Utopian Society Thinkers Thomas Spence Part 1

About the famous utopian thinker Thomas Spence and history of his planned utopia Oceana.


THOMAS SPENCE (1750-1814)

Thomas Spence, the "poor pamphleteer," was so fiercely committed to spreading his ideas about land reform (to the point of chalking them on walls) that he had little time for anything else. Not love--his two marriages were disasters. Not the accumulation of wealth--he was dirt-poor. Not even his health--he was old before his time. A contemporary painted a verbal picture of Spence at the age of 40, debilitated by a stroke, wrinkled, wearing ancient, ragged clothes. He was hardly a candidate for fame, yet he was famous, and in time people like Thomas Malthus, the economist, and Robert Southey, the poet, took his ideas seriously.

Born in Northumberland of the Scottish working class, Spence was only minimally educated. He learned to read from the Bible, and by the time he was 25, he had gone intellectually far beyond his humble beginnings. He had devised a new phonetic alphabet, which, he hoped, would make written language more accessible to the badly educated lower classes, and he had written a new constitution, which proposed that all the land in England be redistributed through local citizen-owned corporations on a lease basis. A member of the Newcastle Philosophical Society, he presented this constitution before the group, then printed it up and began to sell it. The society expelled him, "not for printing it only, but for printing it in the manner of a half-penny ballad and having it hawked in the streets."

This did not deter him from printing more handbills, tracts, and pamphlets, nor did a stay in jail (he was sentenced to a six-month term for another inflammatory piece of writing).

In 1792 Spence moved to London, where he kept a bookstall and continued his printing activities. He issued cheap periodicals, among them "Pigs' Meat" and "Giant-Killer, or Anti-Landlord," and planned to publish a dictionary and Bible in his new alphabet. (All that survives of his book-publishing venture is a proof sheet of the Bible.)

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