Thomas Paine, the most influential democratic agitator and pamphleteer in history, lived for brief periods in London over the course of a peripatetic life. He first came to London as a journeyman staymaker in 1756, then on behalf of the Excise Officers in the few months before he left for America in 1774. When he came back from America a very famous man in 1788, Paine often stayed in London until he left for good in 1792. The project he brought with him, his design for an iron bridge, soon gave way to the promotion of revolution.
Most of these addresses are unknown. Paine seems to have stayed in a variety of temporary lodgings, mainly in Soho and the City. There is one definite address however, for the last and possibly most important months Paine ever spent in London: No. 7 Upper Marylebone Street, on what is now 148 New Cavendish Street in Fitzrovia.
This was the home of his friend Thomas ‘Clio’ Rickman. Rickman was a versifier on famous people and events, with largely republican themes, a bookseller and bookbinder. His house became a centre for local writers and artists with a republican bent, including William Blake.
No. 7 Upper Marylebone Street is where Paine wrote the second part of Rights of Man, his most famous book in Europe. Rickman had a brass plate attached to the table Paine used, (now displayed in the People’s History Museum in Manchester), and lived at No 7 until his death 1834.
Rickman wrote of Paine’s time in his house:
‘Mr. Paine’s life in London was a quiet round of philosophical leisure and enjoyment. It was occupied in writing, in a small epistolary correspondence, in walking about with me to visit different friends, occasionally lounging at coffee-houses and public places, or being visited by a select few. Lord Edward Fitzgerald [supporter of the United Irishmen rebellion]; the French and American ambassadors, Mr. Sharp the engraver, Romney the painter, Mrs. Wollstonecraft, Joel Barlow [American diplomat and poet], … Mr. Christie [Scottish republican pamphleteer], Dr. Priestly [scientist and dissenting preacher],…the walking Stewart [so named for having walked from India to Europe via Russia], Captain Sampson Perry [editor of The Argus, a Republican journal], … Mr. Horne Tooke [leader of the Society for Constitutional Information] &c. &c were among the number of his friends and acquaintance…
… at a dinner party with several of the above, and other characters of great interest and talent, Horne Tooke happened to sit between Mr. Paine and Madame D’Eon [notorious French transvestite and spy]; for this character was, at this time, indisputably feminine. Tooke, whose wit and brilliant conversation was ever abundant, looking on each side of him, said, “I am now in the most extraordinary situation in which ever man was placed. On the left of me sits a gentleman, who, brought up in obscurity, has proved himself the greatest political writer in the world, and has made more noise in it, and excited more attention and obtained more fame, than any man ever did. On the right of me sits a lady, who has been employed in public situations at different courts; who had high rank in the army, was greatly skilled in horsemanship, who has fought several duels, and at the small sword had no equal; who for fifty years past, all Europe has recognised in the character and dress of a gentleman.” – “Ah!” replied Madame D’Eon, “these are very extraordinary things, indeed, Monsieur Tooke, and proves you did not know what was at the bottom.”
— Thomas ‘Clio’ Rickman Life and Works of Thomas Paine 1819
Within four years after this dinner party in 1792, most of the people mentioned were dead, exiled, or in prison for their democratic agitation. Later that year Paine escaped to France under a charge of Seditious Libel. Despite initial honours from the French Assembly and a seat representing Calais, within 18 months Paine himself was imprisoned by Robespierre for arguing against the execution of Louis XVI.
Since then both the name of the street has changed, and the numbering, and there has been some confusion about where exactly No. 7 Upper Marylebone Street was. No. 154 New Cavendish Street has been identified as ‘the place where Thomas Paine wrote Rights of Man” in several publications, but recent research at the London Metropolitan Archives disproved this.
Richard Horwood’s 1799 map of London (online via http://www.motco.com) clearly shows No. 7 as the third house east of Ogle Street. Building tax records of time confirm that Numbers 9 and 10 were on either corner of Ogle Street, as in Horwood’s map, and also that Rickman lived at No. 7. Horwood’s map and satellite pictures of the area combine to show that J.J. Highwood House, or 148 New Cavendish Street, occupies the site of the old 7, 8, and 9 Upper Marylebone Street.
The mis-identification of 154 New Cavendish may have come about because there is one letter from Rickman published in Joshua Reynold’s correspondence which gives his address as No. 4 Upper Marylebone St, the present 154, one of the three original Georgian terrace houses left. This is, however, the only document among dozens of others which gives Rickman’s address as No 7.
Since the building isn’t the original one where Paine and Rickman lived, the place is ineligible for a Blue Plaque from English Heritage. Perhaps Westminster Council could be persuaded to install one of their green plaques, as it did for Olaudah Equiano on Riding House St. This is certainly the most important of the many places Thomas Paine lived during his various stints in London.
Barb Jacobson is secretary of the Thomas Paine Society.