I co-run performative walks down here in Gloucestershire, pursuing and recreating radical history on the hoof in the landscape. But don’t think our group parochial – we wander into Wiltshire and into the purlieus of the Bristol Radical History group too! We’re also walking the Thames from source to London, and this is partly how the idea of a Thomas Spence pub commemorative walk arose. Spence, (1750-1814) a leading revolutionary of the time, campaigned for ‘The People’s Farm’ and the complete common ownership of land.
The Thames rises near Ewen, about fifteen miles from Stroud. Ewen was the birthplace of Allen Davenport in 1775. Davenport was the son of a handloom weaver and taught himself to read and write. He became a Spencean; a biographer of Thomas Spence; an Owenite; a feminist, and a Chartist writer and poet, who is memorialised on the Reformers’ Memorial in Kensal Green. This was thrilling stuff to discover whilst walking along the banks of the infant river. Radical Stroud have a commemorative walk planned from Stroud along the Thames and Seven Canal and the river to Ewen on May 1st, Allen Davenport’s birthdate. We shall bring this radical river back to life in his home village, down in this sequestered Tory shire.
As my research broadened and deepened alongside the river, so did my curiosity about Thomas Spence. I visited the site of his bookshop, The Hive of Liberty in Little Turnstile, High Holborn; I contacted the Thomas Spence Society in Newcastle and shared my research and writing, and then subverted Edmund Burke’s statue in Bristol. It was Burke who described the common people as ‘a swinish multitude’ in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. It was Spence that led the assault on Burke with his book Pig’s meat; or, lessons for the swinish multitude: published in weekly penny numbers. It was also Spence who hawked his pamphlets in the streets and pubs of London.
My next step was to compile of a list of the radical pubs and coffee houses, c. 1790-1850, synthesised from a variety of secondary sources, and with advice from Steve Poole at University of West England.
And so developed the idea for a commemorative and performative radical walk around the sites of the radical pubs and coffee houses of London – on another signal date: June 21st, Spence’s birthdate. I have written a prose-poem list with a phrase or two about what happened at each place that the walk covers, together with performative first-person pieces from the likes of Davenport, Spence, William Hone, William Blake … as well as the voices of minorities, such as Jane Evans, partner of the oft-imprisoned Thomas Evans, who the family home, and ran a business, as well as campaigned for the Spenceans and Robert Wedderburn, the Spencean orator and leader – the son of a plantation owner and an enslaved mother, and the British-African-Caribbean revolutionary, executed for his role in the 1820 Cato Street Conspiracy, William Davidson.
These voices will come to life in ‘free and easies’ in the Stroud Theatre Festival. Thomas Spence’s political meetings were free and easy in pubs and taverns, and that’s how we will echo those forgotten lives and times, with performative recreations in a succession of pubs and venues.
I have met with David Rosenberg (Rebel Footprints) for a chinwag in Red Lion Square about possible collaboration, talked with members of the Global Walking Artists Network about our plans, and communicated with Dr Toby Butler about this forgotten London history. The result, provisionally, is this: an eight-mile performative walk past the sites of Spencean pubs and coffee houses, meeting in Soho, at the junction of Lexington Street and Brewer Street (the site of Wedderburn’s radical hay-loft chapel) by the NCP, opposite the Duke of Argyll at 11.15. The walk will weave through Soho, Covent Garden, the Strand, Fleet Street, Holborn and Clerkenwell.
In conclusion, a word about performative walking. The walking is obvious: we like to be in situ, in the landscape, to aid imagination and recreation. Wormholes of time. The performance is about finding new ways to present history, moving from text to spoken word, moving from a textual culture to the rediscovery of an oral culture, and, fundamentally, going beyond the empirical and the documented to guerrilla memorialization.
A bit like Thomas Spence with his ‘free and easies’, I suppose:
At Colonel Despard’s trial in 1803,
A soldier spoke of the Ham and Windmill
And how he had been asked to be ‘sworn in’,
To ‘a free and easy society’ –
‘Free and Easies’:
Political sing songs, debates, discussions and readings:
‘A free and easy society
To overthrow the Government,
And have our nation the same as the French’;
Or the Salmon and Ball, Bethnal Green Road:
‘Sing and meet and meet and sing,
And your Chains will drop off like burnt thread’,
While we walk, talk and map the streets and palimpsests
Of radical London pubs, coffee house, chapels, institutes and meeting places, (*)
Focusing upon Islington, Hackney, Shoreditch, Bethnal Green, Finsbury,
Spitalfields, Holborn, Marylebone, Soho,
& South of the river:
Lambeth and Southwark,
Not forgetting the site of Thomas Spence’s bookshop,
The Hive of Liberty in Little Turnstile, High Holborn;
And Spa Fields, Clerkenwell …
And so the past is recreated in the here and now of street, field, pub and café, with a counter-heritage challenge to the official heritage of orthodoxy. Past and present are intertwined in dialogue. Our principles are on display here.
If you’re interested in getting involved or want to develop any writing or performative pieces, with the walk – please contact Stuart Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Finally, Radical Stroud have a walk planned to commemorate Peterloo on August 16th down south in Wiltshire. Details are on the website about the walk around Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt’s birthplace at or you can contact Stuart Butler at the email address above.
Stuart Butler is a graduate of UCL (International Relations) in 1972. He walked out on a PhD to become a train driver for a couple of years, and then trained as a teacher. He still works a couple of days a week as a tutor in English language and literature at a local comprehensive school. He also runs a course on radical history and local history for the Workers Educational Association. He has written a number of plays about local history, with occasional commissions for the recreation of first-person voices: for example, from the Chartist Convention on the subject of the 1839 Newport Rising.