Cato Street and the Revolutionary Tradition in Britain and Ireland

 

Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason
.’

John Harrington.

 

Five men were executed at Newgate on 1 May 1820 for their part in an attempt to assassinate the British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, and his cabinet of ministers. The plotters envisaged that they would lead an insurrection across London in the aftermath of their ‘tyrannicide’.

The plot is usually referred to as the ‘Cato Street Conspiracy’ after the street in London in which the revolutionaries were arrested.

The conspiracy has received surprisingly little scholarly attention, and there has been a tendency among those who have examined Cato Street to dismiss it as an isolated, forlorn, foolhardy and – ultimately – unimportant event.

The violent intent of the conspirators sits uncomfortably with notions of what it was (and is) to be English or British. It even sits beyond the pale of ‘mainstream’ radical history in Britain, which tends to be framed in terms of evolution rather than revolution. Even within a revolutionary framework, Cato Street can be discussed as the fantasy of isolated adventurists who had no contact with, or influence upon, ‘the masses’.

This conference will examine the Cato Street Conspiracy through a number of different lenses. These perspectives will shed new light on the ‘plot’ itself, its contemporary significance, and its importance (or otherwise) in the longer history of radicalism and revolutionary movements.

The conference will welcome papers which explore earlier and later revolutionary and insurrectionary ‘moments’ in Britain. This longer chronological framework, stretching back as far as the Reformation and forwards into the twentieth century, will enable scholars to consider whether Cato Street takes on a greater significance in the context of ill-fated entanglements such as the Rye House Plot, the Tong Plot, the Nonsuch House Plot, etc.

The organisers are particularly interested in comparisons and contrasts between the (under-explored) British insurrectionary tradition, and the (perhaps over-explored?) history of Irish revolutionary violence. How does a consideration of revolutionary violence in Britain and Ireland modify what we think we know about the history of radicalism on each distinct island?

The topics to be addressed may include (but will not be limited to):

  • The Cato Street plot itself
    • the organisation and nature of the Cato Street Conspiracy
    • the reporting of the Cato Street Conspiracy in the press
    • the use of spies and agents provocateurs by the authorities
    • the response of different types of radicals to the conspiracy
    • Literary, polemical and artistic responses to Cato Street
    • References to Cato Street across time and into the present
  • The broader chronological and geographical contexts of revolution in Britain and Ireland
    • British and Irish plots and insurrections before Cato Street.
    • British and Irish plots after Cato Street (As an aside, it should be mentioned that after 1820 the next people to be executed for treason by the British state were the 1916 Irish rebels).
    • the European context (where does Cato Street sit in the context of European plots and insurrectionist adventures?)
    • race, racism and radicalism (one of the executed Cato Street conspirators, William Davidson, was a Jamaican of African descent)
    • enthusiasm for the French Revolution and other foreign risings and revolts (one of the executed Cato Street conspirators had served in the army of the French republic)
    • the fate and influence of transported radicals (five of the Cato Street conspirators were transported to Australia)
    • the changing contexts of political violence (national and global) in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries

It is hoped to bring together scholars from a range of related specialisms, including history, journalism studies, English literature, criminology and politics.

Proposals are invited for papers of 20 minutes that address any aspects of the Cato Street conspiracy, its representation, its antecedents, its effect on radicalism, its place in history, or its contemporary resonances.

It is envisaged that the conference will lead to the publication of a high-quality volume of essays in time for the 200th anniversary of the discovery of the plot in February 1820.