The initial welcome to the French Revolution
came largely from middle-class and dissenting groups, but its ideas soon gained wider popularity through the spread of Painite radicalism, disseminated especially by corresponding societies. In 1792 the most famous of all the radical societies of the period—the London Corresponding Society—was founded by Thomas Hardy, a Scottish shoemaker, with the intention of corresponding with provincial radicals in Manchester, Sheffield, Norwich, and elsewhere to promote the cause of parliamentary reform. Unlike other radical reform movements of the 1790s, the corresponding societies were composed mainly of artisans and tradesmen. These ‘English Jacobins’ were organized in ‘divisions’ which met regularly in different public houses for discussion, lectures, and fellowship. In 1793–4, as an alternative to petitioning for parliamentary reform, the reformers took up Paine's
suggestion of electing delegates to a national convention on the French model. The government, thoroughly alarmed, arrested the leaders and clamped down heavily on the LCS. By 1797 the corresponding societies had collapsed or been driven underground. They marked the emergence of an articulate political voice from the unenfranchised. At their peak in 1797 there were perhaps over 100 societies, with a nominal membership of 10,000.
John F. C. Harrison