Shedding light on life of unsung hero Thomas Spence

WE’RE sitting in Alastair Bonnett’s office at Newcastle University and he’s telling me about political radical Thomas Spence.

Thomas Spence, commemorative plaque

WE’RE sitting in Alastair Bonnett’s office at Newcastle University and he’s telling me about political radical Thomas Spence.

You know, Thomas Spence. THE Thomas Spence. The man who ...

Got me there. He’s the man who, um, er, did something important once upon a time but you don’t know what it was.

And there, in a nutshell, is the problem.

Not for nothing, Professor Bonnett said, is Thomas Spence one of the North’s unknown heroes.

Famous in his lifetime, or infamous, depending on your point of view, the man has all but disappeared from the history books.

Only one image – a drawing – is known to have survived while the few books that have been written about him have been small press intended for academics.

His name is largely forgotten except by a loyal band of supporters anxious to preserve the knowledge of what he did.

Spence was a political radical, highly influential in his day, who rocked the establishment with his ideas.

Ideas like the rights of man, the rights of children, equality for women and common ownership of land.

Recently, following 10 years of campaigning by the Thomas Spence Trust, a plaque was put up to commemorate his birth at Newcastle quayside 260 years ago.

It is, said Londoner Prof Bonnett, a professor of geography but with a keen enthusiasm for history, the only memorial of which he is aware.

He said: “He’s a genuine unknown hero and there are not many of them left.

“When I came to the North East from London I came across the name of Thomas Spence.

“I thought I knew all the important figures in political history but I had never heard of him. As soon as I found out about him, I was fascinated.

“He was probably the first person to write about the rights of man and he was certainly the first person to write about the rights of children.

“This is someone who was a genuine original.

“A lot of political reformers were middle-class but Thomas Spence was a working-class hero.

“He was the poorest person you could imagine. He was born at Newcastle quayside, one of 19 children, and had to educate himself.

“He stayed poor as well. It was not a rags-to-riches story – it was a rags-to-rags story.

“The reason he stayed poor was because he stayed true to his principles.”

And what were those principles?

Spence believed no individual should own land but it should be held in common by small communities.

He believed in the abolition of the aristocracy, universal suffrage and a guarantee to provide income for those unable to work. And all of this was before words like socialism were coined.

Karl Marx was aware of his ideas, and may have been influenced by them, at the same time as his own contribution to political thought.

It was not long before Spence – who passed on his ideas in pamphlets and slogans on coins -– drew the attention of the authorities.

He was banned from the Newcastle Philosophical Society, the forerunner of the Lit and Phil, for selling one of his pamphlets.

And he had a very public fight with the famous engraver Thomas Bewick when they fell out over his views.

Prof Bonnett, founder of the Thomas Spence Society, a website dedicated to his memory, said: “One of Thomas Spence’s ideas was that land was a common treasury which was not to be divided up and given to individuals.

“They had an argument about that and fought each other in the street with cudgels.

“Spence was a shrunken chap, some people would call him ill-favoured, and he was soundly beaten. It is typical of Spence that he did not run away from a fight.

Thomas Spence, Professor Alastair Bonnett

“He was, by the way, a supporter of the campaign to save the Town Moor from enclosure.

“It would all be houses if it was not for this campaign.”

Spence went to London where he ran a bookstall selling what the authorities deemed was inflammatory literature.

He was sent to jail on several occasions, including 12 months for seditious libel, and was derided by the establishment.

Prof Bonnett said: “There was even an Act of Parliament outlawing Spencian ideas and gatherings and that shows how important he was.

“To be a radical in England in the early 19th Century was to be a Spencian.

“His ideology was taken up by ordinary people – it was not the literate class that was drawn to Spence.

“People did not write about him, and he didn’t win any awards, but his messages were spread by chalk graffiti on the walls.

“He would take a tune like Rule Britannia and put his own words to it.

“And he used to deface coins with his slogans – an act of treason – or make them himself and throw them from his window.

“He was an incorruptible person – he put his neck on the line and ended up in jail on several occasions.

“He was treated very badly in prison and he complained the people inside would treat him like a felon and the people outside would treat him like a lunatic.

“But Marx and Engels thought of him as the Father of English Socialism.

“He died in poverty but there was a huge cortege and a whole community who kept his work going for a while.”

A handful of small-print books have been written about him and he was, curiously, feted in certain parts of Eastern Europe.

Among Spence’s other achievements was a dictionary based on phonetic spelling.

He was at one time head of a school and took the view that his method of spelling, where he thought English was easier to understand, would drag the poor out of poverty.

Under his system Newcastle would be written as Nuk’as’il.

Little of his writing has survived but he is well-known in the coin-collecting community because, in the fashion of the day, he had tokens made publicising his message.

They included cats – meant to symbolise freedom – and an image of his head.

Among his devotees is poet Keith Armstrong, of Whitley Bay.

He said: “In these days of bland career politicians, Spence was a free spirit and a courageous campaigner for the rights of men and women.

“He was a great citizen of Newcastle and is part of our political and social heritage.”

Timeline

1750: Thomas Spence was born at the Quayside, Newcastle, son of a net and shoe maker and a stocking seller.

1775: He delivered a lecture on land ownership to the Philosophical Society in Newcastle.

1776: Spence became a teacher at the Free Grammar School, Haydon Bridge, Northumberland.

1787: Moved to London where he set up a bookshop selling political pamphlets.

1792: The first of several arrests for seditious libel, high treason and involvement with United Irishmen.

1793: Publication of his penny weekly magazine Pigs’ Meat publicising his political beliefs.

1814: Died.

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