Sunday, 13 June 2010

Thomas Spence: celebrating a radical agitator

On 21 June it will be the 260th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Spence, one of the leading English radicals of his era (it's also my Mum's birthday, but that is perhaps of less political or historical interest).

Spence was born in walking distance of where I live, and on 21 June a plaque will be unveiled on Newcastle's Quayside to celebrate his life. I thought I'd re-post this excellent account of Spence by local left-wing writer Keith Armstrong, who is involved in the Thomas Spence Trust (see below for details of the anniversary celebrations it's organising).

'It’s good to welcome the establishment of The Thomas Spence Trust, founded by a group of Tyneside activists intent on celebrating and promoting the life and work of that noted pioneer of people’s rights, pamphleteer and poet Thomas Spence (1750-1814), who has born on Newcastle’s Quayside in those turbulent times.

Spence served in his father’s netmaking trade from the age of ten but went on later to be a teacher at Haydon Bridge Free Grammar School and at St. Ann’s Church in Byker under the City Corporation. In 1775, he read his famous lecture on the right to property in land to the Newcastle Philosophical Society, who voted his expulsion at their next meeting.

He claimed to have invented the phrase ‘The Rights of Man’ and chalked it in the caves at Marsden Rocks in South Shields in honour of the working-class hero ‘Blaster Jack’ Bates, who lived there.

He even came to blows with famed Tyneside wood-engraver Thomas Bewick (to whom a memorial has been recently established on the streets of Newcastle) over a political issue, and was thrashed with cudgels for his trouble.

From 1792, having moved to London, he took part in radical agitations, particularly against the war with France. He was arrested several times for selling his own and other seditious books and was imprisoned for six months without trial in 1794, and sentenced to three years for his Restorer of Society to its Natural State in 1801.

Whilst politicians such as Edmund Burke saw the mass of people as the ‘Swinish Multitude’, Spence saw creative potential in everybody and broadcast his ideas in the periodical Pigs’ Meat.

He had a stall in London’s Chancery Lane, where he sold books and saloup, and later set up a small shop called The Hive of Liberty in Holborn.

He died in poverty ‘leaving nothing to his friends but an injunction to promote his Plan and the remembrance of his inflexible integrity’.

The Thomas Spence Trust organised a mini-festival to celebrate Spence in 2000 when it published a booklet on his life and work, together with related events, with the aid of Awards for All.

Trust founder-member, poet Keith Armstrong has written a play for Bruvvers Theatre Company on the socialist pioneer which has been performed at St. Ann’s Church and other venues in the city.

Now the Trust has successfully campaigned for a plaque on the Quayside in Newcastle, where Spence was born. The plaque will be unveiled on Monday June 21st 2010, Spence's 260th birthday, with a number of talks, displays and events coinciding with it.

Further information from: Dr Keith Armstrong, The Thomas Spence Trust, 93 Woodburn Square, Whitley Lodge, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 3JD. Tel. 0191 2529531.'


2.30pm. Broad Garth, Quayside.
The unveiling of the Thomas Spence plaque at Broad Garth, Quayside, Newcastle, by the Lord Mayor of Newcastle, with a short speech by Dr Keith Armstrong, Chair of The Thomas Spence Trust, and Armstrong’s ‘Folk Song for Thomas Spence’ performed by Gary Miller, singer-songwriter of North East band ‘The Whisky Priests’.

2.45pm, Red House, Sandhill, Newcastle Quayside.
Informal reception with talks, readings from Spence and poems and songs in his honour.
(Anyone not already invited to the unveiling and the reception and wishing to attend should contact Dr Keith Armstrong).

7pm Literary & Philosophical Society Library, Westgate Road, Newcastle.
The Workers’ Educational Association and The Thomas Spence Trust present short talks on Spence by Professors Joan Beal (University of Sheffield), Malcom Chase (University of Leeds) and Alastair Bonnett (University of Newcastle), with readings from Spence(ADMISSION FREE).


Marsden Grotto, Coast Road, South Shields.
A TOAST FOR TOM. Drinks, poems and songs in Spence’s honour at the Grotto where Spence visited ‘Blaster Jack’ and first coined the phrase ‘The Rights of Man’ by chalking on a cave wall.


Meeting Room 7, 6th floor , Newcastle City Library
THE HIVE OF LIBERTY: The Life and Work of Thomas Spence.
Talk by Dr Keith Armstrong

There will also be a display of Spence's works on the 6th floor of the library, running from Monday 21 June to Monday 5 July.


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