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25 January 2012

On this day in history: London Corresponding Society founded, 1792

The parliamentary constituencies of eighteenth century Britain had a variety of ways of electing their Members of Parliament. The Westminster constituency in London was of the 'Scot and Lot' type where those adult males paying a form of local property tax could vote for the constituency's two MPs. In the city of Bath only the twenty or so members of the Corporation could vote for the city's two MPs. Meanwhile, some northern towns had no representation at all.

In the latter half of the century a number of people called for reform of the electoral system to make it more uniform and more representative, but all these attempts failed. On 25th January 1792 a shoemaker called Thomas Hardy held a meeting at The Bell tavern on Exeter Street, near the Strand, where he and a group of eight other men formed the London Corresponding Society (LCS). Their aim was parliamentary reform, especially the extension of the franchise to include all men.

In spite of its humble beginnings the LCS quickly grew and by May that year the Society had nine divisions, each with at least thirty members paying the penny a week subscription. The LCS leadership formed fraternal bonds with other working-men's societies with whom they shared common aims, including those in Sheffield and Norwich. They also cultivated links with predominantly middle-class reformers such as the Society for Constitutional Information.

As the French Revolution became increasingly radical and following the declaration of war by the French against Britain in 1793 many Britons became fearful of revolution spreading across the Channel. The LCS became the target of government investigation and attacks from loyalist societies and 'Church and King' mobs. In May 1794 the authorities arrested the leaders of the LCS and other reform organisations. Later that year, Hardy, John Horne Tooke and John Thelwall stood trial on charges of treason, but the jury acquitted them through lack of evidence.

Official repression of working class reform movements did not stop there. That same year the government suspended Habeas Corpus, enabling detention without trial. Five years later in 1799 Parliament passed the Corresponding Societies Act, making the LCS an illegal organisation, effectively bringing it to an end. Nevertheless, calls for reform of parliament continued in the eighteenth century culminating in the Chartist movement and the Great Reform Act of 1832, which Hardy lived just long enough to witness as he died later that same year.

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