The whole scheme turned out a grotesque failure. One of the conspiring gang gave Lord Harrowby warning of what was in preparation. Lord Harrowby showed prudence and judgment; he did not seem to take any notice of the information given to him, and the preparation for his dinner went on in the natural way, only, perhaps, a little more ostentatiously. When the hour for dining came, and the guests did not come, the conspirators who were set to watch the house took no notice of the fact. It so chanced that the Archbishop of York, who lived next door, happened to be giving a dinner party that same evening, and some of the conspirators who were set to keep watch on Lord Harrowby's house were for a time puzzled and mystified by the rapid and frequent arrival of carriages. It had been arranged that, at a certain -appointed hour, the men who were to do the actual deeds of murder were to be warned that the time was arriving, and were to hasten to the spot. These men were now assembled in a stable and a room or two above it in Cato Street, off the Edgware Road, near Hyde Park. By the time the conspirators entrusted with the keeping of watch over Lord Harrowby's house had come to make up their minds that there was to be no Ministerial dinner there after all it was quite too late to give warning to their colleagues in Cato Street. These colleagues had, indeed, been warned already. The police had turned out and the soldiers had been sent for; but the soldiers were not prompt in getting to the scene of action - there had been some delay about the giving of proper orders; in fact, it was a night of mistakes on the part alike of authority and assassination. The police, without the assistance of the soldiers, endeavoured to capture the men in Cato Street; but Thistlewood and about a dozen others were able to make their escape before the soldiers came on the ground; and Thistlewood stabbed one of the policemen through the heart. When the soldiers came at last, they captured the few remaining conspirators, some nine or ten in number, with their weapons, their ammunition, and no doubt the formidable bags in which the heads of murdered Ministers were to be securely stowed away.
The London Gazette, the official publication, which came out next morning, contained the proclamation of a reward of £1,000 for the capture of Thistlewood. London was thrown for the time into profound consternation; the general conviction was that the Cato Street movement was but the first act of some vast revolutionary organisation, which the very fact of a first failure might render only the more ferocious and desperate. But before the alarmed citizens had time to get hold of the Gazette the principal conspirator was already in the hands of those whom he would himself probably have described as the minions of a despotic government. When Thistlewood escaped from the garret in Cato Street he quietly went to the house of a friend at Moorfields, and there got a night's lodging and betook himself to bed. He was still unheroically slumbering when he was aroused before eight o'clock in the morning by the emissaries of the law, and there was an end of the Cato Street Conspiracy.
That, at least, was the end of the conspiracy. The conspirators had yet to be dealt with. While they were lying in prison awaiting their trial, the King, who had been in bad health at Brighton, sent up for delivery his speech on the dissolution of Parliament on the 18th of March. It was natural, of course, that the King and his Ministers should make the very most of what had happened; but still the passage from the speech which referred to the Cato Street business was couched in such language as might have been applied to some widely-spread, vast conspiracy, gravely imperilling all the best institutions of the country, and not to the insane and fantastic plot of a handful of men, wholly unsupported by any following worth mentioning in an obscure corner of London. "Deeply as his Majesty laments that designs and practices such as those you have been recently called upon to repress should have existed in this free and happy country, we cannot sufficiently commend the prudence and firmness with which you directed your attention to the means of counteracting them." Then the speech goes on to say: "If any doubt had remained as to the nature of those principles by which the peace and happiness of the nation were so seriously menaced, or of the excesses to which they were likely to lead, the flagrant and sanguinary conspiracy which has lately been detected must open the eyes of the most incredulous, and must vindicate to the whole world the justice and expediency of those measures to which you thought it necessary to resort in defence of the constitution and the laws of the kingdom".
The fact is that the kind of measures to which the King's speech especially refers had been the very means of driving senseless men on to the crimes which the laws condemn. The manner in which the Manchester meeting was dealt with, and the protection which the law afforded to such measures, became the stimulating impulse to the crimes of which this notorious gang were guilty. It may now be taken as an axiom in the principles of government that over-repression of popular agitation inevitably leads to conspiracy.
While Thistlewood was still in prison and untried an absurd plot suddenly exploded in Scotland, a country where one might have thought there was the least possible likelihood of a merely fantastic conspiracy finding a home. This business began with the posting of proclamations - no one knew by whom they were posted - on the walls all over Glasgow, inviting the people to prepare themselves for the accomplishment of a revolution and commanding a cessation of all labour. The very fact that nobody knew who had posted the proclamations, gave them an additional importance; everybody looked to everybody else for explanation; and as no one had any explanation to give, the natural conclusion in alarmist minds was that there must be some deeply-rooted, widespread revolutionary movement going on. Nothing more terrible in the way of revolution made itself seen than the appearance of a body of armed men, who called on one of the Stirlingshire Yeomanry to surrender his weapon. The man thus challenged contrived to get back to Kylsyth, near which the armed conspirators had made their appearance, and he gave the alarm. A small body of troops was despatched, and they soon came upon the conspirators, who refused to surrender, and fired some shots, but were very soon disarmed and overpowered. Some of the conspirators were wounded, and about nineteen arrests were made, and the collision obtained the high-sounding name of the battle of Bonnymuir. Many of the unfortunate creatures who joined in this armed movement had been deluded into the belief that a great rebellion was coming on; that an army of rebels, several thousands strong, was within hail; and that they had better, for their own safety, take part at once with the forces of revolution. Nothing came of the whole business, which even in those days of severity called for no more than a light sentence on the few who were convicted and whom it was thought worth while to punish at all. After the battle of Bonnymuir, Scotland stood just where it did before. Yet the alarm that was spread through the country was as genuine and deep as it was vague and unfounded. Miss Martineau, in her "History of the Peace," has given a description, at once amusing and instructive, of the state of public feeling in many districts after the Cato Street Conspiracy. "Those," she says, "who are old enough to have a distinct recollection of those times, are astonished now to think how great was the panic which could exist without any evidence at all; how prodigious were the radical forces, which were always heard of but never seen; how every shabby and hungry-looking man met on the road was pronounced a radical; how country gentlemen, well armed, scoured the fields and lanes, and met on heaths to fight the enemy who never came; and how, even in the midst of towns, young ladies carried heavy planks and ironing boards to barricade windows, in preparation for sieges from thousands of rebels, whose footfall was long listened for in vain, through the darkness of the night." Miss Martineau winds up her description by telling us how this imaginary state of the times was used by the alarmists as an argument against popular education, among other purposes to which it was turned, the plea being that the leaders of the radicals having circulated proclamations, must be able to write, and that this fact sufficiently proved the necessity of keeping the discontented dumb.