Utopia Britannica - British Utopian Experiments 1325 - 1945

Egality! liberty! poetry!

Gazetter entry
Worldwide revolutionary conspiracy?
Percy Bysshe Shelley, the son of minor Sussex landed gentry was something of a troublemaker from the start - expelled from Oxford for amongst other things sending copies of The Necessity of Atheism to all the bishops & heads of college. At Oxford he was given a copy of the Histoire du Jacobinsme, a witch-hunting attack on a continental secret society known as the illuminists - a group dedicated to spreading a worldwide revolutionary conspiracy. The illumiinists' doctrine was one of militant egalitarianism dedicated to the destruction of private property, religion and 'superstitious' social forms such as marriage. Shelley wrote a letter to Leigh Hunt the editor of The Examiner suggesting that a society should be set up along the lines of the illuminists to co-ordinate all the different reform groups active in England at the time. Shelley received no reply to his letter - but a vision of a 'completely-equalized community' was firmly planted in his mind.

Shelley scandalised his family by eloping with Harriet Westbrook, the daughter of a coffee house owner - in his family's eyes tantamount to marrying a servant. Shelley was now beginning to move in Radical circles, in 1812 he went to Dublin and immersed himself in the cause for Irish liberation. This was a Dublin still reeling from the defeat of Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen in the 1790s and the English repression that followed. Shelley published two pamphlets during his Irish stay; An Address to the Irish People and Proposals for an Association of Philanthropists. Both showed a naive comprehension of the complexities of Irish politics, something that Shelley was to eventually realise. He was invited to speak to a meeting at the Fishamble Theatre. Here the pale young Englishman, still barely 19, spoke to several hundred 'respectable' Irishmen & women. They listened for over an hour, cheering loudly whenever he expressed anti-English sentiment or attacked the Prince Regent, but booing & hissing with equal enthusiasm when he brought up political and religious reform. In the audience were two informers working for the English who sent a report of the meeting to Lord Sidmouth's Home Office.

Rendezvous for the friends of liberty
The Shelleys left Dublin feeling demoralised, in need of respite and a place to relax and recover from their Irish agitation they found themselves looking around the substantial country house and estate of Nantgwillt a few miles west of the town of Rhayader in central Wales. Within a mere 48 hours they had fallen in love with the romantic charm of the place and instigated negotiations to take a lease on the property.

Nantgwillt C1900


Shelley set about writing to his father for an advance on his inheritance so he could enter into the lease. He also wrote to his 'friends of liberty & truth' painting a vision of the possibility for a commune of romantic radicals `...embosomed in the solitude of mountains, woods and rivers, silent, solitary and old... ' For eight weeks while Shelley tried to convince the estate staff of the merit of his egalitarian scheme, introducing communal meals and talking of self-fulfilment & the betterment of man, Dan Healy - an Irish orphan taken in by the Shelleys - would ride to and from the mail-coach with correspondence. Neither money nor companions seemed to be forthcoming. His father sent a curt refusal of help. Other friends were promptly written to, to try and raise a loan. On top of all these setbacks Shelley was worried about his wife's declining health. He was also growing increasingly worried over the fate of a case of his Irish pamphlets that was supposed to have been delivered to Miss Hitchener a friend in Sussex. The case had in fact been opened at customs in Holyhead and the nature of its contents relayed to the Home Office. This was duly noted and added to Mr Shelley's file and a watch put on his 'acquaintance'.
In the end too many complications piled up on one another and sank the scheme - not only could Shelley find no-one to back him financially, but the value of the stock and chattels on the estate had been doubled, and anyway he would have been unable to sign the lease himself, as he was still a minor. On the 7th June the little party left Nantgwillt, temporarily staying with relatives in the locality before moving off south.

Vessels of radical medicine
They settled next in the small Devon coastal village of Lynmouth taking a basic but somewhat rambling cottage, with enough rooms for Shelley to start to imagine trying to gather his friends around him. The arrival of such a party in the remote West Country was guaranteed to attract attention. Two and half months later a report landed on Lord Sidmouth's desk at the Home Office. Mr Shelley's whereabouts were noted and a watchful eye kept on him. The inhabitants of the embryonic commune were too busy to notice the watchful eye of the law; setting up house, unpacking books and writing copious correspondence. ('So many as sixteen letters by the same post', Lord Sidmouth was informed.) This time they would get off to a better start. Miss Hitchener defied her father and came down to join them. On her arrival she and Shelley began radical propaganda work. Lynmouth would not seem the most strategic of places from which to try and disseminate propaganda, remote as it was from any centre of population and pretty much cut off from all communications.
Shelley overcame these seeming obstacles in a manner befitting a radical romantic poet. Early in the morning or late at night, he and Miss Hitchener would pick their way along the rocky shore with arms and pockets full of bottles. When the tide turned and the wind was just right they would launch these little 'vessels of heavenly medicine',, out into the sea destined to be washed up to Avonmouth or across to South Wales. Each bottle held a copy of The Declaration of Rights or a broadsheet ballad called The Devil's Walk.They also made small 'boats' - little waxed boxes with sticks attached to each end with a sail on to attract attention. One of these was picked up by a fisherman and its contents reported to the Home Office. Even more imaginative were the 'balloons of knowledge', handmade miniature silk hot-air balloons powered by a spirit-soaked wick. Despite difficulties in getting them to fly - they tended to catch fire - numerous copies of The Declaration of Rights sailed away into the evening sky out across the Bristol Channel. On a more down-to-earth level, Dan Healy was sent off round the local highways & byways to flypost broadsheets on any convenient wall or barn door when no one was looking.
During the long summer days Shelley worked on his long poem Queen Mab; a polemic attacking religious and political tyranny, war, commerce, marriage and prostitution, thinly disguised by a fairytale setting. Hoping to get round the censors by parading politics as poetry he wrote off to likely publishers. Events however were about to take a turn for the worse. On August 19th Dan Healy was caught putting up broadsheets in Barnstable. Interrogated by the local mayor he gave the pre-agreed cover story that he had met two travellers who had paid him to distribute the posters. However on finding that his master was already under suspicion, Healy was promptly tried and convicted of dispersing printed papers without the printer’s name on them. Not being able to pay the £200 fine he faced 6 months imprisonment. The magistrate sat back and waited for Mr Shelley to appear. Shelley came the next day. To the authorities' surprise he neither admonished his servant nor paid the fine. After a brief conversation with Dan Healy, in which it appeared to the authorities that the two men already had an 'understanding on the matter', Shelley departed back to Lynmouth.

Wonder of Wales
Assuming that they were being followed Shelley and his small party hurried deep into Wales. As they skirted the coast along Cardigan Bay they came across the site of not only one of the great civil engineering projects of the early 19th century, but also one of the most advanced community and commercial experiments of the period. In1801, the Irish Act of Union created the need for a clear route from London to Dublin There were two candidates for the route, up the A5, and then either along the north Welsh coast and on to Holyhead, or around Cardigan Bay and sail from the Llynn Peninsula. The northern route was blocked by the river crossing at Conwy and the Menai Straits and the southern route blocked by Treath Mawr. William Madocks hoped to create the southern route by building an embankment across Treath Mawr on which the main road could run and by building a harbour at Porth Dinllean. An initial 'cob' embankment had been built reclaiming 2000 acres of tidal estuary. Here Madocks laid out the settlement of Tremadoc under a dramatic cliff which rose several hundred feet above the village; neat stonebuilt houses, two chapels, several shops, a tavern and an imposing town hall were geometrically arranged on a T-shaped ground plan. It was hoped that the new township would become a centre of culture in North Wales.

Tremadoc today


In February I812 a near disaster was averted. High spring tides breached the embankment and the whole project was only saved by a massive effort from the locality, with no less than 892 men and 727 horses coming in response to the call for help. The effort however nearly bankrupted Maddocks and when Shelley arrived the scheme was in dire financial straits. He was immediately enthusiastic about the whole new town and land reclamation project, seeing it as a practical experiment in forming an ideal community and a chance to reform both man and his surroundings. Renting a local house, Tan-yr-allt, Shelley threw himself into fundraising on Maddocks's behalf. He spent six months chasing up the promises of funds from local farmers and businessmen with the zeal of a new convert. This did not endear him to some influential locals and neither did his vocal support for the Luddites, and local rioters.


Amidst stormy weather the following February Dan Healy arrived in Tremadoc fresh out of Barnstable gaol. Shelley welcomed him with open arms. - What happened next has been open to wild speculation ever since. Seemingly expecting some sort of trouble Shelley retired that night with loaded pistols at his bedside. In the night the house was broken into and an apparent assassination attempt made on Shelley's life. Whether a Home Office spy had followed Healy from Barnstable, or it was an attempt by local businessmen to scare Shelley off was never discovered - it has even been suggested that the whole event was a fabrication or hallucination on Shelley's part. Whatever the truth Shelley and his companions left the next day never to return.


The building of Telford's suspension bridge over the Menai Straits would eventually swing things in favour of the northern route to Ireland with Holyhead as the port, leaving Tremadoc somewhat stranded in a backwater. However the redirecting of the river Glasyn had unexpectedly carved out a deep channel in the sands enabling the founding of the port of Porthmadoc, which would flourish, following the building of the Blaenau/Festiniog railway along the Great Embankment, as the major port of export for Welsh slate.

Years later Shelley would make one last attempt to establish an egalitarian community. On the shores of the Mediterranean he would attempt to knit together a literary colony with his second wife Mary (the daughter of Mary Wollstencraft and William Godwin, & author of Frankenstein), Lord Byron and other friends - an attempt that would be cut short by his untimely death in a boating accident.

'I am the Fairy MAB: to me 'tis given
The wonders of the human world to keep;
The secrets of the immeasurable past,
In the unfailing consciences of men,
Those stern, unflattering chroniclers, I find;
The future, from the causes which arise
In each event, I gather; not the sting
Which retributive memory implants
In the hard bosom of the selfish man,
Nor that ecstatic and exulting throb
Which virtue's votary feels when he sums up
The thoughts and actions of a well-spent day,
Are unforeseen, unregistered by me;
And it is yet permitted me to rend
The veil of mortal frailty, that the spirit,
Clothed in its changeless purity, may know
How soonest to accomplish the great end
For which it hath its being, and may taste
That peace which in the end all life will share.
This is the meed of virtue; happy Soul,.....’

Queen Mab Percy Bysshe Shelley

Postscript:
The Chartists Bible

Circulating in numerous cheap pirate editions Queen Mab was to be Shelleys' most widely read and influential work, finding its home not in the rarefied world of literature but as a basic text for the self-educated working class. Owenites and Chartists would take inspiration from its revolutionary message. Copies would reach radicals in America and on the continent and in 1848 a young Frederick Engels would begin a translation into German.

Abridged version from: Utopia Britannica

Links:
Shelley's Hotel - www.shelleyshotel.freeuk.com/history.html
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