He was the illegitimate son of Simon Place and Mary Gray, and had a rough upbringing; his father ran a London sponging-house in Vinegar Yard, near Drury Lane, and Place was born there. He was schooled to 1785 before being apprenticed to a leather-breeches maker in Temple Bar.
At eighteen Place was an independent journeyman, and in 1790 was married and moved to a house near the Strand. In 1793 he became involved in and eventually the leader of a strike of leather-breeches makers, and was refused work for several years by London's master tailors; he exploited this time by reading avidly and widely. In 1794, Place joined the London Corresponding Society, a reform club, and for three years was prominent in its work, before resigning his post as chairman of the general committee in 1797 in protest at the violent tactics and rhetoric of some group members. In 1799 he became the partner in a tailor's shop, and a year later set up his own highly successful business at 16 Charing Cross.
Withdrawing from politics whilst he established his business, he devoted three hours an evening after work to studying, eventually establishing such a large personal library in the back of his shop that it soon became a meeting place for radicals. In 1807 he supported Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet, a Parliamentary candidate for Westminster, which allowed him to come into contact with such theorists as William Godwin, James Mill, Robert Owen, Jeremy Bentham, Joseph Hume and John Stuart Mill. When Place retired in 1817 (with a steady stream of income from his shop, now run by his children), he lived for several months with Bentham and the Mills at Forde Abbey.
It was around this time that he became involved in the movement for organised, public education, believing it to be a means of eradicating the ills of the working class. In the early 1820s he also became a Malthusian, believing that as the population increased it would outstrip the food supply. He successfully associated Malthus with the idea of birth control (which Malthus himself had opposed despite his fears of overpopulation). Despite himself having fathered fifteen children, he advocated the use of contraception, although was not specific about in what forms. It was on this topic that he wrote his only published book, the influential and controversial Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population, in 1822. The earliest national birth control organization was founded in England in 1877 as a result of his thinking and activities.
Place also lobbied successfully for the 1824 repeal of the Combination Act, which helped early Trade Unionism, though new restrictions were soon introduced. Oddly, Place himself regarded Trade Unionism as a delusion that workers would soon forget about if they were allowed to try it.
In 1827 he entered a long period of depression after the death of his wife from cancer. In February 1830 he married a London actress, whose respectability was questioned by some. Also in this year, Place helped support Rowland Detrosier, a working class radical activist who also sought to distance himself from socialism. Through Place, Detrosier would be introduced to figures such as Bentham and J.S. Mill, who in turn introduced him to Thomas Carlyle. Detrosier's activities and writings would be influential amongst Manchester Radicals and the later Chartists. He was also active in the agitation that led to the Reform Act of 1832, holding up the recent revolution in Paris as an example of what could happen if reform wasn't allowed by legal means.
Having lost much of his money in 1833 in bad investments, Place had to move from Charing Cross to Brompton Square, and lost his regular contact with the Reformist middle-class. However, he remained politically active, working against the stamp tax and involving himself in the London Working Men's Association, within which in 1838 he and William Lovett drafted the document that would become the People's Charter. It then became evident that many Chartists were willing to use violent means, and when Feargus O'Connor replaced Lovett as the effective leader of the movement, Place ceased to be involved in Chartist activities. On rescinding his involvement with the Chartists, he became involved in the movement to repeal the Corn Laws.
For the next two decades he wrote his autobiography and organised the immense collection he had made: notes, pamphlets, newspapers and letters. In 1851 he separated from his wife and on 1 January 1854 died in the home of his two unmarried daughters in Hammersmith.
His pamphlets, letters, magazine and newspaper articles throw light on the social and economic history of the nineteenth century. His hoarding of documents create an important archive. The British Library currently holds these documents in fifty-four reels of micro-film as the Francis Place Collection.