Thomas Spence as he appeared in a relief portrait stamped onto this token from 1794. The legend reads T. Spence, 7 months imprisoned for high treason.
You may have noticed that the reproduction of caricatures on other mediums is a reoccurring theme on these pages. I’m constantly fascinated by examples which highlight the ways in which satirical images found their way onto a bewildering array of manufactured goods and wonder whether we need to reevaluate the significance of these items as part of a wider debate about the appeal and influence of caricature in late Hanoverian Britain.
Perhaps one of the most interesting and unusual items to carry satirical imagery were imitation copper coins or tokens. Token coinage had originally appeared in 1787 as means of combating the chronic specie shortages and endemic forgery that plagued the Hanoverian monetary system. Mills, factories and mines operating in isolated rural areas began paying their workers in specially minted tokens that could be redeemed locally for goods and services. The idea caught on as the use of local forms of currency began to spread; tokens were taken up as a cheap, durable and portable medium for commercial advertising and as decorative objects collected by a burgeoning market of token collectors. The market for these collectable coins expanded rapidly during the late 1780s and early 90s, with the collector’s constant desire for new items resulting in a bewildering array of designs featuring everything from portraits of military heroes and images of the great public buildings of the age, to representations of circus acts and pastoral landscapes. A smattering of political designs first appeared during the Regency Crisis of 1789, but as these tokens only combined formal portraiture with partisan political slogans, it seems highly unlikely that they were produced for satirical ends. Overtly satirical images did not really begin to appear until the early 1790s, when various publishers and political agitators transformed the token into another weapon in the vicious propaganda war that broke out between radical advocates of political and economic reform and the loyalist defenders of the status quo. The number of satirical tokens them multiplied rapidly and new designs remained in constant production until the early 1800s, when the token craze gradually abated in the face of rising copper prices and a sustained government re-coinage programme.
The use of original satirical designs, as opposed to merely rehashing images produced by print-based caricaturists, is a unique feature of the token market. Contemporary consumers could buy caricatures on pottery, textiles, fan leaves and snuff boxes, but almost without exception these designs were normally copied directly from an original print and were amended only to accommodate the physical restrictions of the object being decorated. Token manufacturers on the other hand appear to have shunned such plagiarism, with Gillray’s French Liberty / British Slavery (right) being the only printed caricature known to have been copied directly onto a token. Indeed, in some cases the process of copying was thrown into reverse, as caricaturists in both England and France took up token designs such as Freeborn Englishman (left) and reworked them into printed caricatures. In seeking to explain why token manufacturers were capable of achieving a degree of creativity and originality that seemingly eluded their counterparts in other industries, we should consider the following: Firstly, the small size of t he tokens made them ill-suited as a medium for reproducing the complex designs which typically appeared in caricatures. Secondly, the radical political agenda that many token manufacturers sought to push was largely unrepresented in the more respectable trade in print-based visual satire and manufacturers were thus forced to create their own designs. Thirdly, satirical designs could be easily transferred onto items such as fans, decorative creamware and silk handkerchiefs because these items were generally aimed at the same affluent middle class consumers as the original caricature print. Tokens however were produced for a predominantly working class audience used to a much simpler iconography that was often based on the symbolism and naturalistic images of the chapbook, the almanac and cheap children’s literature.
One of the most prolific and notorious token manufacturers of the 1790s was the radical writer, publisher and bookseller Thomas Spence. Spence was born in Newcastle upon Tyne in June 1750. One of nineteen children belonging to the family of an impoverished Scottish net-maker, Spence received little formal education but was taught to read the Bible as a child while standing behind his father’s stall on the Sandgate, next to the city’s bustling quay.
My father used to make my brothers and me to read the Bible to him while working at his business, and, at the end every chapter, encouraged us to give our opinions on what we had just read. By these means I acquired an early habit of reflecting on every occurrence that passed before me and on what I read.
The family adhered to an extreme strain of Presbyterianism and were members of the congregation at a small chapel on High Bridge which was ministered by the Reverend James Murray. Murray was something of a local celebrity, having been dismissed from a pastoral position in the small Northumberland town of Alnwick; he pitched up in Newcastle sometime around 1760 and immediately began aggravating the city grandees by publishing radical political tracts condemning taxation, land enclosures and British policy in North America. He also encouraged members of his flock to adopt a strict set of levelling principles which included the sharing of common property. Murray was to exercise a profound influence on Spence’s intellectual development and was probably responsible for guiding his first steps into the world of political activism, as both men were to become heavily embroiled in the campaign to prevent the enclosure of Newcastle’s Town Moor in 1770. It was in this bitter episode of provincial politics that the seeds of what would become Spence’s famous doctrine of common land ownership were sown.
The Spence family had initially intended for Thomas to follow his father into the net-making trade but this plan was abandoned as the boy’s aptitude for learning became increasingly apparent and he was instead apprenticed to serve as a clerk in the office of a local smith. He continued to read prodigiously and by early 1775 had taken his first tentative steps into the world of publishing, producing a small tract which set out a newly devised phonetic alphabet which he claimed would improve the education of the poor. It was to be the outbreak of war with the American colonies later that year that marked the beginnings of Spence’s definite transition towards the world of radical political activism. He enrolled himself in the Newcastle Philosophical Society, one of many respectable provincial debating clubs that had been established to thrash out the ideological issues the underpinned the dispute with the American colonies, but was expelled almost immediately after he published copies of a speech in which he had attacked landowners and called for the abolition of taxes and the nationalisation of agricultural land. The engraver Thomas Bewick recalled another episode which amply illustrates both his temperament and the uncompromising way in which he approached political issues. Bewick was an acquaintance of Spence’s and had gone to watch him participate in a public debate during which his land-sharing scheme had been voted down by a substantial majority. After the meeting Spence rounded on Bewick, blaming the defeat on his reluctance to speak up in favour of the scheme. He
…became so swollen with indignation which, after all the company were gone, he vented upon me. To reason with him was useless – he began calling me (from my silence) a Sir Walter Blackett, and adding “If I had been as stout as you are I would have thrashed you” – indeed! said I “it is a great pity you are not” – but said he, “there is another way in which I can do the business and have at you!” he then produced a pair of cudgels – and to work we fell, after I had black’ned the insides of his thighs and arms, he became quite outrageous, and behaved very unfairly, which obliged me to give him a severe beating.
By 1782 Spence had married and become a farther but in general the years that followed the American war were characterised by a prevailing sense of disappointment and failure. Spence lost his job as an usher at a school near Hexham and his reputation as a troublemaker was sufficiently well advanced by this stage to ensure that a scheme to found a school of his own on Newcastle’s Quayside failed due to a lack of willing pupils. He remained active in local politics and thanks to the encouragement of a local publisher named Thomas Saint, had even begun publishing his theories in pamphlet form. However, there is little evidence to suggest that any of these publications was anything other than a commercial flop and it is likely that Spence lost money on every item he published. The sense of despondency provoked by his thwarted ambitions was no doubt compounded by a run of deaths which claimed some of Spence’s closest friends and early mentors. Murray passed away in 1782, Saint in 1788 and then in 1792 Spence’s wife, with whom he had never been particularly happy, also died.
This final tragedy seems to have galvanised Spence to take the drastic action that was necessary to save his life sinking into provincial mediocrity. Sometime in mid-1792 he abandoned Newcastle and set out for London, determined to make a living from his intellect and to carve out a career for himself in the capital’s thriving publishing trade. On arriving in the metropolis he acquired a stall at the eastern end of Chancery Lane and began selling saloop (a drink of hot milk and sugar infused with sassafras leaves) along with second hand books. He also became active in the city’s tavern-based debating societies and in 1793 began published a cheap radical periodical entitled Pig’s Meat or Lessons for the Swinish Multitude (advertised on the token above), a sarcastic reference to Burke’s famous assertion that democracy would result in human learning being “cast into the mire and trodden down under the hoofs of a swinish multitude.” Spence became increasingly outspoken and radical in his views as the decade wore on and in a letter he wrote to the Morning Chronicle in January 1795, he mentioned that he had been arrested four times on charges relating to treason and sedition since arriving in the capital. The most series of these early brushes with the law occurred in May 1794, when he was arrested for selling copies of Paine’s Rights of Man in the street and confined in jail for seven months without charge. On his release his friends and associates circulated a subscription which provided him with sufficient funds to take a small shop located at 8 Little Turnstile, an alleyway leading off High Holborn. He would nickname the premises “The Hive of Liberty” and make his living there for the next three years as a publisher, bookseller, token dealer and manufacturer.
Later generations of radicals often attempted to portray Spence as a naïve ideologue who had little interest in the bourgeois world of money-making. Francis Place recalled watching him distributing a set of freshly minted political tokens by simply opening his shop window and throwing handfuls of them into the street for passers-by to pick up off the pavement. However, other accounts of Spence’s business activities make it clear that he ran a relatively sophisticated business operation. Another visitor noting that:
It is not long since I called at Spence’s shop, and saw many more thousands of different tokens lying in heaps, and selling at what struck me to be very great prices. These, therefore, could not be considered as struck for a limited sale, I confess, considering the number of them I saw struck, and what the subjects of them were, I thought myself justified in supposing that it was the intention to circulate them very widely.
While even a loyalist contributor to the Gentlemen’s Magazine was forced to grudgingly concede that his tokens were “numerous and interchanged almost beyond the powers of calculation”. This is supported by more circumstantial evidence suggesting Spence’s designs travelled as far afield as Scotland, Ireland and France. Spence also knew his market well and was perfectly capable of exploiting it for commercial ends. He deliberately sought to bring his work to the attention of affluent collectors by striking one-off designs into silver and white metal and was responsible for publishing one of the first collector’s guides to political tokens.
Spence’s satirical tokens were utterly dominated by political subjects and often reflect the aggressive and uncompromising stance of their creator. William Pitt was frequently the target of violent fantasist imagery, with designs such as The End of Pitt and Tree of Liberty imaging the end which awaited the Tory premier once revolution had swept him from office. Ironically, the latter image (right) would eventually be reworked as a loyalist caricature entitled A May Day Garland for 1820 (1820), celebrating the execution of several of Spence’s followers who had become embroiled in the Cato Street Conspiracy.
Oddfellows (left)was another Spencean design to have been copied in print form. It combines grotesquely caricatured portraits of Pitt and Fox into a single head in an image which is evidently intended to convey the radical sense of contempt for mainstream politicians. The image was potent enough to prompt the French engraver Jean Adam to produce a published version entitled Fox et Pitt (1798) for use as anti-British propaganda and closer to home it may have provided Richard Newton with the inspiration for his brilliant caricature Head and Brains (1797).
Spence’s uncompromising political views are also evident in a group of designs which attack what he perceives as a wider sense of public apathy and deference. One of these images, also published as crudely-engraved print entitled The Civil Citizen (1796), shows a man crawling on all fours while declaring that “If the law requires it, I will walk thus!” In another, Spence presents the viewer with an image of a snail which is accompanied by a legend reminding us that even this hidebound creature “puts his horns out” from time to time (see below). The latter image highlights another common satirical trope in Spence’s tokens, whereby humour is derived from combining an apparently innocuous image of an animal or figure with a cutting political slogan. Thus we see a lapdog warning us that “much gratitude brings servitude”, while in another example, a cat looks smugly out at the viewer and boasts “my freedom I enjoy among slaves” (see below).
He was declared bankrupt towards the end of 1796 and his dies were bought by the token dealer Richard Skidmore, who immediately began milking the collectors market by reissuing them new images or slogans stamped on the obverse. Spence meanwhile took his work back to the streets and drifted through London as an itinerant book and pamphlet seller. He was arrested again in April 1798 for publishing an inflammatory edition of Pig’s Meat… and briefly imprisoned in Coldbath Fields before once again being released without charge. He used what little money he was able to scrape together in order to continue publishing tracts that set out his views on the need for democratic political reform and the communal ownership of land, but his influence remained confined to a hardcore group of followers that hovered at the extreme fringes of the radical movement. His last publication was a small tract entitled The Giant Killer or Anti-Landlord. It was finished just weeks before the author died from a chronic intestinal obstruction in September 1814 and such was the extent of Spence’s poverty at this time that he could only afford to have three copies of his work published.
Forty friends attended his funeral in the graveyard of St James’s Church on Hampstead Road. The procession passed up Tottenham Court Road with the coffin preceded by a pair of scales draped with white ribbons, and with an equal quantity of earth in each balance. In accordance with his wishes a pair of tokens carrying his favourite designs, the ‘cat’ (right) and another showing a meridian sun emblazoned with the words “Spence’s Plan” were placed over his eyes and buried with him. Handfuls of tokens were also distributed among the crowds that stopped to watch the coffin as it passed through the city’s streets.
Spence’s posthumous influence on British caricature is most readily apparent in the illustrated pamphlets that often characterise our view of graphic satire in the Peterloo era. William Hone was to take Spence’s concept of using simple imagery drawn from children’s literature and advertising as a vehicle for radical political satire and push it to new heights of creative and commercial success. This would in turn ensure that Spence’s influence as a satirist was passed down to successive generations of radical caricaturists that emerged during the early 1830s and on into the Chartist movement of the 1840s.