DESPARD, Col. Edward Marcus. Autograph Letter Signed to William Wickham, Under Secretary of State at the Home Office, enquiring about allowances granted to state prisoners. Also a memorandum on the subject by the Duke of Portland, initialled by William Pitt. Written from Coldbaths Fields Prison, 15th May, 1799.


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Two pages folio and quarto, address leaf, seal and dockets. With an engraved portrait of Col. Despard published by Jas. Parry. Edward Marcus Despard (1751 – 21 February 1803), an Irish officer in the service of the British Crown, gained notoriety as a colonial administrator for refusing to recognise racial distinctions in law and, following his recall to London, as a republican conspirator. Despard’s associations with the London Corresponding Society, the United Irishmen and United Britons led to his trial and execution in 1803 as the alleged ringleader of a plot to assassinate the King.

Colonel Edward Marcus Despard (1751-1803) was born at Kilbricken, Mountrath, County Laois and came from a family with a strong military tradition. After joining the army as an engineer he saw service in the West Indies, on the Spanish Main, and in the Bay of Honduras, where he was appointed superintendent of the British Colony at Belize. Both he and his friend Horatio Nelson were commended by Captain Polson who wrote in his despatch to the Governor of Jamaica: “There was scarcely a gun fired but what was pointed by Captain Nelson of the Hinchinbrooke, or Lieutenant Despard, chief engineer, who had exerted himself on every occasion”. Despard became unpopular with the local officials of Honduras, and was recalled to England in 1790 to answer charges brought against him. Although subsequently exonerated he became thoroughly disillusioned by such treatment and thereby entered into radical politics. By the end of 1799 his radicalism was replaced by militant republicanism and he was pivotal in forming the Society of United Britons. In the Spring of 1798 he was arrested and imprisoned in Coldbath Fields Prison without any accusation being made against him. Lord Cloncurry visited him there and found him in a cell only six feet by eight, poorly furnished, without fireplace or window. While in prison he attempted to secure his release for voluntary transportation, as is evidenced in this letter. He was kept in gaol until 1800, and when he came to see Lord Cloncurry in London “he looked like a man risen from the grave”, and declared that “though he had not seen his country for thirty years, he never ceased thinking of it and its misfortunes, and that the main object of his visit to me was to disclose his discovery of an infallible remedy for the latter - a voluntary separation of the sexes, so as to leave no future generation obnoxious to ‘oppression’. By now he was a soured and embittered man and engaged (it was alleged) in a conspiracy against the Government.

According to the evidence given at his trial by spies, Despard’s idea was to win over some of the soldiers of the guards, and with their help to seize the Tower of London and the Bank of England, assassinate the King on his way to open Parliament, and stop the mails going out of London. The whole plan was so ridiculous that no right-minded person could take it seriously; but the government did and arrested Despard and forty labouring men and soldiers, who were mostly Irish, at the Oakley Arms, Lambeth, 16 Nov., 1802. He was tried with twelve of his poor associates in February the following year. Found guilty of high treason, he was condemned to death along with six of his associates. The most interesting evidence given at his trial was that of his comrade Lord Nelson as to character, who said, referring to the days of the San Juan expedition: “We went on the Spanish Main together ... In all that period of time no man could have shown more zealous attachment to his Sovereign and his country, than Colonel Despard did. I formed the highest opinion of him at that time, as a man and an officer ... he is certainly one of the brightest ornaments of the British Army”. After his condemnation Despard refused to attend chapel or receive the sacrament and on the 21 Feb., 1803 he was hanged, drawn, and quartered at Newington Gaol. His remains were handed to his widow, who was present at the execution, and were buried in St. Paul’s churchyard. Despard was 48 years of age; and Cloncurry very decently maintained his widow for the rest of her life in his house at Hazelhatch.

Despard appeared as a character in the fifth (2015) series of the popular British television drama Poldark, played by Vincent Regan.



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