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Law and Order in LondonCrime and Punishment: John Wilkes, Rabble-rouser
Posted on Dec 10, 2003 - 02:03 AM by Bill McCann

John Wilkes was one of the great and flamboyant figures in London's history. He was an Alderman, Lord Mayor, Member of Parliament and a member of the Hell-Fire Club who enjoyed wide popular support. He opposed Bute's Administration, was convicted of seditious libel and expelled from the House of Commons - twice. He also secured the right of newspapers to publish parliamentary debates. Because of his conviction, he has secured a place in the Newgate Calendar and the article there is given here. It provides a useful, if biased, introduction to the other articles about this extraordinary character which will follow in due course.



Newgate

The year 1768 will ever be remembered in the annals of English history, on account of the murders and mischief committed by a deluded mob, stimulated by the writings and opposition to the Government of John Wilkes, Esq., an alderman of London, and Member of Parliament for Aylesbury. The most scandalous and offensive of his writings were in a periodical publication called The North Briton, No. 45, and a pamphlet entitled An Essay on Woman . [This was a parody on Pope's sublime work, called An Essay on Man.]

The North Briton was of a political nature, the other a piece of obscenity: the one calculated to set the people against the Government, the other to corrupt their morals. Among the members who found themselves more personally attacked in The North Briton was Samuel Martin, Esq., Member for Camelford. This gentleman found his character, as Secretary of the Treasury, so vilified, that he called the writer to the field of honour. Wilkes had already been engaged in a duel with Lord Talbot, and escaped unhurt; but Mr Martin shot him in the body, of which wound he lay in imminent danger for several days, and was confined to his house for some weeks.

The Attorney-General filed informations against Wilkes as author of The North Briton, No. 45, and a pamphlet, entitled An Essay on Woman. On these charges he was apprehended, and committed as prisoner to the Tower, but was soon admitted to bail. His papers were forcibly seized, for which he charged the Secretaries of State with a robbery, and which was afterwards, by the Court of King's Bench, determined to have been illegal.

The paper entitled The North Briton was ordered to be burned by the common executioner, at the Royal Exchange. Mr Alderman Harley, one of the sheriffs of London, attending, in his official capacity, to see this carried into execution, was assaulted and wounded by the mob. A man of the name of John Franklin was seized as one of the offenders and committed to Newgate. On the day of the conviction of Wilkes he was tried for this outrage at the Old Bailey and found guilty. When the trial was ended, the worthy alderman addressed the Court on behalf of the prisoner. He said that, for his part, he had forgiven the affront to his own person; that justice required a prosecution: it had been, by the conviction of the offender, in part satisfied, and therefore he hoped the Court would mitigate the punishment. The Court complied with the prosecutor's humane request, and sentenced the prisoner to only three years' imprisonment, to pay a fine of six shillings and eightpence, and to find security for his good behaviour for one year.

Before his trial came on, Mr Wilkes fled to France, but under the pretext of restoring his health, which had suffered from his wound and the harassing measures taken against him by the Secretaries of State, Lord Egremont and Lord Halifax. No sooner was he out of the kingdom than they proceeded to outlawry, dismissed him of his command as Colonel of the Buckinghamshire Militia, and expelled him from his seat in Parliament. In a few months Mr Wilkes returned to London and gave notice that he would, on a certain day, surrender himself on the informations filed against him.

John Wilkes
He then appeared in his place as an alderman at Guildhall; and on his return the mob took the horses from his carriage and dragged it to his house, crying: "Wilkes and Liberty!" On the 21st of February, 1764, the trial of Mr Wilkes for the libels before mentioned came on before Lord Mansfield, and on both he was found guilty. More than two years were occupied in law proceedings on the validity of his apprehension, the seizure of his papers and the outlawry. Meanwhile Wilkes's popularity and the outrages of the mob daily increased. Finally he was committed to the King's Bench Prison, where he was visited by many of his friends, and the prison was surrounded by a vast concourse of people, who, it was feared, would have offered some outrage; but all remained quiet until night, when they pulled up the rails which enclosed the footway, with which they made a bonfire. They also obliged the inhabitants of the borough of Southwark to illuminate their houses; nor would they disperse until the arrival of a captain's guard of soldiers.

From this time a mob constantly surrounded the King's Bench Prison for several days. At length the justices appeared, followed by the military: the Riot Act was read and, the mob not dispersing, the soldiers were ordered to fire upon them. Many were killed, and among them some passengers, at a considerable distance from the scene of confusion. On the 28th of April, 1768, the case of the outlawry was finally argued in the Court of King's Bench. Serjeant Glynn, on the part of Mr Wilkes, greatly added to his reputation as a sound lawyer, and was ably answered by the Attorney-General; but the judges, though they somewhat differed in their reasons on the illegality of the outlawry, were unanimous in their opinion that it should be reversed.

This was a great point obtained by Mr Wilkes; and, obnoxious as he was to Government, the determination, consistent with law, was upright and honourable in the learned Bench. Mr Wilkes was not, however, destined to clear himself by this single point gained, for the Attorney-General immediately moved that judgment might be passed upon him on his several convictions. The prisoner's counsel upon this moved an arrest of judgment, and the Court appointed the next Thursday to hear the arguments thereon. On the day appointed for that purpose the last effort was made to get rid of the remainder of the proceedings against Mr Wilkes.

The arguments for an arrest of judgment, though carried on with great ingenuity, would not hold, and he was found legally convicted of writing the libels. For that in The North Briton he was fined five hundred pounds and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in the King's Bench Prison; and for The Essay on Woman, five hundred pounds more, a further imprisonment of twelve months, and to find security for his good behaviour for seven years. Previous to his imprisonment Mr Wilkes was elected Member of Parliament for Middlesex, when the mob proceeded to various acts of outrage. They broke the windows of Lord Bute, the Prime Minister, and of the Mansion House, even that of the Lady Mayoress's bedchamber, and forced the inhabitants of the metropolis to illuminate their houses, crying out, "Wilkes and Liberty!" and all who refused to echo it back were knocked down.

The outrages of the populace were too many to be enumerated; several innocent people were killed and numbers wounded. They broke windows without number, destroyed furniture, and even insulted Royalty. The metropolis, as well as various other parts of the kingdom, had not been so convulsed with riots and partial insurrections since the Civil Wars as during the short time of Wilkes's popularity. These disgraceful tumults, and the lenity or, as some would have it, the timidity of Government, spread disaffection into all classes of mechanics, who, thinking the time at hand when they might exact what wages they pleased, and perhaps beyond their masters' profits, struck work.

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Notes

The complete text of the Newgate Calendar is available online here.

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