Place, Francis (1771-1854) (DNB00)
|←Place, Francis (1647-1728)||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 45
Place, Francis (1771-1854)
PLACE, FRANCIS (1771–1854), radical reformer, was born on 3 Nov. 1771. His father, Simon Place, was an energetic but dissipated man who had begun life as a working baker, and was in 1771 a bailiff to the Marshalsea court and keeper of a ‘sponging house’ in Vinegar Yard, Drury Lane. Place was sent to various schools near Fleet Street and Drury Lane from his fifth till his fourteenth year. His father (who had meanwhile taken a public-house) desired to apprentice him to a conveyancer, but the boy preferred to learn a trade, and was accordingly bound, before he was fourteen years old, to a leather-breeches maker. In 1789 he became an independent journeyman, and in 1791 married Elizabeth Chadd (he being nineteen years old and she not quite seventeen), and set up house in one room in a court off the Strand. Hitherto Place had lived rather an irregular life, but now he became rigidly economical and industrious. Leather-breeches making, however, was a decaying trade, and he had great difficulty in obtaining work. In 1793 the London leather-breeches makers struck, and Place was chosen as organiser. The strike having failed, Place was refused work by the masters, and for eight months suffered extreme privation. It is a singular proof of his resolute character that during those months he studied laboriously such books on mathematics, law, history, and economics, as he could get access to. He became secretary to his trade club, and in 1794, during another period of slack work, was secretary for several other trade clubs of carpenters, plumbers, and other workmen.
In 1794 he also joined the London Corresponding Society, whose secretary, Thomas Hardy (1752–1832) [q. v.], had just been arrested. After Hardy's acquittal on a charge of high treason, the society rapidly increased, and in May 1795 it had seventy London branches, with an average weekly attendance of over two thousand. Place was at that time the usual chairman at the weekly meetings of the general committee of the society (see the original minute-book, Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 27813). But after the passing of the ‘Pitt and Grenville Acts’ in November and December 1795, the corresponding society quickly declined. Place, who had always belonged to the moderate party on the committee, resigned in 1797, in consequence of the tactics of the more violent members. In 1798 all the remaining members of the committee, including Place's friend, Colonel Edward Marcus Despard [q. v.], were arrested and kept in prison without trial for three years. During that period Place managed the collection and distribution of subscriptions for their families.
Meanwhile Place was not only improving his education, but was building up a connection with customers of his own, and gaining credit with the wholesale dealers. In 1799 he and a partner opened a tailor's shop at 29 Charing Cross, but after about a year the partnership was broken up, and Place moved to a new shop of his own at 16 Charing Cross.
He now gave up politics and devoted himself entirely to his business, reading, however, for two or three hours every evening after work was over. The shop was from the first extremely successful, and in 1816 he cleared, he says, over 3,000l. He had a large family, fifteen children being born to him between 1792 and 1817; five of them died in infancy.
In 1807 Place returned to political life, and took a leading part during the general election of that year in bringing forward Sir Francis Burdett [q. v.] as an independent candidate for Westminster. Burdett was put at the head of the poll without cost to himself, and after an unprecedentedly small expenditure by the committee.
For the next three years Place seems to have kept pretty closely to his business, but from 1810 onwards his time was more and more taken up by public affairs. When Burdett (April 1810) barricaded his house in order to resist the warrant committing him to the Tower, Place attempted to bring the sheriff and a body of constables to his help. When Burdett was released (21 June 1810), Place organised a great procession, which, however, was stultified by Burdett's absence. Burdett and Place quarrelled over this incident, and did not speak to each other for the next nine years.
Meanwhile Place was becoming known to the political thinkers as well as to the politicians of the time. In 1810 William Godwin the elder [q. v.] sought his acquaintance, and borrowed money of him at intervals till Place threw him off in 1814. About the same time Place began a long friendship with James Mill (1773–1836) [q. v.], who used to call at Charing Cross on his journeys between Stoke Newington and Bentham's house in Queen's Square Place. In 1813 Robert Owen [q. v.] came to London, and Place helped him to put his essays on the ‘Formation of Character’ into shape. In 1812 Place met Bentham, and from 1814 used to write long weekly letters of London news to Mill and Bentham during their visits to Ford Abbey. Since 1804 Place had regularly subscribed to the educational schemes of Joseph Lancaster [q. v.], and in 1813 he helped to organise the West London Lancasterian Association. When the Royal Lancasterian Society became the British and Foreign School Society, Place was put upon the committee. But Burdett's ill-will and Place's notoriously ‘infidel’ opinions made his position in both societies difficult, and he left the West London committee in 1814 and the British and Foreign committee in 1815.
In 1817 Place prepared to give over his business to his eldest son, and went to stay some months with Bentham and Mill at Ford Abbey. Here he occupied himself in learning Latin grammar, and in putting together ‘Not Paul, but Jesus,’ from Bentham's notes. Sir Samuel Romilly [q. v.], who met him at Ford Abbey, wrote to Dumont: ‘Place is a very extraordinary person. … He is self-educated, has learned a great deal, has a very strong natural understanding, and possesses great influence in Westminster—such influence as almost to determine the elections for members of parliament. I need hardly say that he is a great admirer and disciple of Bentham's’ (Bain, Life of James Mill, p. 78).
Romilly was elected for Westminster in 1818, but Place, who was always a bitter opponent of the official whig party, did not support him. After Romilly's death, Place helped John Cam Hobhouse [q. v.], afterwards baron Broughton, as an independent reformer against George Lamb, Lord Melbourne's brother, the whig candidate. Lamb beat Hobhouse in February 1819, but was beaten by him in the general election of 1820.
Joseph Hume was introduced to Place by Mill about 1812, and Place used afterwards to collect much of the materials on which Hume founded his laborious parliamentary activity. The library behind the shop at 16 Charing Cross (where Place had gathered a splendid collection of books, pamphlets, and parliamentary papers) was a regular resort of the reformers in and out of parliament. An informal publishing business was carried on there by means of occasional subscriptions. Mill's essays from the supplement to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ and many tracts by Place and others were thus issued. Place sometimes wrote forcibly and well, but the greater part of the tracts, newspaper articles, and unpublished letters and manuscripts which he left behind him are diffuse, and often almost unreadably dull. His only published book is ‘The Principles of Population’ (1822), a reply to Godwin's ‘Enquiry,’ which contains some of his best work. He wrote two articles in the ‘Westminster Review,’ which are both in his dullest manner.
Place was more successful as a practical politician. He was no speaker, and disliked publicity; but he was untiring in providing members of parliament and newspaper editors with materials, in drafting petitions, collecting subscriptions, organising agitations, and managing parliamentary committees.
From 1820 to 1830 he was continually gathering facts and arguments on such questions as the libel laws, the Newspaper Stamp Acts, the laws against the freedom of political meetings and associations, the laws of creditor and debtor, the wool laws, the duties on printed cotton, the cutting and flaying acts, &c. From 1816 to 1823 he carried on a campaign against the sinking fund. His greatest triumphs were seen in 1824, when after ten years of almost unaided work, he succeeded in getting the laws against combinations of workmen repealed, and in 1825, when he prevented an intended re-enactment of them (see Webb, History of Trade Unionism, chap. ii.) By this time Place was beginning to be talked about, and an article in the ‘European Magazine’ of March 1826 states: ‘No one needs to be told that the whole popular liberties of this country, and, by connection and consequence, of the world, depend upon the electors of Westminster; and just as necessarily as the sinking of lead depends upon its weight, do these electors depend on Mr. Place, not only in the choice of the men whom they intrust as their representatives, but in the very subjects in which those men deal. When it is said that Sir Francis Burdett or John Cam Hobhouse made a proposition or a speech, thus or thus, there is a misnomer in the assertion; for the proposition or the speech belongs in justice to Mr. Place, and in all that demonstration of frantic freedom—that tumultuary tide of popularity which they propel—he is the influential luminary—the moon which stirs up the waters. … Look over the notices of motions, and see when Joseph [Hume] is to storm sixpence laid out in the decoration of a public work, or sack the salary of a clerk in a public office; and when you find that in a day or two it is to astonish St. Stephen's and delight the land, then go, if you can find admission, to the library of this indefatigable statesman, and you will discover him schooling the Nabob like a baby.’
In 1827 Place's first wife died, and he seems, at least for a time, to have estranged many of his friends by his second marriage in 1830. But after the introduction of the Reform Bill in 1831 his library again became the meeting-place of the more extreme reformers, and he and his friend, Joseph Parkes [q. v.], made active preparations during the crisis of May 1832 for the expected civil war. A placard drawn up by Place with the words ‘Go for Gold and stop the Duke,’ produced a partial run upon the Bank of England, and is said to have been one of the causes which prevented the Duke of Wellington from forming a government (see ‘The Story of Eleven Days,’ Contemporary Review, 1892).
After the passing of the Reform Bill Place's political influence rapidly declined. Westminster had been partially disfranchised by the 10l. clause, and no longer held the peculiar position which as a huge popular constituency it had occupied in the ‘borough-mongering’ days. Place himself lost the greater part of his fortune through the blunders of his solicitor in 1833, and was compelled to leave Charing Cross and take a house in Brompton Square. He helped, however, Joseph Parkes with the preparation of the municipal corporations report in 1835, and worked furiously, though vainly, to secure the complete abolition of the newspaper stamp at the time of its reduction to one penny in 1836. He and Roebuck published ‘Pamphlets for the People’ on these and other points in 1835. William Lovett [q. v.] and several other working-class leaders of the early chartist movement in London (1837–8) were his personal friends and disciples, and Place drafted at Lovett's request the ‘People's Charter’ itself (1838). But when once the chartist movement had begun, his influence over it was small. His individualist political opinions and the neo-malthusian propaganda which he had carried on by correspondence and conversation for nearly twenty years made Feargus O'Connor [q. v.], James [Bronterre] O'Brien [q. v.], and the other leaders of the chartists in the northern and midland counties hate him nearly as much as he hated them. At the same time being thoroughly disgusted with the weakness of Lord Melbourne's government after 1835, and with the refusal of the reformers in parliament (with the exception of Roebuck) to take up an independent attitude, he withdrew almost entirely from his parliamentary connection. The years between 1836 and 1839 were mostly spent on a long history of the Reform Bill, which remains (in manuscript) in the British Museum. In 1840 Place joined the Metropolitan Anti-Corn Law Association, and acted for some years as chairman of the weekly business committee. In 1844 he was attacked with what seems to have been a tumour on the brain, and, though he lived for ten more years, his health was always feeble. In 1851 he was separated from his second wife, and died in his eighty-third year, 1 Jan. 1854, at a house belonging to his daughters in Hammersmith.
From about 1814 till the time of his death Place carefully kept and indexed his political correspondence. In 1823, on the advice of Bentham, he commenced an autobiography which branched out into a series of long accounts of the corresponding society, the Westminster elections, the repeal of the anti-combination laws, and other political events in which he was concerned. All the accounts were illustrated by ‘guard books’ of documents. Seventy-one volumes of his manuscripts and materials are in the British Museum. The autobiography and letters are in the possession of his family.
It is difficult to convey the impression of almost incredible industry which one derives from a study of Place's manuscripts and correspondence. Through nearly the whole of his long life he began work at six in the morning, and sat often at his desk till late at night. That his political writings are not of greater value may be due partly to the fact that he did not get free from a very laborious and engrossing business till he was nearly fifty years old, partly to the fact that he habitually overworked, and was forced into a tired and mechanical style. His remains form an unequalled mine of information for the social history of this century, but he deserves to be remembered not so much for what he wrote as for what he did, and for the passionate sympathy and indomitable hope which was always the driving force of his activity.
[Place MSS. Brit. Museum, Add. MSS. 27789–27859; Principles of Population, 1822, and numerous pamphlets; Place Family papers; Bain's James Mill, pp. 77–9; Robert Owen's Autobiography, vol. i. a, p. 122; Webb's Hist. of Trade Unionism, chap. ii. For contemporary accounts of Place, besides that in the European Magazine (supra), see Chambers's Journal, 26 March 1836; Fraser's Mag. 1 April 1836 (with a portrait by Maclise); Monthly Mag., May 1836 (by ‘A. P.’ i.e. Richard Carlile); Northern Liberator, 30 Dec. 1837. A good appreciation of his life appeared in the Spectator of 7 Jan. 1854, and another in the Reasoner of 26 March 1854. A Life of Francis Place by Graham Wallas is in course of preparation.]