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Door 15: James Parkinson and the Popgun Plot


The Founders of the Geological Society were, by and large, upstanding pillars of the community: George Bellas Greenough, volunteer in the Light Horse of London and Westminster; Humprey Davy, star of the Royal Institution and Fellow of the Royal Society; William Haseldine Pepys, liveryman in the Worshipful Company of Master Cutlers. However, in the company of these fine gentlemen there lurked a radical who had been accused of conspiring to kill the King!

The London Corresponding Society alarm'd by James Gillray

The London Corresponding Society alarm’d by James Gillray

James Parkinson believed in Reform. Reform of Parliament and universal suffrage for all. Through the early part of the 1790s he was a member of the London Corresponding Society; an organisation of artisans and working men dedicated to the cause of Reform, who met and published pamphlets to that end. James Parkinson wrote tracts for them that were published under the name ‘Old Hubert’.

This was a dangerous time to be seen as a vocal supporter of such causes. Across the Channel, the guillotine was getting a lot of use, Louis XVI losing his head in early 1793. There were justified fears that the violence of the ‘swinish multitude’ might jump across to Britain. William Pitt the Younger had been appointed Prime Minister by George III ten years earlier when his Tory supporters did not have a majority. That was royally dangerous behaviour for a King at this time, especially one recovering from ‘madness’.

Girandoni Air Rifle

Girandoni Air Rifle

There had already been two attempts on the King’s life, although both potential assassins turned out to be mad themselves, rather than bad and had been committed to the Bethlem Royal Hospital instead of finding themselves on the gallows. To make things worse, the Austrians had just invented a terrifying new weapon – the Girandoni Air Rifle which could shoot 20 lead balls, one after the other without reloading. It could kill from 150 yards away without smoke and without the noise of a standard rifle. There were other air rifles that could shoot poisoned darts even further. The age of the silent sniper had arrived.  Suddenly an assassin didn’t have to be close to the King to make an attempt on his life.

In this climate, the government was keen to crack down hard on dissent. The existing Sedition Act making it High Treason to attack the King had lapsed on the death of Charles II. A new Treason Act was necessary. Preferably a new Seditious Meetings Act too, to stop large groups meeting and stirring up trouble or publishing unwanted critical essays about the Government. Jacobinism was to be stamped out before it could take root! These two Acts were widely perceived to be censorial gagging acts, even as acts of violence against those who sought to raise their voice against the injustices of the Government. They did after all make it High Treason to even think about killing the King and make it a requirement to obtain a licence from a magistrate before any form of public political debate or lecture could be held. They were wildly unpopular and passing them may well only agitate riots and worse.

Medals awarded by the London Corresponding Society

Medals awarded by the London Corresponding Society

Even before these Two Acts were passed by Parliament, the Government had spies inside organisations such as the London Corresponding Society. They knew that James Parkinson was ‘Old Hubert’, what his views were and with whom he associated. Thomas Hardy (not that one), the founder of the Society had already been arrested and tried for treason in 1794 and subsequently been found not guilty. The cheering crowds outside carried him all the way home to his shoe-making business at 9 Piccadilly. What the Government needed was to demonstrate these Acts had been necessary. How about a plot to kill the King..?

The Republican Attack by James Gillray

The Republican Attack by James Gillray – the mob armed with a ‘popgun’ attack the royal carriage

At the State Opening of Parliament in 1795, the carriage of George III was set upon by an unruly mob. The besieging crowds cried for bread and chanted ‘Down with George!’, and ‘No King!’ One of the carriage’s windows was broken in the ruckus. This was the opportunity the Government wanted. They had already rounded up three members of the London Corresponding Society. A fourth was later arrested. The claim was that an attempt had been made on the King’s person by a marksman with a high-powered air-dart gun. The poisoned dart had been shot from some distance making it impossible to find the assailant, but it was this that had broken the glass on the carriage and it had missed the King by inches. There was a terrible conspiracy afoot, and the London Corresponding Society were the malignant heart of it. The spy the Government had placed within it could provide the testimony to convict.

Unsurprisingly James Parkinson was getting a bit nervous. He had not yet been arrested with the others, but he was now brought before William Pitt along with the entire Privy Council to be examined as to his role in the plot. Accused of conspiracy, he refused to testify about his activities in the London Corresponding Society until he was absolutely convinced he would not incriminate himself in the alleged plot. He was released without charge and perhaps wisely, published no more pamphlets. The case progressed against his comrades until the chief witness against them had the ill fortune to die before the trial could be started. With no other evidence being submitted and no other members of the Society willing to testify against them, they were also released later in 1796.

A plate from 'Organic Remains of a Former World' by James Parkinson

A plate from ‘Organic Remains of a Former World’ by James Parkinson

James Parkinson survived his close shave with infamy and went on to publish ‘Organic Remains of a Former World‘ in three volumes in 1804, each with beautiful illustrations by Parkinson himself, some coloured by his daughter, Emma. His abiding interest in geology led him to be present at the meeting of 1807 that founded the Geological Society. In his profession as a medical doctor, he is most famous as publishing ‘An Essay on the Shaking Palsy‘ and becoming the first describer of what became know as Parkinson’s Disease. In the decades after the 1790s, the masses continued to agitate for reform until The Reform Act was finally passed in 1832. Unfortunately James Parkinson didn’t live to see that day. He would undoubtedly have approved.


Geoadvent competition

Congratulations to Sue Greig, who was first to correctly identify Saturday’s window as Kimmeridge Bay on the Jurassic Coast. Excitingly, no one has yet correctly identified Sunday’s window, so there’s still a point up for grabs!

Which means Chris Jack and Sue Greig are tied on 3 points, with Clark Fenton and Marie both on 2. Rallish and Martin Heys are still holding on with one point each….

7 thoughts on “Door 15: James Parkinson and the Popgun Plot

  1. Pingback: Door 24: We wish you a Merry (Mary Anning) Christmas | Geological Society of London blog

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