The Despard Plot involves Colonel Edward Marcus Despard who was an Irish soldier who served in the British Army. He was also involved in the American Revolutionary War where he and his troops proved victorious at the Battle of the Black River. His success was part of the reason that he was later appointed Superintendent in British Honduras. However, in 1790, he was recalled to London and questioned about his conduct while there.
Unhappy, over the ordeal, Despard became interested in revolutionary politics. The story begins after he joined the United Irishmen to fight for equal rights for the Irish. When war with France broke out, the United Irishmen went underground and backed the French in an invasion against Ireland. Unfortunately, the invasion failed, and in response, the passage of the Act of Union went into effect on 1 January 1801, abolishing the Irish Parliament and creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Hoping to reverse the situation in Ireland, Despard conspired with other individuals to take over the Bank of England, seize the Tower of London, and assassinate George III. The plotters believed that by doing so, they could encourage uprisings. However, in late 1802 the scheme, known as the Despard Plot, was discovered, and Despard and twenty-nine others were arrested at a Lambert pub and jailed.
On 7 February 1803, Despard and six of his co-conspirators were tried for high treason by prosecutor Spencer Perceval. The public was enthralled and newspapers could not provide enough coverage on the Despard Plot. Evidence against the conspirators was weak with little physical evidence, so the prosecutor focused primarily on the assassination attempt. However, the trial was exciting to the public and become more exciting when the famous naval officer Horatio Nelson appeared as a character witness for Despard.
Because of the 1795 Treason Act, little distinction was made between plotting treason and committing treason. So, Edward Marcus Despard and his six co-conspirators were unfortunately found guilty. The men were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, but their sentence was commuted to being hanged and beheaded, partly because there were fears that such a draconian punishment might spark public outrage.
Despite the reduced sentence, there was much consternation about the men’s execution. This was because crowds had come nightly to surround the jail during the trial, and guards became so fearful of what the crowds might do, they did not want to leave the prison when their shifts ended. The scaffold was also slated to be erected in Old Horsemonger Lane Gaol in Southwark. This was a problem because the area was full of working men who sympathized with those involved in the Despard Plot, so, when authorities attempted to get the scaffold built, they had great difficulty in finding workers willing to construct it. Moreover, handbills were distributed throughout the city, urging the people to revolt and free the prisoners.
Despite concerns, St. George’s bell began tolling on 21 February 1803 at 5am. It continued tolling for about an hour. Soon after, the prison bell rang as a signal to unlock the cells of the convicted prisoners. At 7am five men — John Francis, John Wood, James Sedgewick Wrattan. Thomas Broughton, and Arthur Graham — went to the chapel. Despard and John Macnamara, who was Roman Catholic, stayed behind. When all the men at the chapel had finished, the irons of all seven men were knocked off and they were bound by their arms and hands and taken to the scaffold.
Sir Richard Ford conducted the awful ceremony. Already in place were seven coffins to hold those involved in the Despard Plot. The coffins were near where the drop had been erected, and sawdust was also strewn out near the block to catch the blood of the prisoner’s severed heads. The block was situated near the scaffold with about one hundred spectators sitting upon its platform. About half past eight, the prisoners were brought to the platform and an orderly procedure followed:
“As soon as the cord was fastened round the neck of one, the second was brought up, and so on till the cords were fastened round the necks of all the seven. … Despard was brought up the last, dressed in boots, a dark brown great coat, his hair unpowdered. He ascended the scaffold with great firmness. His countenance underwent not the slightest change during the fastening of the rope round his neck.”
A crowd of 20,000 came to watch the spectacle, which was the largest attendance of an event until Admiral Nelson’s funeral two years later. Despard and each prisoner had an opportunity to speak. Afterwards the clergy prayed with the five prisoners who had visited the chapel earlier. A clergyman then shook hands with each prisoner and then the “most awful silence” prevailed. At seven minutes to nine the signal was given and simultaneously the platform under each man dropped.
Newspapers reported on the deaths of those involved in the Despard Plot. Despard did not struggle, although he simultaneously opened his clenched fists twice and then stirred no more. Macnamara, Graham, Wood, and Wratten struggled for a few moments, and then they too remained motionless. However, Broughton and Francis violently struggled, and supposedly to end their misery, the execution tugged on their legs, which immediately stopped their movements.
After being left hanging for about a half hour, the seven dead men were cut down. Despard’s body was the first to have his corpse placed upon the sawdust with his head situated on a block. After it was severed, the executioner grabbed his head by the hair, carried it to the edge of the parapet, held it up to for spectators to view, and loudly exclaimed, “This is the head of a traitor – Edward Marcus Despard.”
The Salisbury and Winchester Journal summed up the dreadful affair succinctly:
“The execution was over by ten o’clock, and the populace soon after dispersed quickly. … The bodies of Colonel Despard, Broughton, and Graham were removed from the New Goal, by their friends on Monday evening. Those of the other four were taken away last night.”