Thomas Spence (1750-1814) made a major contribution to revolutionary and reform movements, both in Newcastle and across Britain. He was one of nineteen children born in poverty to Scottish parents in the Quayside area of Newcastle. Spence, a diminutive and often difficult man with a limp and speech impediment, was self-taught and managed to move from a clerkship to positions as schoolmaster at Haydon Bridge and Newcastle. In this role he developed ideas for how education could be reformed and language made easier through the use of a phonetic alphabet (he printed a phonetic dictionary in 1775). A key influence on Spence was the Newcastle Presbyterian preacher James Murray; according to one of Spence’s biographers, it was Murray who helped push Spence towards a belief in the natural equality of all men. Murray also cooperated with Spence in the 1770s campaign that preserved the Town Moor from enclosure by the town corporation. For Spence, the plight of the poor could only be remedied if they were given access to the land; parliamentary reform and political rights were less important to him.
Spence is famous for developing a critique of private property in land in which he argued that landownership had come about through theft and that property should be returned to the people. His land plan revolved around a system of parishes that represented local inhabitants and controlled all land. The parish governments rented land out to bidders who paid an annual rent, the proceeds of which were then used to pay for welfare and civic improvements. Spence presented the plan to the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1775 in a lecture entitled ‘The Real Rights of Man’. The talk was not well received and Spence was thrown out of the society. Spence moved to London in 1788 after the collapse of his first marriage and his removal from a teaching post in Sandgate. In London Spence became a prominent radical bookseller, joined the radical London Corresponding Society, and made a lasting contribution to London radicalism by publishing pamphlets and periodicals that popularised his land plan among poor communities. He wanted women to be given the vote, wrote on the rights of infants and disseminated his message through mottos on tokens and coins. Spence was arrested numerous times for sedition and spent three spells in jail, once without being tried. Spence died in 1814 but his influence can be seen in both the Cato Street conspiracy of 1820 (a plan to kill the British cabinet) and Chartism (which would develop its own land plan).
A. Bonnett and K. Armstrong (eds), Thomas Spence: the Poor Man's Revolutionary (Breviary, 2014); P. M. Ashraf, The life and times of Thomas Spence (1983); T. R. Knox, ‘Thomas Spence: the trumpet of jubilee’, Past and Present, 76 (1977), pp. 75–98; M. Chase, The People’s Farm: English Radical Agrarianism, 1775–1840 (1988); H. T. Dickinson, ‘Spence, Thomas (1750-1814)’, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edition accessed 9 February 2015 (online edition is available through Newcastle City Library). Spence’s life and works has been commemorated by the Thomas Spence Society at http://thomas-spence-society.co.uk/.