A liberal pioneer

By John Medland

Published on Friday, December 07, 2012 - 15:55


A liberal pioneer

The John Wilkes plaque in Sandown.

WIGHT LIVING AT the corner of Wilkes Road and Sandown High Street is a blue plaque which states, "Site of Villakin, occupied 1788-1797 by John Wilkes MP, Lord Mayor of London 1774-1775".

This memorial marks the site of the home of one of the founders of the future town. Sandown then consisted of his cottage, a farm and a military fort.

It also recalls one of the great figures of the 18th century Atlantic liberal revolution.

John Wilkes is largely forgotten now, at least in this country. Yet to him we owe the freedom of the press to report debates in Parliament and the right of election to Parliament.

Wilkes inspired liberal movements in Ireland, the Netherlands and the USA, where he is far better remembered.

The US constitution includes the rights won by Wilkes to prevent Congress from rejecting any legally elected member and to proscribe general warrants for arrest.

In the US, a city, a university and two counties are named after him.

John Wilkes was born in London in 1725. He was the second son of a successful malt distiller. His higher education was at Leiden University. In 1747, he married Mary Meade. They had one daughter before separating in 1756. In 1749, Wilkes was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and was appointed High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire in 1754.

He first entered Parliament as an MP in 1757. He joined the Whig followers of Prime Minister William Pitt.

In 1760, the 22-year-old Prince George became King George III. He was determined to reverse the liberal Whig regime with a more autocratic government. This was opposed on both sides of the Atlantic.

Pitt was forced to resign and replaced by the King’s former tutor, the Earl of Bute. Bute published a government newspaper called The Briton. Wilkes responded with The North Briton, which lampooned the new administration. In issue 45 he accused Bute of writing the King’s Speech for the opening of Parliament (something we now take for granted).

"The government have sent the spirit of discord through the land…A nation as sensible as the English, will see…that a spirit of liberty ought then to arise,"

Wilkes’s campaign was supported by street demonstrations. In April 1763, the Earl of Bute resigned. Wilkes was asked by a Frenchman how far liberty of the press extended in England. "I cannot tell," replied Wilkes, "but I am trying to find out."

The government issued a "general warrant" (which did not name anyone) to arrest 49 people, anyone associated with The North Briton.

Wilkes claimed general warrants should be illegal. The Lord Chief Justice released Wilkes from the Tower of London in April 1763. Wilkes then sued his arresters for trespass, including the Earl of Halifax. Street demonstrators chanted "Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45". In November 1763, the royalist Samuel Martin MP

shot Wilkes in the stomach.

As Wilkes struggled for life, the Earl of Sandwich read out to the House of Lords an unpublished pornographic poem drafted by Wilkes. It was probably intended for the exclusive members of the Hellfire Club, of which both Wilkes and Sandwich were members.

It is believed Sandwich (inventor of the snack) held a personal grudge. Apparently Wilkes "had brought a baboon dressed in a cape and horns into the rituals performed at the club, producing considerable mayhem among the inebriated initiates."

In January 1764 ,Wilkes’s supporters whisked the wounded radical to Paris. He was condemned for "seditious libel", deprived of his Parliamentary seat and declared an outlaw. He remained in exile for the next four years.

In 1768, Wilkes, now 43, returned and was elected as Radical MP for Middlesex (the county of the City of London). After the election, he handed himself over to the courts, waiving his Parliamentary privilege. For two weeks there were demonstrations outside his prison. On May 10, 1,768 troops opened fire, killing seven and wounding 15. Violence spread to other parts of the capital.

In June 1768, Wilkes was fined £1,000 and imprisoned for 22 months. He was expelled from Parliament in February 1769. He was re-elected by his Middlesex constituents in the same month, only to be expelled and re-elected in March. In April, after another expulsion and re-election, Parliament declared his defeated government opponent to be the MP.

In 1769, radicalised London elected Wilkes as Alderman of the City. In March 1770, he was released from prison. In February 1771, the House of Commons attempted to prevent London newspapers from publishing reports of its debates. Wilkes challenged this. The Tory government reacted by arresting two of his printers. A large crowd surrounded Parliament until the government ordered their release.

Wilkes was appointed Sheriff of London and elected mayor in 1774. His supporters created the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. This became the first popular movement for British electoral reform.

Wilkes won the right to return to Parliament where he guaranteed the freedom of the press by removing the power of general warrants and Parliament’s ability to punish political reports of debates.

On March 21, 1776, he introduced the first bill for parliamentary reform. It called for shorter Parliaments, the redistribution of seats from deserted 'rotten boroughs’ to unrepresented industrial cities and a wider franchise.

In the devastating anti-Catholic 'Gordon riots’ of 1780, Wilkes, who always stood for religious tolerance, ordered the militia defending the Bank of England to open fire on the mob.

In 1782, Wilkes established the right of the electors to choose their members of Parliament.

From 1783, Wilkes accepted the King was prepared to work within the constitution and supported the King’s ministry of William Pitt the Younger. Wilkes worked in his final years as a magistrate, campaigning for the more humane punishment of offenders.

In May 1788, he bought a lease on the Sandown cottage and spent the summers there until his death in London in December 1797.

He helped to popularise the idea of summer holidays by the sea and Sandown as a tourist destination.

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