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Episode 91. Radical MP John Wilkes

John Wilkes was a radical politician and newspaper editor. He used poetry and  Magna Carta to mobilise public opinion, which helped him fight for many causes in his lifetime.

Join Hazel Baker as she talks with City of London tour guide Ian McDiarmid to discuss MP John Wilkes and his life in London.

Map of Georgian London

Rocque, John, -1762.Pine, John, 1690-1756. Tinney, John, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

18th century podcast episodes

Episode 89 – Thomas Arne in Covent Garden

Episode 63 – Handel in London

Episode 70 – Dr. Robert Hooke

Episode 71 – Georgian Dentistry

Episode 72 – Drs William and John Hunter

Episode 78 – Georgian Lodgers and Landlords

Episode 79 – Landladies in Georgian London

 

Your host: Hazel Baker

Hazel is an active Londoner, a keen theatre-goer and qualified CIGA London tour guide.

She has won awards for tour guiding and is proud to be involved with some great organisations. She is a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and am an honorary member of The Leaders Council.

She has been an expert guest on Channel 5’s Walking Wartime Britain (Episode 3) and Yesterday Channel’s The Architecture the Railways Built (Series 3, Episode 7).

 

Ian McDiarmid

Guest: Ian McDiarmid

Ian qualified as a City of London tour guide in 2017 and has a particular passion for Roman and Medieval history, having in an earlier incarnation studied history at Cambridge and London universities.

Recommended Reading on John Wilkes

  • John Wilkes. Arthur H Cash
  • The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. Lewis Namier
  • Wilkes and Liberty. George Rude

 

Hazel Baker: Joining me in the studio today Ian McDiarmid, City of London tour guide and general London historian know-it-all. Ian, welcome back.

Ian McDiarmid: Hello Hazel. 

Hazel Baker: We’re going to be talking about a rather interesting character. John Wilkes born in Clerkenwell I understand. 

Ian McDiarmid: Yes. He’s of interest to us because of the London connection. He’s born in London and he lives most of his life in London. So he’s born in, as you say, in Clerkenwell in St John’s Square and this is more your area of expertise Hazel, but I know relatively well that if you walk through St. John’s Gate heading northwards, you come into St. John Square. And now it’s rather just a, sorry, looking better big road, but it was back then a square and Wilkes’s father is a wealthy distiller and his distillery is just in that square. And later on he buys a house at the end of the square and Wilkes is born there. And then in terms of pinning him down in London he later buys a house in Great George Street, which is the one running just to the north of Parliament Square and he lives at number 13 Great Jewel Street, which unfortunately is no longer there. It was on the site of what is now occupied by the Royal Institute of chartered surveyors. But if you know that street or if you happen to be going there, And you look at the RICS on the a bit is number 14, which does survive. So this was the house that was I think next door to Wilkes at number 13. And it’s pretty similar to the house he lived in. So you can see that. And then he left, he leaves and moves to Princes Court, which is no longer there. And then finally ends up when he’s set up and doing rather well at his old age on Grosvenor Square. 

London’s very much in the background and more importantly than his domestic arrangements is always the fact that London is the centre of political life.

And one of the things we’ll be talking about is run-ins with the government over the issue of his publication, the north Britain. And he has enormous difficulty, which we’ll come to in getting this thing published. He decides if he wants to publish the whole thing after it becomes very controversial and he actually converts his house in Great George Street into a printing press to do that. That’s quite an important site for him. 

Hazel Baker: So we’re saying his name. But how would people maybe know him or recognise him?

John Wilkes Public Domain

Ian McDiarmid: In the 1760s and early 1770s, you really couldn’t avoid him. He was the biggest new story in England and probably the most recognisable person after the King. And it’s significant that George III detested him, although later on when this sort of mellowed into old age, they get on. But George III detests Wilkes and he is the number one news story. He’s important in the long term because he’s really the first politician to address what the social elites of the day would call the inferior sort, i.e. Ordinary people. And he’s the first. Politician to really try and mobilise a popular opinion as we would call it behind his cause.

So in his political career, he goes out and addresses the lower sort of people in London in particular, but he’s also addressing the whole nation through the medium of print. He produces handbills, he produces speeches and there are lots of Wilkes memorabilia. His supporters will wear blue ribbons. There will be buttons produced with number 45, which is the most famous edition of. Publication and north Britain and Wilkes and Liberty will become a common cry. And I think this. This fits in with the sort of expansion of English manufacturing, because the Wilkes phenomenon occurs almost immediately after the General Wolfe phenomenon.

So General Wolfe is killed in 1759 at the battle of Quebec. And there’s a huge outpouring of ceramics to celebrate, often, as I say, memorabilia, prince and the rest of it. And as soon as something happens to Wilkes and Wilkes in a way is fortunate because he was very ugly. I used the word I’ve been in inverted commerce. I justified it on the grounds that it was one that he described that he sometimes replies to himself. And certainly one that his critics apply to him. But what we can say is very distinctive looking. And he had a very pronounced squint and his squint was so bad that if he was reading, he had to hold one hand over one of his eyes though. 

Interestingly, this visual. Impairment did not prevent him from fighting a couple of duels. He was also very courageous. And in addition to having very crossed eyes he also had a very pronounced jaw. And I said that this didn’t stop him from duelling. It also didn’t stop him from being a great ladies’ man. And he, I think this is because he was just very charming and very clever with words. But then we come back to his physical appearance. One of his run-ins with lots of people is his most important running. The reason he gets so famous is because of his run-ins with the government, but he hasn’t run in with lots of famous people in the 18th century.

One of whom is William Hogarth and Hogarth is a satirist. Print of Wilkes at one of his trials and which he’s obviously been very derogatory about Wilkes, and he does this kind of character church, and he plays up the squinty. He plays up the pronounced jewel. And because I was saying earlier that Wilkes supporters go around shouting Wilkes and Liberty.

One of the things he’s often shown with is the cap of Liberty. So the capital liberties. Known as the 18th century symbol of Liberty that was later taken up by the French revolutionaries. And it’s often shown as a kind of a cap on a pole. In Hogarth’s print, the capital of, as he looks very much like a chamber pot and wilt is wearing a week, which looks as though

it’s also the horns of the devil. Anyway, Wilkes, I think initially I’m slightly offended by this print, but he realises that it’s great material. And it’s a great way of being recognised and a lot of the images of Wilkes that will appear on mugs and the rest of it. Bear more than a passing resemblance to this unpleasant print of him by William Hogarth.

 

John Wilkes, Esq. May 16, 1763 William Hogarth Public Domain

And you can see him every now and then. I remember years ago, going around Stow is the house of the law temple who is basically Pitt’s patron. He builds a new wing. And if you look up and into the roof of this new wing, you can see Wilkes’ face, peering out at you and it’s immediately recognizable because of his very distinct features.

 

Hazel Baker: I don’t know if there’s something personal going on with the whole Hogarth and Wilkes thing though, because both of their dads had businesses in St. John’s Square. 

 

Ian McDiarmid: Oh yes. That’s a good point. There definitely was something personal. I think Wilkes road. Yes. Wilkes wrote an article criticising her guy who is quite elderly at this stage and not just wilts, but other people say that he’s past his best, but it goes into print saying this, that these are basically doddery old fool now, and nobody’s interested in them.

And I think Hogarth’s very upset by this and this provokes him into making this. 

 

Hazel Baker: But he turns around though, doesn’t he? You uses it as his own then.

 

Ian McDiarmid: Yes, very much and yeah, he, and he’s also, he often makes jokes about his appearance as well. So he’s. I think he puts a very brave face on it really and gets on with it and realises the propaganda value.

Because as I say some wandering around today, there aren’t that many depictions of him. But as I say, you see this statue leering outer view from the heights of Stow and you immediately recognize it as John Wilkes, so his face became really a trademark. 

 

Hazel Baker: And what can you say can you say a bit about the background that allowed Wilkes to mobilise the, these ordinary people?

 

Ian McDiarmid: Yeah. I think if we’re looking at the 18th century political system and electoral system, one can say, do you say, do you use the word design would be wrong because it’s something that’s grown up organically, but its effect is to Is to anchor power in the social elites and to exclude the people that we were talking about before the inferior sort, however Electoral system has been changed over the centuries by the growth in population growth in wealth and inflation and all of these erode the property qualifications that are at the heart of a lot of the franchises and the electoral system. Oh. And one of the key developments is the expansion of London and Wilkes; his political career will be centred on the county of Middlesex. And this is very much to do with the expansion of London’s population. And. Looking at it. It’s a complicated system, the 18th century voting system, but essentially the seats are divided into two kinds.

You’ve got the counters and you’ve got the borrowers and I’ll just talk about England. Scotland and Wales are slightly different, but the counters return to members and you have a 40 shilling freehold qualification. So if you own a property that has a rental value, If you’re living in a property with a rental value of two pounds a year, 40 shillings you get the vote, that’s the counter.

So that’s fairly easy to comprehend. There’s a uniform system there, although actually detailed in its application, it wasn’t always uniform, but we’ll leave that. Leave that to one side. You’ve also got the boroughs. And the boroughs in general return one MP, but they can return two, and this being a complicated system, it can even be more so the City of London returns four MPs and the borough franchises are varied.

The right to vote can be dependent on being a member of the corporation ,the town council. It can be. Restricted to Freemen and you become, if you want to come to Freeman, you do it by serving an apprenticeship, or you can do it through a purchase; the right to vote can be vested in the ownership of certain properties and was then known as Burgess boroughs. And then finally you’ve got the Scott and lot borrowers where it’s basically householders. You’ve got free whole borrowers where the right to vote is restricted to people who are freeholders. And finally you have pop wallpaper or as where a resident may. Yeah. Can vote. There’s only a handful of those and it’s a complicated system with lots of differences. But the key thing is that in about half of the boroughs, the electorate is less than a hundred, and these are constituencies, which are very much subject to the influence of the wealth in particular landholders and the influence works through social deference . The influence works through bribery and can also work from intimidation. If you don’t vote the way your landlord wants you to, and you probably would do anyway because of deference, but if you don’t, he could chuck you out. And in particular, contemporaries are very interested in the issue of so called pocket boroughs they’re called pocket bars because they are

basically owned by wealthy individual millionaires to cry, but within the system, there is scope for some kind of genuine public opinion to emerge. So the counties have, in general, about 3,000 electors. So they’re quite difficult to control and they’re quite expensive if you do want one that you are gonna have to put around a lot of money to try and influence the voters in the county. And you’re not going to be able to have precise control of it. There are also some very large constituencies and this is where Middlesex comes in. Yorkshire has a very large electorate, a very big county. The borough of Westminster has a substantial electoral power, the City of London is a substantial electrical. Work’s a little bit odd because it, although there are lots of people there’s quite a lot of hierarchical influence in the city of London. And then you get Middlesex, as I say, and Middlesex is the county that existed until 1965, which covered the area north of the tens, which is now occupied by London, essentially excluding the City of London and excluding Westminster, which as I’ve already alluded to return their own MPs. So this is a substantial area. And for example, it included Islington would be part of was part of Middlesex and to the east and to extended as far as the river Lee, which the river joins the Thames just east of the isle of dogs and this area.

Two things: One is that the population was quite large. The number of people qualifying for the 40 shilling freehold was quite large. It’s probably about 4,000. It’s slightly larger than most counties, but most significantly of all within this area, you got lots and lots of artisans and craftspeople who qualify for this.

These people are not subject to the influence of squire and parson. You get to have such a heavy influence on politics elsewhere. So it’s a bit of an odd case. Now when Wilkes first enters parliament, he ends parliament for Aylesbury. He, his wife and his family are very big landowners in Aylesbury. And in Aylesbury is a borough, there are about 400 electors. It costs Wilkes a lot of money that you can see from the correspondence. His sort of team estimates how much it’s going to cost to win the votes in Aylesbury. And the price, I think varies from sort something like a Guinea up to five pounds to buy a vote there, but not all of the, not all the votes are to be bought. Some of them, some of the voters are genuine independence, but nonetheless it costs a lot of money. Uses a lot of influence and he’s elected as MP for Aylesbury. But then later on, he focuses on Middlesex and he’s making an appeal to popular opinion when he does that. And it’s very deliberate when he does 

Hazel Baker: And what was north Britain?

Ian McDiarmid: North Britain was a publication of Wilkes that was a parody of government propaganda. So in 1760 George III had a sense of the throne. And he brought in as his first minister. The man who’d been his tutor or the Earl of Bute, it looks as though this time is pronounced boot because Bute is a very unpopular figure. 

One of the ways his unpopularity is manifested is by London crowds, carrying around boots with them, which they will then ceremoniously burn or hang. And one aspect of his popularity is that when they’re carrying around boots they also carry around a petticoat and the petticoat symbolises George III’s mother, and this reflects the rumours, which Wilkes is very keen to wider publicity to in his own publication that was indulged was involved romantically with the print dowager princess of Wales, George III’s mother, which is one of the reasons why George III hates Wilkes so much. Bute comes in and he’s very unpopular, partly because he’s Scottish, and he stuffs a lot of the political appointments with fellow Scots and that doesn’t play very well. South of the border, they enjoy the third and are also very unpopular because they are known to want to negotiate peace with France. So we’re talking about the seven year war, which runs from 1756 to 1763.

 

This a wall it’d be gone very bad if the British, but which has been turned around by William Pitt, the elder Pitt and 1759, which is the year when General Wolfe dies is the. Probably the biggest year for British victories, at any time and notably, they drove the French from Canada. They drive the French from India and they drive the French from the West Indies and Pitt loses influence with the accession of George III obviously Butte comes in to replace him and they all suspect rightly that in a sense George III and Bute are going to sell them out. If they’re going to go for a negotiated peace with the French, and when the peace is signed in 1763 in the eyes of the Patriot party, that’s of Pitt, there is indeed a sellout because the British give back the Caribbean islands, which they captured to the French.

And there’s a story that the French. Diplomat negotiating the treaty has given instructions, which run along the lines of, yeah. If you have to agree to the abandonment of Canada, we can live with that, but whatever, Get back Guadalupe. So that kind of, if you think, just think of a, an atlas and the scale of the two countries and how much that reflects, how important the sugar trade is. And obviously we’re talking about the slave economy here is to these powers. 

Anyway Bute and George III aren’t popular because they’re suspected of going for sellout peace. And because they’re unpopular, they want to try and counter that by having some sort of government propaganda and they get smaller.  To produce a publication called North Britain. And it’s because of this title that wilts comes out with North Britain being a kind of a patriotic word for Scottish people who want to be involved in the union. So if you were as. Member of the Scottish elite living in Edinburgh at this time, you’ve probably describe yourself as a North Britain to show your loyalty to the hand of Ayrian regime.

And so the title itself is taking aim at Bute and his Scottish contacts; the publication is outrageous. It’s a great success. And then we come to issue number 45 in which Wilkes says that either the king or his ministers are. And both of those are a no-no.

You can imagine them. The reason I’m saying that the ministers are a lion is a no-no is because in theory, what we’ll just talk about is the king’s speech to parliament made by his ministers. And there’s a kind of a tradition that if you were to criticise the King’s ministers, whilst making this speech, you would be libelling the King.

So this is completely outrageous. And the government seeks to shut Wilkes up and to punish him and. They issue a general warrant for the arrest of the printers and publishers of the north Britain and Wilkes has committed to the Tower of London. Now, the fact that they do this through a general warrant is significant because general warrants were warrants for the arrest of unnamed people.

So they named the crime, but they didn’t mean the people and he’ll go to trial and he will argue that these. Illegal. And he’s arguing that they infringe the traditional liberties of an Englishman. And I think legally that there’s a lot of, there was a lot of debates about this because actually general warrants have been used for quite some time, but will, was arguing that they were an innovation and an innovation of despotism on the parts of the crown.

And Wilkes is put on trial. He was released because of parliamentary privilege. The judge rules that because of parliamentary privilege, he can’t be put on the, his arrest was essentially illegal. But we’ll go on to argue the case about general warrants over other laws. 

Over other times, he’s on trial and he will eventually win and he will outlaw general warrants.

Now, after he. Released on because of parliamentary privilege. What does Wilkes do? What do you think? I’ve got a good idea. I’ll reprint the entire north Britain, including number 45. And unfortunately for him at the same time, he also has the idea of printing a scarless poem that is written known as the essay on woman.

And this is a parody of Alexander Pope’s essay on man. And it is completely lewd. And. Joke here is not just men making jokes about women. There’s a bit more to it than that. It’s personal because it’s a parody of Bishop Warburton and Gloucester. Now this poem was possibly largely written by a friend of Wilkes called Potter, who is alleged, had an affair with the bishops. And the two men, the Bishop and Potter, hated each other. And what Potter and Wilkes do is they satirise an edition of Warburton’s own Pope’s essay on that in which the Bishop has written producers edition and written a lot of erudite and very accomplished footnotes and Potter and wilts scattered there scurrilous poem essay on women with.

lots of footnotes, the parody, the footnotes made by the Bishop on the original Pope poem. So that’s the kind of joke behind it, but the poem does open, Wilkes up to two. Possible vulnerabilities. The one is that the poem is scarless, so it can be done for blasts for me and in decency. And also the Bishop will be late to be able to claim that he’s being libelled and that this is an infringement of his parliamentary privilege because he sits in the house of Lords.

The government wants to get back at Wilkes’s cause he’s been arrested and that, sorry, he’s been released on a technicality and they get wind of the fact he wants to reprint the number 45, but they also see this Essay on Woman as a chance to get to them as well. Now, what wills wants to do is he wants to reprint.

John Wilkes Statue, Fetter Lane. Photo by Lonpicman at Wikipedia. Public Domain

So Wilkes has this project to be published by the essay on woman and the number 45, but he doesn’t really have the resources to do this. It’s a huge government. Solicitor Carceral gets hold of the unpublished Essay on Woman.. He gets hold of it in a rather dubious manner by intimidating and bribing. One of Wilkes’s employees. So essentially it’s stolen. 

Hazel Baker: They spent a lot of effort trying to retrieve that. So why was that important? 

Ian McDiarmid: They saw it as a weapon for getting to Wilkes. They’re expressing outrage at this, but one of the people involved in trying to get Wilkes on. This was the Earl of Sandwich who himself was a notorious rake. They saw it as a vulnerability and so they got it. And as I say, it was an outrageous poem, but Wilkes had a very strong legal defence in that one. He’d never actually printed it. And secondly, they had acquired it basically by stealing it. What happens is that because number 45 is the rule to be liable. The public hangman is instructed to burn it in front of the Royal exchange. And in December he goes to do that. But the problem is that the hangman, when he goes to carry out the destruction of the work, is pelted by the London crowd and he’s pelted with bits of wood. He’s also pelted with bits of dirt. And if you think what kind of dirt is going to be available to you on the streets of London, it’s probably a fairly unpleasant experience. And the crowd actually prevented the burning of the number 45. They removed the faggots from the fire, they take the publication of the fire itself. 

So it’s a sort of great popular demonstration in favour. Wilkes’s problem; because parliament rules that parliamentary privilege does not apply to him in the case of seditious life. Paul is when you libel the crown and fearing punishment, he then takes himself off to France.

And in his absence, he failed to come in for sentencing to the court. He is made an outlaw and he’s, as I say, he’s sitting in France he’s in exile or he’s an outlaw and he has. A practical problem there. And the practical problem is that his debts are increasing all the time and after a while he thinks it might be a good idea.

If he comes back to England in the hope that he could then become an MP and then be protected by parliamentary privilege from being pursued by his debtors. Eventually he comes back in 1768 and he makes the decision to stand for Middlesex; this is a momentous decision. He originally wants to stand to the City but that doesn’t work out, but he then turns his attention to Middlesex. And it’s because of those things that we were talking about earlier on that Middlesex has a genuinely free in inverted commas electorate. And if Wilkes is elected, it will be shown to be the will of the English. Choosing him as his MP. I think that, 

Hazel Baker: The celebrations afterwards prove that fact as well. Don’t they? 

The government wants to get back at Wilke’s cause he’s been arrested and that, sorry, he’s been released on a technicality and they get wind of the fact he wants to reprint the number 45, but they also see this Essay on Woman as a chance to get to them as well. Now, what wills wants to do is he wants to reprint.

So Wilkes has this project to be published by the essay on woman and the number 45, but he doesn’t really have the resources to do this. It’s a huge government. Solicitor Carceral gets hold of the unpublished Essay on Woman.. He gets hold of it in a rather dubious manner by intimidating and bribing. One of Wilkes’s employees. So essentially it’s stolen. 

Hazel Baker: They spent a lot of effort trying to retrieve that. So why was that important? 

Ian McDiarmid: They saw it as a weapon for getting to Wilkes. They’re expressing outrage at this, but one of the people involved in trying to get Wilkes on. This was the Earl of Sandwich who himself was a notorious rake. They saw it as a vulnerability and so they got it. And as I say, it was an outrageous poem, but Wilkes had a very strong legal defence in that one. He’d never actually printed it. And secondly, they had acquired it basically by stealing it. What happens is that because number 45 is the rule to be liable. The public hangman is instructed to burn it in front of the Royal exchange. And in December he goes to do that. But the problem is that the hangman, when he goes to carry out the destruction of the work, is pelted by the London crowd and he’s pelted with bits of wood. He’s also pelted with bits of dirt. And if you think what kind of dirt is going to be available to you on the streets of London, it’s probably a fairly unpleasant experience. And the crowd actually prevented the burning of the number 45. They removed the faggots from the fire, they take the publication of the fire itself. 

So it’s a sort of great popular demonstration in favour. Wilkes’s problem; because parliament rules that parliamentary privilege does not apply to him in the case of seditious life. Paul is when you libel the crown and fearing punishment, he then takes himself off to France.

And in his absence, he failed to come in for sentencing to the court. He is made an outlaw and he’s, as I say, he’s sitting in France he’s in exile or he’s an outlaw and he has. A practical problem there. And the practical problem is that his debts are increasing all the time and after a while he thinks it might be a good idea.

If he comes back to England in the hope that he could then become an MP and then be protected by parliamentary privilege from being pursued by his debtors. Eventually he comes back in 1768 and he makes the decision to stand for Middlesex; this is a momentous decision. He originally wants to stand to the City but that doesn’t work out, but he then turns his attention to Middlesex. And it’s because of those things that we were talking about earlier on that Middlesex has a genuinely free in inverted commas electorate. And if Wilkes is elected, it will be shown to be the will of the English. Choosing him as his MP. I think that, 

Hazel Baker: The celebrations afterwards prove that fact as well. Don’t they? 

Ian McDiarmid: Yes. When he is elected it leads to two days of writers celebrations through London. I think I might’ve mentioned earlier that the electrodes is estimated in Middlesex to be 4,000. Wilkes produced 40,000 handbills for this election, which shows a great deal of industry on his part. But I think there are a couple of things going on here. I was saying earlier that Wilkes is often regarded as the first modern politician. He’s often regarded as the sort of father of English radicalism, but in these handbills, they are very much concerned with saying to his supporters, you’ve got to behave properly. We don’t want riotous behaviour, we don’t want people being intimidated. We don’t want you writing. And I think this is playing a double game. On the one hand, he’s saying to the superior sort on the kind of people that want to get rid of him look outwardly I’m in control of these people, but just imagine if I wasn’t and they were set loose.

Ian McDiarmid: Yes. When he is elected it leads to two days of writers celebrations through London. I think I might’ve mentioned earlier that the electrodes is estimated in Middlesex to be 4,000. Wilkes produced 40,000 handbills for this election, which shows a great deal of industry on his part. But I think there are a couple of things going on here. I was saying earlier that Wilkes is often regarded as the first modern politician. He’s often regarded as the sort of father of English radicalism, but in these handbills, they are very much concerned with saying to his supporters, you’ve got to behave properly. We don’t want riotous behaviour, we don’t want people being intimidated. We don’t want you writing. And I think this is playing a double game. On the one hand, he’s saying to the superior sort on the kind of people that want to get rid of him look outwardly I’m in control of these people, but just imagine if I wasn’t and they were set loose.

So behind all the kind of modern politics of making an appeal to people on the basis of political ideas, there’s also a threat. In some ways, this is just a tradition, some of his followers are just traditional mobs in a way he’s talking to two audiences, he’s talking to Middlesex, and he’s talking to what many people would regard as the mob. And there’s a kind of implicit threat in there of. Widespread trouble if Wilkes is no longer in control of these people and if the government are making concessions.

Hazel Baker: I must admit, I do think that Winston Graham, who wrote Poldark, must have read about John Wilkes because. So much of this kind of threat that you’re talking about now. And Wilkes using his constituents is exactly what Poldark does in the books and also the latest Aiden turnover version as well, ‘I can’t really control them, but if you give me a chance, I might just be able to hold them in and new landowners. Be able to sleep in your bed safe tonight, but you’ve got to give me a little bit of leverage. You’ve got to give me that power.’ It sounds so it must be happening all over the country.

Hazel Baker: What was it about him? His father runs the brewery in, St. John’s square. So he’s not. The upper classes. He is a member of the hellfire club though. Isn’t he?

He’s a real womaniser. Maybe that’s why people like him because he’s able to get away from the social norms. 

Ian McDiarmid: I think that his womanising probably didn’t do him too much harm. I think people realised that he was a bit of a character. And, as mentioned only by the fact he fought jewels and was a bit of a Liberty, probably did his reputation.

No harm amongst the sort of the. The male electors of the time. But I think the main thing, the reason why he’s popular is because he is prepared to go to prison on a point of principle in protesting against a very unpopular government is George. The third beginning of his reign was extremely unpopular, particularly in Butte. And he stands up to them. The key thing is that, in terms of his legacy, he’s often regarded as the father of radicalism. Sometimes the first of the modern politicians, but the people who sustain that argument have a bit of trouble with that. It’s no real coherent program behind it.

What he does all the time is constantly being put on trial by the government. And I think this is significant in terms of Wilkes’ own thinking because he is using, he’s making the appeal to the common law and he’s making an appeal to the ancient liberties. Of an Englishman, the Englishman should not be subject to a despotic government. 

One of the things when they use the general warrant to arrest him is they don’t just arrest him, which he regards as illegal. They also search and trash his house at the same time. And he makes a big fuss about this being illegal as well. But an Englishman has a right to private property and the government can’t go in. There isn’t later on in his career, he will make speeches in favour of universal male suffrage. He will make speeches in favour of religious toleration. He will make speeches in favour of the American colonists who are rebelling against England, but the court, his political activity, is basically standing trial.

I’m being persecuted by a desk, Arctic or authoritarian government. This is outrageous. This is against the time honoured liberties of Englishman. And as such, you need to put him in a kind of, almost conservative with a small seed tradition, going back to the 17th century. People obviously were very concerned.

People in parliament, very concerned about what they saw as an overbearing monarchy. So he looks both ways in that sense. 

Hazel Baker: I can understand the principle element as well. If you stand up for your own beliefs, he presents himself to the King’s bench. Doesn’t he?

Ian McDiarmid: Yes, he does. What he does is he comes back.

And so he comes back. He is elected as MP for Middlesex, and then he presents himself to the King’s bench. And whilst he’s on the waist, the king beds the London crowd to capture him and they turn it. Coach around and Wilkes actually has to escape from the crowds and then turn himself into the King’s bench almost in secret.

And again, this sort of plays to his oh, I’m so good. I obey the law image and he wins a lot of plaudits because he turns himself in, he escapes from the coach, turns himself into the law. He’s in the King’s Bench prison, which is in Southern newly constructed there. And he is awaiting sentencing on the outstanding trials.

And then parliament opens in may and a huge crowd assembles outside the Kings branch prison on the assumption that we’re just going to be taken from the prison. To Westminster for the opening day apartment. And that doesn’t happen. There’s a huge crowd. And it’s assembled on what was known as St. George’s field and the magistrate’s court in Southwark. 

One of the crowd throws a stone at one of the GPS and the soldiers go in after him and they chase him and eventually they track him down. They think they’ve tracked him down and they shoot him, but they shot the wrong person. And that’s sort of the beginning of the things going wrong, but they shoot the son of a publican.

This young man became a symbol for the Wilkes and Liberty movement later on. He becomes an important symbol for that, but in addition, Later on the soldiers were actually far into the crowd and they killed five or six of them. And this is known as the St George’s field massacre. And again, wilt is able to make a great play out of this.

It makes him enormously popular because he criticises the actions of the authorities in being so brutal. Eventually he’s there and he is sentenced to a year in prison. To pay a fine 500 pounds for libelling the king and the house of commons expels him. And this leads to an extraordinary series of events whereby Wilkes is excluded.

He’s elected MP and excluded a total of four times. And on the third occasion, When he’s returned he’s likely been returned. The first election he wins the second, third times, he’s unopposed the fourth time the government put up, they find a man named Lutrell to stand against him and they have the election Wilkes wins.

Lutrell gets a quarter of the votes of the world, but then the house of commons vote. The Wilkes is incapacitated from taking his seats and they replace him with Lutrell. And this just adds ammunition to the Wilkite cause because in previous occasions, his election has been declared null and void, but in this case, the government actually decides who is going to be the MP, although the the MP Lutrell got less focused than Wilkes. And of course this is a huge issue because it means that the government ultimately can appoint MPs. And there’s huge outrage from this and this leads the Wilkehite cause to explode and in particular it leads to a petitioning movement and this petitioning movement occurs all over.

England whereby counties send petitions complaining about the election of natural causes and asking that the rights of voters be guaranteed. And there was something like 60,000 signatures involved in these petitions. If you remember, I was saying at the beginning, the total electorates for all Britain is estimated to be something like 300,000, it’s a huge number.

Hazel Baker: Some pretty impressive. Really. When you think about how we have changed.org and a few clicks at your, on your own mobile or computer where it was actually to gather physical signatures, 6,000 of them. That’s impressive. 

Ian McDiarmid: Yes. It is a huge thing. Later on in 1774. Wilkes will again be elected. The MP is Westminster. And this time eventually he’s allowed to sit, but by about this time, really the impetus has gone from behind the movement. Wilkes still stands up and makes speeches saying he champions the cause, the American colonists, but he doesn’t have the same kind of following as he had before.

And one of the things he does later on in 1778 is he votes for. The Catholic relief act. Now the Catholic, the Catholics have been labouring under all kinds of restrictions and this which is known as the first Catholic relief act, allows them to inherit and buy and sell property. And most significantly from the popular perception of this act is that it allows them to serve in the armed forces and the background.

So this is the America Britain is fighting. Of war in America, it would be very helpful to get the Quebecois, the French speaking inhabitants of Canada on the British side, but because of British law, that was prohibited because they’re Catholic and prohibited from serving in the force and so one because of this piece of legislation is a practical one, but Wilkes speaks in favour. It is easy in favour of religious toleration and this loses him quite a lot of support amongst the sort of more rabid Protestants. It does act will lead in 1782, the Gordon riots, which are huge anti-Catholic riots and wilt, formerly the sort of leader of English radicalism who is by this stage, the alderman for the ward of Farringdon Without in the City of London.

And as an alderman has judicial functions. When the Gordon riots are on, he gets soldiers together and he marches them off to the bank of England. These soldiers fire on the crowd, along with other soldiers there. And his action is conspicuous, partly because the Lord Mayor does nothing. And the reason the Lord mayor does nothing is that so many people I think sympathise with Lord Gordon and the anti-Catholic sympathies.

So was the anti-Catholicism that was widespread amongst much of the London mob. Meditates against Wilkes’ later reputation because he functions with Catholic emancipation and he’s also been taking part in actually trying to suppress the Gordon riots. 

Hazel Baker: And what legacy has John Wilkes left?

Ian McDiarmid: It is a complicated one, as I was saying earlier. He’s often regarded as the, I think he is legitimately brought as the kind of first modern politician in the sense of making a direct appeal to public opinion in inverted commerce. And this as I was saying earlier, reflects the peculiar nature of the Middlesex constituency in the Middlesex electorate, which is very free of the kind of influences that otherwise dominated 18th century politics.

But as I was saying, there’s also. His main vehicle for combating the government is the use of the law. And as I was saying earlier, I think this is a kind of rather traditional view of English Liberty. That’s very much grounded in the common law and the traditional liberties of an Englishman. And he does make a speech in the house of commons at, towards the end of his career in favour of. Male suffrage, but the radicals literally took off after wheelchairs time with the French revolution and with the dispersion of the idea of rights that it’s your right to vote. And I think Wilkes is a bit more of a traditional figure in many ways.

Hazel Baker: Fantastic. Thank you very 

Ian McDiarmid: much. My pleasure, Hazel.

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