Just over the road, on the north side of Stamford Street where it meets Blackfriars Road, once stood the Rotunda; for a few short years nearly two centuries ago, this was the most influential social and political meeting space of its era.. Founded as a ‘Freethought Coliseum’ and debating club, with a capacity of 1000 people, sometime in the 1780s, the Rotunda stumbled through various owners and numerous uses, until it was taken over by Richard Carlile in 1830, when it entered a brief golden age. Carlile was a leading radical and freethinker in the 1820s and ’30s: famous/infamous, depending largely on how religious or orthodox you were politically, as a publisher and printer. Repeatedly jailed for re-publishing banned political works like the works of Tom Paine, and anti-religious texts, in a time when blasphemy laws were used regularly to silence anyone questioning christianity.
Carlile had also been at the forefront of the ‘War of the Unstamped Press’, in response to crippling government taxes on newspapers, designed to repress a huge explosion of radical and cheap newspapers aimed at the growing working classes. A huge movement evolved to produce, sell, smuggle these papers, evading a massive official effort to close them, through the 1820s and 30s… Carlile, and hundreds of others, were jailed, often over and over again, during this struggle, which ended with a victory, of sorts, with the reduction of the stamp, thus opening the way for a cheap popular press. From which we still benefit today (??!!)
Through the late 1810s, and the 1820s, Carlile had operated from several shops in Fleet Street, becoming one of the main focus points for a freethinking, radical self-educated artisan culture very powerful in London at this time… a culture that fed into the turbulent and rebellious working class movements of the 1830s and ‘40s.
In the late 1820s, Carlile had been eclipsed slightly as the most notorious rebel and blasphemer; he was bankrupt, his book sales were declining, and the radical movements that had erupted after the Napoleonic Wars were fizzling out. But Carlile had a gift for thinking big and doing the outrageous… In May 1830 he spent the vast sum of £1275 (he was skint, so he borrowed the whole sum!) to rent the Rotunda as a venue lectures on atheism (although a fait chunk of this went on cleaning and a paintjob, as the building had got somewhat run down)… The Rotunda’s location played some part in Carlile’s choice of venue, being 200 yards north of Rowland Hill’s chapel (on the junction of Blackfriars Road and Union Street, where the famous Ring later gave birth to modern boxing), a leading centre of religious revivalism of its day. Carlile and his collaborator Robert Taylor saw the Rotunda as the perfect counterblast to this famous chapel.
In cahoots with Carlile, at least for a while, was the ‘Reverend’ Robert Taylor, a former Church of England clergyman, who blended ultra-radical politics with a fierce opposition to religion. He was twice convicted of blasphemy, the first time in 1827 on an indictment for a blasphemous discourse at Salters' Hall and on another for conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion. Sentenced to one year's imprisonment, at Oakham gaol he met fellow-prisoner Carlile; after they were both released they went on a four months lecture tour in May 1829. At the Rotunda, Taylor preached in to large audiences dressed as a clergyman. Two ‘sermons on the devil’ in June 1830 gained him from Henry Hunt the title of ‘the devil's chaplain.’ He was described him “over the middle size, inclined to be stout, and of gentlemanly manners”…
Taylor’s Rotunda lectures were multi-media extravaganzas, enhanced by 12 zodiacal emblems painted on the dome overhead, and a large board carrying greek ‘hieroglyphs’, a merchanical pointer, an expensive illuminated globe and a clockwork orrery… he was also sometimes accompanied by a female chorus playing guitars. His ‘Divine Service’ was offered on Sundays: a burlesque on bible, it usually started with readings from scripture, expanding into a satire on the Anglican service. Taylor, unlike Carlile, leant strongly on theatre as a means of propaganda and saw it as a powerful lever of social change… They also disagreed on the demystifying power of satire and ridicule. Taylor’s Rotunda performances featured more and more burlesque and buffoonery, while Carlile always inclined to the more serious and moral style of lecture.
In 1830, southern England was rocked by the Swing riots: agricultural labourers smashed and burned threshing machines in a mass movement of riotous rebellion. The reputation of the Rotunda can be seen in the fact that Government ministers of the time blamed the Swing Riots on the influence of the Rotunda: this was certainly untrue, in that the revolts were sparked by immediate grievances. But the Rotunda was certainly feared by the powers that be. Taylor put on a play enthusing about the riots: called ‘Swing, or Who are the Incendiaries?’; but a year late the authorities got their own back, jailing Carlile for 30 months for defending the rioters in print.
In the early 1830s, there was growing pressure for parliamentary reform...
After Carlile was jailed for supporting the Swing rioters, the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) became the co-tenant of the Rotunda, in July 1831. They held mass debates here; according to leading London reformer (and police informer!) Francis Place: “I have seen hundreds outside the doors for whom there was no room within.”
[about the NUWC…]
Richard Carlile in fact was not a fan of the NUWC, though he sublet the Rotunda to them, he was much more of an individualist, and and not greatly convinced by either the idea of class struggle, or organizations in general. But he had other problems… including a growing rift between him and Robert Taylor. Carlile disapproved of Taylor’s levity and clowning, and his wild behaviour, heavy drinking, and consorting with what ‘serious’ radicals saw as unsavoury characters, although he admired his ability to hold mass audiences. Taylor’s spoofs on religious services became wilder and wilder, he dressed as a bishop, parodied church services, and made more and more outrageous blasphemous comments on christian rituals or the scriptures. As a result he was hauled up in court in July 1831 for preaching blasphemy, found guilty, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane gaol, with a hefty fine. His friends raised a subscription for him in September 1832.
This jail sentence actually caused a real split between Carlile and Taylor. Carlile thought radicals jailed for their ideas should be stoical martyrs: upstanding, unbending and morally correct. But Taylor was an unsatisfactory freethought martyr: he whined, wrote to the Prime Minister trying to get his sentence reduced, and got caught smuggling brandy into his cell.
Without Taylor’s appeal to large audiences, Carlile struggled to fill the Rotunda, though he continued lectures, with the Southcottian shoemaker John Zion Ward, and Carlile’s free love partner and feminist freethinker Eliza Sharples as speakers… But he just couldn’t put bums on seats, so he eventually gave up his lease on the Rotunda in March 1832. The building’s brief life as the pre-eminent radical political centre of its day was largely over (though the NUWC did continue to meet there).
Context of message: Solidarity to the Cuts Café. By past tense, October 14th 2012.