Drummon Portrait Small
Francis Place (1771–1854) by Samuel Drummond, exh. RA 1833© National Portrait Gallery, London

Francis Place (1771-1854) was the son of Simon Place and Mary Gray. His father was a baker by trade, but became the keeper of a “sponging house” (debtor’s prison) in Vinegar Yard near Drury Lane Theatre, where Francis was born. In the 1780s Simon Place became an innkeeper, and was the landlord of the Kings Arms, on Arundel Street, near the Strand. During these years Francis was given some education, but in 1785 his father apprenticed him to a breeches maker in Bell Yard Temple Bar. Francis did well in the trade and was prosperous enough to marry Elizabeth Chadd in 1791 in Lambeth. Francis and Elizabeth Place would have fifteen children, only eight of which survived into adulthood.

A slump in the breeches trade in 1791-2 caused the Places great financial distress, and Place became involved in organizing a strike of breeches makers. During this period Place found it hard to get work and he used the time to read widely. In 1794, after reading The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine, Place was inspired to join the London Corresponding Society (LCS), a group dedicated to campaigning for parliamentary reform, annual parliaments, and universal suffrage. This was the year of the Treason Trials of Thomas Hardy, John Thelwall and John Horne Tooke, members of the LCS and Society for Constitutional Information who were acquitted of Treason. Later Place would recall that among the benefits of the Society was that it provided networking opportunities for its artisan members, who helped each other find work. Place became the secretary of the LCS and started keeping valuable records of their activities, which now form part of the Place collection in the British Library. Among these are a narrative of the founding of the London Corresponding Society by Thomas Hardy, with whom Place remained friends, and a draft of a memoir about Thomas Spence, the radical, as well as notes on the origin of the Pop Gun Plot. He resigned from his position as the chairman of the general committee in 1797, ostensibly because he disapproved of the violence of some of the members. Increasingly Place’s political position moved away from the ideas of Thomas Paine and towards those of William Godwin, who repudiated violence and revolutionary agitation.

Place Trade Card
Trade card of Francis Place, clothier © The Trustees of the British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

In March 1799 Place entered a partnership with Richard Wild in a tailor’s shop at 29 Charing Cross Road, and then the following year set up his own at 16 Charing Cross Road. After work each evening he dedicated himself to study and accumulated a large personal library at the back of his shop, which became a meeting place for friends and radicals, such as Jeremy Bentham, James Mill and David Ricardo.

Place kept meticulous records of the Westminster elections and studied their history, making him a valuable asset in political campaigns. Place played a decisive role in the Westminster elections of 1807, as one of a committee of men who successfully backed Sir Francis Burdett, providing Westminster with its first radical member. He also campaigned for the election of J.C. Hobhouse, although he would later become highly critical of their attitude to radical causes.

Meanwhile, Place’s tailor’s business thrived and by 1817 he was able to retire, handing over a business that made profits of £2500 per year to his son Francis. After his retirement he visited Jeremy Bentham and John Mill at Ford Abbey and became increasingly attracted to utilitarianism, abandoning the radical utopianism of the 1790s in favor of the political economy of the utilitarian circles. When in 1820 William Godwin wrote an attack on Thomas Malthus’s principle of population,

Daniel Maclise drawing of Francis Place
Daniel Maclise "The philosopher seated by his writing table"; from Fraser's Magazine. 1830-38. © The Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Place replied with Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, which was to be his only published work.[1] This work espoused the use of contraception in order to prevent the poor from having the financial burden large families, and was a foundational work of the birth-control movement.

In 1823 Place became, along with George Birkbeck, instrumental in founding the London Mechanic’s Institute – which later became Birkbeck College – to provide education for working people. In 1824 Place campaigned for the repeal of the Combination Act which had made strike action illegal. Throughout these years and into the 1830s Place was driven by the conviction that working people should be left to make their own choices and, given that freedom, would make decisions that were best for them, leading ultimately to their own improvement. His political activities frequently sought to oppose well-meaning interference on the part of the ruling classes, as in the case of his opposition to the temperance movement and his opposition to the parliamentary select committee on drunkenness in 1834.[2]

In 1827 Elizabeth Place died and three years later Francis married Louisa Chatterley, an actress twenty-six years younger than him. This was Louisa’s third marriage, after her first husband died of drink and her second husband was transported. In 1833 Place sustained some significant financial losses and was forced to move from his Charing Cross home to Brompton. Eventually this contributed to his withdrawal from political life, and without the private library where he would meet and talk to friends and collaborators it became increasingly difficult to stay in touch with the political world.

In 1831 Place was a prominent supporter of the First Reform Bill. When it was rejected by the House of Lords, he helped form the National Political Union as a moderate alternative to the more extremist National Union of the Working People. The aim was to assist the parliamentary ministers and to maintain a connection between the working people and the middle classes. When the Reform Act was passed in 1832, Place descried it as a beginning to the destruction of the old corrupt system of representation but was disappointed in the stipulation that the franchise would only be extended to householders who paid a yearly rent of £10 or more, thus depriving many Westminster electors of their votes.

He continued to campaign for a further extension of the franchise and in 1838 he helped draft the People’s Charter at a gathering of the London Working Man’s Association. Place soon became disillusioned with the Chartist movement, especially by the violence of its meetings and in his final decades dedicated himself to accumulating and organizing his papers with a view to writing a social history of his time. That never happened, but his papers remain a remarkable source of information on nineteenth-century life, including both political and cultural aspects of Place’s times.


[2] See Brian Harrison, “Two Roads to Social Reform: Francis Place and the 'Drunken Committee' of 1834” The Historical Journal Vol. 11, No. 2 (1968), pp. 272-300.