d Newgate 1820.
The illegitimate son of the Jamaican Attorney General and a local black
woman, William was sent to Glasgow at the age of fourteen to study law.
While in Scotland he became involved in the demand for parliamentary reform.
As a young man William Davidson became a sailor and was eventually impressed
into the Royal Navy. On his discharge he returned to Scotland and his
father sent him to study mathematics in Aberdeen. Davidson did not enjoy
his studies and moved to Birmingham where he started a cabinet-making
business. Davidson fell in love with the daughter of a prosperous merchant.
The father disapproved of his daughter's relationship and suspected that
Davidson was after her £70,000 dowry and arranged for him to be arrested
on a false charge. After the failure of his cabinet-making business William
Davidson moved to London. He married a working-class widow with four children.
In the next few years she had two more. Davidson became a Wesleyan Methodist
and taught at the local Sunday School. This came to an end when he was
accused of attempting to seduce a female student. William Davidson became
involved in radical politics again after the Peterloo Massacre. After
Richard Carlile was found guilty of blasphemy and seditious libel and
sentenced to three years imprisonment in October 1819, Davidson told a
friend that these events had caused him to lose his belief in God. Davidson
now joined the Marylebone Union Reading Society where for twopence a week
he was able to read radical newspapers such as the Republican and the
Manchester Observer. It was at the Marylebone Union that Davidson met
John Harrison, a member of the Spencean Philanthropists in London. Soon
afterwards Davidson also became a Spencean. He met Arthur Thistlewood
and within a few months became one of the Committee of Thirteen that ran
the organisation. On 22nd February 1820, George Edwards pointed out to
Arthur Thistlewood an item in the New Times that several members of the
British government were going to have dinner at Lord Harrowby's house
at 39 Grosvenor Square. William Davidson agreed to join Thistlewood and
and twenty-seven other Spenceans in the plot to kill the government ministers
dining at Lord Harrowby's house on 23rd February. Thistlewood selected
Davidson as one of the Executive of Five whose job it was to organise
the assassinations. Davidson had worked for Lord Harrowby in the past
and knew some of the staff that worked at Grosvenor Square. He was instructed
to find out more details about the cabinet meeting. However, when he spoke
to one of the servants he was told that the Earl of Harrowby was not in
London. When Davidson reported this news back to Arthur Thistlewood he
insisted that the servant was lying and that the assassinations should
proceed as planned. Drawing by Charles Williams of the arrest of the conspirators.
On the 23rd February Thistlewood's gang assembled in a hayloft in Cato
Street, a short distance away from Grosvenor Square. However, government
ministers were not meeting at the home of Earl of Harrowby. The Spenceans
had been set up by George Edwards, a government spy who had infiltrated
the Spencean Society. Thirteen police officers led by George Ruthven stormed
the hay loft. Several members of the gang refused to surrender their weapons
and one police officer, Richard Smithers, was killed by Arthur Thistlewood.
Davidson attempted to fight his way out but Benjamin Gill hit him on the
wrist with his truncheon and he dropped his blunderbuss. Four of the conspirators,
Thistlewood, John Brunt, Robert Adams and John Harrison escaped out of
a window. However, George Edwards had given the police a detailed list
of all those involved and the men were soon arrested. Eleven men were
eventually charged with being involved in the Cato Street Conspiracy.
Charges against Robert Adams were dropped when he agreed to give evidence
against the other men in court. Davidson claimed he was innocent and accused
the court of being prejudiced against black people. However, not only
had Davidson been arrested at the scene but evidence was produced to show
that he had taken a blunderbuss out of pawn to use in the attempted assassinations.
On 28th April 1820, William Davidson, James Ings, Richard Tidd, Arthur
Thistlewood, and John Brunt were found guilty of high treason and sentenced
to death. John Harrison, James Wilson, Richard Bradburn, John Strange
and Charles Copper were also found guilty but their original sentence
of execution was subsequently commuted to transportation for life. William
Davidson was executed at Newgate Prison on the 1st May, 1820.
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