Monday 26 January 2015

John Wilkes: the Truth, the Filth, and the Birth of the Fourth Estate

It is my pleasure to welcome Paul Cunningham to the salon today with his fascinating tale of John Wilkes: the Truth, the Filth, and the Birth of the Fourth Estate.


The history of British journalism could be said to revolve around two questions. First, is it possible to have the truth without the filth? Everyone agrees we need a free press, but there is no consensus on how much we ought to legislate to stop this freedom being abused. Recently we have seen the Hacked Off pressure group campaigning for more press regulation, journalists countering that this would amount to censorship, and the government occupying no fixed position. The other question is even more political and involves the relationship between parliament and the people. Are we a citizenry to whom parliament should consider itself accountable, or are we a mob which ought to know its place and keep its nose out of MPs’ business? This issue has also been thrashed out recently over the scandal of MPs’ expenses. Both these questions became prominent features in the political landscape in the 18th century, and we have one man to thank – the debauchee, pornographer, duelist, journalist, and radical MP, John Wilkes.

John Wilkes, by Hogarth
John Wilkes, by Hogarth
Wilkes inhabited a world where the reporting of parliament had long been forbidden. In the 16th century Commons rules stipulated that all its proceedings should remain secret – but it was not the public MPs were wary of then, it was the monarch. Parliament simply could not debate freely under the gaze of the crowned head they were so often at odds with. The privacy of parliament was thus accepted and largely respected. But by the early 18th century, too much had changed for this principle to remain unchallenged.

This was the age of Enlightenment and independent thinking was in the ascendant, particularly in Britain where the divine right of monarchs had been dispensed with. Authority was under attack from the savage pen of Swift and the vicious pencil of Hogarth; Alexander Pope took pride in being ‘indebted to no prince or peer alive’; while Voltaire, exiled from absolutist France, claimed to ‘think and write like a free Englishman.’ There were economic changes too. A new class of prosperous merchants and tradesmen, the ‘middling sort’, had interests that clashed with those of the landed gentry which dominated parliament. And there was already some press freedom: the abandonment of the Licensing Act in 1695 meant that anyone was free to publish pamphlets and newspapers. These were read in coffeehouses – often out loud for the benefit of the illiterate – and all the issues of the day were vigorously discussed and disputed. Yet the reporting of parliament remained forbidden.

MPs had little to fear from their tame new Hanoverian monarchy, but they were very concerned now about a new beast – the ‘public opinion’. Horace Walpole’s administration was founded on palm-greasing and nepotism and would not have stood up very well to public scrutiny. But hard as parliament tried to prevent it, their activities were being reported in the plethora of unlicensed publications eager to cater to a news-hungry audience. There was nothing to stop a reporter entering the Strangers’ Gallery in the Commons, and if he heard anything worth writing up, his paper might well be inclined to take the risk of publishing it, often thinly disguised as fiction. Walpole responded by buying out a good number of newspapers, but he found that it was impossible to keep a lid on things. MPs tried a legal crackdown in 1738, with a resolution to proceed ‘with the utmost severity against offenders’. During the Commons debate on the motion, it was noted by William Pulteney that: ‘To print or publish the speeches of gentlemen in this House looks very like making them accountable without doors for what they say within.’ The irony was that his words were widely reported, to the righteous indignation of the public, and the impotent fury of MPs. A confrontation seemed inevitable, and the man who lit the tinder was John Wilkes.

Wilkes was a member of the infamous Hellfire Club, which held its meetings in a complex of man-made underground caves in High Wycombe. It was a gentlemen’s club in which the gentlemen would dress as monks and engage in occult orgies with prostitutes dressed as nuns. Wilkes, on one occasion, was said to have introduced a baboon into the proceedings. He had his own printing press which he would use to run off radical journalism and pornographic literature. Known for being the ugliest man in England, and for his ability to charm birds from trees, ‘man of the people’ Wilkes was also a Whig MP with a large popular power base.

Wilkes’s newspaper was called the North Briton and its first edition, published in 1762, staked out its position very clearly:

The liberty of the press is the birthright of a Briton, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of this country. It has been the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability and duplicity, have thus been detected and shewn to the public...

Events would prove this statement to be a milestone in the journey of British democracy. It is commonly held now that our legislators’ business is our business too, and that it ought to be monitored and held to account. But in Wilkes’s day such ideas were new and radical. This was, in fact, fighting talk.

The North Briton was hated and feared by MPs, but it must be said that this was not only because Wilkes endeavoured to wield the sword of truth against them. He also used his paper to pursue personal vendettas, and his weapons were often innuendo, invective and a devil-may-care attitude towards facts. He once told Adam Smith: ‘Give me a grain of truth and I will mix it up with a great mass of falsehood so that no chemist will ever be able to separate them.’ Wilkes’s free press manifesto might have been full of ringing high principle, but his own journalism was very well acquainted with the gutter, and he made no bones about it.

It was in 1763 that the North Briton provoked a major confrontation. Issue No 45 contained an attack on a speech made by King George III, and Wilkes was accused of seditious libel. He was arrested, along with fifty of his associates, and locked up in the Tower. No 45 was ordered to be burned in public by the common hangman, but a large crowd shouting the slogan ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ descended on the ceremony, breaking it up riotously and snatching the papers from the flames. Wilkes was soon released from the Tower having claimed parliamentary privilege, but this did not render him immune from affairs of honour. He was called out by a loyal supporter of the King and shot, though not fatally, in the ensuing duel. Meanwhile the Earl of Sandwich, one of Wilkes’s bitterest enemies, had got his hands on an obscene poem that Wilkes had published privately and read it out in the House of Lords. The scandalised peers moved to expel Wilkes from parliament on the grounds of obscene libel. This would, of course, strip him of his immunity, and he pre-empted their decision by escaping to Paris. Wilkes was tried in absentia and declared an outlaw.

Riot at the burning of No 45
Riot at the burning of No 45
He would be back though, with a vengeance. In 1768 financial pressures compelled his return to England, and over the next few years, he was returned to parliament again, expelled again, imprisoned again, all before being elected as a sheriff of London. Armed with powers of jurisdiction and arrest himself now, Wilkes was prepared for a truly decisive showdown with the forces of censorship. This came in 1771.

18th century parliamentarians were not just averse to having their affairs exposed, they also disliked being personally lampooned. George Onslow MP was frequently referred to as ‘little cocking George’ in the papers, because of his fondness for cock-fighting. Goaded into declaring, ‘I am a cock they will not easily beat,’ he called for the printers of this impertinence to be arrested. Wilkes made his move, arresting the printers himself before parliament could get to them, then declaring them innocent and letting them go. When parliament sent out an officer to try again, Wilkes arrested him too. This led to yet more arrests and the incarceration of two of Wilkes’s associates in the Tower. But parliament had underestimated the burgeoning confidence of a newly political public. 50,000 Wilkes supporters besieged the Commons, setting about the arriving MPs and destroying the carriages they came in. The prime minister himself, Lord North, was dragged from his carriage, roughed up and driven off in tears without his hat. Meanwhile, on Tower Hill, effigies of establishment hate figures were being beheaded and burned in the name of free speech. Discretion proved the better part of valour for Lord North and his fellow MPs: they released Wilkes’s associates and ordered no more arrests of printers. Although the ban on reporting parliament technically remained in place, it was never again enforced. Wilkes had his victory.

The British constitution, such as it is, had traditionally rested on the division of powers between three estates: the Crown, the Lords and the Commons. But two generations after Wilkes, Thomas Macaulay wrote: ‘The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm… a safeguard tantamount, and more than tantamount to all the rest put together.’ By this measure, our debt to John Wilkes is an immense one. He was a libertine, a blackguard and an outlaw – he positively reveled in all that – but he is also a pivotal figure and a hero of the British press, if there are any. But his name is hardly known today, and it was not until 1988 that a statue was erected to him in London, on Fetter Lane. This was recently incorporated into the Talking Statues project, so visitors can now treat themselves to a caustic Wilkes monologue issuing from the very bronze, and voiced by none other than Jeremy Paxman. It is a welcome memorial to the man, but less than he is due.

Wilkes’s statue on Fetter Lane
Wilkes’s statue on Fetter Lane
Now to return to those two opening questions. First, can we have a free press that gives us the truth without the filth? The debate will rage on, but what we can say for certain is that, after two and a half centuries, not very much progress has been made. It is also safe to say that John Wilkes would have laughed out loud at the question. And, as to the British people’s relationship with its parliament, think on this – even today, all an MP need do to clear both the public and press galleries and have a debate conducted in private is to cry out: ‘I spy strangers!’

Mick Hume, There is No Such Thing As a Free Press
Andrew Marr, My Trade
Nick Robinson, Live From Downing Street

Andrew Sparrow, Obscure Scribblers: A History of Parliamentary Journalism

About the Author
Paul Cunningham is an Englishman in South Korea. In addition to writing, he teaches at a university, plays rock guitar, drinks red wine and tries to forget about cigarettes. Paul is the author of Contention, a novel of ancient Rome, and he blogs regularly at The Wolbong Review.

Paul would love to hear from you. Visit his blog or email him at

Written content of this post copyright © Paul Cunningham, 2015


Stephen Barker said...

Wilkes for all his faults was a loving father to his daughter Mary (known as Polly) They are in a portrait together by Zoffany in the NPG.
Hogarth who had caricatured Wilkes and created the defining image of him was attacked in return and came off worse, he proved to be rather thin skinned, an unhappy period at the end of his life.

Catherine Curzon said...

Thank you, Stephen; I shall seek out that portrait!

Mari Christian said...

Complements to Paul. His account of the rather ignoble fight for freedom of the press is beautifully written. Each time I read the Daily Mirror (in the supermarket line,of course) I will do homage to the spirit of John Wilkes.

Catherine Curzon said...


Ann Marie Ackermann said...

I never thought about it before, but was John Wilkes Booth named after John Wilkes?

Catherine Curzon said...

I wonder!