Published in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Jan. - Mar., 1973), pp. 135-141.


By T. M. Parssinen

Land nationalization was a crucial issue in English radical reform politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Widespread agitation on its behalf by the English Land Restoration League and the Land Nationalization Society in the 1880's and 1890's created a popular demand for land nationalization that was partially met by the Liberal Government in the first decade of this century. The Small Holdings and Allotments Act of 1907 made some garden-size plots of land available for spade cultivation, and Lloyd George's famous budget of 1909 taxed landed property much more heavily than it had been previously. In addition, land nationalization was an important part of the Labour Party program from 1926 until World War II. The roots of land nationalization can be traced back through H. M. Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation of the 1880's, the Land and Labour League of the 1870's, the chartist agitators Bronterre O'Brien and George Julian Harney, George Petrie and his circle in the National Union of Working Classes, and ultimately to a pamphleteer and bookseller named Thomas Spence (1750-1814).1

Spence was born and reared in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was one of nineteen children of an impoverished netmaker, who was a member of a fundamentalist, communitarian sect known as Glassites. Spence remained in Newcastle until 1792, publishing an occasional pamphlet, and eking out a living by running a small school. Renewed radical activity in that year drew him to London, where he supported himself by hawking books and pamphlets from a cart in High Holborn.2 Spence was especially prolific and politically active during the tumultuous 1790's. He was a member of the most important radical-democratic organization of the decade, the London Corresponding Society, and of a revolutionary body known as the Lambeth Loyal Association.3 Like most radical booksellers of his age, Spence was continually harassed by the Government.4 He was incarcerated several times, and finally convicted of seditious libel and jailed for twelve months in 1801.5 During the decade following his release he published little, but agitated widely on behalf of his "Plan."

Spence's basic ideas on the land question were formulated in a lecture he delivered to the Newcastle Philosophical Society in 1775.6 He assumed that in a state of nature, all men held the land in common. It was theirs to work, but not to sell. They could not dispossess themselves of it because they held the land not only for themselves, but for posterity. How was it, Spence asked, that the present state of land ownership so clearly contradicted man's original state? It resulted from the rapacity of the few, and the carelessness of the many. At some time in the indeterminate past, a few men simply claimed the land, and those who were victimized never questioned these claims. Control of the land meant control of the lives of the men who depended upon it. Dominion over the land was extended to dominion over men; the landlords became tyrants.

Spence believed that mankind would regain its freedom only by reclaiming its lost land: Suppose that the inhabitants of a parish, convinced of their right to the land, meet together, and form themselves into a corporation. The corporation will then declare that it is the sole owner of all the land and its appurtenances in the entire parish. This act in one parish will soon generate others, and in a short time all the land in the country will be owned by parochial corporations.7 The persons living on the land will continue to pay rent on it. But that rent will now go to the parish, which in turn will provide all of the services which are rendered by the government, from the repair of roads to the care of the sick and unemployed. Taxes and duties will be eliminated, and rent will be the sole source of income for the corporation. The independent parishes will join together to form a federal government that will see to the common defense and other national concerns.

After all the expenses of national and parochial government are met, the remainder of the rents collected will be divided among all the inhabitants equally, on each Quarter-day. Since the enormous profits of the landlords and the extravagances of a corrupt government will be eliminated, this "residue" will amount to two-thirds of the total revenue collected. Once established, "this empire of right and reason . . . will stand forever." Encouraged by this example, other nations will take it up, "and thus the whole earth shall at last be happy and live like brethren."8 This was, in essence, a first draft of what Spence was later to refer to as his "Plan." It was later both modified and expanded, particularly as he came under pressure to clarify points which were undeveloped or ambiguous in the first treatment, but the core remained the same.

Spence, like many of his radical contemporaries, was the legatee of several eighteenth-century literary and philosophical traditions. The settings for his various presentations of the Plan were conventionally Utopian: Robinson Crusoe's island, a desert island inhabited by shipwrecked mariners, an animal farm, and a land called "Spensonia." The Plan was usually cast in the traditional form of a dialogue between a wise old Spencean, and a foolish but eager learner. The dialogue, in particular, was a form that was common to both the radical and anti-radical popular literature of the decade.9 In substance as well as form, Spence showed himself to be a son of the eighteenth century. He based his cirtique, as did Tom Paine and many other political thinkers after Hobbes and Locke, on a quasi-historical "state of nature," the norm by which contemporary society was to be evaluated. His advocacy of parochial autonomy, secret balloting, and a militia were typical of the eighteenth-century commonwealthman's mistrust of the central government, electoral corruption, and a standing army.10 In spite of these similarities, the vast difference between Spence's ideas, and those of Paine and his followers inevitably alienated Spence from the mainstream of British radicalism.11 The Paineites were reformers; they wanted to adjust the basic political system in order to include themselves and those for whom they spoke. Annual parliaments, proportional representation, universal suffrage, and the secret ballot were, they believed, the means of acquiring the control they wanted over the system. What Spence proposed was not an adjustment in the system, but the substitution of an entirely new one: It was foolish to believe that the landed interests could be overruled in parliament. The power of land ownership was so great and so far-reaching that it was inevitable that the landlords should control the government. The only alternative was that they should be entirely dispossessed -- that the root of the evil should be exterminated as well as the branches, and that a new society should be constructed on completely different foundations.12

This view of society had revolutionary implications which Spence finally realized in the mid-1790's. By then he was at loggerheads with the Paineites, disillusioned not only with their analysis of society, but also with their peaceful tactics for change. Instead he looked hopefully to the example of the French Revolution. In the summer of 1789, most Englishmen had welcomed the events across the channel as a French version of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Even Pitt momentarily slipped into the Whiggish hope that after the tumult died down, the moderates would rule in a constitutional monarchy. But the increasing popularization of the Revolution, culminating in the September Massacres, the calling of the Convention, and the regicide of 1793 alienated all but the most radical democrats in England. With the coming of the war and the Terror, even the latter were disillusioned. It was typical of Spence that his francophilia flourished at a time when nearly all of his countrymen hated, feared, or were indifferent to the French Revolution.

But Spence found there a solution to the problem that had troubled him for a number of years: How was his system to be introduced? Until 1795, he had assumed that all men would see the reasonableness of the Plan, and thus it would be adopted effortlessly. In The End of Oppression, published in 1795, Spence admitted for the first time that reason alone would not be enough to win over the landlords:

Let us assume that a few thousands of hearty determined Fellows well armed and appointed with Officers, and having a Committee of honest, firm, and intelligent Men [come into being and] act as a Provisionary Government, and . . . direct their actions to the proper government. They should publish a manifesto stating their aims and decreeing all landed property to be confiscated and, "if the Aristocracy rose to contend the matter, let the people be firm and desperate, destroying them Root and Branch, and strengthening their Hands by the rich confiscation."13

The earlier vision of peaceful parochial gatherings with the inhabitants discussing and deciding upon a different form of land tenure gave way to the vision of a violent revolution, beginning in conspiracy, and culminating in the physical extermination of the landlords. Secret committees, insurgents, manifestoes, and provisional governments were the stock-in-trade of French politicians of all political hues. From the events of 1792-95, which had terrified his countrymen, Spence extracted a model of insurrection, and grafted it onto his Plan.

The cry of revolution entailed a new rhetoric. Although Spence denounced religion as a "delusion," he found in his fundamentalist religious background a ready source of language and images to suit his purpose.14 He quoted from Isaiah; he cited the Biblical Rechabites, who saw the evils of private property and returned to "the Pastoral and Patriarchal Mode of Life"; and he speculated that "perhaps Judas would have been neither Thief nor Traitor, if there had been no Land to purchase nor other means to fix his Property."15 Included in the first issue of his last publication, a short-lived periodical entitled The Giant-Killer, was a piece of Biblical exegesis. He quoted a passage from the Book of Revelation which refers to the "judgment of the dead . . . and the glory of a new Jerusalem." According to Spence, this does not refer to the final judgment of men, "but solely applies to the temporal punishment of the nations, great and small, leagued with anti-Christ . . . and to the restoration of the New Jerusalem state of happiness on earth; and not in heaven."16

As Spence came to rely increasingly upon a French-style insurrection to bring about his Plan, he turned to the fund of chiliastic rhetoric and visions that he shared with his presumed audience, in order to convey to them the magnitude of the change that he was proposing. A passage from the Rights of Infants (1797) is exemplary:

Hear me! Ye oppressors! ye who live sumptuously every day! Ye, for whom the sun seems to shine and the seasons change, ye, for whom all human and brute creatures toil, fighting, but in vain, for the crumbs, which fall from your overcharged tables. . . . Your horrid tyranny, your infanticide is at an end. . . . the new creation, at the breaking of the iron rod of aristocratic sway, and at the rising of the everlasting sun of righteousness. . . . The Meridian Sun of Liberty bursts forth upon the astonished world, dispelling the accumulated mists of dreary ages, and leaves on the glorious blue of expanse, of serene, unclouded reason.17
The words are those of a dissident, agitating for a secular revolution, but the tone is that of a chiliast, prophesying the Millennium. Like the Owenites after him, Spence plundered millenarian Christianity for a vehicle of expression to communicate with those who felt the need for a total transformation of society, but who could be roused only by words and symbols that were familiar to them.18

His ideas, his francophilia, his chiliastic language, and his abrasive personality alienated Spence from the democratic radicals during the last twenty years of his life. Nevertheless, he forced his ideas on the public. One of Spence's most interesting qualities was his ability and originality as a propagandist. He struck tokens bearing revolutionary inscriptions, wrote on walls, composed popular songs glorifying his ideas, and published and sold his Plan in a variety of forms. He was also the publisher of Pig's Meat, a very successful weekly political journal that ran between 1793 and 1795.19

Slowly Spence's ideas began to gain a measure of acceptance among a few London workingmen. After 1807, his followers met weekly to discuss and propagate his ideas in a "Free and Easy Club." After his death, this club grew considerably in size and became known as the "Society of Spencean Philanthropists," a group dedicated to bringing Spence's Plan into effect by violence. By 1816 there were at least four different sections of the Society, meeting at different taverns on successive evenings of the week. The number in attendance usually varied from sixty to 100, although at one meeting the number was reported to have reached 160.20

The Spa Field Riots of 1816 and the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820 were both abortive Spencean insurrections. In 1817, a Secret Committee of the House of Commons, reporting on radical activity throughout the Kingdom, reported that

. . . the doctrines of the Spencean Clubs have been widely diffused through the country, either by the extension of similar societies, or more frequently by the intervention of missionaries or delegates, whose business it is to propagate those doctrines throughout every society to which they have access.21
Although this is certainly an overstatement, it is fair to say that by 1817, Spence and his followers had made known the idea of public ownership of the land. It became a part of the intellectual matrix of working-class culture that was emerging in the early nineteenth century.22

While land nationalization was associated with the revolutionary utopianism of Spence and the Spenceans, it was anathema to most English radicals. But in the course of the nineteenth century the chartists, and later the English Land Restoration League and the Land Nationalization Society divested the idea of its revolutionary, millenarian, and finally, of its Utopian trappings. In its new form, it became a practical and pressing issue for the social reformers of late Victorian England. Like so many ideas, land nationalization gained acceptance as its origins were forgotten.

Temple University.


1 The best short history of the agitation for land nationalization is in R. Eldon Barry, Nationalization in British Politics: The Historical Background (Stanford, 1965).

2 With the exception of two letters preserved in the Place Papers, none of Spence's unpublished papers has survived. The sources for his life come from three short biographical sketches published by acquaintances, and the materials about Spence assembled by Francis Place: Thomas Evans, A Brief Sketch of the Life of Mr. Thomas Spence (London, 1821); Allen Davenport, The Life, Writings, and Principles of Thomas Spence (London, 1836); "A Memoir of Thomas Spence," in Eneas Mackenzie, A Descriptive and Historical Account of the Town and Country of Newcastle upon Tyne (Newcastle, 1827), 400; and the Place Papers, British Museum, Additional Manuscript 27, 808.

3 In May 1794, Spence and some other Metropolitan radicals were arrested and interrogated by the Privy Council about their political activities. The evidence for Spence's involvement in the Lambeth Loyal Association is in the Public Record Office, Privy Council Register 2/140/88-91.

4 For a general account of the skirmishes between the radical pamphleteers and the Government, see Arthur Aspinall, Politics and the Press, c. 1780-1850 (London, 1949), ch. ii.

5 Spence later published the record of his trial which included the full text of the pamphlet for which he was convicted: The Restorer of Society of its Natural State. See The Important Trial of Thomas Spence (London, 1803).

6 The first edition of the lecture, which Spence claimed was published in 1775, is not extant. The lecture was frequently republished, with few changes, under different titles: The Poor Man's Advocate; The Rights of Man as exhibited in a lecture read at the Philosophical Society in Newcastle (Newcastle, 1779); The Rights of Man (London, 1793); Meridian Sun of Liberty (London, 1796); "Lessons for the Sheepish Multitude," Pig's Meat (London, 1796), vol. II. For bibliographies of Spence's numerous writings, see Olive Rudkin, Thomas Spence and His Connections (London, 1927), and my unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, "Thomas Spence and the Spenceans" (Brandeis University, 1968).

7 Since Spence believed that land was the only permanent form of wealth, he would allow the expropriated landlords to keep their jewels, money, furniture, and other movable property. Without land, this wealth would "melt away." Spence did not foresee the possibility of a plutocracy based on other forms of wealth. Restorer of Society, 39-43.

8 Meridian Sun of Liberty, 11-12.

9 For a discussion of the role of the dialogue in eighteenth-century literature, see Peter Gay, The Enlightenment: An Interpretation (New York, 1966), 171-78, 484-85.

10 See Caroline Robbins, The Eighteenth Century Commonwealthman (Cambridge, Mass., 1959). There are some striking similarities between Spence's Plan, and the writings of the contemporary French Utopians Morelly, Mably, and the Rousseau of the Second Discourse. However, it is highly unlikely that Spence was influenced by them, since he did not read French, and their works had not been translated into English by 1775. The incident which caused him to formulate the Plan was a youthful experience in his home town of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1771, the Town Corporation attempted to enclose the Town Moor for its own profit. The freemen brought a successful lawsuit against the Corporation and used the revenue from the common land to finance social service institutions, such as an alms-house. According to Spence's biographers, the incident made a great impression on him. Thereafter, he became concerned about questions of land ownership. Evans, Life of Spence, 2, and Davenport, Life of Spence, 3.

11 Paine's most important pamphlet of the decade was the Rights of Man, Part Two (London, 1792). Within the first year of its publication, it had sold over 50,000 copies, an astounding figure in an age when the sale of most political pamphlets was a few hundred. The best account of late eighteenth-century radicalism is E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), ch. i-v. Also Robert Birley, The English Jacobins (London, 1924); P. A. Brown, The French Revolution in English History (London, 1918); and Carl B. Cone, The English Jacobins (NewYork, 1968).

12 Two of Spence's contemporaries published tracts on the land question which were similar to his in their analyses of the origin of landed property. Neither, however, advocated public ownership of the land. William Ogilvie's Essay on the Right of Property in Land (London, 1782) and Tom Paine's Agrarian Justice (London, 1796) were both republished, along with Spence's Newcastle Lecture, in Max Beer, The Pioneers of Land Reform (London, 1920). Spence responded to Paine's pamphlet in his Rights of Infants (London, 1797).

13 An indication of the tension that existed between Spence and the Paineites is shown in the note Spence received on May 17, 1796: "Mr. Spence -- I bought at your shop a few days back a book intitled [sic] The End of Oppression,' which I conceive to be the basest book that was ever printed, and as a fellow citizen, I advise you to stop the sale of it, or otherwise, I hope your book will be publicly burnt, and yourself hanged, for you richly deserve it. -- A DEMOCRAT." Reprinted on the title page of A Fragment of Ancient Prophecy (London, 1796). Francis Place, at this time a member of the London Corresponding Society, was one of the few democrats who maintained friendly relations with Spence. Even Place, however, felt that Spence's Plan was hopelessly impractical. If the Plan were applied as Spence intended it, Place predicted that "the whole country would in time be reduced to mud cabins and potato gardens." B.M., Add. Ms. 27,808, 194.

14 Spence's father was particularly religious. While working, he would have his children read him passages from the Bible, and render their interpretations of them. This religious training of Spence's childhood was probably an important source of both the apocalytic images in his later writings and the communitarian theme present in all of his works.

15 The Important Trial of Thomas Spence, 44, 57-58.

16 B. M., Add. Ms. 27,808, 287-94.

17 Rights of Infants,7.

18 The relationship between millenarianism and social movements has recently received considerable attention. See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium (New York, 1961); E. J. Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels (New York, 1959); Sylvia Thrupp, Millennial Dreams in Action (The Hague, 1962); P. G. Rogers, The Fifth Monarchy Men (London, 1966); and J. F. C. Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (London, 1969), ch. iii.

19 The numbers were originally published and sold weekly for one penny. They were composed of excerpts from other writers, both classical and modern, some of Spence's own tracts, and an occasional song or poem of Spence's composition. After the numbers were issued as weekly sheets, they were compiled in bound volumes and sold in that form. These volumes are important because they indicate which authors Spence had read and admired. There are several selections from classical authors, especially Cato. There are few selections from contemporary French authors, although several from Voltaire are included. Among the modern British writers quoted are Dr. Price, Swift, Locke, Sir Thomas More, and Dr. Johnson. The single writer most often quoted -- by far -- is James Harrington. A possible source, both of the idea and substance of Pig's Meat is James Burgh's Political Disquisitions (London, 1774-75). Burgh's three-volume work, which argued for the radical reform of Parliament, was quite popular throughout the last quarter of the eighteenth century. It is likely that Spence, as a radical bookseller, would have known it.

20 P. R. O., Home Office Papers, 40/3(3)/906.

21 Hansard, Parliamentary Debates (1817), xxxv, 444.

22 See my "The Revolutionary Party in London, 1816-1820," Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 45 (Nov. 1972).