Posts Tagged ‘John Wilkes’

“the liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country” ~ John Wilkes

wilkes by hogarth

Wilkes by Hogarth.

In the immediate wake of the defeat of Leveson 2 in the House of Commons, it’s an appropriate historical coincidence that today is the 250th Anniversary of the St George’s Field Massacre, which occurred on 10 May 1768.

It resulted from the trial of John Wilkes for seditious libel for anti-government items – some pornographic – published in his magazine, the North Briton, in particular the notorious issue Number 45 from 1763.

During the trial a pro-Wilkes crowd assembled in St George’s Field in Southwark, swelling to an estimated 15,000 in number. The Riot Act was read and troops were called in. They opened fire on the throng, resulting in the deaths of at least six protesters with many more injured.

Wilkes paid his fine, did his time and decided to become an MP.

Spurned multiple times by Parliament, he instead built a successful political career in the City, eventually becoming Lord Mayor. It was here that he did his best work for press freedom. In 1771, several newspapers reported on the proceedings of Parliament. This was strictly against the law. In February, Parliament tried to arrest the printers of two newspapers in particular – the Middlesex Journal and the Gazetteer. Wilkes afforded them protection within the City. The Government, probably realising the effort to be futile, never really opposed Parliamentary reporting after this.

It was a key moment in the history of freedom of the press in this country. So let’s remember those who died on this day 250 years ago and reflect that freedom of the press was hard won.



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Quite recently I read Peter Martin’s Samuel Johnson, A Biography (2008). There was a lovely episode involving a convoluted prank which James Boswell conspired to play on his friend. It featured the firebrand John Wilkes (1725 – 1797), one of my all-time favourite Londoners. As an establishment Tory, Johnson (1709 – 1784) had a poor opinion of the radical Wilkes, whom he had never met; he felt Wilkes to be no more than “a criminal from a gaol”. Equally dismissive, Wilkes viewed the lexicographer as “a slave of the state.” Boswell thought it would be a rum caper to engineer a situation whereby the two men unavoidably bumped into each other socially – a challenge, given their different circles.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

Wilkes by Hogarth. Johnson by Reynolds.

He set the trap with the help of a mutual friend of all the parties, Charles Dilly. Dilly was a publisher who liked to entertain at his home in the Poultry, which had become something of an informal literary hub. Both men were invited to dinner on the evening of 15 May 1776 without the other’s knowledge.

On the evening itself, on discovering Wilkes was in the room, Johnson sulkily sat down with a book. But Wilkes – as charming as Johnson was grumpy – sat next to the older man and made a big fuss over him. Johnson’s resistance evaporated almost immediately and the two great men spent the evening in sparkling and warm conversation.

Boswell didn’t mind a bit that sparks didn’t fly. It was just a mischievous experiment and he was no doubt pleased that for once his friend failed to dominate the room.

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john wilkesSo wrote John Wilkes (1725 – 1797) from exile in France, in 1768. Given how things turned out, perhaps Wilkes should have used the word “and” instead of “or”. But “raise a dust” he did, culminating in the so-called Massacre of St George’s Fields, whose anniversary is today. Wilkes was a politician, scholar, journalist, essayist, mayor, sheriff, MP, duellist, bon viveur and troublemaker. Opponent of Pitt the Elder, ally of Pitt the Younger, he stood for many things under the loose banner of “Liberty”. He was instrumental in lifting the restrictions on parliamentary reporting; he promoted the protection of journalism generally, particularly in the use of general warrants;  he promoted religious tolerance; he campaigned for less harsh laws and sentencing in an age of extreme punishment for any infringement from the most minor of misdemeanors. He was thus always popular with the man in the street, and while never responsible for actual incitement, a mob could quickly materialise when he himself hit a spot of bother.

And so it did on 10 May 1768.

From the early 1760s, Wilkes’ enemies (of which he had many, including – for a time – Hogarth), in this case mostly parliamentarians, sought to have him prosecuted under some sort of vague charge of sedition, but he succeeded for a while in eluding them, mainly due to their incompetent jurisprudence. But by 1764 they finally succeeded in getting charges to stick for essays attacking the king which he wrote in his own newspaper, The North Briton (the notorious Issue 45), and another specific pornographic poem written some years previous, In Defence of Woman. Wilkes fled the country to the continent where he was widely lionised and befriended by many, including Voltaire.

When the government changed in early 1768, Wilkes returned home, hopeful of a pardon. It was not forthcoming, and on the 10 May Wilkes was tried at the King’s Bench, found guilty and consigned to the King’s Bench Prison. A baying mob immediately materialised at the prison and an estimated 15,000 also gathered at St George’s Fields nearby, a traditional mob rendezvous. A pitched battle with the troops ensued, resulting in the deaths of at least six rioters.

Wilkes was freed in 1770 and continued in active politics meeting with much success, in particular as Lord Mayor of London 1774, his popularity not least due to overspending his official allowance by over £3000.

Few politicians of the 18th Century, or indeed any period, enjoyed a more colourful career than the fascinating John Wilkes. I would encourage you to follow up his full story.

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