On this date in 1817, a sailor named Cashman was hanged for the Spa Fields riots.
In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain’s economy had all but ceased to function for her lowest orders, burdened by spiraling food prices and cratering wages. An ample stock of radical agitators put the powdered wig set in mind of so many Robespierres, and here and there they were sacrificed on the scaffold.
Three years on, in the wake of a different protest against these unresolved crisis that was crushed with the same violence, Shelley would put the spirit of swelling desperation into verse in his “Masque of Anarchy”
Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another;
Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you —
Ye are many — they are few.
What is Freedom? — ye can tell
That which slavery is, too well —
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
‘Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,
So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.
‘Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
When the winter winds are bleak,–
They are dying whilst I speak.
‘Tis to hunger for such diet
As the rich man in his riot
Casts to the fat dogs that lie
Surfeiting beneath his eye;
‘Tis to let the Ghost of Gold
Take from Toil a thousandfold
More than e’er its substance could
In the tyrannies of old.
In November of 1816, activists convened a 10,000-strong meeting/rally at Spa Fields, Islington, demanding political reforms including universal male suffrage, the secret ballot, and annual general elections. After a petition to this same effect had been repeatedly rebuffed by the corpulent Prince Regent, a follow-up meeting on December 2 doubled the crowd, and doubled its anger. Balked of even so much as a hearing for their petition, the crowd rioted — incited in one instance by a demagogue thundering,
A man who receives one million a year public money gives only 5,000l. to the poor. They have neglected the starving people, robbed them of every thing, and given them a penny. Is this to be endured? Four millions are in distress; our brothers in Ireland are in a worse state, the climax of misery is complete, it can go no further. The Ministers have not granted our rights. Shall we take them? (Yes, yes, from the mob.) Will you demand them? (Yes, yes.) If I jump down, will you follow me? (Yes, yes, was again vociferated. It shall go no further.) (London Times, Dec. 3, 1816)
In a trice the crowd sacked the nearby establishment of a gunsmith called Beckwith for armaments, and a gentleman in the shop was shot in the fracas which is a painful place to be shot. He survived, but it’s for this attack that our principal will find his way to the gallows: the riot itself was restrained after some hours.
The tumult made witnesses uncertain to the detriment of the law but although four comrades were acquitted beside him, John Cashman was condemned thanks to a firm identification by the gunsmith’s apprentice. Cashman denied it in words calculated to stir the ire that had launched Spa Fields.
My Lord, —
I hope you will excuse a poor friendless sailor for occupying your time. Had I died fighting the battles of my country, I should have gloried in it, but I confess that it grieves me to think of suffering like a robber, when I can call God to witness that I have passed days together without even a morsel of bread, rather than violate the laws.
I have served my King for many years; and often fought for my country. I have received nine wounds in the service, and never before have been charged with any offence. I have been at sea all my life, and my father was killed on board the Diana frigate. I came to London, my Lord, to endeavour to recover my pay and prize money, but being unsuccessful, I was reduced to the greatest distress; and being poor and pennyless, I have not been able to bring forward witnesses to prove my innocence, nor even to acquaint my brave officers, for I am sure they would all have come forward in my behalf.
The Gentlemen who have sworn against me must have mistook me for some other person (there being many sailors in the mob): but I freely forgive them, and I hope God will also forgive them, for I solemnly declare that I committed no act of violence whatever. (Morning Chronicle, January 31, 1817)
Cashman’s spirits were less exalted come execution day, when the man was hauled in a cart to a gallows situated opposite the gunsmith’s outraged shop — in the presence of a vast and testy mob. Authorities feared a rescue attempt or an attack upon the execution team, a replay of the Porteous riot that had many years before lay Edinburgh in flames on the occasion of a provocative public hanging. If ever there was a man they hoped would do the submissive penitential act, it was this bluff sailor. Instead, Cashman bantered with onlookers, cheeky and fearless, stirring the pot.
The Rev. Mr. Cotton and Mr. Devereux now ascended the platform, and endeavored to bring the wretched man to a sense of his awful situation. Their benevolent exertions, however, were fruitless, he appeared callous to all religious exhortations, and pushing them aside, exclaimed, “Don’t bother me — it’s no use — I want no mercy but from God!”
The executioner then came forward, and put the rope round his neck. This operation excited new tumults, and fresh exclamations of disapprobation burst from the crowd. On the night cap being put over his face, he said, “For God’s sake let me see to the last; I want no cap.” In this he was indulged, and the cap was withdrawn. He now turned towards Mr. Beckwith’s house in an angry manner, and shaking his head, said, “I’ll be with you there” — meaning that he would haunt the house after his death. Again turning to the people, he cried “I am the last of seven of them that fought for my King and country: I could not get my own, and that has brought me here.” The executioner having quitted the platform, the unfortunate wretch addressed the crowd nearest him, and exclaimed: “Now you —— [bastards?] give me three cheers when I trip.” — “Hurra you ——.” And then, calling to the executioner, he cried out, “come, Jack, you ——, let go the jib-boom.” The few remaining seconds of his existence he employed in similar addresses, and was cheering at the instant the fatal board fell beneath his feet. The cap was then drawn over his face, and he died almost without a struggle. A dead silence instantly prevailed, which continued for a few moments.
The Sheriffs during the execution took their station in the window of a home opposite Mr. Beckwith’s shop.
After the lapse of about ten minutes the populace renewed the expressions of disgust and indignation towards every person who had taken a part in the dreadful exhibition. Cries of “Murder! Murder!” were distinctly heard from the innumeraboe mouths, followed by crimes of “Shame! Shame!” “Where are the conspirators? Why not hang them?” &c. Groans and hisses accompanied these allusions. (New York (USA) National Advocate, April 25, 1817, reprinting the Commercial Advertiser
In the end, the potential violent recrudescence did not come to pass and the angry onlookers dispersed to carry their foul tempers and unsatisfied grievances back to the workingmen’s haunts. Parliament paid the Spa Fields petitioners one last rude tribute by enacting just days later a Seditious Meetings Act barring any unauthorized assemblies “for the purpose … of deliberating upon any grievance, in church or state.”