The life of land reformer and political activist Thomas Spence is commemorated in his home city of Newcastle with a plaque on the Quayside where he was born, in 1750, and later ran a school. Its mounting in 2010 ended a 10-year campaign by the trust established in Spence’s name. One of net maker Jeremiah Spence’s nineteen children, Thomas Spence entered the world in turbulent times with land clearances and industrialisation pushing people off the land and into the factories.
After initially working alongside his father, Spence became a teacher. Disturbed by the poverty he saw all around him it wasn’t long before he began to agitate for improvements. At aged 15 he published and sold his pamphlet, The Real Rights of Man. This was inspired by a lawsuit between the freemen (a person who enjoys political and civil liberties) and Newcastle Corporation over the use of common land. It was to be the first of many pamphlets Spence was to be involved with until his death in 1814.
He agitated for all land to be held in common ownership by each parish. People were to be given their own plots on which to grow the necessities of life with profits from the rents to be employed to support local services such as libraries and schools. Having secured the vast majority of land for themselves in 1066 and during Henry the VIII’s reign with the dissolution of the monasteries, then the large landowners were not going to allow Spence’s idea’s to gain the converts he needed to turn theory into practice. By 1794 he was facing high treason charges in court. There he took up Thomas Paine’s arguments against hereditary aristocracy by following it to a natural conclusion in arguing for the end of private property in land. He was given seven months at his majesty’s pleasure, but imprisonment failed to curb a man whose favourite slogan was “dare to be free”.
Further spells in prison followed as Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger sought to eradicate radical ideas in Britain by suspending Habeas Corpus on many occasions. Nothing though failed to dampen Spence’s enthusiasm to improve the lot of the workingman, leading him to publish the Grand Repository of the English Language. In this he outlined a new phonetic system of learning under which the written word resembled that of the spoken.
“He wanted to give the working man a chance to read as he was convinced that once they were able to do so they would want to overthrow the tyranny under which they toiled” says Joan Beal, a Sheffield University professor.
Newcastle born poet Keith Armstrong and founder of the Spence Trust said he was “delighted to see a plaque on the spot where this great man of principle lived and worked. Hopefully it will mean that those who pass it and who have never previously heard of Spence will take the time in the future to find out more about him”.
According to Newcastle Labour Councillor Nigel Todd it would be great if more people did find out about Spence as the “issues he tried to resolve over two hundred years ago remain in place today with the vast majority of land still owned by very few people, who are the descendants of the major landowners from back then.” A fact which means that today Britain has the most imbalanced land ownership package in the world, with 64% of all land owned by just 0.28% of the population. To make matters worse, most are beneficiaries of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy programme of farming subsidies.