Cato Street revisited


In early 1820 London was excited by the unveiling of a plot to overthrow the government. In May of that year Arthur Thistlewood, Richard Tidd, James Ings, William Davidson and John Brunt  were executed outside Newgate Gaol for conspiring to murder the Prime Minister (Liverpool) and his cabinet.

The men were radicals, members of the so-called Speancean Philanthropists, and the plot they hatched has gone down in history as the Cato Street Conspiracy because of the location of their meetings in a property near Edgware Road. The plot was foiled because the group had been infiltrated by a government agent (George Edwards) and they were arrested after a struggle in which one of the Bow Street Runners, Richard Smithers, was fatally wounded by Thistlewood.

Fast forward to 1852 and one of those who was involved in the capture of the conspirators appeared at the Guildhall on a charge of theft.

James Gains, who was described as being between 70 and 80 years of age, was accused of stealing a set of horse reins from a man who had allowed him to sleep rough in his stables. Having heard the charge and evidence against him Gains was invited to speak up for himself.

The elderly man dismissed his theft as nothing important and was roundly reprimanded by the justice for his ingratitude towards the man that had given him shelter. Gains turned to the magistrate and said:

‘Oh never mind that, your Worship, (laughter in court) but give him the reins’

‘That is what I intend to do’ said the magistrate, ‘but what shall I do with you, for I know something of you’.

“I don’t know you though, for you are a new magistrate; but I’ll tell you what old boy (great laughter) I got this cut on the crown of my head, and this at the back, in taking Thistlewood and his gang in Cato Street,  in ’19.’

The justice agreed he had served his country well in the past. Gains laughed and added:

‘Yes sir, I have served my country for 51 years’, at which point the Newgate gaoler said he had been in and out of the prison for the last 10 on various charges. ‘Ah, Mr. Springate, you are always at your fun with me’, countered Gains, to much more laughter in the court.

In the end the justice had little choice but to send him back to prison for the theft, as the old man hardly attempted to deny it. But he added that when he came out he would make provision for him to enter the union workhouse. Gains was not happy  with that decision: ‘Oh, don’t do that’, he said, ‘You’d better give me 6d and turn me adrift’. Nevertheless, he was taken down.

Gains said he was one of the ‘police’ that seized the Cato Street gang and that’s possible as there were 12 ‘runners’ along with a handful of other agents. But perhaps his memory failed him about the exact date. The conspiracy was exposed in January 1820 not 1819, but of course James may have been involved in the lead up because Thistlewood and his colleagues were set up and their plot was never likely to succeed.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, September 12, 1852]

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