In England during the early 1790s the American Revolution and publications such as Tom Paine’s ‘The Rights of Man’ caused a stir amongst the large number of people who did not own property or have a say in who was elected to Parliament. This led to establishment of the first working class organisations pressing for reform and in particular The London Corresponding Society . Founded in 1792 by a shoemaker Thomas Hardy with eight other members it grew to a maximum of about 3,000 members within a few years. The organisation and purpose of the Society is best expressed by Hardy himself who described the first meeting:
‘After having had their bread and cheese and porter for supper, with some conversation on the hardness of the times…the business for which they met was brought forward – Parliamentary Reform’
Here we have a ‘flavour’ of the way in which these mainly independent tradesmen conducted a meeting – to complain about the difficulty of making a living ( due to what they deemed unfair taxation) but above all to press for a more democratic House of Commons. To this latter end they began to print and distribute pamphlets and their numbers as noted above soon increased as under the rule of the Society ‘that the number of ..Members be unlimited’.
Meanwhile the French Revolution spawned Jacobin Clubs and the Government under William Pitt feared that there soon would be a similar uprising in the England. In a frenzy of paranoia similar to to McCarthyism in 1950s America they decided to clamp down on such clubs and societies with especial treatment for the LCS. The Society was infiltrated with Government spies and as a result of their activities Hardy and two other prominent members John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall were arrested in 1794, charged with treason, interrogated by the Privy Council and then confined to the Tower ( just as in Elizabethan times!!). The Government also promoted the distribution of anti LCS propaganda – an engraving demonising its members is shown above. However ( unlike the 16th Century) English Law eventually prevailed and when the accused were brought to Court they were found not Guilty by the Grand Jury and were set free to the cheers of the London crowds. However the Government promptly passed a number of Acts and the LCS was outlawed in 1799.
It is clear from minutes of meetings of the LCS and sister organisations that they were not advocating Revolution but simply a change in Government which had for so long been in the hands of the landowning classes. Pitt and his ministers, fearing a breakdown of law and order, had overreacted. Of course this was not the end of the story as the principles underlying of the LCS led to the Chartist Movement of the 1820s and eventually to the 1832 Reform Act which produced a much fairer distribution of Parliamentary seats across England and a larger electorate ( although at that time still only 5% of the population !)