William Davidson (conspirator) - Political Activism

Political Activism

Following the Peterloo Massacre, William Davidson became involved in radical politics again. In October 1819 Richard Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel, and sentenced to three years imprisonment. Davidson said that this had caused him to lose his belief in God. He joined the Marylebone Union Reading Society, a club which offered a reading room of radical newspapers such as the Republican and the Manchester Observer for a subscription of twopence a week. He also read the works of Tom Paine.

Davidson met John Harrison at the Marylebone Union. Harrison was a member of the Spencean Philanthropists in London. Davidson soon became a Spencean. He met Arthur Thistlewood, and after a few months he became one of the Committee of Thirteen that ran the organisation.

In February 1820, George Edwards, a government provocateur, drew Davidson and Thistlewood and twenty seven other Spenceans into a plot to kill government cabinet officers as they dined at Lord Harrowby's house at 39 Grosvenor Square on 23 February. Thistlewood selected Davidson as one of an Executive of Five to organise the assassinations.

Davidson had worked for Lord Harrowby in the past, and knew some of his staff at Grosvenor Square. His job was to find out more details about the cabinet meeting. One servants told him that the Earl of Harrowby was not in London. Davidson relayed this information to Arthur Thistlewood, who believed that the servant was lying, and ordered the conspirators to proceed with the plot.

On the 23rd February the Cato Street Conspiracy met in a hayloft on Cato Street, near Grosvenor Square. However, there was no cabinet meeting: the Spenceans had been set up by George Edwards.

George Ruthven led thirteen police officers to storm the hay loft. Several revolutionaries refused to surrender their weapons. Thistlewood shot and killed police officer Richard Smithers. When the co-conspirators tried to escape, Benjamin Gill hit Davidson on the wrist with his truncheon, and he dropped his blunderbuss. Four conspirators, Thistlewood, John Brunt, Robert Adams and John Harrison escaped through a window. However, their identities were known due to a list Edwards supplied the police, and arrested.

Eleven men were charged with involvement in the Cato Street Conspiracy. Robert Adams testified against the other men, and charges against him were dropped. Davidson pleaded innocence and claimed the court was prejudiced against black people. However, his presence at the scene with a blunderbuss lead to his conviction.

On 28 April 1820, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, Arthur Thistlewood, and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to death. John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange and Charles Copper were also found guilty. However their death sentences were subsequently commuted to transportation for life.

William Davidson, with his four fellow conspirators, was publicly hanged and decapitated outside Newgate Prison on the 1 May 1820.

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