Sunday, November 14, 2010

Crooked Billet, Little Shire Lane

In April 1798 the entire general committee of the LCS were arrested. Binns, Bone, Col Despard, Hodgson, A. Galloway Lemaitre, and J. Moore, following the suspension of Habeus Corpus on 21 April, were held until 1801. Thomas Spence was bailed. This was the twilight of the LCS. On July 12 1799, it would be officially outlawed, having been one of the societies named in 39 Geo II, c 79, an Act "for the more effectual suppression of societies established for seditious and treasonable practices." By this point a number of its former leaders (Ashley, Place, Thelwall) had resigned from the society because they disagreed with the increasingly confrontational position the society had assumed. Place for example, claims to have resigned over the determination to hold a public meeting in a field near St. Pancras Church in July 1797. He claims that after his resignation the LCS "declined very rapidly and by the end of the year was in a very low state," by which he meant only the less "respectable" members (i.e. those with the most violent tendencies) remained.

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It was during this final phase of the the LCS's existence that meetings were held at the Crooked Billet, near Temple Bar (the other major meeting place at this time was the Unicorn in Shoreditch). Spy reports from William Gent, who was providing reports on both the LCS and the United Englishmen, which was training its members in the use of arms, suggest that the two societies had considerable overlap in terms of membership. In one report he describes a 31 August 1798 meeting:

I last night being Delegate joined the Committee of the London Corresponding Society at the Crooked Billet Shire Lane near Temple Bar, where Mr Eastbourne was Chosen their President and Mr Philips their secretary, but on their last meeting night there was some mistake concerning their future Meeting, some Persons came to the Crooked Billet on the night before, so there were only Ten that attended. All the Business that was done was the Regulating the Divisions and appointing the place of the next Meeting, which was agreed it should be at the same place on Thursday night next a 8 oClock. (PC 1/42/A144; Thale p438)

At a meeting of the 7 September, also held at the Crooked Billet, Gent reports that the LCS had received a Letter from the Friends of Liberty at Norwich, asking why they had not heard from them in such a long time. The LCS answered, urging the Norwich society to "hold on with the utmost vigor, and not to be timid in the least."

In October 1798 another spy report, this time from John Tunbridge, mentions the Crooked Billet as a place where the LCS leaders spent time. "Child enquired of Baxter where he was to meet the Committee. Baxter said he must go to Little Shire Lane Temple Bar to the crooked Billet next Thursday Evening into the back Room where Baxter would meet him and introduce him up Stairs" (PC 1/3119. fos 49-50; Thale p439). Typically alehouses would have a single downstairs room for the public, the landlord would live upstairs with his family. That the LCS had access to the little room at the back of the upstairs suggests both that the landlord was complicit in their activities, and that the LCS felt the need to continue their business with considerable discretion.

Mary Thale describes one of the meetings in the Crooked Billet in more detail:

The reformer- revolutionary George Blythe told Tunbridge that he had been attending a Sunday debating society whenever the question dealt with reform and that he had proposed the question to be debated next Sunday: 'what were the first duties of a Representative Government?' That Sunday Blythe led Tunbridge and three other reformers, none of whom knew their destination, to an upper room in a public house, the Crooked Billet in Shire Lane. (Blythe's circumspection was necessary- though futile on this occasion- even though the Two Acts had expired a month earlier and such a topic was, theoretically, no longer illegal. With habeascorpususpended, any political talk could lead to long imprisonment.) In the secluded room Tunbridge found seventeen or eighteen men 'all very genteely dressed', one of whom was reading aloud from a book by Paine. Before the debate broke up at 10.00p.m., fifty men were present, including several members of the revolutionary society of United Englishmen. In the debate the speakersall agreed with a Mr Proctor that the first duty of a representativegovernment would be 'for Men to be chosen to go and find out the Grievancesof the People and after that to establish Schools to enlighten their Minds and do away with Ignorance they are now too many of them possessedof'. Although the location had been secret, the fear of spies and prosecution retarded the discussion. Even so, a Mr Piercy said 'he hoped the present cursed infernal Constitution would be soon done away with'. Proctor instantly reproved him and told him 'he was liable to be called to account'. (Recall, for contrast, the 1795 debate which included hopes of seeing Pitt marched to the scaffold.) Proctor seems to have been the only cautious man there; he is the only one who objected to the topic proposed for the next debate: 'whether a Reformcan be obtained by Unity or by the Dint of Arms'. Piercy asserted that they could apply the question to another country. But Proctor 'thought their Friends were suffering in Prison for less Things than had been done that Evening. And that if they were apprehended and taken before the privy Council it would be told them it could not be thought they were debating about any other Country than this, particularly as they knew their Principles.' Proctor was outvoted, and the meeting ended with a dis- cussion of Proctor's proposal of a supper to celebrate 'the Anniversary of the King of France's Head being cut off'.

(Mary Thale, "London Debating Societies in the 1790s," The Historical Journal, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), p81.

The Crooked Billet had been around since at least 1769, when it shows up on the historical record as the site of a robbery of a bundle of "four marine bed-curtains, a head cloth, tester and vallance, unmade, and two table-cloths, value 5 s. the property of John Webb."

Shire Lane was so named because it was the dividing line between Middlesex and the City of London. The Quarterly Review described it as "a vile, squalid place, noisy and noxious, nearly inaccessible to both light and air, and swarming with a population of a most disreputable character." (Written in 1843, but looking back on the 1820s). It was just one of thirty or so streets "all of them more or less dirty and overcrowded" according to Old and New London, that were cleared during the building of the law courts in the 1870s.

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