Election week special part 1: John Wilkes and the Middlesex Election Scandal
Mark Rowland takes a backward glance to an occasion when electioneering got really rough…
I suppose it’s reasonable enough to assume that the politics is going to get a bit dirty in the lead up to one of the most closely contested elections in living memory this Thursday, but our 21st Century versions of putative Members of the House have nothing on some of their Georgian equivalents when it comes to the rough and tumble of getting elected (and staying there).
Take John Wilkes, for example. A maverick, radical, legendary wit and self-proclaimed “ugliest man in England” (such were his extremes of wit and looks that he claimed “…only half an hour to talk away my face” would win him the day in any love rivalry), he idled most of his early years away at The Hell Fire club.
Then, bored with a life of idle pleasure, he was elected MP for Aylesbury in 1757.
Fast forward to 1762 and George III decided to install the Earl of Bute (a close friend) as PM, upsetting a large number of MP’s in the process. Not satisfied with harrumphing from the benches, Wilkes launched a newspaper called The North Briton with pretty much the sole aims of attacking the King and his puppet PM and promoting the crazy, radical notion that it might not be a bad idea for MPs actually to be elected by those they purported to represent as opposed to being ushered in by their mates…
Following one particularly scurrilous article in April 1763, Wilkes was hauled before the bench at the behest of the King and charged with sedition and libel, but the charge was thrown out based on Parliamentary Privilege and Wilkes left the court a hero of liberty and free speech.
Having failed in their recourse to law, the following year one of the King’s supporters challenged Wilkes to a duel during which Wilkes was seriously wounded with a shot to the stomach. As if that wasn’t bad enough, a week later Parliament voted that members’ privilege should not extend to published libel, so another trial awaited, but before Wilkes could be detained he was spirited away to Paris by a group of friends where he remained for five years.
Returning in 1768, he stood as the Radical Candidate for Middlesex, was elected, duly arrested and thrown in the notorious Kings Bench Prison in Southwark, whereupon a crowd of 15,000 gathered shouting pro-liberty slogans. Fearful of an attempted rescue of Wilkes, the militia opened fire on the crowd killing seven people in what became known as The Massacre of St George’s Fields.
In June that year he was duly sentenced to 22 months imprisonment, fined £1000 and expelled from the House of Commons. None of which stopped him standing again as MP for Middlesex. And winning. Three times, to be precise (in February, March and April 1769), each of which was overturned by Parliament.
This led to the formation of the Bill of Rights Society. Its initial aim was solely to overturn the overturnings of the Middlesex elections, but it blossomed into a movement campaigning for electoral reform.
It may have taken the best part of 150 years, two reform bills and a women’s emancipation bill to get close to a truly representative franchise, but those seeds were sown as a result of Wilkes’ tribulations at the hands of George III and his cohorts.
So, whilst the hustings will no doubt get more rumbustious as this week progresses, it’s worth bearing in mind that none of the candidates have been hauled before the law for daring to criticise their lords and masters, shot at by one of their opponent’s supporters, forced into exile, had a law changed just so they could be imprisoned and won three elections whilst incarcerated only to have them overturned because Parliament didn’t like the result.
Nor have you been shot at for turning up to support your favourite (at least I hope you haven’t!).
And this all happened not in some far off foreign land ruled by some tin pot general, but here in good old London Town not 250 years ago…
We’ll leave the last words to the man himself. Challenged in Parliament by John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich (one of his old Hell Fire club adversaries) with the line “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox”, Wilkes reportedly replied “That depends, my lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress”
Parliamentary debate ain’t what it used to be….
Mark is running an election night special of his Pomp & Power walk this Thursday and John Wilkes also features on his Heroes & Villains walk, his current walks schedule is here.