The strange case of the “wooden sword conspirators”

By Maxime Chouinard

1830s London was a dangerous place, full of ruffians, bludgers, street gangs and… apparently fencers! This article deals with a rather strange and comical event that took place in March of 1832 in London, when a group of men practicing broadsword fencing were arrested by the police.

On the night of March 27th, Williamson, the superintendant of London’s T Division, reported that he had heard noise while patrolling the streets of Glasshouse Court, in Goodman’s Field. Upon approaching, he overheard a man calling “right cheek, left cheek” which he recognized as commands given while fencing in the military.

He immediately called on for reinforcements, and as they arrived and approached closer, the constables heard “right protect, left protect” confirming their doubts that someone was practicing the “old broadsword exercise”. They took ladders and climbed to the room where they found 6 men practicing fencing with wooden swords and a target inscribed with six cuts hanging on the wall. There is little doubt from reading this description that they were following the cutting diagram developed by Le Marchant in 1796.

The six cuts according to Le Marchant

The lessons were given by Michael Murphy, a tobacco cutter who was born in Ireland, but brought up in London. From the testimonies of the accused, published in the Morning Chronicle of March 29th 1832, we learn that Murphy served in the British Navy from 1806 to 1815, ending up in a French prison. Upon his release, he joined the 13th Light Dragoons where he stayed four years. Friends later convinced him to teach the broadsword exercise as he was taught in the military. He charged two pence per session, and upon joining each member had to also become a member of the National Union of Working Class (more on that later on).

“Private examination of the wooden sword conspirators.” Figaro, 1832

The men arrested included of course Murphy, but also Thomas Strickland, a master ivory turner, Arthur Walker, an engraver, Robert Cowie, a Scottish carpenter, another carpenter by the name of Henry Spark, and John Peck, a bricklayer.

Lessons went on around 8PM for an hour and a half, at candlelight, and costed two shillings per quarter and one pence per lesson in order to pay for the rent. Murphy taught in order to help take care of his family, while Walker said that the students took the lessons as a form of recreation after the business of the day. All of the students were neophytes, with Strickland commenting that “We knew as much about a sword as a sword knew about us.” ( The Morning Chronicle, March 29th 1832). Cowie admitted to being familiar with Singlestick (the sticks themselves are never called such), but found the sword exercise awkward, and said it was carried mostly through words of command.

The Poor man’s guardian’s cartoonish take on the arrest. Poor Man’s Guardian, April 14th 1832

Among the evidence brought before the court was the target lined with the six cuts drawn in chalk, as well as sticks and nine wooden swords shaped to ressemble broadswords. It seems from the testimony that the wooden swords were used for drills, with the men taking turn “fencing against chalk” meaning they followed the cutting target, giving the cuts and parries as Murphy commanded. It seems the sticks were kept for paired exercices and possibly freeplay, though it is never clearly mentioned in the testimonies.

The classes were organized by a certain bookseller named Mr. Watson. This was probably James Watson, a well known publisher, activist and Chartist. Watson was one of the main figures of the National Union of Working Class, which sought to extend the right of vote in Britain, as well as push for better work conditions. Watson was arrested numerous times for selling banned books, as well as the Poor Man’s Guardian, one of the leading unstamped left wing paper of the time. The Poor Man’s was one of the newspapers which heavily ridiculed the authorities for what seemed like a vastly overpowered response to an imaginary threat.

James Watson

No doubt that the police response was motivated not only by the fencing itself, but by the association of the group with Watson and the NUWC. In 1832, a cholera epidemic was striking London for the first time, and the desperate authorities called for a national period of fasting and praying, believing that the disease was a divine punishment and that the population should seek to repent. This led to a strong response by the NUWC, who organized feasts all over London to protest and ridicule the measure. This lead to several arrests, including that of Watson. In that context, the authorities were probably on the alert, seeking to quell any signs of an organized rebellion.

This article from the Bristol Mercury and Baily Post , April 7th, 1832, resumes the whole context quite well.

While fencing was practiced in Britain, it was mostly done by the middle and upper classes. The working class would rather practice Singlestick, and only learn fencing in the military. This is probably what pushed the police to react so severely, as they could not imagine workers in a London slum- and morse so affiliated to a known activist group- practicing fencing for anything else but organized rebellion. The accused mentioned in their defense that they were only doing so for leisure, and never learned other (probably more useful) military skills such as marching.

Nevertheless, it took a rather long time for the whole affair to conclude, as by August 11th 1833- more than a year after their arrest- the charges were finally dropped against the supposed conspirators. And thus ended one of the strangest events in fencing history.

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