Thomas Spence

Last updated
Thomas Spence ThomasSpence.png
Thomas Spence
Base of the Reformers Memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery, showing Spence's name Base of the Reformers Memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery, showing Lloyd Jones.JPG
Base of the Reformers Memorial, Kensal Green Cemetery, showing Spence's name

Thomas Spence (21 June Old Style/ 2 July New Style, 1750 8 September 1814) was an English Radical [1] and advocate of the common ownership of land. Spence was one of the leading revolutionaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He was born in poverty and died the same way, after long periods of imprisonment, in 1814.

The term "Radical", during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, identified proponents of democratic reform, in what subsequently became the parliamentary Radical Movement.

Common ownership refers to holding the assets of an organization, enterprise or community indivisibly rather than in the names of the individual members or groups of members as common property.



Spence left Newcastle for London in 1787. [1] He kept a book-stall in High Holborn. In 1794 he spent seven months in Newgate Gaol on a charge of high treason, and in 1801 he was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment for seditious libel. He died in London on 8 September 1814.

High Holborn street in Holborn, Central London

High Holborn is a street in Holborn and Farringdon Without, Central London, which forms a part of the A40 route from London to Fishguard. It starts in the west as a turn off Charing Cross Road, near St Giles Circus, and runs past the Kingsway and Southampton Row, becoming Holborn at its eastern junction with Gray's Inn Road.

Newgate Prison former prison in London

Newgate Prison was a prison at the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey just inside the City of London, England, originally at the site of Newgate, a gate in the Roman London Wall. Built in the 12th century and demolished in 1904, the prison was extended and rebuilt many times, and remained in use for over 700 years, from 1188 to 1902.

Land reform and Spence's Plan

The threatened enclosure of the common land known as Town Moor in Newcastle in 1771 appears to have been key to Spence's interest in the land question and journey towards ultra-radicalism. His scheme was not for land nationalization but for the establishment of self-contained parochial communities, in which rent paid to the parish (wherein the absolute ownership of the land was vested) should be the only tax of any kind. His ideas and thinking on the subject were shaped by a variety of economic thinkers, including his friend Charles Hall.

Enclosure was the legal process in England of consolidating (enclosing) small landholdings into larger farms since the 13th century. Once enclosed, use of the land became restricted to the owner, and it ceased to be common land for communal use. In England and Wales the term is also used for the process that ended the ancient system of arable farming in open fields. Under enclosure, such land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded or entitled to one or more owners. The process of enclosure began to be a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. By the 19th century, unenclosed commons had become largely restricted to rough pasture in mountainous areas and to relatively small parts of the lowlands.

Common land land owned collectively

Common land is land owned collectively by a number of persons, or by one person, but over which other people have certain traditional rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect wood, or to cut turf for fuel.

Town Moor, Newcastle upon Tyne human settlement in United Kingdom

The Town Moor is a large area of common land in Newcastle upon Tyne. It covers an area of around 1000 acres or 400ha, and is larger than Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath combined, and also larger than New York City's Central Park. Like them it is not on the edge of the city, but has suburbs all around it. It stretches from the city centre and Spital Tongues in the south out to Cowgate/Kenton Bar to the west, and from Gosforth to the north and Jesmond to the east.

At the centre of Spence's work was his plan, which argued for:

  1. The end of aristocracy and landlords;
  2. All land should be publicly owned by 'democratic parishes', which should be largely self-governing;
  3. Rents of land in parishes to be shared equally amongst parishioners, as a form of social dividend;
  4. Universal suffrage (including female suffrage) at both parish level and through a system of deputies elected by parishes to a national senate;
  5. A 'social guarantee' extended to provide income for those unable to work;
  6. The 'rights of infants' [children] to be free from abuse and poverty.

Spence's Plan was first published in his penny pamphlet Property in Land Every One's Right in 1775. It was re-issued as The Real Rights of Man in later editions. It was also reissued by, amongst others, Henry Hyndman under the title of The Nationalization of the Land in 1795 and 1882.

Pamphlet unbound booklet containing text

A pamphlet is an unbound book. It may consist of a single sheet of paper that is printed on both sides and folded in half, in thirds, or in fourths, called a leaflet, or it may consist of a few pages that are folded in half and saddle stapled at the crease to make a simple book.

Henry Hyndman British politician

Henry Mayers Hyndman was an English writer and politician. Originally a conservative, he was converted to socialism by Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and launched Britain’s first left-wing political party, the Democratic Federation, later known as the Social Democratic Federation, in 1881. Although this body attracted radicals such as William Morris and George Lansbury, Hyndman was generally disliked as an authoritarian who could not unite his party. He was the first author to popularise Marx’s works in English.

Spence explored his political and social concepts in a series of books about the fictional Utopian state of Spensonia.

Utopia community or society possessing highly desirable or perfect qualities

A utopia is an imagined community or society that possesses highly desirable or nearly perfect qualities for its citizens. The opposite of a utopia is a dystopia. One could also say that utopia is a perfect "place" that has been designed so there are no problems.

Spensonia is a fictional Utopian country created by the English author and political reformer Thomas Spence. Spence laid out his ideas about Spensonia in a series of literary works published in the late 18th century:

The phrase "rights of man"

Spence may have been the first Englishman to speak of 'the rights of man'. The following recollection, composed in the third person, was written by Spence while he was in prison in London in 1794 on a charge of high treason. Spence was, he wrote,

the first, who as far as he knows, made use of the phrase "RIGHTS OF MAN", which was on the following remarkable occasion: A man who had been a farmer, and also a miner, and who had been ill-used by his landlords, dug a cave for himself by the seaside, at Marsdon Rocks, between Shields and Sunderland, about the year 1780, and the singularity of such a habitation, exciting the curiosity of many to pay him a visit; our author was one of that number. Exulting in the idea of a human being, who had bravely emancipated himself from the iron fangs of aristocracy, to live free from impost, he wrote extempore with chaulk above the fire place of this free man, the following lines:
Ye landlords vile, whose man's peace mar,
Come levy rents here if you can;
Your stewards and lawyers I defy,
And live with all the RIGHTS OF MAN

This is in reference to the story of "Jack the Blaster" at Marsden Grotto.

Marsden Grotto

The Marsden Grotto, locally known as The Grotto, is a gastropub located on the coast at Marsden in South Shields, Tyne & Wear, England. It is partly dug into the cliff face and fronted with a more conventional building opening onto the beach. The pub is one of the very few "cave bars" in Europe, another being Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham.

Spelling reform

Spence was a self-taught radical with a deep regard for education as a means to liberation. He pioneered a phonetic script and pronunciation system designed to allow people to learn reading and pronunciation at the same time. He believed that if the correct pronunciation was visible in the spelling, everyone would pronounce English correctly, and the class distinctions carried by language would cease. This would bring a time of equality, peace and plenty: the millennium. He published the first English dictionary with pronunciations (1775) and made phonetic versions of many of his pamphlets.

Examples of Spence's spelling system can be seen on the pages on English from the Spence Society.

The rights of children

Spence's angry defence of the rights of children has lost little of its potency. When his The Rights of Infants was published in 1797 (as a response to Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice) it was ahead of its time. In this essay Spence proposes the introduction of an unconditional basic income to all members of the community. Such allowance shall be financed through the socialization of land and the benefits of the rents received by each municipality.

Spence's essay also expresses a clear commitment to the rights of women, although he appears unaware of Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman .

Memorial and legacy

Spence is listed on the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London.

His admirers formed a "Society of Spencean Philanthropists," of which some account is given in Harriet Martineau's England During the Thirty Years' Peace. [2] The African Caribbean activists William Davidson and Robert Wedderburn were drawn to this political group. The Society of Spencean Philanthropists (including Arthur Thistlewood) were involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820.

Selected publications

See also

Related Research Articles

Thomas Paine English and American political activist

Thomas Paine was an English-born American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution and inspired the patriots in 1776 to declare independence from Great Britain. His ideas reflected Enlightenment-era ideals of transnational human rights. Historian Saul K. Padover described him as "a corsetmaker by trade, a journalist by profession, and a propagandist by inclination". Born in Thetford in the English county of Norfolk, Paine migrated to the British American colonies in 1774 with the help of Benjamin Franklin, arriving just in time to participate in the American Revolution. Virtually every rebel read his powerful pamphlet Common Sense (1776), proportionally the all-time best-selling American title, which crystallized the rebellious demand for independence from Great Britain. His The American Crisis (1776–1783) was a pro-revolutionary pamphlet series. Common Sense was so influential that John Adams said: "Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain". Paine lived in France for most of the 1790s, becoming deeply involved in the French Revolution. He wrote Rights of Man (1791), in part a defense of the French Revolution against its critics. His attacks on Irish conservative writer Edmund Burke led to a trial and conviction in absentia in England in 1792 for the crime of seditious libel.

<i>Rights of Man</i> set of essays by Thomas Paine

Rights of Man (1791), a book by Thomas Paine, including 31 articles, posits that popular political revolution is permissible when a government does not safeguard the natural rights of its people. Using these points as a base it defends the French Revolution against Edmund Burke's attack in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790).

Geolibertarianism is a political and economic ideology that integrates libertarianism with Georgism, most often associated with left-libertarianism or the radical center.

Libertatia geographical object

Libertatia was a purported anarchist colony founded in the late 17th century in Madagascar by pirates under the leadership of Captain James Misson.

A leasehold estate is an ownership of a temporary right to hold land or property in which a lessee or a tenant holds rights of real property by some form of title from a lessor or landlord. Although a tenant does hold rights to real property, a leasehold estate is typically considered personal property.

Arthur Thistlewood Cato Street Conspiracy instigator

Arthur Thistlewood was a British radical activist and conspirator in the Cato Street Conspiracy. He planned to murder the cabinet, but there was a spy and he was apprehended with 12 other conspirators. He killed a policeman during the raid. He was executed for treason.

Atlantic Revolutions revolutionary wave in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries

The Atlantic Revolutions were a revolutionary wave in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was associated with the Atlantic World during the era from the 1770s to the 1870's.

William Playfair British mathematician, engineer and political economist

William Playfair, commonly known as a Scottish engineer and political economist, served as a secret agent on behalf of Great Britain during its war with France. The founder of graphical methods of statistics, Playfair invented several types of diagrams: in 1786 the line, area and bar chart of economic data, and in 1801 the pie chart and circle graph, used to show part-whole relations. As secret agent, Playfair reported on the French Revolution and organized a clandestine counterfeiting operation in 1793 to collapse the French currency.

Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886 act of the UK Parliament governing land tenure in Scotland

The Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that created legal definitions of crofting parish and crofter, granted security of land tenure to crofters and produced the first Crofters Commission, a land court which ruled on disputes between landlords and crofters. The same court ruled on whether parishes were or were not crofting parishes. In many respects the Act was modelled on the Irish Land Acts of 1870 and 1881. By granting the crofters security of tenure, the Act put an end to the Highland Clearances.

Land War

The Land War in Irish history was a period of agrarian agitation in rural Ireland in the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. The agitation was led by the Irish National Land League and was dedicated to bettering the position of tenant farmers and ultimately to a redistribution of land to tenants from landlords, especially absentee landlords. While there were many violent incidents and some deaths in this campaign, it was not actually a "war", but rather a prolonged period of civil unrest.

The Spa Fields riots were incidents of public disorder arising out of the second of two mass meetings at Spa Fields, Islington, England on 15 November and 2 December 1816.

The law of equal liberty or the law of equal freedom or equal liberty, is the fundamental precept of classical liberalism. It has been stated in various ways by many thinkers, but can be summarized as the view that all persons must be granted the maximum possible freedom as long as that freedom does not interfere with the freedom of anyone else.

The Tenant Right League, established in 1850, was an organisation which aimed to secure reforms in the Irish land system. Formed by Charles Gavan Duffy and Frederick Lucas, it united for a time Protestant and Catholic tenants, Duffy calling his movement The League of North and South.

Joseph Gerrald Convict transported to Australia

Joseph Gerrald was a political reformer, one of the "Scottish Martyrs". He worked with the London Corresponding Society and the Society for Constitutional Information and also wrote an influential letter, A Convention the Only Means of Saving Us from Ruin. He was arrested for his radical views and convicted of sedition in 1794. Subsequently, he was deported to Sydney, where he died from tuberculosis in 1796.

William Davidson (conspirator) Jamaican activist, born 1781

William Davidson (1781–1820) was a British African-Caribbean radical executed for his role in the Cato Street Conspiracy against Lord Liverpool's government in 1820.

William Ogilvie of Pittensear Scottish classicist, numismatist and author on land reform

William Ogilvie of Pittensear FRSE FSA(Scot) (1736-1819), known as the Rebel Professor, was a Scottish classicist, numismatist and author of an influential historic land reform treatise. Published in London in 1781, An Essay on the Right of Property in Land was issued anonymously, necessarily it seems in a revolutionary age.

The No Rent Manifesto was a document issued in Ireland on 18 October 1881, by imprisoned leaders of the Irish National Land League calling for a campaign of passive resistance by the entire population of small tenant farmers, by withholding rents to obtain large rent abatements under the second 1881 Irish Land Act. The intention being to "put the Act to the test" and prove its inadequacy to provide for the core demands of the tenants – the 'three Fs' of fair rent, fixity of tenure and free sale – as well as providing sufficient funds for occupier purchase.

The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution were a system of local revolutionary cells, established in Burkina Faso by the Marxist-Leninist and pan-Africanist leader Thomas Sankara, President of the country from 1983 until his assassination in 1987. Committees were established in each workplace. They were inspired by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution in Cuba, and functioned as "organs of political and social control."



  1. 1 2 Thomas Spence Archived 2011-08-05 at the Wayback Machine ,, accessed 27 February 2019
  2. See also Davenport, Life, Writings and Principles of Thomas Spence (London, 1836)


  • Bonnett, Alastair (2007) The Other Rights of Man: The Revolutionary Plan of Thomas Spence. History Today 57(9):42–48.
  • Bonnett, Alastair & Armstrong, Keith (eds.), Thomas Spence: The Poor Man's Revolutionary. Breviary Stuff Publications, 2014. ISBN   978-0-9570005-9-9.
  • Malcolm Chase, The People's Farm, English Radical Agrarianism 1775–1840 Breviary Stuff Publications, 2010 ISBN   978-0-9564827-5-4
  • O. Rudkin, Thomas Spence and His Connections (1927).
  • T. M. Parssinen, "Thomas Spence and the Spenceans: a Study of Revolutionary Utopianism in the England of George III" (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Brandeis University, 1968).
  • T. M. Parssinen, "The Revolutionary Party in London, 1816–20", Historical Research45 (2007) 266–282 doi:10.1111/j.1468-2281.1972.tb01466.x
  • Wikisource-logo.svg This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Spence, Thomas"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 634.