Friday, 31 August 2007

Chartist Lives: Francis Place 1

Place[1] was born on 3rd November 1771, the illegitimate son of Simon Place and Mary Gray.

Background and early life
Simon Place was by trade a baker who had become the keeper of a ‘sponging house’, or debtors’ prison, in Vinegar Yard, near Drury Lane Theatre in London, where Francis was born. Such places were made illegal in 1779 and he became an innkeeper. He was a violent, erratic man of strong character. Francis had some schooling from 1775 to 1785, the last two years in a school kept by a Mr Bowis, whom he remembered for his kindness and learning. In 1785, Simon Place impulsively apprenticed his son to a breeches-maker called France, in Bell Yard, Temple Bar, a man whose three daughters lived on immoral earnings and who was himself to die in a workhouse.

Place’s upbringing had been rough, and much of his education had been in the streets, but he was literate and he soon showed more business acumen than the small tradesmen struggling around him. He prospered enough to marry in March 1791, at Lambeth, Elizabeth Chadd. She was sixteen, while he was only three years older. A slump in the breeches trade in 1791–2 caused them great distress, and when early in 1791 he joined and led a strike of breeches-makers which collapsed, they came close to starvation. For six months Place could get no work, until relief came from a former employer and he and his wife were able to buy back the possessions they had pawned. These years left a permanent mark on Place’s outlook. From his father he had learned how great assets could be lost by impulsiveness and folly, ‘keeping a blood horse and high company’. On the other side, the misfortunes of his fellow artisans showed the disastrous effects of ignorance and improvidence. He saw that his education, for all its shortcomings, had saved him from both.

But Place too had given hostages to fortune. Elizabeth Place was to bear fifteen children; only eight reached adulthood. The second, but the first to survive, also called Elizabeth, was born in April 1794. In January 1796, a second daughter, Annie, was born, followed in June 1798 by a son, Francis. His growing family did not turn Place away from radicalism, but it helps explain the turn his radicalism took.

Paine, Godwin, and the London Corresponding Society
In April 1794, Place read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason and was so pleased by it that he decided in June to join the London Corresponding Society (LCS). He was probably too innocent of foreign politics to know how dangerous a move it was. In Paris the reign of terror was at its height and in the same month Robespierre inaugurated the cult of the Supreme Being. The LCS was known for its French sympathies and its meetings were watched and often infiltrated by spies. In 1794, one of its founders, Thomas Hardy, and two leaders of the more respectable Society for Constitutional Information, Horne Tooke and John Thelwall, were arrested; tried for seditious activities, they were acquitted in November.

The government followed this reverse with two acts defining treason and restricting political meetings. Place was active in supporting prisoners in Newgate who were charged with treason, and he was and remained a friend of Hardy. But on the LCS he seems to have been a moderating influence. He chaired its general committee from September 1795 to February 1796 and was assistant secretary from May 1796 to early 1797. He opposed the policy of calling provocative meetings and the publication of a magazine which would only lose money. He also deprecated attacks on Christianity: not that he had any religious convictions, though he has been claimed as a professed atheist. But he moved from the agrarian radicalism of Paine to the philosophic anarchism of William Godwin, and while remaining a republican he repudiated the revolutionary doctrines of natural rights and the social contract, and embraced the ideals of independence, absolute sincerity, and the gradual elimination of injustice through the spread of philosophic reason. He was not an abstract thinker. He adopted and professed those doctrines which confirmed his own experiences. Godwin repudiated violence and revolutionary agitation. Place saw that they did not bring work in a country at war with revolutionary France. He left the LCS in June 1797.

In March 1799, Place entered a partnership with Richard Wild and they opened a shop at 29 Charing Cross. Wild sought to buy Place out in the following year, but Place borrowed enough money to set up on his own at 16 Charing Cross. Within a few years he had become a prosperous man. In 1815, he was making an annual profit of £2500 and two years later he handed over a prosperous business to be managed by his son Francis. He was not alone in this prosperity. The war economy was good for the London shopkeeper, especially one so centrally situated. In 1820, Place attended a dinner to commemorate Thomas Hardy’s acquittal and noted that of the company twenty were former members of the LCS and all prosperous men. For the first time in his life he had leisure to elaborate his views with reading and reflection and to apply them in everyday politics. His Jacobin connections, his friendships with men such as the Irishman Father James O’Coigley and Colonel Despard (both executed for revolutionary activities), made him a natural confidant of radical politicians of every sort. His practical experience and his ready sympathy with people in distress made many poor people seek his advice. He was also consulted by a new class of theorists, planners, and philanthropists who, in the unreformed political system, could not find the information they wanted from official sources. To them all Place, as a good Godwinian, gave shrewd practical advice with a dash of unpalatable candour.

Westminster elections, 1807–1820
What gave Place’s advice weight was his growing authority in the elections in Westminster. The borough’s scot and lot franchise gave the vote, in effect, to ratepayers and until 1807 its elections had been heavily influenced by the owners of large London estates such as the duke of Bedford and the duke of Northumberland, who dictated the voting of their many tenants. The size of the electorate—about 15,000—made standing for election expensive, but the meetings in Covent Garden attracted such crowds that Westminster elections took on the air of a national plebiscite. In times of popular unrest candidates for the two main parties could each ask for one of an elector’s two votes, and in this way keep out a radical candidate. In the general election of 1806 James Paull, the radical candidate, had been defeated in this way. Another general election followed in May 1807, and Paull claimed to be standing in alliance with Sir Francis Burdett. The two men quarrelled and fought a duel, and Place and his friends decided to drop Paull and back Burdett, despite the fact that he had been wounded and could not appear at the hustings. This time they won, and their victory gave Westminster at least one radical member for the next twenty-eight years. As Place kept meticulous records of Westminster elections, he has often been credited with ‘masterminding’ them. In fact he was the most literate and systematic member of a committee of like-minded men, several quite as wealthy, who had hit upon a new way of marshalling the popular vote. By asking each elector to subscribe what he could to meet the expenses of the poll, they secured a core of loyal voters while increasing the expense for any competitor, and by organizing their following through committees in every parish of the borough, co-ordinated by a central committee, they were able to choose a candidate and guarantee him a substantial following before a rival could appear. They had invented the first constituency caucus. Their slogan, ‘Westminster and Purity of Election’, implied that they had done away with landlordism and intimidation. It did not mean that they secured obedient democrats as MPs.

Place quarrelled with Burdett in 1812, and withdrew from Westminster elections until 1818. In the general election of that year his old friends begged him to help and he relented only when the election had already begun. His help was sorely needed: Burdett’s seat was secured but he was second on the poll to the Whig lawyer Sir Samuel Romilly. Romilly’s suicide in November 1818 caused a by-election, and Place tried to secure the return of J. C. Hobhouse. But on the eve of the poll he rashly published a paper abusing the Whigs as a ‘corrupt and profligate faction’. They retaliated by starting their own candidate, George Lamb, who won the seat in an election of unusual violence. It was only after the radical outcry over the Peterloo massacre in 1819, in which Burdett and Hobhouse joined, each sealing his popularity with a short prison sentence that both men were returned at the general election of 1820. Before long, however, Place was highly critical of their attitude to radical causes, calling them ‘little if any better than mere drawling Whigs’. J. C. Hobhouse went on to become a Whig minister. Burdett joined the Tories in 1834 but still retained his Westminster seat.


[1] Sources: G. Wallas The life of Francis Place, revised edition, 1918, The autobiography of Francis Place, 1771–1854, ed. M. Thale, 1972, M. Thale (ed.) Selections from the papers of the London Corresponding Society, 1792–1799, 1983, London radicalism, 1830–1843: a selection from the papers of Francis Place, ed. D. J. Rowe, London Record Society, volume 5, 1970, W. E. S. Thomas ‘Francis Place and working class history’, Historical Journal, volume 5, (1962), pages 61–70, W. Thomas The philosophic radicals: nine studies in theory and practice, 1817–1841, 1979, chapters 1, 2, D. J. Rowe ‘Francis Place and the historian’, Historical Journal, volume 16 (1973), pages 45–63 and D. Miles, Francis Place, 1771–1854: the life of a remarkable radical, 1988. Archives: British Library correspondence and papers, press cuttings, Add. MSS 27789–27859; 35142–35154; 36623–36628; 37949–37950; 57841A, B.

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