Treason Act 1795, which had been due to expire on the death of George III.

All the provisions of this Act in relation to the Treason Act 1795, except such of the same as related to the compassing, imagining, inventing, devising or intending death or destruction, or any bodily harm tending to death or destruction, maim or wounding, imprisonment or restraint of the persons of the heirs and successors of George III, and the expressing, uttering or declaring of such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices or intentions, or any of them, were repealed by section 1 of the Treason Felony Act 1848.

Sections 2 and 3 were repealed by the Statute Law Revision Act 1873.

The Acts of 1817 and 1795 were repealed by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

The Habeas Corpus Suspension Act 1817 (57 Geo. III, c. 3) was an Act passed by the British Parliament.

The Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, introduced the second reading of the Bill on 24 February 1817. In his speech he said there was “a traitorous conspiracy…for the purpose of overthrowing…the established government” and referred to “a malignant spirit which had brought such disgrace upon the domestic character of the people” and “had long prevailed in the country, but especially since the commencement of the French Revolution”. This spirit belittled Britain’s victories and exalted the prowess of her enemies and after the war had fomented discontent and encouraged violence: “An organised system has been established in every quarter, under the semblance of demanding parliamentary reform, but many of them, I am convinced, have that specious pretext in their mouths only, but revolution and rebellion in their hearts”.

The Act was renewed later in the parliamentary session (57 Geo. III, c. 55). In autumn 1817 Sidmouth went through the list of all those detained under the Act and released as many as possible, personally interviewing most of the prisoners. He also tried to alleviate some of their conditions: “Solitary confinement will not be continued except under special circumstances.” The Act was repealed in February 1818 by the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act 1818 (58 Geo. III, c. 1).

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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