Thomas Spence was born in Newcastle in 1750 to a family of Scottish migrants, members of the Glasite church. He first worked as a teacher, inventing a new system of orthography intended to make it easier for the illiterate to learn to read and write. Many of his own later writings were also published in this orthography.
He was inspired by local attempts to defend common land against enclosure to develop 'Spence's plan': a utopian ideal of a society based on common ownership of land administered at parish level. His struggle to realise this utopia led him to publish his system in many forms throughout his life, gradually changing as his political experience increased, but always based on the idea that the rights of man could only be fully realised in such a system.
In the late 1780s Spence moved to London where he became a publisher and seller of political literature, and a manufacturer of and dealer in token coins. His coins served to illustrate and publicize his system and the political causes he became involved with. He was a member of the London Corresponding Society during the initial years of the French Revolution, and later associated with the clandestine United Britons. His attempts at synthesizing these experiences with his system included a version of the Jacobin 1793 constitution combined with communal land ownership, and praise of the self-management of the navy by the mutineers during the 1798 naval mutiny as a practical proof of the potential of the common man to run a society.
As a result of his publications he spent a large part of the 1790s and early 1800s in court or in prison, losing his coin business and his shop. Government repression eventually blocked all possibilities for radicals to organize publicly. Spence and his followers were reduced to spreading the word by chalking walls, popping up in pubs to sing subversive songs, and countermarking coins with slogans such as 'Spence's plan and full bellies'. Spence continued to publish versions of his Plan and Constitutions until he died unexpectedly in 1814. His funeral was followed by a procession handing out his tokens.
One of Spence's earliest projects was the creation of a phonetic alphabet to be used for teaching. Several of his political works were printed with both conventional English spelling and in his phonetic script; the phonetic versions are not hard to read but are difficult to transcribe and so only one example is included here: the introduction to Spence's Important Trial, which explains the rules of the system.
Spence's tokens (described in his Coin Collector's Companion) were often intended to illustrate the ideas in his printed works, and some of them are used in these pages for that purpose.
Publications while teaching in Newcastle:
- The Grand Repository of the English Language, Newcastle 1775
- The Repository of Common Sense and innocent Amusement, a series of penny pamphlets in the new script. No copies of these are known to exist.
- Property in Land: Everyone's Right, Newcastle 1775. The first formal presentation of Spence's Plan.
- The Poor Man's Advocate, Newcastle 1779. This pamphlet has been lost; but an article from it, A Lesson for the Sheepish Multitude was republished in 1795 in Pigs' Meat.
- The Pronouncing and Foreigners' Bible : Containing the Old and New Testaments; Being, Not Only the Properest Book for Establishing an Uniform and Permanent Manner of Speaking the Most Sonorous, Harmonious, and Agreeable English, London 1782. Only some proof sheets were ever printed.
- A Supplement to the History of Robinson Crusoe, being the History of Crusonia, or Robinson Crusoe's Island, down to the present time, Newcastle 1782. The first narrative version of Spence's plan, in a book for children and those learning to read.
- The Rights of Man in Verse, first published Newcastle 1783.
Publications as a bookseller and dealer in tokens in London:
- Pigs' Meat; Or, Lessons for the Swinish Multitude : Published in Weekly Penny Numbers, Collected by the Poor Man's Advocate (An Old Veteran in the Cause of Freedom) in the Course of His Reading for More Than Twenty Years. Intended to Promote Among the Labouring Part of Mankind Proper Ideas of Their Situation, of Their Importance, and of Their Rights, and to Convince Them That Their Forlorn Condition Has Not Been Entirely Overlooked and Forgotten, nor Their Just Cause Unpleaded, Neither by Their Maker Not by the Best and Most Enlightened of Men in All Ages., published in weekly instalments from August 1793 to 1795, then issued bound in 3 volumes. Included here are a selection of articles chosen by Spence himself and some of Spence's shorter writings published in Pig's Meat.
- Spence spent much of the years 1792-5 in court or in prison. A number of newspaper articles, songs, and letters reflect this.
- Rights of Man, including An interesting conversation (4th Edition, London 1793), The most widely known edition of Spence's Plan, first reprinted by Hyndman in 1882.
- The Marine Republic, included in Pig's Meat in 1794, and republished in modified form in The Giant-killer in 1814. The story is a reworking of the story of Crusonia, and includes the application of Spence's Plan to a ship.
- The coin collector's companion. Being a descriptive alphabetical list of the modern provincial, political, and other copper coins, London 1795. A scan of this work is available on archive.org. There is an addendum with a list of Spence's own tokens.
- The End of Oppression, or, a Quartern Loaf for Two Pence : Being a Dialogue Between an Old Mechanic and a Young One : Concerning the Establishment of the Rights of Man, London 1795
- A Fragment of an Ancient Prophecy, relating, as some think, to the Present Revolutions (being the fourth part of the End of Oppression), London 1796
- Spence's Recantation of the End of Oppression, London, 1796?
- The Meridian Sun of Liberty; Or, the Whole Rights of Man Displayed and Most Accurately Defined, in a Lecture Read at the Philosophical Society in Newcastle, on the 8th of November, 1775, to Which is Now First Prefixed, by Way of Preface, a Most Important Dialogue Between the Citizen Reader, and the Author, London 1796
- The Reign of Felicity, Being a Plan for Civilizing the Indians of North America without infringing on their national or individual independence, London 1796
- The Rights of Infants; Or, the Imprescriptable Right of Mothers to Such a Share of the Elements as is Sufficient to Enable Them to Suckle and Bring Up Their Young in a Dialogue Between the Aristocracy and a Mother of Children. to Which Are Added, by Way of Preface and Appendix, Strictures on Paine's Agrarian Justice, London 1797
- The Constitution of a Perfect Commonwealth: Being the French Constitution of 1793, amended and made entirely conformable to the Whole Rights of Man. 2nd Edition with a preface shewing how to study politics, London 1798
- The Whole End of Oppression, London 1801, a collection made up of older stock of the End of Oppression, The Meridian Sun, and Selections from Pigs' Meat, sold bound together in a hand-written wrapper.
- The Restorer of Society to its Natural State, London 1801
After his imprisonment for publishing the Restorer Spence was much more constrained in his publications. He had little money, and his token making business was ended. Openly radical groups like the London Corresponding Society had been forcibly closed or disbanded through attrition. Spence's strategy switched from advocacy of his plan as one part of general political education in a wider radical milieu, to direct advocacy of the Plan through an organized group, at first unnamed but inevitably referred to as the Spensonians, or later the Spensonian Philanthropists. Spence's new writings in this period (1803 - 1814) were now often published anonymously and as a part of the Spensonians' collective propaganda. However, he also continued to advertise and rework older writings and republish them under his own name (most importantly, the Constitution of Spensonia), and by 1814 his position had stabilised enough to begin publication of a new weekly, the Giantkiller.
- Spence's Songs, a series of pamphlets published for the Spencean Society, include 8 songs written at different times by Thomas Spence, as well as three short texts probably also by him.
- The Important Trial of Thomas Spence for a Political Pamphlet Intitled ‘The Restorer of Society to its Natural State’, London 1803, shows Spence using his trial to restate his Plan - and incidentally to republish the Restorer itself.
- The Constitution of Spensonia, a Country in Fairy-land, situated by Utopia and Oceana, brought from thence by Captain Swallow, as reprinted in the second edition of The Important Trial..., London 1807
- The world turned upside down, dedicated to Earl Stanhope, 1805
- Spence's Miscellanies, a pair of short pamphlets probably printed in 1807: A new and infallible way to make trade and A new and infallible way to make peace.
- The Giant Killer, or, Anti-Landlord, Issues 1 and 2, London 1814
Thomas Spence died on September 1st 1814. The funeral procession was led by his supporters, who continued to propagate his ideas.