The hornet John Wilkes

The hornet himself at his desk / thetimes.co.uk

The hornet himself at his desk / thetimes.co.uk

It is difficult correctly to describe John Wilkes in an unprejudiced manner. Personally, he was a stranger to cleanliness, he was fearfully ugly, he had a scurrilous and filthy mind and a temper that went well with the latter. It was also said that he could charm the leg off a donkey. He holds an important place in history not just because he was the first of the muck-raking journalists to become a politician, but because of his guts and determination. Small, powerful and squat, he charged head down at the chief representatives of ‘The System’ or ‘The Establishment’ in the eighteenth century; he was quite without fear – though he could easily have been arrested and locked up. In another country he would have been executed, or at least quietly eliminated by a secret service.
Wilkes was a Londoner, born in 1727.

At the end of his life he was hailed as a champion of liberty in both Britain and the United States. He married an heiress, Mary Meade in May, 1747, thus assuring himself of a comfortable income and a certain status. He was an active member of the ‘Hellfire Club’, which met in the ruins of an abbey in Buckinghamshire to indulge in debauched practices while celebrating ‘the Black Mass’. By 1763 at the age of thirty-six, he owned his own pamphlet – The North Britain. The paper was politically speaking radical to say the least; in fact it was a ticking bomb waiting to go off. Wilkes used it to publish articles written by himself attacking the King’s ministers and by clear implication, George III himself. He got himself elected as Member of Parliament, thus achieving some semblance of immunity. As he had attacked the government and the monarch in No. 45, he was arrested for seditious libel, but he claimed the privileges of an MP, insisting militia’s act was illegal. Indeed it was, as Wilkes had spotted that his arrest was made under a General Warrant, which did not include his name. The House of Commons then decided that he would have to go and expelled him on a charge of obscenity. His Essay on Woman, a nasty spoof of Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, was sufficiently horrible for the MPs to throw him out of the Commons, hoping he would vanish and not re-appear.

Wilkes ran away to live in France, but was soon back (in 1768) to stand in the general election. He insulted Lord Sandwich (one of his pet targets) who said Wilkes would eventually die of the pox or on the gallows, to which he swiftly replied “that depends, my Lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles!” He was thrust into jail to serve 22 months for his earlier offences. By then he was of course popular with the mob – even popular liberal free-thinkers and the slowly expanding middle classes. After serving time, he was duly elected, but the Speaker in the Commons refused to allow him to take his rightful seat! By now the name of John Wilkes was on everybody’s lips up and down the country, and in Europe and the States too.

He was elected four times as Member for Middlesex, but was only permitted to take his seat in 1774. And there he stayed, stinging those around him given every opportunity, supporting or proposing parliamentary reform movements, giving clear support to the cause of American independence and making himself loathed more and more by the Establishment; equally, he was a hero to the Press and the public. If he needed to stress a point, he could and did call out a large mob, relied upon to carry him shoulder high through the corrupt and smelly streets of London.

Perhaps even a hornet grows gentler with Time, withdrawing its near-lethal sting, because by 1789 Wilkes was supporting the action being taken to suppress ‘the Gordon Riots’ . . . and openly opposing the French Revolution. He died at the age of seventy in 1797, having been a scourge and an irritant to ‘the authorities’ for most of the eighteenth century.

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