Constitutional Reformers

Many people were involved in the movement for constitutional reform in Britain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Here is a list of some of those who were most active.

John Wilkes (17 October 1725 - 29 December 1797)
John Horne Tooke (1736 - 1812)
Thomas Paine (1737 - 1809)
Major John Cartwright (28 September 1740 - 23 September 1824)
Olaudah Equiano (1745 - 31 March 1797)
Maurice Margarot (1745 - 11 November 1815)
Thomas Fyshe Palmer (August 1747 - 2 January 1802)
John Frost (1750-1842)
Thomas Hardy (3 March 1752 - 11 October 1832)
Joseph Gerrald (9 February 1763 - 10 March 1796),
William Cobbett (9 March 1763 - 18 June 1835)
John Thelwall (1764 - 17 February 1834)
Thomas Muir (25 August 1765 - 26 January 1799)
William Skirving ( - 19 March 1796)
Francis Place (3 November 1771 - 1 January 1854)
Joseph Lancaster (1778 - October 1838)
Edward Marcus Despard,

The Society for Constitutional Information was established around 1776 by Major John Cartwright and John Horne Tooke MP. Tooke had been imprsoned for libel after he attacked the government's actions in America. John Wilkes campaigned for religious toleration and on 21st March 1776 introduced the first motion for parliamentary reform.

The London Corresponding Society was a moderate-radical body concentrating on reform of the Parliament of Great Britain, founded on 25 January 1792. The creators of the group were John Frost, an attorney, and Thomas Hardy, a shoemaker and radical. The aim of the society was parliamentary reform, especially the expansion of the representation of working class people. In common with the other corresponding societies its membership was predominantly drawn from artisans and working men. Shortly after its formation it had affiliates in Manchester, Norwich, Sheffield and Stockport. The LCS irritated the establishment with its opposition to the wars with France and its distribution of the works of Thomas Paine, and was infiltrated by government agents.

The Scottish Friends of the People Society organised a British Convention of reform group leaders in Edinburgh in October 1793. This was broken up and a number of men were arrested and tried for sedition. Muir, Palmer, Skirving, Margarot and Gerrald were sentenced to fourteen years transportation. John Frost received six months for sedition. Undaunted, the remaining LCS leaders met with other reformist groups, including the Society for Constitutional Information, in 1794 to discuss a further national convention as well as producing a large number of pamphlets and periodicals.

Attempts to stop the men being transported failed and on 2nd May 1794, The Surprise left Portsmouth and began its 13,000 mile journey to Botany Bay. The men arrived on 25th October to join the Colony of 1,908 convicts (1362 male, 546 female). As a political prisoner, Muir was given more freedom than most convicts and he was allowed to buy a small farm close to Sydney Cove.

In May 1794 the government took more action: certain of the society leaders were arrested and Hardy, Thelwall and Tooke were tried for treason in October, but were acquitted. One of the witnesses for the defence was William Godwin.

The society was not quietened by these efforts and in 1795 there were a number of large meetings, including one near Copenhagen House attended by around 100,000 people. Also King George III's carriage was stoned as he went to open parliament. The government responded with an extension of the treason laws with the Treasonable Practices Act and the repressive Seditious Meetings Act 1795; detention without trial had already been in force since 1794 when Habeas Corpus was suspended.

In March 1796 leading LCS men John Binns and John Gale Jones were arrested. In 1798 the society became increasingly split and in 1799 it and several other radical groups were declared illegal under the Corresponding Societies Act. The LCS effectively ended then, although it maintained a vague, informal existence for a little time after. But the ideas had an influence on the 19th century Reform Bills and on Chartism.

In 1845 Joseph (Thomas?) Hume, the Radical MP organised the building of a 90 feet high monument in Waterloo Place, Edinburgh. It contained the following inscription: "To the memory of Thomas Muir, Thomas Fyshe Palmer, William Skirving, Maurice Margarot and Joseph Gerrald. Erected by the Friends of Parliamentary Reform in England and Scotland." On the other side of the obelisk, based on the model of Cleopatra's Needle in London, is a quotation from a speech made by Muir on 30th August, 1793: "I have devoted myself to the cause of the people. It is a good cause - it shall ultimately prevail - it shall finally triumph."

Sources and Links

Ray Hemmings Liberty or Death: Early Struggles for Parliamentary Democracy Lawrence and Wishart
Spartacus Schoolnet Corresponding Societies
Spartacus Schoolnet Thomas Hardy biography
Wikipedia on Thomas Hardy