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Thomas Spence

thomas spencer, thomas spence photography
Thomas Spence 21 June Old Style/ 2 July New Style, 1750 – 8 September 1814 was an English Radical and advocate of the common ownership of land Spence was one of the leading revolutionaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries He was born in poverty and died the same way, after long periods of imprisonment, in 1814


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Land reform and Spence's Plan
  • 3 The phrase "rights of man"
  • 4 Phonetic reform
  • 5 The rights of children
  • 6 Memorial and legacy
  • 7 Selected publications
  • 8 See also
  • 9 References
  • 10 External links


Spence left Newcastle for London in 1787 He kept a book-stall in High Holborn In 1794 he spent seven months in Newgate Gaol on a charge of high treason, and in 1801 he was sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment for seditious libel He died in London on 8 September 1814

Land reform and Spence's Plan

The threatened enclosure of the common land known as Town Moor in Newcastle in 1771 appears to have been key to Spence's interest in the land question and journey towards ultra-radicalism His scheme was not for land nationalization but for the establishment of self-contained parochial communities, in which rent paid to the parish wherein the absolute ownership of the land was vested should be the only tax of any kind His ideas and thinking on the subject were shaped by a variety of economic thinkers, including his friend Charles Hall

At the centre of Spence's work was his plan, which argued for:

  1. The end of aristocracy and landlords;
  2. All land should be publicly owned by 'democratic parishes', which should be largely self-governing;
  3. Rents of land in parishes to be shared equally amongst parishioners, as a form of social dividend;
  4. Universal suffrage including female suffrage at both parish level and through a system of deputies elected by parishes to a national senate;
  5. A 'social guarantee' extended to provide income for those unable to work;
  6. The 'rights of infants' to be free from abuse and poverty

Spence's Plan was first published in his penny pamphlet Property in Land Every One's Right in 1775 It was re-issued as The Real Rights of Man in later editions It was also reissued by, amongst others, Henry Hyndman under the title of The Nationalization of the Land in 1795 and 1882

Spence explored his political and social concepts in a series of books about the fictional Utopian state of Spensonia

The phrase "rights of man"

Spence may have been the first Englishman to speak of 'the rights of man' The following recollection, composed in the third person, was written by Spence while he was in prison in London in 1794 on a charge of high treason Spence was, he wrote,

the first, who as far as he knows, made use of the phrase "RIGHTS OF MAN", which was on the following remarkable occasion: A man who had been a farmer, and also a miner, and who had been ill-used by his landlords, dug a cave for himself by the seaside, at Marsdon Rocks, between Shields and Sunderland, about the year 1780, and the singularity of such a habitation, exciting the curiosity of many to pay him a visit; our author was one of that number Exulting in the idea of a human being, who had bravely emancipated himself from the iron fangs of aristocracy, to live free from impost, he wrote extempore with chaulk above the fire place of this free man, the following lines: Ye landlords vile, whose man's peace mar, Come levy rents here if you can; Your stewards and lawyers I defy, And live with all the RIGHTS OF MAN

This is in reference to the story of "Jack the Blaster" at Marsden Grotto

Phonetic reform

See also: English-language spelling reform

Spence was a self-taught radical with a deep regard for education as a means to liberation He pioneered a phonetic script and pronunciation system designed to allow people to learn reading and pronunciation at the same time He believed that if the correct pronunciation was visible in the spelling, everyone would pronounce English correctly, and the class distinctions carried by language would cease This would bring a time of equality, peace and plenty: the millennium He published the first English dictionary with pronunciations 1775 and made phonetic versions of many of his pamphlets

You can see examples of Spence's spelling system on the pages on English from the Spence Society

The rights of children

See also: Children's rights

Spence's angry defence of the rights of children has lost little of its potency When his The Rights of Infants was published in 1797 as a response to Thomas Paine's Agrarian Justice it was ahead of its time In this essay Spence proposes the introduction of an unconditional basic income to all members of the community Such allowance shall be financed throughout the commonization of land and the benefits of the rents perceived by each municipality

Spence's essay also expresses a clear commitment to the rights of women, although he appears unaware of Mary Wollstonecraft's 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Woman 1792

Memorial and legacy

Spence is listed on the Reformers Memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery in London

His admirers formed a "Society of Spencean Philanthropists," of which some account is given in Harriet Martineau's England During the Thirty Years' Peace The African Caribbean activists William Davidson and Robert Wedderburn were drawn to this political group The Society of Spencean Philanthropists including Arthur Thistlewood were involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820

Selected publications

  • The Real Rights of Man 1793
  • End of Oppression 1795
  • Rights of Infants 1796
  • Constitution of Spensonia 1801
  • The Important Trial of Thomas Spence 1807

See also

  • Georgism, an economic philosophy holding that economic value derived from land should belong equally to all members of society
  • Rights of Man


  1. ^ a b Thomas Spence Archived 2011-08-05 at the Wayback Machine, Spartacusschoolnet, accessed 29 August 2010
  2. ^ See also Davenport, Life, Writings and Principles of Thomas Spence London, 1836
  • Bonnett, Alastair 2007 The Other Rights of Man: The Revolutionary Plan of Thomas Spence History Today 579:42–48
  • Bonnett, Alastair & Armstrong, Keith eds, Thomas Spence: The Poor Man's Revolutionary Breviary Stuff Publications, 2014 ISBN 978-0-9570005-9-9
  • Malcolm Chase, The People's Farm, English Radical Agrarianism 1775–1840 Breviary Stuff Publications, 2010 ISBN 978-0-9564827-5-4
  • O Rudkin, Thomas Spence and His Connections 1927
  • T M Parssinen, "Thomas Spence and the Spenceans: a Study of Revolutionary Utopianism in the England of George III" unpublished PhD dissertation, Brandeis University, 1968
  • T M Parssinen, "The Revolutionary Party in London, 1816–20", Historical Research 45 2007 266–282 doi:101111/j1468-22811972tb01466x

External links

  • The Thomas Spence Society
  • Thomas Spence, The Real Rights of Man, 1775
  • M Beer, ed, The Pioneers of Land Reform: Thomas Spence, William Ogilvie, Thomas Paine, 1920

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed 1911 "Spence, Thomas" Encyclopædia Britannica 25 11th ed Cambridge University Press p 634 

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