London in the 1790s

Written by Carl Walker, Katherine Riley, and Andrea Maxwell

Many changes were occurring in London during the 1790s. New ideas were emerging within England and around the world. The onset of the French Revolution contributed greatly to the unrest and the turmoil of the times. As the English citizens responded to both internal and external affairs, religious movements, social and political reform parties, and governmental reactions gained momentum. In addition, many writers responded and contributed to the progressive environment by giving the people a voice and further pointing out injustices. These movements and literary contributions influenced later writers and the lifestyles of people in and outside of London.

In the 1790s, certain religions were being revived in London. Methodism and the Church of England were reaching out more to the citizens and affecting more lives. Methodism was thought to be an integral part in the social evolution of the country. It had a stabilizing effect for those involved with the church, as well as a model for the political development of the working-class people. The church believed in equal political, economic, and social rights for all people and it also had a strict, structural organization, which encouraged stability amongst its members. (1)

While the churches had a soothing effect on the citizens of London, social and political reform increased concern, awareness, and uncertainty. The organization of the government in London contributed to the discontent of its citizens. The official City of London, which was only about one square mile, had the main banking center of the metropolis and a history of independent government established through two separate governing councils, something most sections of London decidedly lacked. Their setup was similar to Parliament, in that one council represented the wealthy, and the other represented more "ordinary" people, and was therefore more prone to agitate at any given time. In 1795, that lower council became fed up with the conflict with France and the unfavorable effect it was having on the merchants they represented. They directly charged the king to end the war and restore their prosperity. The motion failing, the City's council was more conservative afterwards. However, the notion that a part of London could challenge its sovereign must have given hope to many of its citizens. (2)

Westminster's municipal government was far from inspiring, as judges rather than representatives ruled the borough. However, this area "enjoyed a very wide parliamentary franchise, open to all resident householders." (3) That many people politicizing gave rise to a radical sentiment, and the election of multiple radical Members of Parliament. It was an ideal setting for further charges to reform.

In January 1792, a local shoemaker, Thomas Hardy, formed the London Corresponding Society, starting what J. Ann Hone describes as the rise of the "politically awakened artisan." (4) The members of the LCS were adept at reaching out to fellow reform groups across the country, arousing the ire of the national government. From its founding up to its dissolution in 1799, the LCS was seen as a "a small society of citizens that at the conclusion of the eighteenth century had the courage to resist the system of oppression adopted" by fellow reformers. (5) Attempts to broaden their support, such as an annual meeting in St. George's Field calling for popular suffrage, usually met with opposition from officials.

Several months after the birth of the LCS, some members of the comparatively liberal Whig party founded the Society of Friends of the People. This more genteel group sought similar reform, specifically "a more equal representation of the people in Parliament." (6) Direct opposition to the established order could not be easily maintained in the seat of government, and the attempts for reform bills in 1792 and 1793 met with several arrests and resounding parliamentary defeats. The society was faced with a feeling of hopelessness, and the government eventually outlawed the meetings, which forced the group to disband.

The government itself proved reactionary towards any calls for reform, especially after 1793, when conflict with France gave a negative tinge to any radicalism. An alleged assassination attempt served as the basis for the Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings Acts, which increased the pressure on non-governmental organizations. In 1794, Habeas Corpus was suspended, allowing police to arrest whomever they pleased without cause. This enabled a series of Treason Trials, and although most were released or acquitted, it left an impression on others who might consider opposing the government. The fear that these trials brought upon the citizens could have suppressed further acts of revolutionary violence. Finally, the LCS was directly targeted in 1799 by the Corresponding Societies Act and rendered illegal. Along with the Friends of the People, it was seen as too similar to the architects of the French Revolution. (7)

While reform societies and other organizations were spreading forth new ideas concerning political and social rights, many writers of the time were also contributing through their works. One of the most influential writers of the 18th century was Thomas Paine. One of Paine's earlier works, "Common Sense," published in 1776, was instrumental in the move for American Independence. Although this pamphlet and others he published during the revolution served an important role, Paine's most influential work, "The Rights of Man" was published in 1791, and contained further arguments for political freedoms. "The Rights of Man" had an overwhelming effect on citizens of Britain, France, and other countries around the world. The political equality Paine argued for in this work was seen as a threat by the British government, and Paine was charged with "seditious libel" and "The Rights of Man" was banned. Although deemed illegal, 200,000 people in Britain still managed to obtain a copy of "The Rights of Man," including Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society. Paine's writing did more than fuel revolution and upheaval; his work reflected the dissatisfaction of the people and introduced to them even more new ideas about the political rights of men. (8)

Mary Wollstonecraft is an excellent example of the writers and ideas that emerged during this progressive and radical decade in world history. In 1789, in response to the writings of Edmund Burke, she wrote "A Vindication of the Rights of Man." Her arguments involving the peoples' rights to remove a faulty King from the throne brought her into political debates and conversations with other radical writers of her time, including Thomas Paine, John Cartwright, John Horne Tooke, William Godwin and William Blake. In her "A Vindication of the Rights of Man" Wollstonecraft also discussed other aspects of British life that she felt needed reform. She attacked the slave trade, game laws, and the ways in which the poor were treated. The same year Paine published his work "The Rights of Man," Wollstonecraft published an addition to her previous piece "Vindication of the Rights of Women." The ideas she expressed in this book shocked even her radical friends who did not support the ideas of female education and suffrage. The ideas expressed in her writings serve as an example and preview of the other radical movements that would continue to occur within Britain over the next century. (9)

London in the 1790's was a city in flux due to new social and political ideas developing throughout the world, particularity those surrounding the French Revolution. These new ideas and movements influenced the structure of the country and have been continually reflected in the tumultuous literature of the period.