Centre for Regional Literature and Culture

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.

Thomas Spence plaque

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. 

[1] Ashraft, P. M. The Life and Time of Thomas Spence (Newcastle, Frank Graham: 1983) p. 11

[2] Frederick Engels, letter to Henry Hyndman, 13th March 1882; Karl Marx  Theories of Surplus Value, 1863, [accessed 14/06/11]

[3] Richard Price, British Society, 1680-1880 : Dynamism, Containment & Change (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1999) pp. 155-192

[4] Ashraft, P. M. The Life and Time of Thomas Spence (Newcastle, Frank Graham: 1983) p.3

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