While researching her new book Regency Spies (published by Pen & Sword this month), Sue Wilkes uncovered the story of a desperate plot to kill George III and overthrow the British government…
Colonel Despard (1751–1803) has gone down in history as the leader of a wildly impractical, hopeless scheme. Despard was the leader of a group known as the United Britons, which had links with rebel Irishmen. Unfortunately for their plans, some members of the group were government spies, who reported their every move.
On 19 November 1802, the Morning Post reported the arrest of Colonel Despard and 29 others at the Oakley Arms in Lambeth. After several months in prison, on 25 January 1803 Despard and his fellow prisoners were tried for high treason by a Special Commission at the Sessions House (next to Horsemonger Lane Gaol), Newington. The prosecution alleged that the men planned to seize the Bank of England, the Tower of London, armouries (and grab the weapons stored there), make ‘Insurrection Rebellion and War’ on the kingdom, and kill the king. They all pleaded ‘not guilty’.
Despard had a distinguished military career , Lord Nelson appeared as a character witness on his behalf. But the court found Despard and John Wood, Thomas Broughton, John Francis, James Sedgwick Wrattan (Wratten), Arthur Graham and John MacNamara guilty of treason. They were sentenced to be hanged by the neck, ‘but not till you are quite dead; then to be cut down, your bowels taken out, and cast into the fire before your faces; your heads to be taken off, and your bodies quartered’(Memoirs of the life of Col. E. M. Despard, 1803).
The Morning Chronicle (22 February 1803) gave an account of the execution of Despard and his accomplices on 21 February. The night before the colonel’s execution, a prison officer heard him exclaim: ‘Me, they shall receive no information from me, no! not for all the gifts, the gold, and the jewels, in the possession of the Crown’ . Who else was part of the conspiracy?
An ‘immense’ crowd gathered to see the doomed men’s final moments. The men’s sentences had been commuted to hanging, followed by beheading. The executioner’s assistant severed Despard’s head. Jack Ketch held it up for all to see, and cried: ‘This is the head of a traitor, Edward Marcus Despard!’.
In Despard’s parting speech to the people, the colonel said he hoped that the ‘principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny, and delusion’. Some contemporaries believed that Despard was ‘framed’ by the government’s spies. Whatever the truth, Despard took his secrets with him to the grave.