Features History

Taking a Liberty

Braggart, dueller, womaniser and pioneer of freedom – historian Mark Aston assesses the incredible career of locally born John Wilkes and asks if there are any historical parallels.

An engraving of an 18th century gentleman with cross eyes and a protruding chin.
John Wilkes by William Hogarth, 1763

In 2014 then Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, added The Churchill Factor to his already considerable catalogue of biographies about Sir Winston Churchill. The book’s reception was mixed. While some critics labelled it a “crisp, punchy and accessible read”, others found it an unsubtle effort at drawing a self-serving parallel between himself and Britain’s renowned wartime leader. While certain similarities persist – such as indefatigable self-belief and a penchant for glory-hunting – the general consensus was that there is no tangible comparison. 

However, there exists a politician to whom Johnson can be potentially matched for both celebrity and notoriety: Clerkenwell-born John Wilkes (1725–1797), England’s first ‘celebrity politician’. 

Not to be confused with his distant relative John Wilkes Booth, assassin of US President Abraham Lincoln. Wilkes had many vocations. He was a radical activist, magistrate, soldier and duellist and, like Johnson, a journalist. Less endearingly, Wilkes was also a blasphemer and womaniser: as Petronella Wyatt in The Spectator observed, he was “catnip to women” despite being contemporaneously labelled the ugliest man in England – cross eyed, with a squint and protruding jaw. 

This did not hold him back. With a roguish charm, Wilkes was known for his wit and lively responses to slurs, and his flamboyant libertine tendencies gained him supporters and detractors in equal measure. Of Wilkes, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman said, “He was a wonderful and odious man – which is a rare combination… I like his ideas and principles.” Paxman is less complimentary about Johnson: a “charlatan”, who is “not as clever as he thinks he is”. Against this background, let’s take a look at Wilkes and consider, like Johnson, whether his “extramural reputation” defined him. 

John Wilkes was born in 1725 or 1727 at his family home in St John’s Square, Clerkenwell. His father Israel, a malt distiller, also of Clerkenwell, married John’s mother Sarah Heaton of Hoxton Square, London in 1718. The Wilkes’ distilling business adjoined their large, three-storey dwelling-house in St John’s Square, the residence bordering St John’s Priory Church. John’s father lived like a “fine old English gentleman” and drove about the parish in a six-horse carriage – a lavish lifestyle that clearly left a marked effect upon the young John. At nine years old John was sent to school in Hertford and just five years later, had mastered Latin and Greek. 

An engraving of a church, a square and some housing with several people walking in front.
The Wilkes family home was to the left of St John’s Church, J S Storer, c.1828

It was at Leiden University in the Netherlands that 19-year-old John broke free of any restraint, indulging in relentless womanising and drinking (a little like Johnson’s activities around the Bullingdon Club at Oxford University). While in Leiden, as a member of the EC1- based Honourable Artillery Company, Wilkes’s patriotism called him back to London in 1745 to defend the city from likely attack from the Jacobite rebellion. The uprising was quashed before it reached the capital and Wilkes returned to the Netherlands to conclude his studies. Two years on, he returned to England to an arranged marriage in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire; their union ended ten years later despite the arrival of a daughter. In Aylesbury he became a magistrate and, later, the county’s high sheriff. 

The Hellfire Club 

Wilkes also enjoyed a carefree life in London, where he became a member of various clubs, including the Oddfellows and the Royal Society. Notoriously, he was a member of the (Wycombe) Hellfire Club, known for immoral activities, and which included many distinguished members. On one notorious occasion, Wilkes reportedly brought a live, phosphorous-painted mandrill, dressed in a cape and horns, into the rituals performed at the club. 

Monkey business aside, politics beckoned. Wilkes was elected to represent Aylesbury from 1757 until 1764. From then, his professional, journalistic and public life became a rollercoaster ride, cementing both his celebrity and notoriety – yes, modern parallels abound. In 1762, Wilkes started the newspaper The North Briton. After one damning article was published in 1763 severely attacking George III, the king and his ministers tried to prosecute Wilkes for seditious libel. An incensed devotee of George III even fought Wilkes in a duel in which Wilkes was shot in the belly, an injury that further enhanced his reputation. Wilkes had also attacked William Hogarth in one edition of the newspaper. In response, the artist created an engraving depicting Wilkes as a fiendish-looking character (pictured above). 

However, his supporters adopted the call “Wilkes and Liberty” as their radical battle cry. At his libel trial, Lord Chief Justice Lord Mansfield ruled that, as an MP, Wilkes was protected by parliamentary privilege so he was released without conviction. Emboldened, Wilkes published further material considered offensive or libellous to the Crown. The final straw came when the House of Lords declared one of his pornographic poems to be obscene and blasphemous, and members moved to expel Wilkes from the House of Commons. He fled to Paris before this could take place and while in exile, was found guilty of obscene and seditious libel and declared an outlaw in January 1764. Four years later, Wilkes returned from France and stood on an anti-government ticket in an election between March and May 1768. As an elected MP, Wilkes had not been arrested upon his return as the government didn’t wish to further intensify his popular support.

However midway during the voting, Wilkes surrendered to the King’s Bench and was sentenced to a year each for his two 1764 convictions. Soon after sentencing, though, demonstrators gathered outside his prison in Southwark to protest against Wilkes’s imprisonment. This led to the ‘Massacre of St George’s Fields’, when soldiers opened fire on the crowds that resulted in several fatalities. Local support for Wilkes also led to rioting in Clerkenwell. 

Elected in prison 

In January 1769 Wilkes became an alderman of the City of London – while still imprisoned – for the ward of Farringdon Without. The following month, he was expelled from the House of Commons due to being an outlaw at the time of his parliamentary election. In the ensuing by-election, while he remained incarcerated, he stood as a candidate. Despite the fact that Wilkes was re-elected in three consecutive and separate ballots, each time the House of Commons overturned the result, due to his technical ineligibility, until an alternative candidate was elected. This political debacle became known as the ‘Middlesex Election Dispute’. Eventually Wilkes was elected unopposed for Middlesex in 1774 and separately elected as Lord Mayor of the City of London. He continued to champion liberty and freedom of speech and represented his parliamentary seat until 1790. 

After his prison release in early 1770, Wilkes had been appointed a sheriff in the City of London. Wilkes’s activities created substantial interest in parliamentary proceedings when the reporting of debates was forbidden. He was able to use his influence in the City to force the government to relax the restrictions and allow freedom of the press to report business and end parliament’s ability to punish reporting of debates. 

Today, the media enjoys complete coverage of political and parliamentary activity thanks to Wilkes’s efforts. But by 1780, at the height of the American War of Independence, his popularity was in decline as he was perceived as less radical. His liberal thinking became more conservative and was despised by hardline followers. Although Wilkes opposed the war with the American colonies, and was a supporter of the rebel forces, it was during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots that his ‘man of the people’ reputation really failed. Wilkes was in charge of troops defending the Bank of England from the unruly mob and under his orders, soldiers fired into the crowds of rioters. His followers criticised him as a hypocrite and his middle-class support was scared off by the military intervention. 

Wilkes worked his final years as Chamberlain of the City of London and as a magistrate. Although his City duties would have brought him close to Clerkenwell, Wilkes never returned to live in the parish of his birth. He died at his home in Grosvenor Square, Westminster on 26 December 1797, having reached 70-plus years. 

Today, Wilkes is not forgotten. A statue of him can be seen in London’s Fetter Lane, just 1km from his birthplace, with the inscription, “A champion of English freedom”. Wilkes Street in Spitalfields is named after him, as are a number of locations in the US, and a plaque marks his home on the Isle of Wight. 

As to Boris Johnson’s similarity to John Wilkes, I will leave it for readers to decide. There are superficial behavioural traits that can be considered comparable, but posterity will determine Johnson’s contribution to British society. After Wilkes, politics in Britain was changed forever. His reputation as a champion of freedom not just preceded him but defined him, and the battle cry of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ will continue to echo across EC1 – and way beyond. 

AdBlocker Message

Our website is made possible by displaying online advertisements to our visitors. Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker.

About EC1 Echo

EC1 Echo is your free local independent community news website. We publish stories to the web across the week and offer a platform for local people to highlight what matters to them. EC1 Echo is a not-for-profit project in partnership with the Peel Institute. Please consider becoming a subscriber supporter from £3.00 per month.
We need your help

Submit your listing here