At the end of the 18th century and in the first three decades of the19th, Britain was still predominantly agricultural. But society was changing. Rural living was giving way to industrialization and urbanization. Hard economic times encouraged social unrest. The end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 further worsened the economy and saw the return of job-seeking veterans. King George III‘s death on 29 January 1820, created a new governmental crisis.
This newly industrialized world produced inflation, food shortages and new patterns of factory employment, and it was during this time of social change that a climate of discontent and radicalism developed. A series of riots and industrial unrest occurred. The government responded with a series of repressive measures, including the Combination Acts of 1799, which forbade the gathering of working men with a common purpose.
In 1820, a small group led by Arthur Thistlewood, a prominent radical in London, protested against the harshness of these measures. The group became known as the Cato Street conspirators, after the street near Edgware Road, London, where they last met. Thistlewood’s group aimed to overthrow the government by assassinating the entire Cabinet while they were dining at Lord Harrowby‘s home in Grosvenor Square.
The authorities received an intelligence report about the conspiracy and stormed the room in Cato Street. Thistlewood killed a policeman in the fracas. Some conspirators surrendered peacefully, while others resisted forcefully. William Davidson was captured while Thistlewood, Robert Adams, John Brunt and John Harrison slipped out through the back window but they were arrested a few days later.
Thistlewood, along with five other captured conspirators were sent to the Tower. They were also among the last of the criminals imprisoned there. On the 20th of April, after the jury heard the case, Thistlewood was condemned to death. He, along with four principal accomplices, were hanged at Old Bailey on 1 May 1820 surrounded by a concourse of spectators booing and hissing.
The Cato Street Conspiracy produced a variety of results. It was used by the British government to justify their passage of the Six Acts. Some people claimed the conspirators had been purposely entrapped to prevent parliamentary reform, and still others completely ignored the incident. As for Cato Street, because the conspiracy was considered so treasonous, the street was renamed Homer Street.