Thomas Spence and regional political culture
My research attempts a
recovery of labouring class literature and cultures from the late 18th
century and takes a specific interest in issues concerning print culture, democracy, and political identity. Although the
radical political culture of London is often regarded as the epicentre of
reformist agitation in Britain the overall picture is far more complex. A
figure such as Thomas Spence whose activism transcended social, regional, and
intellectual boundaries is indicative of the complexity inherent in the reform
movement. Spence may have become one of the most notorious and influential
people to contribute to the plebeian political life of London, but in many
respects his own history shows the importance of regional cultures in the
development of political consciousness in Britain. It is impossible to truly
understand this history without considering Spence.
Spence was born in
Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1750. He was one of 19 children whose family was among
poor Scottish immigrants who largely populated the Sandgate and Quayside areas
of Newcastle.1 The dissenting religious background of Spence’s family would
later influence’s Spence’s insistence on the free exercise of worship and
belief. However, it was Newcastle’s intellectual and political life that had
most influence on Spence as a radical political activist.
Along with London, Oxford,
and Cambridge, Newcastle boasted a vibrant print culture in the late 18th
century and maintained its own Philosophical Society. It was here where Spence
would begin his career as a political author. Spence delivered a lecture to the
Newcastle Philosophical Society in 1775 entitled Property in Land, Everyone’s Right, which would have profound
implications for the trajectory of political activism in Britain. Spence would
advocate free access to land, full democratic participation, and an
administrational structure based around local government operating through
politically autonomous parishes. He advocated these principles throughout his
life, from his time in Newcastle until his death in London as the guiding
figure of the Spencean Philanthropists in 1814.
Spence was to leave an
indelible mark on the history of radicalism. Well into the 19th
century he was remembered by Fredrick Engels as ‘that glorious old Tom Spence’
and Karl Marx recognised him as the ‘the deadly enemy of Private Property in Land’.2 It was the provincial political life of
Newcastle that fostered the developments that would later allow Spence to
achieve such notoriety.
Spence sold the lecture he
had given to the Newcastle Philosophical Society as a pamphlet on the streets
of Newcastle taking full advantage of city’s status as a centre for regional
publishing. The society later voted to expel Spence for publishing his paper
without approval. Spence would become a convert to the free publication of
information throughout his life. Furthermore, Spence’s actions in Newcastle
pre-dated the pamphlet war that engulfed London and the wider country during
the 1790s. The active cultural and intellectual scene of Newcastle introduced
the young Spence to dissident political life.
Richard Price has termed
politics in 18th century England as ‘the age of localism’, a period of strong
regional cultures and developments.3 Newcastle’s political life was no exception.
One incident in particular was formative in the development of Spence’s political
thinking. It involved a local argument over access to the Newcastle Town Moor.
In 1771 there was an
attempt to enclose part of Newcastle Town Moor which had previously existed as
common land. An indignant local population decided to fight the decision of the
Common Council and in 1773 the action of the Council was overturned. The
victory was celebrated with illuminations, processions, dinners, and patriotic
toasts, commemorative signet rings were even engraved with the message ‘Town
Moore saved 10 August 1773’.4 Spence never forgot the precedent that had been set;
the people’s rights for the use of the moorland had been maintained. In many
ways his own lecture to the Newcastle Philosophical Society two years later was
this principle writ large, arguing for the land in general to belong to the
people. The fierce regional culture of Newcastle played a fundamental part in
the formation of Spence’s political philosophy.
Spence has not seen as
much attention as other radical figures from the period such as Thomas Paine or
William Cobbett, however, this is changing. Spence is enjoying increased
recognition from historians, literary critics, and the wider public more
generally. In a reflection of this trend towards greater acknowledgment of
Spence and his achievements, a memorial plaque was unveiled on the Newcastle
Quay side in June 2010. The Thomas Spence Society had campaigned for a number
of years to have this memorial put in place. Now finally one of Newcastle’s
most important historic figures has been formally recognised by the city.
Spence’s rise to
prominence in his own lifetime may have occurred with his relocation to London
where he became one of the leading lights of the reform movement. However, his
ability to alter and impact upon the emerging radical-democratic discourse was
predicated on his unique personal history of political engagement in Newcastle.
It was this city which provided Spence with his own political philosophy and
the tools to effectively engage his discourse in the radical public sphere.
Britain was not an absolute centralised state in the late 18th
century and fostered strong regional cultures and civic identities. Spence’s
thought and actions owe much to this contemporary reality and can tell us much
about regionality in the Romantic period.
For more information on
the life and times of Thomas Spence please visit the websites below:
The images in this article has been provided by kind permission of the Thomas Spence Society. Their website is accessible from the links above.
 Ashraft, P. M. The Life and Time of Thomas Spence (Newcastle, Frank Graham: 1983) p. 11
 Frederick Engels, letter to Henry Hyndman, 13th March 1882; Karl Marx Theories of Surplus Value, 1863, http://edit.nottingham.ac.uk/CMSEngine/Dialogue/Dialogue.aspx?DialogueType=81&DialogueKey_ProjectId=1&DialogueKey_ContentID=84254&DialogueKey_WorkflowType=2&DialogueKey_ContentTypeID=0&DialogueKey_IsSiteMigrationMode=false&DialogueKey_ReadOnly=false&DialogueKey_ContentVersionID=217174&DialogueHeight=0px&DialogueWidth=0px&DialogueDisplayMode=4#contensis [accessed 14/06/11]
 Richard Price, British Society, 1680-1880 : Dynamism, Containment & Change (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1999) pp. 155-192
 Ashraft, P. M. The Life and Time of Thomas Spence (Newcastle, Frank Graham: 1983) p.3