Sunday, August 4, 2013

George, Compton Street

Following the passage of the Two Acts in 1795, certain sections of the reform movement grew increasingly disillusioned with the possibility of a peaceable parliamentary reform, and began to adopt a more aggressive policy to overthrow the government. The United Irishmen had long advocated a more direct approach to instigating a political revolution, and began to forge closer links with likeminded English radicals. The United Englishmen, a society modeled on the United Irishmen and committed to insurrectionary politics, was particularly strong in the north of England, especially in Manchester, but similar groups -- calling themselves the United Britons and True Britons also had cells in London, where they met at Furnival's Inn on the Strand and in the house of Thomas Evans in Plough Court, Fetter Lane. In 1798 Evans also served as the secretary of the LCS, and in April  he used his contacts within the LCS to attempt to establish a new division of the United Englishmen, at a public house that was already being used by a division of the LCS.

The first meeting took place on 18 April 1798 at the George on Compton Street, Clerkenwell (not to be confused with Compton Street, Soho, where the LCS also frequently met). Evans had urged many LCS members (including Francis Place, Edward Despard, Benjamin Binns and the spy James Powell) to bring with them as many acquaintances as possible. Some (including Joseph Nagle and William Webb) clearly thought they were going to a meeting of the LCS. Others, including Francis Place, knew full well that Evans was trying to promote a revolution and stayed away. Wisely, it turns out. The government were fully aware of what was afoot, and once Evans had arrived, promptly arrested everyone present.

An unsigned deposition provided by an attendee, gives an account of the meeting:

About  the later end of the year 97 the divison [of the LCS that I attended] was moved to St Johns lane Green man where it continued till the later end of march 98 when it was moved to the Georg the corner of compton Street the wich house iatended the division two or three tims when evans called on me and told me there wold be ameeting on wendesday in the evening & desired would com and bring with me as many of my acquantance as icould iatended the meeting which ibelieve from the test found upon him he ment to to propose to be a meeting of true britains which test idid not take we being all takeing into custody five minutes after Evans came into the room (PC 1/43/A153; Thale 429).

The Report of Committee of Secrecy (1799) provides the texts of the "tests" that Evans had on him at the time of his arrest. This was an oath, which read as follows:

I ____ do truly and sincerely engage to defend my Country should Necessity require; for which Purpose am willing to join the Society of True Britons to learn the Use of Arms, in order that equal Rights and Laws should be established and defended.

The name of the Society given in the oath, the True Britons, rather than the True Englishmen, attests to the continuities between various London radical groups in the final years of the 1790s. The names the societies were given were largely insignificant given the widely overlaps in both personnel and meeting places. (Although it should be noted that -- at least in retrospect -- Francis Place was keen to associate himself with the London Corresponding Society, but attempted to distance himself as much as possible from the insurrectionary tactics of the United Englishmen).

Along with this oath, The Report of Committee of Secrecy also provides the text of another oath that was found on the Floor of the George after the arrests of the members:

Report of Committee of Secrecy, 1799, Appendix, p.75.
The focus of this oath is on secrecy -- on not giving evidence against any other members of this or any other society -- testifying to the assumed joint venture of the various radical societies in the late 1790s, and also to their (justified) paranoia that they were being infiltrated by spies. Place was convinced that the main reason the United Englishmen continued their existence was because they were encouraged by the spies who had infiltrated the society and were reporting back to the government. Certainly James Powell (who Place claimed had thrown this second oath under the table, and who he described as a "easy silly fellow," Autobiography 179) was very active in the establishment of the division of United Englishmen.

Also significant in this second oath is the emphasis on religious toleration, which was no doubt inherited from the (largely Catholic) United Irishmen, but which also undermines  the frequent (in the period) association between sedition and godlessness. Many members of the LCS -- as Williams Hamilton Reid's Rise and Dissolution of the Infidel Societies, made clear -- were religious, including Thomas Hardy and Evans, though they tended towards dissenting traditions rather than state-sanctioned Anglicanism, hence the emphasis on toleration.

Click to enlarge
The George was located in Clerkenwell, at the junction of Compton Street and St. John's Street. It was owned by the Dickinson and Co brewery, which operated out of St John's Street. There had been a brew house attached to the Unicorn inn since at least the 1670s, which had become known as the Horseshoe by the 1740s. The Dickinsons acquired the Horseshoe brewery, which occupied the site to the south of Compton Street along with other property in the area in 1764 and began expanding operations, changing the name, once again, to St John of Jerusalem.

In 1818, the brewery was sold to Harvey Combe and Joseph Delafield.  The sale included the beer, hops, malt, horses, drays, casks, the brewhouse and the several public houses owned by the brewery. The deeds which were acquired included those to the George which was described as being "on the west side of St John Street and the north Compton Street, St James, Clerkenwell." A new lease was signed for the George on 2 March 1798, six weeks before the United Englishmen met there, and during the time the LCS were meeting there (City of Westminster Archives 789/246). 

Under the stewardship of Combe and Delafield most of the properties formerly belonging to the Dickinsons were broken up and sold on. The site of the Horseshoe brewery became part of the Cannon brewery, which was acquired by the Taylor Walker Group in 1930, subsequently taken over by Ind Coope. The site was seriously damaged during the 1940-1 Blitz, and though it recommenced operations after the war, it was finally closed in 1955 (See Survey of London, vol. 46).

The site of the George became part of a distillery, which was built in 1828 by John and William Nicholson.  The Nicholson distillery expanded throughout the nineteenth century, with the St John's Street frontage becoming offices in the 1870s and 80s and further expanded in the 1890s. The Nicholsons distillery was, like the Canon brewery taken over by Ind Coope after the second world war, and put up for sale in 1961. The former distillery was redeveloped into apartments, known as St Paul's Square in 1997-8 (see Survey of London, 46).

187-205 St John's Street, former offices of Nicholson's Distillery
Opposite the site formerly occupied by the George, at 180 St John Street, is now (2013) a pub called the Well. Until fairly recently it operated under the name the George, and dates back until at least the early nineteenth century, when presumably it was associated with the Canon Brewery (see I mention this because for a while I assumed that this George was the alehouse in which the LCS met. The deeds in the Westminster Archive that locate the George on the west side of St John Street and the North of Compton Street are in fact the only records I have found that contradict this location, and it remains possible that the records are inaccurate -- especially given that the unsigned deposition quoted above locates the George on Compton Street, not St John Street. 

I have decided to treat the Westminster archives as accurate, however, because they are contemporaneous with the LCS records, whereas the records for the George on the east side of the street all date from after the turn of the nineteenth century, and it was common practice for houses to adopt the name of public houses that had previously existed nearby. 

The George at 180 Compton Street was demolished at the turn of the twentieth century, and was rebuilt in 1901 by the architect W.A. Aickman for the publican H.H. Finch.


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