By Jess Owens
From the time it was built in the mid 1790’s, Fitzrovia was a centre for London Radicals. Its position, just across the border from Westminster, and a part of the Middlesex constituency, meant it became a haven for some of London’s democrats.
Thomas Spence, the Land Reformer, and a principal theoretician of ‘nationalisation’, arrived at No 9 Oxford Street in 1797. He brought with him his Rights of Infants, originally printed in Holborn. His first known piece to be issued from Oxford Street was a reprinting of the 1783 song The Rights of Man. He continued to publish from there until 1801 when his Restorer of Society was printed by Seale and Bates of Fitzroy Place. The First edition of his Songs also came from Seale and Bates, who had moved their press to 160 Tottenham Court Road. Spence issued a second songbook from there around 1807.
The main feature of both these books was the propagation of “the Spencean System”:
The Lands ought of Right to be held by us all,
No Privates should lord it o’er their Fellow Men,
The whole Human race Old, Young, Great and Small
Share and Share alike of the Rents would have then.
All those who say no, it shall not be so,
We Murderers cruel and Traitors them call,
Be they rich or poor we may be full sure,
At Heart they are nothing but Judases all.
The Touch-stone of Honesty: Tune Lillibullara.
Spence’s ideas drew on the popular republicanism of the time, condemning the concept of private property in land. He chronicled how many people are deluded into supporting the system, through thinking they too might profit from it:
Of Kings and Courtiers how the Herd complain,
Nor blame their own inord’nate Love of Gain.
None think that while dire Landlords they allow,
To Kings and Knaves they’ll still be doom’d to bow.
None think that each by favouring the Deceit,
Himself’s a foolish Party to the Cheat.
Few can be landlords, and those very Few,
Must to succeed, their Bretheren all undo.
Yet each low Wretch for Landlordship fierce does burn,
And longs to act the Tyrant in his Turn!
Nor longs alone, but hopes before he dies,
To have his Rents, and live on Tears and Sighs.
He That hath an Ear, to hear, let him hear!.
Apart from Spence, whose followers were meeting further south at The Fleece in Little Windmill Street (Now Lexington Street), another clutch of radical poets had assembled around Fitzroy Square. Less militant than the Spenceans, their work was published in The Independent Whig. It was founded in 1806 as an alternative paper for those members of the Whig Party who refused to join the ministerial warmongering against France.
It became, for the next two decades, one of the chief voices of radical opinion in England. As Aspinall puts it: “The Home Office was receiving almost daily police reports of ale-house conversations….The Newspapers commonly read … [there]… were Cobbetts Register, the Black Dwarf and the Independent Whig.”
The identities of these poets remain clouded in the mists of time. They are not identifiable through the usual historical sources, yet they formed a bedrock to what was to become Radical Fitzrovia.
First to appear was a writer who appeared under the initials JG, living in Grafton Street [now Grafton Way]. A more substantial series of poems came from the pen of ‘M’ in Fitzroy Street. Their debut poem was The Admonition which began:
That State must fall, where in the face of day,
Corruption stalks with unmolested sway;
Where those who guard the mighty helm discard,
Their proper functions, for the base reward;
Where haughty Lords at public vice connive,
And daring Plunderers on the Taxes thrive;
Where desperate men to desperate projects fly,
And rob the people with impunity…
Corruption in government was a theme that had earlier been castigated in a broadside by Clio Rickman (parts of which also appeared in the Whig). Whilst ‘M’ was undoubtedly referring to the looting of public coffers by ‘nobles’ they must also have had in mind the private companies who gained contracts to supply the navy through lobbying and the payment of bribes. The former now replicated in modern PFI contracts and the projected pillaging of our NHS.
‘M’ regularly contributed verse to the publication for a year. JG’s contributions were more sporadic. A second piece appearing in August 1810.
The mainstay of the Whig was Clio Rickman.
He began writing for the paper from its inception, his first verses being an Epitaph to Algernon Sydney, one of the key figures in the English Republican pantheon.
Here lies the abetter of a god-like cause
Whose name shall out-live bad men and their laws
And long his memory ‘mongst the good shall last
When despots are no more, and tyrant-times are past
Swear to oppose those men, whoe’er they be
Who dare infringe thy birth-right to be free,
Who violate man’s rights and Heaven’s laws
Retire! And swear destruction to their cause”
Rickman was a committed pacifist. When it was reported in the daily press that underwriters at Lloyds had greeted the announcement of renewed hostilities with the French, he responded:
Rejoice at WAR! Oh say, can lust of gold
Each feeling of humanity hold?
Can lust of gain the horrid wish provoke
To hurl on mankind’s race its bitt’rest stroke
I would not trust the men who shout for blood
Because to them it rolls a golden flood
I would not trust to such old ENGLAND’S fate
Or hope their truth and faith to any State
For, when the cause of self is felt alone
The cause of justice must be quite unknown
Unsafe with men like these, our friends and wives
For lucre, such would take our children’s lives
Would their own government with joy betray
And sweep their boated monarchy away!
For, naught can fix humanity above
All guilt and crime, – but universal love;
That pure benevolence– that truth of soul
Which feels for suff’ring man from pole to pole!
Which weeps at bloodshed whereso’er it be
And only shouts– when Earth from war is free!