Thomas Spence – Bookseller and Spencean scheme author – 1750-1814

Thomas Spence, (1750–1814), bookseller and author of the Spencean scheme of land nationalisation, was born on the Quayside, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 21 June 1750. His father came from Aberdeen about 1739; he was a net-maker and shoemaker, and sold hardware in a booth upon the Sandhill. He had nineteen children by two wives, of whom the second, Margaret Flet, was the mother of Thomas. Young Spence was taught to read by his father; he was a clerk, and afterwards a teacher in several schools in Newcastle.

A lawsuit between the corporation and free men of the town about some common land is said to have first turned Spence’s attention to the question to which he devoted his whole life. He submitted, in 1775, his views on land tenure to the Philosophical Society, which met in Westgate Street, in a paper entitled ‘The Real Rights of Man.’ The society expelled him, not for his opinions nor even for printing the paper, but for hawking it about like a halfpenny ballad.

He proposed that the inhabitants of each parish should form a corporation in whom the land should be for ever vested; parish officers would collect rents, deduct state and local expenses, and divide the remaining sum among the parishioners. No tolls or taxes would be levied beyond the rent; all wares, manufactures, and employments would be duty free; public libraries and schools would be supported from the local fund. Every man would have to serve in a militia, and each year the parish would choose a representative for the national assembly. A sabbath of rest would be allowed every five days. ‘Whether the title of king, consul, president, &c., is quite indifferent to me.’

The proposals were frequently re-printed and sold in pamphlet form by the author in London; published with additions in 1793, and as ‘The Meridian Sun of Liberty’ in 1796. The pamphlet was again issued by Mr. H. M. Hyndman in 1882 as ‘The Nationalisation of the Land in 1775 and 1882.’ Spence’s principles were further developed in his ‘Constitution of Spensonea, a country in Fairyland.’ His views are challenged by Malthus (Principle of Population, 5th edit. 1817, ii. 280–1).

He devised a new phonetic system explained in ‘The Grand Repository of the English Language,’ and endeavoured to popularise it in ‘The Repository of Common Sense and Innocent Enjoyment,’ sold in penny numbers ‘at his school at the Keyside.’ While at Heydon Bridge he married a Miss Elliott, who bore him one son. His wedded life was unhappy. He left Newcastle for London, set up a stall in Holborn at which he sold saloop, and exhibited an advertisement that he sold books in numbers. Among these publications, which were all intended to spread his views on ‘parochial partnership in land, without private land-lordism,’ were ‘Burke’s Address to the Swinish Multitude’ and ‘Rights of Man’ (1783), both in verse. His most ambitious production, which bore the imprint of ‘The Hive of Liberty, No. 8 Little Turnstile, High Holburn,’ was entitled ‘Pig’s Meat; or Lessons from the Swinish Multitude collected by the Poor Man’s Advocate,’ 1793, 1794, 1795, 3 vols. sm. 8vo. It consisted of extracts from the writings of well-known authors, ancient and modern. For this harmless publication Spence was imprisoned in Newgate without trial from 17 May to 22 Dec. 1794.

In a letter to the ‘Morning Chronicle,’ 3 Jan. 1795, he complained that since 1792 he had four times been dragged from his shop by law messengers, thrice indicted before grand juries, thrice lodged in prison, and once put to the bar, but not convicted. His son had also been imprisoned for selling ‘The Rights of Man,’ in verse, in the street. His grievances were also set forth in ‘The Case of Thomas Spence, bookseller, who was committed for selling the second part of Paine’s “Rights of Man,”’ 1792. He describes himself as ‘dealer in coins,’ in ‘The Coin Collector’s Companion, being a descriptive alphabetical list of the modern provincial, political, and other copper coins,’ 1795. ‘The End of Oppression’ and ‘Recantation’ (1795), and ‘The Rights of Infants, with strictures on Paine’s “Agrarian Justice”’ (1797) are pamphlets descriptive of his proposals as to land tenure.

In 1801 the attorney-general filed an information against him for writing and publishing a seditious libel entitled ‘The Restorer of Society to its natural State.’ He was found guilty by a special jury at the court of king’s bench before Lord Kenyon, who fined him 50l. and sent him to prison for twelve months. He conducted his own defence with much ability. ‘Dh’e ‘imp’ort’ant Tri’al’ öv To’mis Sp’ens’ (1803), in his phonetic spelling, was ‘not printed for sale, but only for a present of respect to the worthy persons who contributed to the relief of Mr. Spence.’ The constitution of Spensonea was added to the report of the trial. Among the contrivances to spread his doctrines he struck copper medals which he distributed by jerking them from his windows to passers-by; one medal bore the figure of a cat, because ‘he could be stroked down but would not suffer himself to be rubbed against the grain;’ another with the date November 1775 announced that his ‘just plan will produce everlasting peace and happiness, or, in fact, the Millennium.’

In 1805 he issued from 20 Oxford Street, ‘The World turned upside down,’ dedicated to Earl Stanhope, as well as a broadside, ‘Something to the Purpose: a Receipt to make a Millennium.’ Spence’s second wife was a good-looking servant girl, to whom he spoke at her master’s door, and married her the same day. She afterwards deserted him. He died in Castle Street, Oxford Street, London, 8 Sept. 1814. The funeral was attended by many political admirers, medals were distributed, and a pair of scales carried before the coffin to indicate the justness of his views. He was an honest man of a lively temper and pleasing manners. Bewick called him ‘one of the warmest philanthropists of the day.’

His disciples were known as Spenceans. ‘In 1816 Spence’s plan was revived, and the Society of Spencean Philanthropists was instituted, who held “sectional meetings” and discussed “subjects calculated to enlighten the human understanding.”’ There were many branches in Soho, Moorfields, and the Borough. The ‘Spenceans openly meddled with sundry grave questions besides that of a community in land; and, amongst other notable projects, petitioned parliament to do away with machinery’ (H. Martineau, England during the Thirty Years’ Peace, 1849, i. 52–3; see also S. Walpole’s History of England from 1815, 1878, i. 430, 439–40). The Watsons, the Cato Street conspirators, were Spenceans (State Trials, 1824, xxxii. 215).

[Memoir in Mackenzie’s Account of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827, i. 399–402, also issued separately; Sykes’s Local Records, 1833, ii. 85–6; Davenport’s Life, Writings and Principles of T. Spence, 1836; Hyndman’s Nationalization of the Land in 1775 and 1882; Gent. Mag. September 1814 p. 300, March 1815 p. 286.]
Further reading:
Source: Dictionary of National Biography, volume 53, pages 339-340.