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200 years since Islington (nearly) kicked out the elites at Spa Fields Park

PUBLISHED: 09:11 08 November 2016 | UPDATED: 09:14 08 November 2016

Tour guide Rob Smith is holding history walks to commemorate 200 years since the Spa Fields riots. Picture: Polly Hancock

Tour guide Rob Smith is holding history walks to commemorate 200 years since the Spa Fields riots. Picture: Polly Hancock

Archant

Given Islington’s radical history, it’s no surprise rebels once plotted to overthrow the elites from a Clerkenwell park. James Morris looks at the Spa Fields riots 200 years ago.

Arthur Thistlewood was one of the radical activists behind the two Spa Fields gatherings in 1816. Picture: Islington Local History CentreArthur Thistlewood was one of the radical activists behind the two Spa Fields gatherings in 1816. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

It’s fair to say many people in Islington don’t like the current government. But any attempt to overthrow it will be left to Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour Party.

In 1816, a couple of years before the Islington North MP’s time, the people didn’t even have an MP to turn to. Clerkenwell, population 50,000, had no representation.

It resulted in the Spa Fields riots, and a failed attempt to seize the Tower of London. Yesterday, Islington Museum marked 200 years since the riots by launching its two-month “Commit Outrage!” exhibition.

Historian Rob Smith, of Clerkenwell and Islington Guiding Association, explains: “The Napoleonic Wars had been going on for years and years [between 1803 and 1815] and all through that time, high taxes had been imposed by the government to pay for them.

“This was a double whammy for the people of Islington.

“They had to pay these high taxes, but at the time many luxury goods such as clocks and watches were manufactured in Islington.

Britons to Arms!’ Five thousand flyers encouraging militant action were handed out across London ahead of the Spa Fields meetings in 1816. Picture: Islington Local History CentreBritons to Arms!’ Five thousand flyers encouraging militant action were handed out across London ahead of the Spa Fields meetings in 1816. Picture: Islington Local History Centre

“Because people elsewhere in the country didn’t have the money to buy these goods, it cost livelihoods in Islington. As you can imagine, there was a lot of unrest.”

And there was no such thing as the parliamentary system as we know it today. “Clerkenwell had about 50,000 people, but no MP to represent them,” Rob says. “Yet over in the Isle of Wight, there was a place called Newtown with two MPs – for a population of 25 people.

“MPs were voting for these taxes and yet could not claim to represent the population. It came to a head in 1816.”

In Spa Fields on November 15, the Spencerians, a group of left-wing revolutionaries, organised the biggest public demonstration London had seen in decades.

With 10,000 people, it was so big that a second had to be arranged on December 2. From there, rebels broke away from the main protest and marched on the Tower of London, looting a gun shop on the way.

In the event, they were arrested and got nowhere near to overthrowing the elites. But it was an important act nonetheless, Rob says: “It was part of a long march for everyone to be able to vote, which didn’t finish until 1929 when women won the right.

Tour guide Rob Smith is holding history walks to commemorate 200 years since the Spa Fields riots. Picture: Polly HancockTour guide Rob Smith is holding history walks to commemorate 200 years since the Spa Fields riots. Picture: Polly Hancock

“In the grand scheme of things, the Spa Fields riots were only a small disturbance, but we are all very proud of democracy in this country today. It was the people 200 years ago who stood up for that.

“It is part of Islington’s tradition of radical protest [which even extends to churches such as Newington Green Unitarian] and it still remains today.

“Islington was a place where unconventional ideas could get oxygen. Outside the grasp of the City, rallies were harder to control.”

Anyone who knows Spa Fields Park in its current form may be surprised to hear 10,000 people descended there. But Rob points out: “Two hundred years ago, it was much larger than the little park it is now. It would have stretched right up to where Sadler’s Wells is in Rosebery Avenue. As a leisure facility, it was a popular place. For this reason, the Spencerians knew it would be a good place for a rally.

“It’s great that Spa Fields still exists. It’s just a shame that its history is not recorded anywhere in the park. It’s something the vast majority of people won’t be aware of as they stroll through it.”

The “Commit Outrage!” exhibition runs at Islington Museum (in St John Street) until January 7. On November 26 and December 3, Rob Smith will also host a free 60-minute Spa Fields history walk at 11am. For more information, call 020 7527 2837 or email islington.museum@islington.gov.uk


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