Edited by


Professor of British History, University of Edinburgh




Thomas Spence was a prolific radical propagandist who produced a stream of pamphlets, broadsheets, poems, songs and periodicals during the age of the democratic revolution from 1775 to 1815. These works consistently supported radical demands at home and the revolutionaries abroad, but their real importance lies in Spence's unique Land Plan which advocated the abolition of all private property and the creation of democratic, self-governing parochial communes. Most of Spence's political works were published by Spence himself and they all had only limited circulation in his own day. Only a minority of his works have been reprinted in modern editions. As a result of these factors it is difficult for any scholar or student to study the whole range of Spence's political works. Indeed, no library in the world, not even the British Library or the Library of Congress, possesses the complete collection of Spence's political writings. This edition is an attempt to remedy this situation by making the great bulk of Spence's political works more readily accessible to modern students of British radicalism.

This edition is restricted to Spence's political writings and hence it ignores his work on English language and on coins. It also omits most of the material in Spence's two political periodicals, the substantial and important Pig's Meat and the slight and short-lived The Giant Killer, because these publications were largely composed of selections from other people's writings. Spence filled the three volumes of Pig's Meat with extracts from the works of such earlier writers as James Harrington, John Locke, Algernon Sidney and Jonathan Swift and from the writings of such contemporary radicals as Price, Priestley, Godwin, Barlow and Dyer. Occasionally, however, Spence did publish his own compositions in Pig's Meat. The Real Rights of Man, which was published by Spence in several versions, was reprinted in volume three of Pig's Meat, while The Description of Spensonia (1795) first appeared as two separate items (The Marine Republic and A further Account of Spensonia) in volume two of Pig's Meat. Both of these works are reprinted in this edition in the form in which they appeared as separate tracts. Spence also published several of his own political poems and songs in Pig's Meat and these have been included in this edition of his political works. Spence published The Restorer of Society to its Natural State as a separate pamphlet and also reproduced it in The Important Trial of Thomas Spence. In this edition it appears as a separate item and it has been omitted from the version of The Important Trial printed here.

The works of Spence printed in this edition were consulted through the courtesy of the British Library, the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh University Library, and particularly Goldsmiths Library in Senate House, University of London, which possesses the fullest collection of Spence's works. I am grateful to all the librarians concerned for the assistance which they have given me.

This edition has been published with the help of grants from the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the Twenty-Seven Foundation of the University of London. This assistance is gratefully acknowledged.

H.T. Dickinson Edinburgh, April 1982


Thomas Spence, who was one of nineteen children, was born on the Quayside of Newcastle upon Tyne on 21 June 1750. His father had arrived in Newcastle from Aberdeen in 1739, while his mother, Margaret Flet, came from the Orkneys. At first a net-maker, his father later sold hardware goods from a booth on the Sandhill. He was a member of a small sect of Glassites, who preached, and to some extent practised, the community of goods. An extremely religious man he made Thomas and his other sons read aloud to him from the Bible while he was working. He taught Thomas to read and he provided him with the early religious training which became the first source of Spence's apocalyptic imagery and his communitarian ideas. Although he later denounced religion as a delusion, Thomas Spence's writings were always replete with Biblical references and shaped by a millenial vision. Denied a formal education Spence still managed to read widely. He was much influenced not only by the Bible, but by the idealised societies of Thomas More's Utopia and James Harrington' Oceana. He did acquire enough education to qualify him first as a clerk to Mr. Hedley, a smith, then as a private teacher of English in Pilgrim Street, and subsequently, as a schoolmaster at St. Anne's school at Sandgate and, for a short time, at Haydon Bridge. While at the latter school he married a Miss Elliott from Hexham, who bore him one son. His married life was unhappy, though his son subsequently gave him his full support in his radical ventures, even to the extent of being arrested for distributing his father's works. Spence soon moved back to Newcastle and set up his own school on the Quayside. By 1787 he had also set up a Register office for the supply of maidservants and a toyshop.

Although in many ways a committed teacher Thomas Spence was not a great success. A great believer in the power of reason and very enthusiastic in putting across his own views, he was not very good at listening to criticism. Once convinced of the righteousness and logic of his opinions he could be pig-headed in their defence and unwilling to countenance any objections. While warm in his attachment to his friends, he could be abrasive and hostile to those with whom he disagreed. Quite early in his career as a teacher he developed ideas on improving the teaching of English by means of a phonetic alphabet. He published several works explaining his new alphabet. The most important of these was The Grand Repository of the English Language, which was published by Thomas Saint, the publisher of the Newcastle Courant, in 1775. Despite the cool reception which this work received, Spence continued to publicise his alphabet for the rest of his life. Several of his radical works were later printed in his phonetic alphabet as well as in standard English.

Spence's experience of poverty, during both his childhood and his adult life, taught him to sympathise with the industrious poor and to condemn the idle rich. These views and the influence of Scripture were greatly reinforced by his association with the Rev. James Murray, an extreme Presbyterian who made congregational autonomy an article of faith. James Murray had been educated at the University of Edinburgh and had then become an assistant pastor at Alnwick in 1761. Dismissed from that position, he came to Newcastle in 1765. There he secured enough supporters to be able to build a meeting house in High Bridge Street. Thomas Spence became one of his congregation and one of his most devoted admirers. Murray led an independent and democratic congregation. He taught it that the Gospels offered mankind the best charter of rights and liberties. The teaching of the Scriptures was combined with an appeal to reason in order to justify the claim that men were naturally equal in the sight of God and had an equal claim to the same natural and inalienable rights. Murray taught Thomas Spence to see the stark contrast between biblical promise and harsh social reality. Together they argued that, in order to achieve the millenial society in which all land was held in common, men must act in concert and not simply rely upon God's promise to re-order the world.

For many years Murray taught at his own school and also gave weekly public lectures on philosophy and on subjects selected from Scripture, but with a design to enlighten the people on their civil and religious liberties. In 1779, for example, he delivered sermons on the divine right of subjects to admonish their sovereigns and on hereditary succession and whether the nation had been in a state of rebellion since the Glorious Revolution. Many of his best sermons were later collected together and published posthumously in book form as Sermons to Asses and New Sermons to Asses. These sermons advocated an extension of civil and religious liberty, condemned tithes, heavy taxes and enclosures, and denounced political corruption. In 1773 Murray published The Travels of the Imagination which included a sympathetic defence of those poor people who rioted against the high price of food. He condemned the authorities for protecting the rich who exploited the poor even in their days of direst necessity. There would be no food rioters, Murray claimed, if the rich used their wealth to relieve the poor. Murray and his supporters in Newcastle also established two short-lived periodicals, The Freeman's Magazine: Or, the Constitutional Repository in 1774 and The Protestant Packet, or British Monitor in 1780-81. Both of these were vehicles for radical political reforms. They campaigned for civil and religious liberty and condemned the government's handling of both the Middlesex election case and the dispute with the American colonies. Murray, furthermore, published a substantial two-volume work, An Impartial History of the War in America (1782), which censured successive British ministries for their handling of the American crisis. He insisted that the Americans had been cruelly persecuted, that the war against the colonists should never have been started, and that it was unlikely ever to be brought to a successful conclusion.

The writings and sermons of James Murray undoubtedly had a very considerable influence on Thomas Spence, but just as important was the political climate of Newcastle upon Tyne during the late 1760s and early 1770s. The growth of radicalism in the North East of England in these years stemmed in part from the reaction to the exorbitant power and oppressive methods of the local elite, but it owed much more to the national issues which focused attention on the weaknesses of the British constitution and on the abuses of the governing classes. The first major political issue to arouse intense controversy in the area was the Middlesex election case. The decision of the House of Commons to reject John Wilkes as the duly elected M.P. for Middlesex provoked a major debate on the constitution and led to the setting up of various radical organisations. News of Wilkes and the activities of his London supporters spread to the North East and began to fill the pages of Newcastle's weekly newspapers. The Newcastle Chronicle provided every purchaser of its issue of 10 June 1769 with a copy of the Middlesex petition. The Newcastle Courant generated interest by publishing a number of anonymous letters from correspondents who wished to support or vilify Wilkes. Subscriptions to help Wilkes to pay his debts and to continue his political campaign were collected at four of Newcastle's leading coffee houses. Petitions in his support were organised in Newcastle, Morpeth, Northumberland and Durham. When Wilkes was released from prison in April 1770 there were celebrations in almost every town in the North East.

The impact of Wilkes and the growing political sophistication of the citizens of Newcastle led to the spread of debating clubs and radical societies. As early as 1770 Newcastle had a Robin Hood Society, a Cappadocian Society and the Recorder's Club. In 1772 the Constitution Club of Wilkite radicals was established. The leaders of this club combined with James Murray and Thomas Spence in combatting the decision of Newcastle town corporation to lease part of the Town Moor for enclosing and cultivation. George Grieve, the chairman of the Constitution Club, secured the services of Serjeant Glynn, the Wilkite lawyer, to protect the interests of the Newcastle freemen. James Murray and Thomas Spence prepared spoken and written propaganda against the enclosing and engrossing of land and against those who threatened the customary rights of the small freeholders and tenants. Together the radicals encouraged the freemen of Newcastle to challenge the decision taken by the town corporation. In order to instigate legal proceedings they quite deliberately broke part of the fence and a gate into the enclosed section of the Town Moor. Serjeant Glynn was then hired to defend the customary and charter rights of the freemen burgesses. In August 1773 the decision of the Northumberland assizes vindicated the claims of the freemen and demanded that the corporation of Newcastle should join the freemen in securing an act of parliament to confirm this decision of the court. In June 1774 the Newcastle Town Moor Act limited the leasing of land on the Town Moor to one hundred acres and to a term of seven years. The decision to lease was to be made by the freemen burgesses.

The Newcastle Town Moor affair had a profound effect on Thomas Spence and led him to develop his Land Plan which was to be the focus of all the rest of his life's work. In 1775 a Philosophical Society was established in Newcastle and Spence became a member. The society occasionally debated political questions. One such topic of discussion was the question, 'Is the resistance of the Americans to taxation without representation, constitutional or unconstitutional?' On 8 November 1775 Thomas Spence created considerable dissension in the Philosophical Society as a result of his notorious lecture on 'The Real Rights of Man'. This was the first public occasion on which Spence vehemently denounced the evils of private property and proposed that each parish should control the land within its borders for the benefit of every inhabitant of the parish. Although this lecture was not well received when it was delivered, Spence proceeded to publish it without the permission of the Philosophical Society and to hawk it about the streets of Newcastle. Despite the protests of some members, especially the Rev. James Murray, Spence was expelled from the Philosophical Society. This did not prevent him from reiterating his views in The Poor Man's Advocate (Newcastle, 1779) nor from engaging in violent disputes in other clubs. Spence was a member of a more informal debating society of young men who met in the evenings at his schoolroom in the Broad Garth, Newcastle. There he tried to convert the members to his belief that landed property should be owned by the local community and not by private individuals. At one meeting, when Thomas Bewick, who was later to gain fame as an engraver, opposed his views, the dispute ended in a fight with quarter staffs. Bewick gave Spence a beating.

Thomas Spence remained in Newcastle until 1792. He continued teaching, published tracts on his phonetic alphabet and, in 1782, produced a new version of his Land Plan in A Supplement to the History of Robinson Crusoe. Increasingly isolated -- James Murray died in 1782, his publisher, Thomas Saint, in 1788, and his wife in 1792 -- and almost penniless he decided to leave Newcastle in order to settle in London. In the capital no less than in the North East radicalism had waned significantly in the late 1780s. By the early 1790s, however, radicalism had not only revived, but had developed its ideology, extended its aims and increased its influence on the masses. This was in part due to the renewed interest in religious liberty at home and in the constitutional experiments in the new United States of America, but chiefly because of the dramatic events in France. The French Revolution was altogether more sudden and surprising than the earlier American Revolution. Its impact on Britain proved to be both more profound and more widely diffused throughout the whole of society. Within a few short months the strongest monarch in Europe was humbled by his own subjects, the entrenched privileges of the aristocracy were condemned, the inalienable rights of man were proclaimed, and a representative assembly was charged with the task of drawing up a new constitution. British reformers of all shades of opinion were galvanised into action. The veteran leaders of the Wilkite and Association movements, such as John Home Tooke and Christopher Wyvill, renewed their demands for parliamentary reform and the Society for Constitutional Information began once more to distribute reform literature. More significant were the demands of new radicals for much more extensive reforms of the political and social order and the creation of new radical organisations endeavouring to enlist support from the artisans and the lower orders in society. Thomas Paine's Rights of Man, published in two parts in 1791-92, went far beyond the traditional demands for parliamentary reform. Paine proclaimed the natural and inalienable political rights of all men. He denounced monarchy and aristocracy, and he favoured a democratic republic, a written constitution and an extensive Bill of Rights. The London Corresponding Society and various provincial Constitutional Societies were created in the early 1790s in order to enlist mass support in favour of radical reform. These societies were no longer, as earlier reform associations had been, dominated by the educated middle classes. In this new ferment of radical ideas and radical associations Thomas Spence was to play a major, indeed a unique role.

By the end of 1792 Thomas Spence was established in London and was deep once more in radical politics and radical publishing. Yet, as before, he was living a precarious, hand-to-mouth existence. He did not keep up his former profession of schoolteaching, but endeavoured to maintain himself by printing and selling handbills, tracts, periodicals and pamphlets (all of his own composition), by producing copper coins, tokens and medallions, and by keeping a bookstall at the corner of Chancery Lane; a stall from which he also sold saloop (a hot drink of milk, sugar and salep or sassafras). Spence later gave up his stall and set up a shop first at 8 Little Turnstile, High Holborn and subsequently at 7 Oxford Street. In his business activities Spence was aided by his son. His first wife had apparently died before he left Newcastle. In London he married a young and pretty servant girl, who later deserted him. When she sought a reconciliation he refused to accept her back, but he did pay her eight shillings a week as long as he lived.

During the 1790s Thomas Spence produced several radical pamphlets publicising his Land Plan and he also established Pig's Meat, a successful weekly periodical, which he published for three years between 1793 and 1795 and which he subsequently re-issued in collected three-volume editions. In this periodical he re-printed the liberal arguments of ancient and modern writers and also re-published some of his own radical tracts. From his bookstall or bookshop he sold and propagated his own radical works, besides selling the works of other radicals, including Paine's Rights of Man. Although more of a propagandist than a political activist -- he even chalked slogans on walls at dead of night -- Spence did join the London Corresponding Society and a more revolutionary group known as the Lambeth Loyal Association. He acted in concert with such extreme radicals as Thomas Evans, who was the secretary of the London Corresponding Society in 1796 and who was also one of the promotors of the revolutionary Society of United Englishmen.

During the decade from 1793 to 1803 Thomas Spence produced his most important political pamphlets, most of which were concerned with the development of his famous Land Plan. Spence's views, first propagated in Newcastle in 1775, did not attract wide-spread attention until the 1790s. The Newcastle lecture was re-published as The Real Rights of Man in 1793, in volume three of Pig's Meat in 1795, and as The Meridian Sun of Liberty in 1796. Variations on the same theme also appeared in many of his other pamphlets, including The End of Oppression (1795), Thomas Spence's Recantation of the End of Oppression (1795), A Letter from Ralph Hodge to His Cousin Thomas Bull (1795), Description of Spensonia (1795), Rights of Infants (1797), The Constitution of a Perfect Commonwealth (1798) which was republished later as The Constitution of Spensonia (1803), and The Restorer of Society to its Natural State (1801) . Although somewhat repetitious all of Spence's works were written in a vigorous, direct manner. His style was occasionally violent, but never offensive. While undoubtedly fixated with his Land Plan, Spence's works could be ironic and humorous and they invariably had attractive titles. His style was well-suited to the audience of poor men that he deliberately set out to reach and to influence.

Despite his emphasis on rational argument, his clear and vigorous prose, and his tireless efforts to publicise his Land Plan, Spence failed to make it clear either to his contemporaries or to later historians. Because he developed his views on land reform in a variety of forms in many different pamphlets Spence managed to confuse some of his followers, including Thomas Evans and Francis Place, and also his most modern biographer, Olive Rudkin. They all believed that Spence advocated the nationalisation of land so that it could be placed under the control of the central government although administered by parish councils. In fact, Spence was always hostile to the notion that any central government should have so much power. Convinced that political rights alone, however extensive, could never prevent the rich from dominating the poor, he wanted to put what he regarded as the source of all real power -- the land -- into the hands of all citizens; men, women and children alike. Spence insisted that all private property had been secured by the few by means of force, fraud or theft. Its reclamation was therefore a simple act of justice to the majority whose rights had been usurped. Justice could be best achieved if the inhabitants of each parish in the country formed themselves into parochial corporations and took over all the land within each parish boundary. All the land in the country would then be owned not by the state, but by large numbers of small parochial corporations. The local inhabitants, not the central government, would own and control, not merely administer, the land. This system of land control would put real power into the hands of all the people equally, not into the hands of the propertied minority or those who were in positions of executive authority. Neither the parochial corporation as a body nor the parishioners individually would actually farm the land within the parish boundaries. Instead, this land would be rented out to the highest bidders, who would farm the land at a profit after paying the rent due, but who would never own the land nor be free to sell it. Rivers, lakes, mines, forests and other natural resources within the parish would also be leased out to the highest bidders. When all of these rents were paid, the parish corporation would use a proportion of them for such parochial needs as the repair of houses, roads, harbours and bridges, the provision of such public utilities as an assembly hall, school, library and hospital, and the care of the sick, aged and unemployed and also for such national expenses as courts of justice. On occasion Spence suggested that the national government might maintain a small professional defence force by land and sea, even in peace time, but more often he wrote in support of citizen militia forces within each parish as the best means of self-defence. According to Spence these expenses would not be great because there would be no corrupt court, bloated bureaucracy, huge armies or navies, or rich landowners reaping all the profit from the land. Thus, parochial and national expenses would only take up a small part, perhaps only one third, of the rents raised from the leasing of the parochial lands. The rest of this income would be divided equally, each Quarter Day, between every man, woman and child in the parish. By this means dire poverty would be eliminated for ever from society. No one would pay any taxes and everyone would be paid an equal share of the residue of parochial rents. The aged, sick, and unemployed would also be aided by parish relief out of the parochial rents.

Although Thomas Spence planned to remove the threat of utter destitution from the ordinary inhabitants of the parishes, he did not advocate complete economic equality. While he was prepared to confiscate all land from the propertied classes, and he was also determined to end the payment of interest on the national debt to holders of government stock, he was ready to allow the rich to keep all their personal property. This would include their cash, jewels, furniture, clothes, cattle, horses, sheep and all moveable effects. Clearly this concession would still leave them very much richer than the other inhabitants of the parishes. Spence lived all his life in an urban environment, in Newcastle and London, but he never seriously considered the social and economic problems created by large towns, national and international commerce, and manufacturing industries. He was totally pre-occupied, even fixated, by his plan to eliminate the power and the rights of the great landowners. Nonetheless, although he did not understand Britain's sophisticated economy or the workings of capitalism, he did not believe that all of the inhabitants of his parishes would rent land or work in agriculture. His Land Plan was designed to increase the number of agricultural workers, since the land would be intensively cultivated, but Spence did not desire the end of all commerce and industry. He accepted the need for artisans, traders and seamen, though he anticipated that these would be self-employed or engaged in joint cooperative ventures. Profits from such small-scale or cooperative enterprises would not be substantial, but they show that Spence did not wish to deny all opportunities for economic improvement. He recognised that able, energetic and resourceful men would rent the parish lands or engage in necessary and profitable economic activities. In Spence's view industry and talent should be rewarded, but no man should inherit excessive wealth and power by succeeding to a landed estate. His Land Plan might therefore deny to a few citizens the opportunity of becoming fantastically rich and would prevent any person becoming destitute, but it would not make all citizens economically equal.

It is evident that Thomas Spence possessed an inadequate understanding of the social and economic complexities of late eighteenth-century Britain and that he was far too optimistic in his assessment of the practicability of his Land Plan, but, to his credit, he did clearly reveal a greater awareness than nearly all of his radical contemporaries of the economic sources of political power. Whereas the vast majority of radicals believed that the equal political rights of man were sufficient. that the possession of the vote would inevitably lead to major improvements in the social and economic life of the labouring poor, Thomas Spence clearly recognised that only a redistribution of wealth would confer real political influence on the masses who were at present both poor and powerless. Spence accepted James Harrington's thesis that political power was derived from the possession of property, especially landed property. While this concept was too simplisitic as an explanation of the sources of political power, it was perhaps less naive than the notion that the lot of the labouring poor would be significantly improved if only all men possessed the right to put a cross in secret on a ballot paper in a parliamentary election. Spence may not have appreciated the complexities of commercial and industrial capitalism, but he did display both a profound sympathy with the appalling conditions of the labouring poor and a firm desire to ameliorate their lot through the provision of various elements of a welfare state. At various times Spence advocated that the parochial corporations should provide public housing, public assembly rooms, public schools, public libraries, public hospitals, public theatres, public granaries, public swimming facilities and public relief for the aged, the sick, the orphaned and the unemployed. His vision of a welfare state was more extensive even than that outlined by Thomas Paine in the celebrated second volume of Rights of Man.

Spence was undoubtedly fixated by his Land Plan, but not to the complete exclusion of ideas for political reform. Although less interested in parliamentary reform than most of the other radicals of the 1790s, he did indicate in his tracts that he held extreme political views. His relative neglect of political questions was due to his conviction that the most important power - the control of the land and the expenditure of most of the income derived from the land -- would be exercised by parochial corporations and not by any national government or legislature. When he did discuss constitutional questions he argued in favour of a democratic republic. In his view monarchy and aristocracy would disappear along with private property. The national government would have limited authority and limited resources, because so much of each would be in the hands of the parochial corporations. The national government would be maintained by about one third of the rent from the parochial lands. It might be allowed to maintain a small army and navy sufficient for national defence but inadequate for waging an aggressive war against neighbouring countries. The main defence force would be the citizen militia under parochial control. The national government would establish a code of laws and courts of justice designed to prevent any parish from altering its constitution, alienating its land, or infringing the rights of other parishes. Government officials, judges and members of the national assembly would all be elected by universal suffrage. Spence was one of the few radicals to advocate extending the franchise to all women, though he did not expect women to hold office because of 'the delicacy of their sex'. His system of representation was extremely radical. He endorsed all six radical demands for parliamentary reform: universal suffrage, annual elections, secret ballot, equal electoral constituencies, abolition of property qualifications for candidates, and payment of representatives. At the parochial level all inhabitants, including both women and children in Spence's later works, would be full members of the corporation and would vote by ballot. In Spence's reformed state there would be no national or established church supported by tithes or church rates. All religious faiths would be tolerated and each parish would be free to decide whether it wished to support any particular church. Where there was a majority of one religious faith it would be permissible for the parochial corporation to pay a minister's salary out of the parish treasury. Minority religious groups would have to finance their own churches and ministers.

Spence was an apostle of reason. He believed in propagating his ideas by means of reasoned argument and he hoped to achieve his ends by persuading the ordinary people to take over the land within their parish boundaries. He did not personally engage in revolutionary conspiracies though he associated with some conspirators. Nor did he, as a rule, advocate violent revolution. Nonetheless there are indications in his work that he did realise that the landlord class would not tamely accept the expropriation of their private property. In The End of Oppression (1795) Spence acknowledged that reason might not be enough to win over the landed proprietors. While refraining from positively advocating violence, he now recognised that armed resistance by the landlords might have to be overcome by force. He suggested that a few thousand determined men, led by a committee of honest, firm and intelligent officers, could quickly accomplish a revolution. This committee should publish a manifesto or proclamation urging the whole nation to seize the land within their parish boundaries, thus cutting off the landlords from the source of all their power. The committee would, meanwhile, establish a provisional government to direct the military campaign against private property. If their resistance proved stubborn, the landlords would have to be destroyed root and branch.

Thomas Spence's radical publications and his involvement in radical politics got him into a great deal of trouble with the law. The authorities were terrified of revolution spreading from France to England and regarded Spence as a dangerous radical. He was first arrested on 6 December 1792 for selling his own work on the Rights of Man, but was released when the authorities discovered that this was not Paine's famous work. Spence was re-arrested on 10 December when it was discovered that he was selling the second part of Paine's Rights of Man. Although committed to prison, where he was threatened and ill-treated, he was soon released yet again without being convicted of any offence. He was arrested for a third time in January 1793, but acquitted on a technicality in February. In December 1793 Spence experienced arrest and rapid acquittal once again. Clearly a victim of official harassment, even vindictiveness, he was arrested for treasonable practices on 20 May 1794. This time he spent seven months in prison without ever being convicted of any offence in a court of law. In 1798 he was arrested along with Thomas Evans and other radicals involved in the Society of United Englishmen. Evans spent almost three years in prison without ever being convicted, but Spence was soon set free. This reprieve was short-lived however. In April 1801 he was arrested after publishing The Restorer of Society to its Natural State. Accused of encouraging sedition and disaffection by attacking the rights of private property, Spence defended himself by repeating his Land Plan at great length, even to the extent of reading out to the court the complete text of his latest publication. His courage and his impudence availed him nothing. He was found guilty by a special jury at the Court of King's Bench and sentenced to a year in Shrewsbury gaol, where he suffered severely. Even this punishment did not silence him. On his release he published The Important Trial of Thomas Spence (1803), a defence of his views which included a complete reprint of his offending pamphlet, The Restorer of Society to its Natural State, and a new work, The Constitution of Spensonia, which restated in an extended and different form many of his ideas on land reform. This constitution was clearly influenced by the French 'Jacobin' constitution of 1793.

Spence was evidently not intimidated by the repressive policy of the government or the campaign of harassment aimed at him personally. Historians have often claimed that radicalism utterly collapsed in the late 1790s and did not revive for more than a decade. Spence's later career illustrates how a few radicals kept alive the campaign for reform and maintained contact with small groups of like-minded men, even though radical associations were banned by the law. As we have seen, even a year's imprisonment did not silence Spence. On his release he published his vindication and two of his most radical works. In 1805 he published The World turned upside down, which he dedicated to Earl Stanhope. This was followed by several political broadsides and volumes of political songs. Several of his most important works appeared in further editions in 1807, while as late as 1814 he began a new periodical, The Giant Killer, or Anti-Landlord. This was very similar in form and content to his earlier Pig's Meat. Only two numbers, dated 6 and 13 August 1814, appeared, however, before Spence died of intestinal difficulties on 8 September 1814.

During his last years Spence had attracted to him a group of disciples who, from 1807 at the latest, began meeting together as the 'Free and Easy Club' in The Fleece, a tavern in Little Windmill Street. This society met every Tuesday at eight o'clock. It regularly discussed Spence's Land Plan and sang humorous songs, many written by Spence himself. Despite his very short stature (he was only five feet tall), his weak frame, and his physical unattractiveness, Spence dominated this little group of Spensonians. Yet this society included such awkward and fiery characters as Thomas Evans, Dr. Thomas Watson and his son, Arthur Thistlewood and Allen Davenport. Francis Place also attended the occasional meeting. Although he was probably not a full member, Place admired Spence sufficiently to plan writing a biography of him. He never completed this, though both Thomas Evans and Allen Davenport did subsequently produce biographies of Spence. Clearly, Spence had some devoted admirers even during the years when radical societies were under government ban. Spence's funeral was attended by many of his disciples. Medals were distributed to the mourners and a pair of scales was carried before the coffin to indicate the justness of Spence's cause.

Immediately after Spence's death Thomas Evans and other followers established the Society of Spencean Philanthropists. This society soon had sufficient members to establish four sections, each meeting in a public house in different parts of east and central London on successive nights of the week. Although closely watched by a suspicious government and infiltrated by a government spy, the society sometimes attracted as many as 150 people to its meetings. The Spenceans, especially Thomas Evans, continued to propagate the famous Land Plan, but its leaders increasingly abandoned the pen in favour of violent revolution. This small band of revolutionaries was involved in two abortive attempts at insurrection: the Spa Fields Riot of 2 December 1816 and the Cato Street Conspiracy of 23 February 1820. As early as 1817 committees of both houses of parliament condemned the Spenceans as revolutionary conspirators. After the Cato Street fiasco, government spies, executions and transportations effectively destroyed this revolutionary group of Spenceans, but the ideas of Thomas Spence were not forgotton by working-class radicals. Supporters of Spence's Land Plan were active in the 1830s in both the National Union of the Working Classes and the Chartist East London Democratic Association. Bronterre O'Brien, the Chartist propagandist, was influenced by Spence's writings. Thomas Spence may have been a Utopian radical with little understanding of industrial society, but his millennial vision continued to interest small groups of radical activists and alienated workers.

Select Bibliography

Thomas Evans, A Brief Sketch of the Life of Thomas Spence (Manchester, 1821) .

Allen Davenport, The Life, Writings and Principles of Thomas Spence (London, 1836).

Olive Rudkin, Thomas Spence and His Connections (London, 1927).

P.M. Kemp-Ashraf, 'Selected Writings of Thomas Spence 1750-1814', in Essays in Honour of William Gallacher, ed. P.M. Kemp-Ashraf (East Berlin, 1966).

Arthur W. Waters, The Trial of Thomas Spence in 1801 (Leamington Spa, 1917)

Thomas R. Knox, 'Thomas Spence: The Trumpet of Jubilee', Past & Present, No. 76 (1977).

T.M. Parsinnen, 'Thomas Spence and the Origins of English Land Nationalization', Journal of the History of Ideas, xxxiv (1973).

T.M. Parsinnen, 'The Revolutionary Party in London, 1816-20', Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, xlv (1972).

T.M. Parsinnen, 'Thomas Spence', in Biographical Dictionary of British Radicals, ed. J.O. Baylen and N.J. Gossman, vol.i.

R.A. Franklin, 'The Political Ideas of Thomas Spence', Journal of Local Studies, ii (1982).

'Thomas Spence', Dictionary of National Biography.

H.T. Dickinson, Radical Politics in the North-East of England in the Later Eighteenth Century (Durham, 1979)

H.T. Dickinson, Liberty and Property: Political Ideology in Eighteenth-Century Britain (London, 1977).