Spence, Thomas

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Spence, Thomas (1750-1814): English, Political Journalist.

From 1775 until his death in 1814, the radical pamphleteer Thomas Spence promoted his utopian “Plan” for social reform based on the abolishment of land ownership. Although his ideas gained no widespread acceptance during his lifetime, they exerted an influence on working-class movements throughout the nineteenth-century.

Spence’s convictions spring, in part, from his humble origins as the son of a Newcastle netmaker. He worked as an office clerk and then a schoolteacher. After presenting a paper advocating the formation of an egalitarian society in 1775, Spence was expelled from the Newcastle Philosophical Society. According to Spence’s plan, land would be commonly held by all members of the parish. Individual citizens would pay rent for land use into a fund to provide infrastructure; additional profits would be returned to rent-payers.

In 1792, Spence moved to London, where he found a broader acceptance for his views. He became a member of the radical “London Corresponding Society” in 1793. Disappointed that the public did not embrace his plan as a rational solution to social inequality, he became convinced of the necessity of violent revolution to effect land reform. He was imprisoned on several occasions. Between 1790 and 1803, Spence wrote pamphlets prolifically and published his weekly periodical Pig’s Meat (1793-95). Several versions of Spensonia, his utopia based on the “Plan,” appeared during this period. In the decade prior to his death, Spence published little. From 1807, however, a circle of radicals gathered around him, forming the “Society of Spencean Philanthropists,” which continued to agitate after his death in 1814.

Further reading:

H. G. Klaus, “Thomas Spence: Description of Spensonia (1795),” H. Heuermann, B.-P. Lange, eds., Die Utopie in der angloamerikanischen Literatur: Interpretationen, 1984: 60-79.

Janet Bertsch