Friday, 24 August 2012

The Unlikely Upshot of Parkinson's Pop-Gun Plot

                             You may find this difficult to imagine but there was once an unpopular Tory government! In the early 1790s, some radicals were opposed to the policies of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, and Pitt and his Tories sought to silence dissent by changing the law – just imagine a Tory government trying to do that these days. An Act of 1351 had defined seven offences as high treason – including “imagining the King’s death” – crimes that were punishable by hanging, drawing and quartering. 

William Pitt the Younger

Pitt’s administration passed two new acts, The Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act and The Seditious Meetings Act, (known as ‘The Two Acts’) which redefined the crime of treason to include, amongst other things, bringing the Crown, the Constitution or the Government into contempt. One group opposed to The Two Acts was the London Corresponding Society for Reform of Parliamentary Representation (LCS), which was in favour of social reforms, including extending the franchise to include more working people. The LCS published pamphlets criticizing the government, an act seen by some as treasonable. One writer of these pamphlets, which included such titles as ‘Revolutions without Bloodshed’, was Doctor James Parkinson, who published under the pseudonym of ‘Old Hubert’. In October 1794, Parkinson was sworn under oath before Pitt and the Privy Council to explain his involvement in a plot to murder the King, George III. 

Pamphlet on the Pop-Gun Plot

This plot, called the Pop-Gun Plot, was, apparently, dreamed up by radicals who sought to assassinate the monarch and overthrow his government by shooting him in the neck with a poisoned dart, fired from an air gun. I say ‘apparently’ as it seems likely that it was, in fact, a rumour circulated by the government itself in order to garner popular support for more restrictive legislation. Dr Parkinson and four others - John Smith, George Higgins, Paul Thomas Le Maitre and Thomas Upton – all members of the LCS, were suspected of involvement in the Pop-Gun Plot and although the last four mentioned spent time in gaol, there was insufficient evidence to convict them and they were released without charge. 

Dr James Parkinson

Pitt’s Tories seemed to have had a thing about the threat posed to the King by air guns, as one was supposedly fired at George III as he went to open Parliament on October 29th 1795, breaking the window of his carriage. It was almost certainly broken by either a pebble or marble thrown at the carriage, but someone, somewhere, decided an air gun was involved. As the King travelled back to the Palace later in the day, his coach was again attacked by a mob, described as ‘all of the worst and lowest sort,’ who shouted anti-war slogans and insults at the King, including "No Pitt, No War, Bread, Bread, Peace, Peace!" There were five arrests made, although no trials followed, and there were rumours that the crowd had been incited by government agents provocateur – again, could you imagine such things happening today?

Title Page - J Parkinson The Villager's Friend and Physician 1804

Maybe the threat of seven years transportation (the penalty for sedition) scared Dr Parkinson, as he reined in his political tendencies and devoted more time to his other passions – medicine and palæontology.  In line with his political affiliations, he wrote The Villager’s Friend and Physician (1804), a work intended for a popular market that promoted preventative medicine and that sold for a shilling. 

Title Page - J Parkinson An Essay on the Shaking Palsy 1817

Parkinson was a surgeon rather than a physician, and wrote some important works describing physical conditions, including a paper on gout (1805), appendicitis and the effects of perforation as a cause of death (1812) and an essay on the shaking palsy (1817) – this condition was renamed by the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot as Parkinson’s Syndrome some 60 years later, and it from this that Parkinson’s name is most popularly known today.

Title page - J Parkinson Organic Remains of a Former World 1804

In time, Parkinson spent more of his time on the emerging field of geology. and on palæontology in particular. Frustrated by the lack of descriptive literature on the subject, Parkinson embarked on writing a three-volume introduction to the study of British fossils Organic Remains of a Former World (published in 1804, 1808 and 1811), a work highly praised by Gideon Mantell who used the illustrative plates in works of his own. Parkinson was among the thirteen original founders of the Geological Society of London, which had its first meeting on November 13th 1807 and received its Royal Charter in 1825. It is hard to overemphasise the popularity of geology amongst gentlemen scholars in the early nineteenth century – at one time membership of the Geological Society threatened to outstrip that of the Royal Society, and fossil hunting became a very respectable pastime for men and women alike.

Fossil Crinoids - from J Parkinson Organic Remains of a Former World  Vol 2 1808

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