Hammersmith, with its riverside factories and wharves, was badly bombed during the Second World War – but that’s a story for another blog post. Amongst the postwar concrete of the immediate area around Hammersmith tube station, a few older buildings and facades remain: a Georgian building that now houses a Chinese restaurant, rows of 19th Century villas leading down towards the river, and the splendid Gothic church of St Paul, built from a distinctive pinkish stone.
Today St Paul’s also has a modern extension, and is surrounded by a pleasant green space full of blossom trees, a magnet for workers from nearby shops and offices during their lunch breaks. As with so many green spaces in built up areas of London, this piece of land was once a burial ground – indeed, archaeologists uncovered many burials during the construction of the church’s extension in 2009-10. Only a small number of gravestones remain, clustered by the church’s tower, tucked away in a corner of the churchyard.
One of these gravestones – pictured above – is protected by English Heritage, not because the men whose grave it marked were rich or illustrious but because of how they died, and how their friends and colleagues chose to commemorate their deaths. Richard Honey and George Francis were ordinary working men who met an untimely end when trouble flared at the funeral of George IV’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, on 14th August 1821.
Caroline Amelia Elisabeth of Brunswick was a German princess, a first cousin of George IV (her mother had been the sister of George III). She became engaged to the future George IV in 1794. George was already secretly married to Maria Fitzherbert, though this match was not legal as George had not sought the permission of his father the King to marry, as set out in the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. This Act had come into existence to prevent members of the Royal Family from marrying anyone deemed unsuitable after George III’s brother married a commoner, Anne Horton, in 1771.
George III refused to give financial help to his debt-ridden, wayward heir unless he got married. Caroline of Brunswick was considered a suitable match and she and George were engaged despite having never met. Concerns about Caroline’s suitability were first raised when the diplomat Lord Malmesbury went over to Brunswick to bring Caroline over to England for the wedding. Malmesbury expressed reservations about Caroline’s lack of tact and poor personal hygiene. Nevertheless, Caroline made the journey over to England, arriving in Greenwich on 5th April 1795.
The marriage between Caroline and George was a disaster from the start. Both parties were immediately repelled by the other. George, upon seeing Caroline for the first time, simply called for a glass of brandy. He was extremely drunk during the wedding ceremony. It was rumoured that Caroline had been suggested as a possible bride by George’s mistress at the time, Lady Jersey, in the hope an unappealing wife would ensure that George continued his relationship with his mistress.
Caroline gave birth to a girl, Princess Charlotte Augusta, on 7th January 1796, nine months after the wedding. By this time, rumours were already circulating about the poor state of the royal marriage and in April 1796 the couple formally separated. Princess Charlotte did not live with her mother, but Caroline visited her often. Caroline also brought a number of other children into her household. One of these children, a little boy called William Austin, was alleged to be Caroline’s illegitimate son. This claim led to Caroline being subjected to investigations over her fidelity, during which time she was unable to see her daughter. The accusations of infidelity were not able to be proved, but Caroline became increasingly isolated socially and left England for mainland Europe in 1814.
Caroline settled in Italy, where a man called Bartolomeo Pergami was hired as her servant. Pergami rose to become the head of Caroline’s household, and before long scurrilous rumours about Caroline’s relationship with him began to spread back in England. In 1817, Princess Charlotte tragically died in childbirth at the age of 21. George declined to inform Caroline of their daughter’s death, and Caroline only heard the news by chance from a passing courier.
By this time, George was keen to divorce Caroline, something which could only be done if one of the parties admitted or was found guilty of adultery. After the death of George III in 1820, Caroline returned to England to assert her rights as Queen, and it was then that George intensified his efforts to legally end their marriage.
What followed was an infamous, highly publicised trial that sought to prove Caroline guilty of adultery with Pergami. However, what George and his government had not considered was Caroline’s popularity with the general public. George was deeply unpopular – he was seen as an incompetent drunk – whereas Caroline was viewed as the wronged wife. Many petitions, altogether collecting around a million signatures, were collected supporting Caroline’s cause. The Bill of Pains and Penalities, which sought to remove all of Caroline’s priveliges and titles as George’s wife, was defeated in the House of Lords.
During the trial, Caroline had brought her household to Hammersmith, to Brandenburgh House, a grand residence that had recently been vacated by the Margravine of Anspach. Caroline quickly became popular with local residents, and it is said that when the Bill of Pains and Penalties was defeated, “the Hammersmith tradesmen who served her illuminated their houses, and the populace shouted and made bonfires in front of Brandenburgh House. After her acquittal, the poor queen publicly returned thanks for that issue in Hammersmith Church, and more deputations came to Brandenburgh House to congratulate her on her triumph.” (source)
Media coverage of the trial was huge, and hugely sensational. The Radical politican William Cobbett took up Caroline’s cause. A biography of Cobbett states that “from the moment of Caroline’s arrival in England, [Cobbett] constituted himself her champion.” (G.D.H. Cole – The Life of William Cobbett, p.166) Cobbett and his Radical colleagues were able to utilise the popular press in support of Caroline’s cause, with papers and news sheets being printed in large numbers and distributed far and wide.
The story, according to Cobbett, reached “every cottage in the Kingdom”. It arrived there via a news-chain. At the top of the chain were the newspapers, which sold only a few thousand because the stamp duty kept their price at 7d (though the Times doubled its sales to 20,000 during the queen’s trial by supporting her with more enthusiasm than its rivals). Those papers were lent out by libraries, read out in taverns and rented by the hour” (source)
This was a watershed moment for politics – for the first time, masses of ordinary people were engaged with a political matter and due to the pressures of public opinion, the Bill was defeated and the support of the public led to Caroline emerging victorious against her unpopular husband.
Sadly, Caroline did not long survive the defeat of the Bill of Pains and Penalties. Three weeks after George IV’s ostentatious coronation, at which Caroline had been noisily refused entry to the ceremony, Caroline died. She had fallen ill soon after the coronation, dying either of cancer or an intestinal obstruction on 7th August 1821. She was 53 years old.
Caroline’s funeral posed a problem for George and his government. Caroline’s will had instructed that she be buried in her native Brunswick, and it was feared that the procession of her coffin from Brandenburgh House through London to the port of Harwich would draw unruly crowds. An attempt was made to divert the cortege’s route outside of London, but angry crowds gathered to block routes out of the city, forcing the procession through the middle of the city. The chaos that ensued led to troops firing on the crowds, and two men – Richard Honey and George Francis – were killed.
The Manchester Guardian (18th August 1821) reported that:
It became necessary [for the Guards] to force a way for the procession through whatever impediments might present themselves. The people were equally bent on turning the procession, and forcing it into the route of the city. Here a contest arose, and here, we deeply regret to say, blood was shed!
Some stones and mud were thrown at the military, and a magistrate being present, the soldiers were sanctioned in firing their pistols and carbines at the unarmed crowd. Screams of terror were heard in every direction. The number of shots fired was not less than forty or fifty. So completely did the soldiery appear at this period to have lost the good temper and forbearance they previously evinced, that they fired shots in the direction in which the procession was moving.
The two men who lost their lives were ordinary working men. Here the story might have ended, with the men disappearing into a common grave and eventually being forgotten. However, the dead men’s friends and colleagues raised money to provide the large headstone which still survives today. The stirring, daring inscription reads:
Although organised labour as we would recognise it today was then in its infancy – in the early 1820s trade unions were officially illegal – the inscription on this large tombstone, paid for by the donations of ordinary working people, shows the solidarity between Caroline’s working class supporters and their determination that their fallen comrades would not be forgotten.
The inquest into the deaths recorded a verdict of “wilful murder against a life guardsman unknown” for Francis and manslaughter for Honey, who unlike Francis did not die at the scene but succumbed a few hours later to his injuries. The fact that no individual was ever named or prosecuted for the deaths was picked up upon by commentators at the time, as the cartoon below shows.
Brandenburgh House is long gone, demolished not long after Caroline’s death, but Hammersmith has not forgotten her. Queen Caroline Street runs close to St Paul’s church where the two shot men lie at rest, even though their surroundings are completely changed from that of the little riverside churchyard they were orignally buried in. Their grave is well worth a visit to see the inscription, a moving example of solidarity amongst the working classes.
For a more detailed account of Caroline’s scandalous trial and its political fallout, I recommend the entertaining book “Rebel Queen” by Jane Robins.
This post originally appeared on Historical Trinkets on 13th August 2012.