Biography

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John Wilkes (1725-1798)

Wilkes and daughter

John Wilkes and his daughter

John Wilkes was born on 17 October 1725. He was the second son of Israel Wilkes, a successful malt distiller from Clerkenwell. Wilkes was educated initially at an academy at Hertford and then had a private tutor. On 23 May 1747 he was married to Mary Meade, heiress of the manor of Aylesbury. This brought him a comfortable fortune and social status among the gentry of Buckinghamshire. Wilkes used his wife's money to set up as a country squire and to acquire political status. The couple had a daughter but their marriage did not last long. Wilkes' personal life was scandalous in an age of scandalous behaviour. [1]

Wilkes was extremely ugly and had a dreadful squint but he was very witty. During one of his fights with the government he was invited to make up a table at cards but declined, saying: 'Do not ask me, for I am so ignorant that I cannot tell the difference between a king and a knave.' The Earl of Sandwich's comment that Wilkes would die either of the pox or on the gallows brought the response: 'That depends, my lord, whether I embrace your mistress or your principles.'

Wilkes was a notorious rake who became involved with Sir Francis Dashwood and the Medmenham Abbey scandals: he was a member of the Hell-Fire Club that met in the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey at Medmenham for 'tasteful' orgies in 'romantic' surroundings of the ruined abbey. The Hell Fire Club had thirteen members including Dashwood, Wilkes, the Earl of Bute, Thomas Potter (who was the son of Archbishop of Canterbury) and the Earl of Sandwich. Having been expelled from the club, Wilkes exposed its activities in the North Briton in 1762.

In 1754, at the suggestion of Earl Temple (who was the brother of George Grenville and the brother-in-law of Pitt the Elder), Wilkes stood unsuccessfully for election to parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed.. In 1757, after an election campaign said to have cost him £7,000 he was returned to parliament for Aylesbury. By this time, Wilkes was deep in debt but hoped to retrieve his fortunes by political advancement.

In 1761 the Earl of Bute set up The Briton newspaper, edited by Smollett, to publicise his policies. Bute was a poor speaker and was not well liked in parliament because

In 1762 Wilkes set up The North Briton as a rival paper which he used to attack, ridicule and abuse Bute and his administration. The paper labelled Bute 'the King's incompetent friend'. North Briton appealed to the widening readership of the age, especially middle classes and was the start of the 'paper tigers' in English journalism. It was indicative of social and political changes in England. Wilkes' attitude was fairly light-hearted until April 1763 and Issue 45, following the King's speech at the opening of parliament. In the speech, the Peace of Paris was praised by the king as 'honourable to my Crown and beneficial to my people'. Wilkes said that the speech was Bute's work, to make it clear that he was not attacking the King.

Wilkes denounced the king's speech and said the peace was corrupt and weak, not peace with honour. By this time, Bute had resigned and Grenville was PM although most of the Cabinet was the same and felt Grenville's government was to be attacked as severely by Wilkes as Bute's had been. Grenville wanted to discredit the opposition and distract public attention from the controversy of the peace. He felt the challenge could not be ignored so Grenville's government issued a General Warrant (one that did not name anyone specifically) for the arrest of 'the authors, printers and publishers of a seditious and treasonable paper, entitled the North Briton, Number XLV'. This act by the government raised three constitutional issues:

Wilkes seems to have wanted to provoke a fight with the ministers. Wilkes and forty-eight others who were involved with No. 45 were arrested. Wilkes, as an MP, was sent to the Tower, awaiting trial. He had several influential friends especially Lord Temple and a group of Whigs. These men purported to fear a return of royal absolutism and secured a Writ of Habeas Corpus which liberated Wilkes because Lord Chief Justice Pratt ordered his release on the grounds that his arrest was a breach of parliamentary privilege. Wilkes instituted actions for trespass against the secretary of state, the Earl of Halifax, and was tried by Lord Chief Justice Pratt who set a precedent by declaring General Warrants to be illegal and contrary to the Bill of Rights. Wilkes prepared to continue his campaign and resumed publication of his newspaper and his seat in the Commons.

From then on it was indirectly assumed that the press had the right to comment on and criticise parliament, and report debates. Wilkes was unpopular in parliament because he was a notorious rake, his social position was 'inferior' and he expressed extreme democratic views although to the electorate he became a symbol of liberty and radicalism.

A second attack on him was carefully prepared by Wilkes' former friend in the Medmenham set, Lord Sandwich, now secretary of state. Sandwich had a personal grievance against Wilkes so he planned to strip Wilkes of immunity from prosecution by removing him from Parliament. The government secured the proof sheets of Essay on Woman, an obscene parody on Alexander Pope's Essay on Man, which had been written by Wilkes and Thomas Potter years before. Wilkes had started printing twelve copies, probably for the members of the Hell Fire Club. At the start of the parliamentary session in November 1763, the essay was read by Sandwich to the House of Lords, who voted it a libel and a breach of privilege. At the same time the Commons declared No. 45 of the North Briton a seditious libel. Wilkes had also broken the law by taking part in a duel provoked by exchanges in the House of Commons. During the Christmas recess, Wilkes went to Paris to visit his daughter and decided not to return to face prosecution. On 20 January 1764 the government carried the motion for his expulsion from the Commons. In February Wilkes was tried in his absence and was found guilty of publishing a seditious libel and an obscene and impious libel. Sentence was deferred pending his return, and in due course he was pronounced an outlaw.

Between 1764 and 1768 Wilkes lived mainly in Paris, hoping that a change of ministry would bring in friends who would secure him relief and advancement. The ministry of the second Marquis of Rockingham paid Wilkes a pension so that he could stay in France but that ended with the fall of the ministry. The ministries Chatham, and Grafton did nothing for Wilkes.

By 1768 Wilkes' huge debts made a longer stay in Paris unsafe so he decided to return to England in the hope of securing re-election to Parliament. Wilkes was defeated in London but was elected for Middlesex. The Middlesex election fiasco led to further problems for the ministry. Although Wilkes was elected, the government declared the election null and void because Wilkes had been imprisoned. Another election was ordered and the government put forward Henry Lawes Luttrell as its candidate. Wilkes emerged the clear winner, so the election again was declared null. This happened again and on the fourth occasion Luttrell was declared to be the winner even though he had polled considerably fewer votes than Wilkes.

In 1769 the friends and supporters of Wilkes formed the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights (SSBR) to uphold his cause and pay his debts. During 1770 it became a political machine at his command. Removed from parliament, It may be that expediency made him embrace the radical program adopted in 1771 by the SSBR which called for

In 1770 Wilkes was released from gaol and wanted revenge for being imprisoned in 1768 and for having his election in Middlesex nullified and seeing Luttrell installed as MP in his stead. Wilkes pursued his ambitions, becoming an alderman of the City of London in 1769, sheriff in 1771, and lord mayor in 1774. He had been given these posts as a token of esteem by the freeholders.

Wilkes decided that the best way of obtaining revenge was by reporting parliamentary debates verbatim, to name speakers and comment on events. He also encouraged others to do likewise. His argument was that MPs could hardly claim to represent the people if the people did not know what was going on in parliament. MPs said that Wilkes' activities were a breach of parliamentary privilege: this was despite the fact that ordinary people were interested in political affairs.

In order to enforce their privileges the House of Commons sent a messenger to arrest two of the printers of the debates. Wilkes arrested the messenger for violating the privileges of the City of London. The Commons ordered Wilkes and two other magistrates (who also happened to be MPs) to appear at the Bar of the House. Wilkes refused, unless he was allowed to take his seat; the other two obeyed and were imprisoned in the Tower of London for the rest of the parliamentary session.

The release of the two men was greeted by demonstrations and a triumphal march. The Prime Minister, Lord North decided not to pursue the issue. The Commons re-affirmed that the publication of debates was a breach of parliamentary privilege but made no attempt to enforce its order. Wilkes had won his point. From 1770 it was assumed that newspapers had the right to publish debates. The major newspapers began after 1770; for example, The Times was founded in 1785. This episode of the Wilkes affair was a victory for public opinion.In 1771 Wilkes prevented the arrest for breach of privilege of printers who reported parliamentary debates. As a magistrate of the city he frequently showed himself to be conscientious and enlightened, though he remained irresponsible in financial matters.

Wilkes was elected as MP for Middlesex in 1774, after pledging himself to the radical programme. He spoke on a number of occasions against the American Revolutionary War and in 1776 he spoke in support of parliamentary reform. He acquired a reputation for insincerity and was reported to have admitted that his speeches against the ministers were solely to retain his popularity in London. From about 1779 his popularity waned. In 1780, during the Gordon Riots, he took firm action to put down the rioters, from whom a few years before he had been glad to receive support. In Middlesex he remained popular, being re-elected on his radical platform in 1780 and in 1784. In 1790 he found so little support in Middlesex that he declined to fight the election. He died in London on 26 December 1797.


[1] An illegitimate child, born in 1762 to his housekeeper Catherine Smith (d. 1795), was passed off as his nephew John Smith, a "papal nephew" as Wilkes put it. In 1782 Wilkes obtained a post for his son in India. Smith was stationed at Dinapore and wrote a number of letters to his father asking for recommendations so that Smith could seek promotion. Smith added the name "Henry" to differentiate himself from at least one other "John Smith" in the East India Company. The most long-lasting affair was that with Amelia Arnold whom he set her up in a nearby house for the last two decades of his life. She was mother of an acknowledged daughter, Harriet Wilkes, born in 1778. She married William Rough, barrister-at-law, on 26 June 1802. They had five children; Harriet died in 1820.


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Last modified 11 November, 2013

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