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Posts Tagged ‘John Wilkes’

A guest post by LH Member Rob Smith. This article first appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from March 2015.

Next time you travel from Islington to Moorgate along City Road, spare a thought for Charles Dingley. In 1763 the Trustees of the new road were eager for it to be known as Dingley Road in honour of the entrepreneur who proposed and funded it. However, Charles Dingley said he had no pretensions to such grandeur – City Road it would stay. False modesty, surely, for a man with an eventful career as an adventurous trader, banker, improver of London’s infrastructure, and a would-be politician who learnt that in elections in the 18th century you had to be handy with your fists!

Charles Dingley was born in 1711, son of a London jeweller and goldsmith. By the age of 18 he was in business with his brother Robert and made a journey to St Petersburg to visit the court of Peter II – the teenage ruler of a Russia that was in turmoil. According to one traveller at the time:
“All of Russia is in terrible disorder … money is not paid to anyone. God knows what will happen with finances. Everyone steals, as much as he can.”

The Dingley brothers were there to sell jewellery and silver plate; with little tracking of expenditure and Peter II’s love of fine things there must have been a lot of opportunities to make money. The Dingley brothers made an impression – working for the Russia Company they were granted preferential status on the trans-Caspian routes to Persia. For the next thirty years Charles Dingley and his colleague Jonas Hanway travelled Russia and Persia, initially trading British wool for silk, but soon bringing cargoes as diverse as potash, hemp, iron ore and linen back to London. One interesting cargo advertised for auction at Dingley’s warehouse at Little St Helens near Bishopsgate were 8 casks of Russia bristles – used for paintbrushes. At a time when the Ottoman Empire controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and the War of the Austrian Succession made trade through Venice difficult, the profits from trade through Russia must have been immense.

Capital grew enough to invest – in 1754 the Dingleys built two sugar refineries in St Petersburg which were managed by another London merchant, Nicholas Cavanagh. Charles Dingley’s money also made him important in banking, he was a director at the Million Bank, and during the financial panic caused by the Jacobite rebellion of 1745 Dingley is one of the people who wrote to the London Gazette saying they will honour bank notes.

The Seven Years War that breaks out in 1756 saw Britain and Russia on opposite sides, making trading conditions tough for Dingley, so he sought profits closer to home. He became one of the investors in the New Road – what we now know as Marylebone, Euston and Pentonville Roads. With the main routes between the City and Westminster involving a journey through the muddy streets of St Giles and crossing the steep valley of the River Fleet there were many advantages to building a bypass through the open countryside to the North, not least as a way to reroute the vast number of sheep and cattle on the way to Smithfield Market. The time saved getting between Marylebone and Islington was obviously worth paying for – the tolls on the New Road soon paid back the investors. However, the road still dumped traffic into the crowded road south of the Angel Inn. Dingley knew that the real time savings, and hence profits would be made by continuing the New Road on to the City itself. Hence in 1760 he started the project to build what was to become the City Road. Not long after completing the road, which ended at Doghouse Bar – near Moorgate, it was described as “the finest road in all London”. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that now, but the width of the road, its pavements and its solid surface transformed East – West travel in London. Improvements like this were the only way London could carry on growing in size without grinding to a halt.

Dingley didn’t restrict his transport improvements to roads. He was responsible for improving links between the Rivers Lea and Stort, opening up cargo routes from London to and from Essex and Hertfordshire, and he also built the canal called the Limehouse Cut. This meant that timber that had arrived from Russia to Dingley’s wharfs in Limehouse could go straight into the River Lea without making a tricky journey back around the Isle of Dogs and around the crazy meanders at the end of the Lea. Dingley’s Limehouse timber yard was the focus of his next operation. With a growing city there was a voracious appetite for timber – which Dingley was able to supply from Russian imports. However it was difficult to saw the wood into planks fast enough. Dingley commissioned the building of an innovative wind powered sawmill at Limehouse. It impressed the Royal Society of Arts enough for him to be awarded a Gold Medal, and there was even a poem praising it. Others were less impressed – London sawyers regarded the sawmill as a threat to their livelihoods and in May 1767 rioters pulled it down. In the end Dingley received compensation and the sawmill was rebuilt – producing planks for new houses at a fraction of the cost of the old hand sawn methods.

charles dingley sawing through magna carta_500

Dingley and his sawmill were depicted in a cartoon by an anonymous artist, showing him sawing through Magna Carta and The Bill of Rights. He was aiming to advance a political career, firstly by offering his Hampstead home to William Pitt. But Pitt was not a great house guest – he insisted that Dingley extend his house to provide the room he felt he deserved! Not long after this Dingley was in conflict with supporters of John Wilkes, matters coming to a head at a meeting at the Kings Arms in Cornhill. A political meeting ended up in what became known as “The Battle of Cornhill” with Dingley fighting with Wilkes’s attorney. When Wilkes stood for Parliament in March 1769 Dingley decided to oppose him. Standing against a populist candidate like John Wilkes was always going to be difficult and at the hustings in Brentford, Dingley was subject to violent attack by Wilkes’s supporters, forcing him to retreat for fear of his life. The knockout blow came from the papers though, with Dingley being accused of being unpatriotic for encouraging linen manufacture in Russia, to the detriment of weavers in London. He was also charged with evasion of stamp duty, a charge which was never proved, but Dingley withdrew his candidature shortly after the accusation was made. He died six months later.

dingley road_500

Dingley’s Hampstead estate went on to become what we now know as Golders Hill Park. He seems to have left few other traces. While his brother Robert had his portrait painted by Reynolds, no known portrait of Charles Dingley exists. He eschewed the chance of City Road being named after him but in the end he is commemorated by two unassuming streets in Islington – Dingley Road and Dingley Place. A shame perhaps – it was merchants like Dingley who aggressively engaged in global trade and then invested the profits in London infrastructure that allowed London to become the world’s first modern city.

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“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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