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John Wilkes$

Peter D. G. Thomas

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780198205449

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198205449.001.0001

The Reporting of Parliamentary Debates: The Wilkes Coup of 1771

(p.125) 8 The Reporting of Parliamentary Debates: The Wilkes Coup of 1771
John Wilkes

Peter D. G. Thomas

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the reporting of Parliamentary debates. These have been repeatedly and successfully suppressed by direct action of both Houses of Parliament. This censorship was due mostly to Wilkes, who masterminded the tactical coup in the 1760s. However, the metropolitan press expanded significantly from 1768, until there were no less than five daily papers being published in London. The chapter looks at the different publications that attempted to report these debates and the events that took place. It also notes Wilkes' most significant gain for ‘liberty’, the ‘Printer Case’. This was his victory over the authority of the House of Commons and the House of Lords after the latter attempted to arrest the printer of the Public Ledger.

Keywords:   reporting, Parliamentary debates, House of Commons, House of Lords, censorship, liberty, Printer Case, metropolitan press

THE causes célèbres of the North Briton and the Middlesex Elections have overshadowed the triumph of John Wilkes in establishing the freedom of the press to report Parliamentary debates. Yet, in contrast to those hard-fought battles over freedom from arrest and the rights of electors, Wilkes in 1771 achieved an immediate success in what has often been known as ‘the Printers’ Case’.1 The episode highlighted an implicit contradiction in contemporary interpretations of the constitution. Although Parliament’s moral authority derived from its representative nature, the great majority of MPs were unwilling to acknowledge direct personal responsibility to the electorate, whether their own constituents or the wider political nation. This attitude was encapsulated in the declaration of young Charles James Fox that ‘he knew nothing of the people, but through the medium of their representatives there assembled’.2

The reporting of Parliamentary debates had therefore hitherto been repeatedly and successfully suppressed by direct action of both Houses of Parliament.3 Despite the political excitement caused in the earlier 1760s by such events as the Peace of Paris, the North Briton case, and the Stamp Act Crisis, no periodical ventured then to report the proceedings in Parliament. The successful challenge to this censorship owed much to Wilkes, in a double sense. He masterminded the tactical coup: and the episode itself resulted from the greater public interest in politics generated by the Middlesex Elections case. The years from 1768 witnessed a significant expansion of the metropolitan press, until by the middle of 1770 there were being published in London at least five daily, eight thrice-weekly and four weekly papers. Notable among the newcomers was the Middlesex Journal or (p.126) Chronicle of Liberty, a thrice-weekly founded on 4 April 1769 by William Beckford.4

To contemporaries, however, the outstanding feature of the political press during these years was not the cautious and slow development of Parliamentary reporting but the polemical writing, in the daily Public Advertiser, of the anonymous Junius. His polished, sardonic attacks on government and individual ministers began on 21 November 1768 with this brief stab at Grafton and Camden, even before the ministerial decision to expel Wilkes: ‘Other men have been abandoned by their friends. Mr Wilkes alone is oppressed by them’5 During 1769 there was a widespread belief that Junius was Wilkes himself, writing from the King’s Bench Prison. This assumption tickled his vanity. ‘Would to Heaven I could have written them’ was his reputed reply when accused of being the author.6 That idea was killed by the publication on 19 December 1769 of Letter XXXV addressed by Junius to the King. ‘The opinion that Wilkes was Junius has been very general’, Thomas Whately wrote then to George Grenville, ‘but the Junius of today will, I think, destroy the supposition’7 That letter is replete with scorn for the popular hero: ‘Mr Wilkes brought with him into politics the same liberal sentiments, by which his private conduct has been directed, and seemed to think, that, as there are few excesses, in which an English gentleman may not be permitted to indulge, the same latitude was allowed him in the choice of his political principles, and in the spirit of maintaining them.’ Junius advised the King that the best way to deal with Wilkes would be a contemptuous pardon: ‘He will soon fall back into his natural station—a silent senator, and hardly supporting the weekly eloquence of a newspaper’8

The contemporary attention given to Junius owed as much to the mystery of his identity as to the power of his prose. If the author had been known to be War Office clerk Philip Francis the writings would have attracted far less attention: and, in truth, their political significance was no more than a propaganda contribution to the fall of the Grafton ministry.9 In retrospect the significant press development of that time can be seen as the beginning of Parliamentary reporting in the newspapers. John Almon, in the role of journalist rather than printer, later claimed the credit for this initiative:

When the spirit of the nation was raised high by the massacre in St. George’s Fields, the unjust decision upon the Middlesex election, etc., Mr Almon resolved to make the nation acquainted with the proceedings of Parliament: for this purpose he employed himself sedulously in obtaining from different gentlemen, by conversation at his own house and sometimes at their houses, sufficient information to write a sketch of every day’s debate, on the most important and interesting questions; which he printed three times a week regularly in the London Evening Post…. (p.127) During two sessions, this practice of printing sketches of the debates continued, without any notice being taken; and Mr Almon furnished them constantly, from the best information he could obtain. Though they were short they were in general pretty accurate, and their accuracy was perhaps the cause of the printer’s security.10

The immunity from Parliamentary prosecution led other newspapers and the monthly magazines to follow Almon’s example. Gradually the press cast caution aside and abandoned early brief sketches and disguised reports in favour of ostensibly full and increasingly inaccurate accounts of debates. By early 1771 over a dozen papers, daily, thrice-weekly, or weekly, were publishing Parliamentary reports.11 The initiative to stop this practice was thought by London’s Radicals to have come from George III himself. In a public letter to Wilkes on 10 July 1771 John Horne gave this account of what he had told the Bill of Rights Society meeting of 26 February:

Mr Home observed, that he had some small time since received information from an authority which he could not doubt, that a certain great personage had conversed with the elder Onslow at St James’s near half an hour; that in that conversation it was mentioned to Mr Onslow as matter of surprise, that the House of Commons permitted their debates to be published; and it was asked, if it was ever suffered before, and why something was not done to prevent it? This question from such a person was well understood to be an order.

George Onslow of the Treasury Board, that erstwhile friend of Wilkes, was ‘the elder Onslow’ to whom the King had allegedly spoken: but it was his cousin, Colonel George Onslow, who ‘soon after’ moved in the House of Commons on 5 February that a 1729 order of the House prohibiting the publication of debates should be read. Home claimed responsibility for then inserting in the Middlesex Journal for 7 February this provocatively insulting comment: ‘It was reported, that a scheme was at last hit upon by the ministry, to prevent the public from being informed of their iniquity; accordingly, on Tuesday last, little cocking George Onslow made a motion, that an order against printing debates should be read.’12 There followed a report of the ensuing debate. This item was reprinted next day by the Gazetteer, but without the offensive reference to Onslow. This precaution did not prevent a motion by Colonel Onslow that afternoon for its printer Roger Thompson to attend the House of Commons on 11 February together with John Wheble of the Middlesex Journal. The two Onslows had beforehand approached Speaker Norton for assistance; but, so Colonel Onslow told James Harris a year later, ‘he contemptuously clapt his hand on his backside and said “No, Damme if I do.”’13

Colonel Onslow, who told the House that he had not given prior notice of his previous action to Prime Minister Lord North, complained not of (p.128) Parliamentary reporting as such but of the two newspapers as ‘misrepresenting the speeches and reflecting on several of the Members of this House’. In the ensuing debate Alderman Trecothick spoke in favour of Parliamentary reporting, arguing that the public had the right to be informed of debates. William Dowdeswell also urged that the votes and speeches of MPs should be made public: otherwise, he asked, what was the purpose of having elections? His Rockinghamite colleague Edmund Burke was more cautious. He did not oppose the standing orders of the House, but questioned the prudence of enforcing them and opined that speeches could be published after the session. Other opposition speakers also doubted the wisdom of any attempt to prevent reporting, but the arguments of misrepresentation and of the threat to freedom of debate prevailed, Onslow’s motion being carried by 90 votes to 55 in a thin House.14

Months later, in the Middlesex Journal of 24 October, Wheble stated that after this summons he was introduced to John Horne, who instructed him to disobey it; and, if he afterwards lost his nerve, authorized him to declare Home to be both the author of the offending paragraph and the instigator of his defiance.15 Wheble accordingly did not attend the Commons on 11 February, when pressure of business caused the House to postpone the orders for the printers until 14 February, and again on that day until 19 February. Wheble never attended at all. Thompson was present on 11 February, but afterwards joined Wheble in his defiance. When on 19 February both printers were found to be absent, the Commons’ messenger was called in, and he gave evidence that orders had been served for their attendance only on 11 February. Fresh orders were then issued for the printers to attend on 21 February. On that day they were again given the benefit of the little doubt that remained; but the order for their attendance on 26 February was accompanied by another order that leaving a copy of a summons at the party’s last place of abode would be deemed equal to personal service. Sterner action at last came on 26 February, when Lord of the Treasury George Onslow moved that Wheble should be taken into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms for his contempt. The feeling of members that the authority of the House had to be vindicated was shown by the majority for the motion of 160 votes to 17. A similar order was then made for Thompson.16 The very small minority, however, had included nearly all the leaders in the Commons of the two main opposition parties headed by Rockingham and Chatham: this salutary experience was to make them cautious in future criticisms of the measures against reporting.17

John Wilkes chanced to be away from London early in February, but on his return snatched the initiative from Home. Wheble later recalled how he had succumbed to incessant pressure from Wilkes, after Home had refused (p.129) to disclose what, if any, plan he had in mind.18 There was, by contrast, soon very little secret about the bold scheme Wilkes concerted with John Almon and Robert Morris. It was a deliberate attempt to pit against the power of the House of Commons the privileges of the City of London, which claimed an exclusive right under its charters to all jurisdiction within its boundaries. Wilkes and his confederates realized that proceedings were not likely to be confined to two newspapers. Rather than rely on Wheble, with his Home links, they chose to make use of their own man, John Miller, printer of the London Evening Post. A plan was therefore devised, to await the time when Miller should become the subject of complaint.19 Wilkes, in his capacity as Alderman, would be able to act as a City magistrate, and the support was obtained of other City officials, among them Lord Mayor Brass Crosby. Secrecy was perhaps not intended, and certainly proved impossible. By the middle of February it was widely known that some scheme involving the privileges of the City was afoot. Lord Chatham was informed on 18 February by Isaac Barré, and they persuaded Sawbridge and Townsend to take no part.20 Lord North, too, heard that resistance was being planned in the City, and on 20 February warned George III that some Aldermen might prevent the arrest of the printers. The King replied next day that he had ‘very much considered the affair of the printers that is now coming before the House. I do in the strongest manner recommend that every caution may be used to prevent its becoming a serious affair’ George III then suggested that a confrontation might be avoided if the Commons officials deliberately failed to find the printers. It was not that the King meant to back down, for he declared that ‘it is highly necessary that this strange and lawless method of publishing debates in the papers should be put a stop to’ What George III suggested was recourse to the greater powers of the House of Lords, ‘as a Court of Record the best Court to bring such miscreants before, as it can fine as well as imprison; and as the Lords have broader shoulders to support any schism that this salutary measure may occasion in the minds of the vulgar’21

This royal idea was impractical, for the Commons could not now abandon the course of action on which the King himself, if Home had been correctly informed, had launched it. The North ministry was powerless to avoid the trap set by Wilkes. On 4 March the House’s Deputy Serjeant at Arms John Clementson reported that he had failed to find either Wheble or Thompson, and his account made it clear there had been deliberate evasion. Colonel Onslow therefore moved for an Address to the King ‘that he will be graciously pleased to issue his royal proclamation for apprehending the said John Wheble and R. Thompson, with a promise of reward for the same’. The motion passed without a word being said.22 A proclamation, offering a (p.130) reward of £50 for the arrest of each of the delinquents, duly appeared in the London Gazette of 9 March.

Despite this impasse over Wheble and Thompson the ministry responded to royal pressure and Parliamentary indignation by supporting Colonel Onslow when on 12 March he announced to the Commons his intention of extending his campaign:

If it is right to have the speeches printed, it would be right to employ two clerks to take them down, that they may not be misrepresented…. [It is] nonsense to have these rules and orders, and not put them in execution. I have three brace— Woodfall of the Morning Chronicle, Baldwin of the St. James’s Chronicle, Evans of the London Packet, Wright of the Whitehall Evening Post, Bladon of the General Evening Post, and Miller of the London Evening Post.23

Onslow’s first motion was carried after a heated debate by 140 votes to 43. Thereafter the opponents of his measures resorted to deliberate obstruction. Although the minority seldom numbered more than a dozen, the House was forced to divide on twenty-three occasions, and it was five o’clock on the next morning before the six printers had been ordered to attend on 14 March.24

Events now moved rapidly towards a crisis. The House of Commons had played into the hands of John Wilkes and his allies. A brief glimpse of their activity is provided in a letter of 13 March from Robert Morris to Wilkes himself:

I have been all this day upon the wing about the business of the printers and hitherto unable to call upon you, agreeable to my inclinations. I would not have the affair sleep for the universe. The ministry take care it shall not on their side; we must therefore be staunch on ours. You know what they proceeded to yesterday. Some of the six newly ordered to attend, I believe make their appearance tomorrow at the House— those are Bladon (Gen. Evg.), Wright (Whitehall) and possible Evans (L. Pack). There will be business new for all of us; and each must have his share. Different games must be played. But if we can, we must take into our assistance some more of the Aldermen; and I hope also we shall have the Sheriffs.25 Messengers may yet be sent to Newgate, and printers lodged there be let out. I saw Wheble and Thompson Tuesday. The direct opposite of each other in patience; and the hasty one is the former. I gave your message to the latter. He thanks you, as he has much reason, for your alacrity to serve him; though I know it is also to serve the public. You have too great a regard for that consideration, ever to alter in your conduct from paltry jealousies….26

But, apart from Miller, the other printers proved unwilling to defy Parliament. When the Commons met on 14 March, four out of the six newly summoned were in attendance. Baldwin, Wright, and Bladon apologized for (p.131) their offence, and were discharged after promising not to publish further reports. Thomas Evans went home before his case was heard, because his wife had broken her leg; this circumstance was solemnly entered in the Journals of the House, and an order made for him to attend again on 19 March.27 The absent William Woodfall was found to be already in the custody of Black Rod. John Miller was the only printer who had defied the House, and he was ordered to be taken into the custody of the Serjeant at Arms for contempt.28

The time was at last ripe for Wilkes’s plan, but it was preceded by two deliberate insults to the dignity of the House. While the Commons had been sitting on 14 March, John Wheble wrote a public letter to the Speaker, declaring that he had returned from business in the country on 11 March, and had been astonished to hear of the proceedings against him. He had accordingly taken the advice of learned counsel, in the person of Robert Morris, and enclosed a copy of the lawyer’s opinion. The document, written in a vein of insolent humour, affected to show that the summons, warrant of apprehension, and proclamation were all illegal because the House of Commons was not an appointed Court of Justice. Morris concluded, ‘I do give it as my opinion, that Mr Wheble may well institute an action upon the case, against the counsellors, promoters, aiders, abettors and publishers thereof’.29 On the next day, 15 March, this piece of impudence was followed by a more audacious step. A collusive arrest of John Wheble was made by one of his servants, Edward Carpenter, by reason of the proclamation in the Gazette of 9 March.30 Wheble was taken before Alderman John Wilkes, who was the sitting magistrate that day at the Guildhall. Wilkes established that Wheble was a freeman of London, that Carpenter was neither a constable nor a peace officer of the City, and that the cause of the arrest was merely the proclamation and not any felony or breach of the peace. Wilkes therefore rebuked Carpenter: As you are not a peace officer, nor constable, and you accuse not the party of any crime, I know not what right you have to take his person; it is contrary to the chartered rights of this City, and of Englishmen’. He released Wheble, who made a formal complaint of assault, and was bound over to prosecute Carpenter at the next Quarter Sessions. Carpenter, however, was given a certificate of his having apprehended Wheble in order to obtain the £50 reward from the Treasury. As a final touch, Wilkes hastened to report the incident to his old enemy the Earl of Halifax, who was again Secretary of State as he had been during the general warrants case:

As I found that there was no legal cause of complaint against Wheble, I thought it clearly my duty to adjudge that he had been apprehended in the City illegally, in direct violation of the rights of an Englishman, and of the chartered privileges of a citizen of this Metropolis, and to discharge him.31

(p.132) These were token acts of defiance. The real challenge to the authority of the House, from which later events were to stem, also took place on 15 March.32 Early in the afternoon William Whittam, a messenger of the House of Commons, attempted, in pursuance of a warrant from the Speaker, to arrest John Miller at his house. The plot long concerted with Wilkes then came into operation. Miller resisted arrest, a City constable was conveniently at hand, and the messenger found himself charged with assault and false arrest.33 Together with some witnesses, the three men went to the Guildhall, but by this time Wilkes had finished the business of the day and departed for the Mansion House. They followed, and there applied to Lord Mayor Crosby, who was confined to his bedchamber with gout. At Whit-tam’s request, the hearing was adjourned until six o’clock. The affair was reported to the Speaker, Sir Fletcher Norton, who sent Deputy Serjeant at Arms Clementson to demand both the release of the messenger and the restoration of Miller to his custody. When the case was resumed at six o’clock, the Lord Mayor, assisted by Aldermen Richard Oliver and John Wilkes, conducted the proceedings in his bedchamber. Robert Morris acted as counsel for John Miller, and made repeated interventions on legal points to add to the discomfiture of the Commons’ officials.34 Clementson at once demanded possession of Whittam and Miller, but the Lord Mayor refused. Crosby ascertained from Whittam that he was not a constable of the City, and that the Speaker’s warrant had not been backed by any City magistrate. The Mayor and Aldermen thereupon ruled that Miller’s arrest was illegal. They then heard Miller’s complaint. Evidence was given by Miller himself and three other printers to prove the offence. Whittam was ordered to appear at the next Quarter Sessions to answer the charge, and released only after he had given bail.

About an hour later the last pinprick was delivered, in what was evidently a carefully prepared scenario. The third defiant printer Roger Thompson was arrested outside his own house and taken before Alderman Oliver, now in solitary state at the Mansion House. Oliver released Thompson, for the same reasons Wilkes had freed Wheble, but gave a certificate to his captor to obtain the Treasury reward.35

The administration now faced a political crisis. Three meetings of leading ministerial MPs were promptly held, two at 10 Downing Street and the third at the Speaker’s House on Sunday, 17 March. George III did not scruple to inform the Prime Minister of his own opinion before this last meeting:

The authority of the House of Commons is totally annihilated if it is not in an exemplary manner supported tomorrow, by instantly committing the Lord Mayor and Alderman Oliver to the Tower; as to Wilkes, he is below the notice of the (p.133) House; then a Secret Committee or any other mode of examining further into the affair is open for the wisdom of the House.36

Sir Gilbert Elliot and others thought to be close to the King therefore urged strong measures, but Richard Rigby argued for moderation. So did Lord North, who favoured a plan of Speaker Norton for a Committee of Inquiry. Treasury Lord George Onslow offered to persuade his cousin to drop the matter, but the ministry evidently decided to take further action against the printers.37 The Parliamentary management of the case was entrusted to a junior office-holder and experienced debater, Welbore Ellis.

When the Commons next met, on Monday, 18 March, a crowded House heard a full account of events from the Speaker and the Deputy Serjeant at Arms. Since both Crosby and Oliver were MPs, Ellis, according to precedent, moved for the attendance of Crosby on the following day. The House approved this step by 267 votes to 80, after objections from many opposition speakers. The stance of the opposition factions in Parliament nevertheless incurred radical criticism for its implicit or explicit acceptance of the right of the House of Commons to take action against reporting. The Rockingham group based their stand simply on the inexpediency of such measures, while Barré for the Chathamites merely challenged the idea of punishing the printers.38 In the City those associated with Chatham stood aloof from the Wilkes plot, as Barre had informed him the previous day: ‘Mr Townsend and Mr Sawbridge have taken no sort of part in these proceedings, and differ in opinion from those who have.’ Chatham had replied approving this conduct:

I am not a little happy that Mr Townsend and Mr Sawbridge are upon clear ground, and would fain hope that they may venture to continue in the right, without losing all their weight with the livery…. That the proceeding of [the] Lord Mayor is censurable, I have no doubt…. but I am of opinion that to go further than…. noise without effect, would be neither wise nor becoming.39

But anything less than full support of the printers would forfeit all popularity in the City, and in the debate of 18 March Sawbridge backed the conduct of the Lord Mayor:‘I think he has defended in a very proper manner the liberty of his fellow-citizens.’James Townsend, absent through illness, asked Sawbridge to say the same on his behalf.40 This change of attitude was an ominous indication of the growing intransigence within the City. On the next day the administration was threatened with a further embarrassment. Anxious to avoid a direct encounter with John Wilkes, the ministers had been disposed to concur with George IILs view that his part in the affair was best ignored, but that matter was forced on their attention as soon as the House met on 19 March, when Sir Joseph Mawbey moved that Wilkes be (p.134) summoned to attend the next day.41 The King expressed regret to Lord North at this step:

I own I could have wished that Wilkes had not been ordered before the House, for he must be in a jail the next term if not given new life by some punishment inflicted on him, which will bring him new supplies; and I do not doubt he will hold such a language that will oblige some notice to be taken of him.42

George III knew his man. Wilkes, who had just taken the precaution of leaving his Westminster house and lodging within the City boundaries, made a reference to the Middlesex election in his answer the next day to the Speaker:

I observe that no notice is taken of me in your order as a Member of the House, and that I am not required to attend in my place. Both these circumstances, according to the settled form, ought to have been mentioned in my case, and I hold them absolutely indispensable.43

Sir Joseph Mawbey produced a copy of this letter as soon as the order for Wilkes was read in the Commons on 20 March. The Speaker refused to allow him to read it out to the House, and another order was made for Wilkes to attend on 25 March.44 In view of his defiance this was a moderate step, and George III approved ‘the apparent intention of not examining Wilkes’.45 This reluctance to endure another direct confrontation with Wilkes was soon public knowledge, Chatham being informed on 24 March by his supporter John Calcraft: ‘The ministers avow Wilkes too dangerous to meddle with. He is to do what he pleases; we are to submit. So his Majesty orders: he will have “nothing more to do with that devil Wilkes”.’46 When the House met on 25 March the administration’s first step was a motion to postpone the order for Wilkes. Mawbey tried to press the matter, declaring that Wilkes was involved equally with the other two magistrates. North retorted that Wilkes was obviously courting punishment, and the motion passed without a division. The House escaped the procedural difficulty by a new order at the end of the day for Wilkes to attend on 8 April. That date fell within the Easter recess, and the order therefore lapsed.47

The ministers had avoided a sensational clash with Wilkes himself, but they still had to weather the storm he had raised. The dilemma of an angry Commons and a defiant City remained. In the House on 19 March Lord Mayor Crosby rested his whole argument on the oath he had taken as an Alderman to protect the rights of the City, and he made no attempt to conciliate the feelings of MPs. ‘I must glory in my own breast in having executed what I was sworn to do’. His request for permission to use counsel sparked off two days of debate over motions on the subject made by Alderman Trecothick.48 The House decided that Crosby could be heard by counsel only as far as did not affect the privileges of Parliament. Further delay was (p.135) caused by the ill health of the Lord Mayor, and the whole case was postponed until 25 March.49

A week of discussion had shown that most MPs shared the indignation of the King. Few even among opposition speakers directly challenged the official view that the privileges of the House had to be vindicated. Many administration supporters, led by Sir Gilbert Elliot and Charles Fox, demanded punitive measures. Lord North himself, at first an advocate of moderation, was provoked by the intransigence of the City. On 20 March he compelled the Lord Mayor’s clerk to expunge from his minute-book the entry concerning Whittam’s arrest. This action was followed by a resolution of the House that no suit should be commenced on the ground of ‘the said pretended assault’.50 Two days later North made a warm speech in the Commons on ‘the necessity of doing ourselves right, and the disgrace and extinction of the Members, and the authority of the House, if this violent act was submitted to’.51 On 24 March the ministry openly revealed its role by this Treasury whip to supportive MPs: ‘You are most earnestly requested to attend early tomorrow, on an affair of the last importance to the constitution, and the rights and privileges of the people of England.’52

The City was also united by esprit de corps, and even ministerial supporters there aligned themselves behind the Lord Mayor.53 A Court of Common Council met on 21 March, with Trecothick presiding instead of the gout-ridden Crosby A unanimous vote of thanks was passed to the Mayor and Aldermen Wilkes and Oliver ‘for having on a late important occasion supported the privileges and franchises of this City and defended our excellent constitution’. A Committee was appointed, of four Aldermen and eight Commoners, to assist them in their defence. The Committee was empowered to employ counsel, and to spend up to £500.54 Alderman John Kirk-man, usually a supporter of the administration, made an able speech on the popular side, and Sawbridge spoke ‘extremely well in defence of the franchises of the City, and the common rights of mankind’.55

The case now reached its climax. On 25 March the House of Commons was surrounded by a vast crowd, many with labels in their hats inscribed ‘Crosby, Wilkes, Oliver, and the Liberty of the Press’. They included, according to the radical newspapers, ‘a great number of gentlemen, merchants and respectable tradesmen, many of whom went in their carriages’.56 The noise could be heard inside the building, and MPs had difficulty in passing through the mob. It was under the threat of physical force that the Commons began to consider the conduct of the City magistrates. After Crosby had announced his refusal to employ counsel under the restrictions imposed by the House, Welbore Ellis moved a resolution that the discharge of Miller was a breach of privilege. City spokesmen remained belligerent. Aldermen Sawbridge and (p.136) Townsend both declared that they would have taken the same action as the accused; and Townsend warned members not to embark on a fruitless contest: ‘The worthy magistrates may, for a time, be committed to the custody of the Serjeant at Arms, but should they be shut up, there are other magistrates ready and willing to do the same duty for them.’ The Rockingham group took their ground on a previous question moved by Sir George Savile, who declared that he could not conscientiously give a vote when counsel had been refused. Administration speakers urged the need of some decision, and when the House divided shortly before midnight the previous question was negatived by 270 votes to 90. Immediately Savile, Lord John Cavendish, and other prominent Rockinghamites walked out, but Barre and the Chatham-ites preferred to wait for the punishment.

Since the Lord Mayor had retired during the debate through ill health, an order was made for his attendance on 27 March, and attention turned to Alderman Oliver. The Speaker asked him to make his defence, but the reply was uncompromising: ‘I know the punishment I am to receive is determined upon. I have nothing to say…I defy you.’ An angry North then prompted Ellis to move Oliver’s commitment to the Tower, ‘a length he meant not to go’, so thought MP John Calcraft, who the previous day had told Chatham that ‘reprimand only is now the language’.57 But there had been a widespread belief that expulsion was the punishment the ministry intended for Crosby and Oliver.58 Prudence prevented a course of action that would have revived the issues of the Middlesex Election case in a popular constituency: for while Crosby sat for the Devonshire borough of Honiton, Oliver was an MP for the City of London. Barré at once rose, made a short fiery speech, and left the House, followed by Sawbridge, Townsend, and others. After an amendment to substitute a reprimand had been defeated by 170 votes to 38, the motion was carried, and the House adjourned.59 Next day 160 coaches were said to have visited the Tower.60

The Commons was due to consider the case of Lord Mayor Crosby on 27 March. On the morning of that day he presented Robert Morris to the freedom of the City, in recognition of his part in the scheme. At one o’clock Crosby left the Mansion House in procession for the House of Commons, which was again surrounded by a large and excited mob, estimated by one newspaper at 50,000. Several MPs had their carriages stopped. The windows of Lord North’s coach were smashed, and the vehicle wrecked. North himself was hurt, and had to be rescued by an opposition member, Sir William Meredith.61 Speaker Norton refused to begin the proceedings of the House until order had been restored outside. When the Westminster magistrates found themselves unable to read the Riot Act, sheriffs Baker and Martin went out and dispersed the crowd.

(p.137) After a long argument over an allegation by Solicitor-General Alexander Wedderburn that the mob had been organized, the business appointed for the day commenced. A motion by Ellis that Crosby had been guilty of a breach of privilege was carried without a division. Ellis next proposed the commitment of Crosby only to the custody of the Serjeant at Arms, out of consideration for the Mayor’s health. Crosby at once rose to say that he was much better, and desired the same punishment as Oliver. Ellis therefore altered his motion accordingly. At this point Barré and the Chathamites left the House rather than vote on the matter. Most of the Rockingham party had deliberately absented themselves, and the motion to commit Crosby to the Tower was carried by 202 votes to only 39. The ministry did not intend to stop with the imprisonment of Crosby and Oliver. After the Mayor had left, Ellis declared that other persons were also concerned, and moved for a Committee to inquire into the circumstances of ‘the late obstructions to the execution of the Orders of the House’. The motion was carried after a brief debate, and an order made for a Select Committee of twenty-one members to be chosen by ballot on the next day.62 Rigby and the advocates of moderation refused to have anything to do with it, and the three opposition MPs included by the ministry declined to attend.63 The Committee sat on every weekday from 28 March to 30 April, when Ellis presented the report to the House. This set out the evidence, but made only the lame recommendation that John Miller ought to be taken into custody.64 Lord North tried to put a good face on the matter by declaring that the Commons had already vindicated its authority by imprisoning two magistrates. The report, he said, now confirmed the powers claimed by the House.65

The martyrdom of the prisoners in the Tower had meanwhile been solaced by gifts and expressions of support from many parts of the country, while Crosby and Oliver received votes of thanks from all the wards of the City. The Court of Common Council voted them the cost of their tables, but both refused the offer to save the City such additional expense.66 Opposition politicians publicly signified their disapproval of the punishment. Lord Temple was one of those who visited Oliver on 26 March, while on 30 March the leaders of the Rockingham party made a formal journey to the Tower.67 More practical efforts to assist the prisoners were made by the Committee appointed by the Court of Common Council. On 3 April it resolved that application should be made to three lawyers of opposition sympathies, Glynn, Dunning, and John Lee, to move for a writ of habeas corpus for the two prisoners. Dunning refused to act, but Glynn and Lee made four unsuccessful attempts to obtain their release, pleading before the two Lord Chief Justices De Grey and Mansfield in their respective chambers on 5 April, before the Court of Common Pleas on 22 April, and before the Court of Exchequer on 30 April.68

(p.138) Crosby and Oliver had to wait for their release until the close of the Parliamentary session, when the powers of the House automatically lapsed. The prorogation was expected on 9 May; but in order to avoid the disturbance of a large mob outside the Tower, the King suddenly put an end to the session on the previous day. As soon as the news was known, the attendance of the Aldermen and Common Council was requested at the Guildhall. Amid a cheering crowd fifty-three carriages escorted the Lord Mayor and Alderman Oliver to the Mansion House.69 The City, however, did not yet regard the affair as closed. No heed was paid to the resolutions of the House of Commons on 20 March, prohibiting progress in the suits brought by the printers. At the Quarter Sessions on 8 April at the Guildhall the grand jury found bills of indictment for assault and wrongful imprisonment against both William Whittam, the messenger who had arrested Miller, and Edward Carpenter, who had apprehended Wheble on the strength of the royal proclamation.70 The case against Whittam was removed into the Court of King’s Bench, where it was stopped on 13 May by the entering of a nolle prosequi on behalf of the Crown by Attorney-General Thurlow. It was not fit, he said, that the King should be the prosecutor of a servant of the House of Commons who had merely been carrying into execution an old privilege.71 Carpenter, however, was tried at the Guildhall on 1 July, found guilty, fined 15., and imprisoned for two months. That ‘he lived like a prince’ until his release on 26 August confirmed the collusive nature of the incident; the purpose of his punishment was simply the assertion of the City’s authority within its boundaries.72 As a final gesture the Court of Common Council on 24 January 1772 voted to give silver cups to Crosby, Wilkes, and Oliver ‘for the noble stand they made in the business of the printer’. That for Crosby was to cost £200, the others £100 each. Oliver asked for his to be kept with the City plate, but Wilkes said he would treasure the one given to him, as each tried to score political points off the other.73

The whole episode had been a public humiliation for the King’s government. Although Lord North had known a month beforehand that some resort would be made to the City’s privileges, the administration had been outmanoeuvred by Wilkes. He had astutely calculated the outcome of events. It had not mattered that both the main opposition groups led by Chatham and Rockingham had shunned the project, or even that many City officials had at first been reluctant to give assistance. Once the fatal step had been taken, the uncompromising attitude of the City spokesmen both inside and outside Parliament deprived the ministers of any chance of extricating themselves from the situation. As Wilkes had foreseen, the corporate feeling of the City, aroused by the attack on the privileges, made his success inevitable. For the victory lay with Wilkes, and the ministry could derive little (p.139) satisfaction from the final result. Certainly a policy of undignified evasion had cut short the development of another Wilkes case. The authority of the House of Commons, too, had been formally vindicated by the punishment of Crosby and Oliver. But this triumph was a hollow one. The campaign had completely failed to stamp out Parliamentary reporting. The elusive Miller, Wheble, and Thompson had continued to publish debates throughout the crisis in their three newspapers, the London Evening Post, the Middlesex Journal, and the Gazetteer. The printers of the St. James’s Chronicle, the Whitehall Evening Post, and the General Evening Post all promised to discontinue reports when they appeared before the House of Commons on 14 March; but the General Evening Post was printing debates again within a week, and the St. James’s Chronicle soon followed this example.74 Early in April reporting was resumed even by the cautious London Chronicle and Lloyd’s Evening Post, which had both stopped the printing of debates immediately after Colonel Onslow’s warning on 5 February. No action whatever had been taken by the House against the weekly and monthly periodicals. Long before the release of Crosby and Oliver reporting was in progress as if there had never been any interruption.75

The House of Commons faced the entire task again, after having suffered both loss of dignity and the dislocation of business for several weeks. At the beginning of the next session, in January 1772, Wilkes did contemplate the possibility that ‘the old battle’ would be ‘renewed with the Commons’;76 but the North ministry sensibly avoided another fiasco. The Printers’ Case, however, did have a sequel, with respect to the House of Lords. The basic premiss for the reporting of the debates of the House of Commons, that constituents had the right to know the behaviour of their representatives,77 did not apply to that unelected chamber; and there was the practical difficulty that from December 1770 the House of Lords shut out the public from its debates. Wilkes nevertheless, in late 1771, planned a similar trap concerning the right of imprisonment recently exercised by the House of Lords against several printers. A provocative libel against a court peer would be followed by the release, by City magistrates, of any printers seized in consequence of it.78 Wilkes did not pursue this idea, but the wider issue of the reporting of Lords debates arose when in December 1774 that House again opened its doors to strangers. The reporting of debates there began, and on 31 January 1775 complaints of such publications led the House to order the arrest of the printer of the Public Ledger. Wilkes, then Lord Mayor, threw down the gauntlet by instructing the printer to inform the Lords of his whereabouts, in the City of London, of course. He made it publicly known that Black Rod himself, the official emissary of the House of Lords, would be imprisoned if he sought to execute the order, and the ministry backed down.79 The (p.140) consequences of a committal of Wilkes himself to the Tower were too disagreeable and dangerous to contemplate. From 1771 and 1775 the debates of the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively have been regularly published in the press. That victory over authority was perhaps the most significant gain for ‘liberty’ achieved by Wilkes.


(1.) This chapter incorporates much of my paper in the BIHR 32 (1960), 86–98. Another account appeared simultaneously in Haig, The Gazetteer, 102–18. For other descriptions see Davies, Thesis, 173–96; Treloar, Wilkes and the City, 115–22; and Sharpe, London and the Kingdom, iii. 107–2. John Horne’s version is in Horne Tooke Memoirs, i. 329–51.

(2.) Ibid. 344. This view of the House of Commons as the centre-piece of the constitution underlay Fox’s clash with George III in 1782–4, and was reflected in Edmund Burke’s famous declaration to his Bristol electors that he was their representative, not their delegate.

(3.) Thomas, EHR 74 (1959), 623–4, and sources therein cited.

(4.) Ibid. 624–5.

(5.) Cannon, Junius Letters, 455–6.

(p.255) (6.) So wrote diarist Wraxall in 1781, when examining the question by comparing Junius with the known writings of Wilkes: ‘It must be owned that Wilkes possessed a Classic Pen, keen, rapid, cutting…. But the difference between the two productions cannot be mistaken by any man who allows his reason fair play’ (Wraxall, Hist. Memoirs, ii. 92–3).

(7.) Grenville Papers, iv. 495.

(8.) Cannon, Junius Letters, 163, 172.

(9.) There can no longer be any reasonable doubt but that Francis was Junius. See the discussion on this point ibid. 539–72.

(10.) Almon, Memoirs, 119. That was published in 1790. In 1805 Almon, Wilkes, v. 52, stated that ‘on the meeting of the new Parliament in the year 1769, some occasional sketches of the proceedings of the House of Commons were printed in the London Evening Post’.

(11.) Thomas, EHR 74 (1959), 625–9.

(12.) Horne Tooke Memoirs, i. 314–15.

(13.) Malmesbury MSS, Memo. of 4 Apr. 1772.

(14.) BL Egerton MSS 224, fos. 81–7; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 149.

(15.) This account, reprinted in the Gazetteer on 26 Oct., may have been part of the ongoing Wilkes-Horne feud, with Home seeking to gain credit for a Radical coup ascribed to Wilkes.

(16.) BL Egerton MSS 225, fos. 15–25, 80–4, 89–94; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 154, 162, 183–4, 194, 208.

(17.) Corr. of George III, ii. 220–1.

(18.) Middlesex Journal, 24 Oct. 1771.

(19.) Almon, Memoirs, 120; Almon, Wilkes, v. 57–60.

(20.) Chatham Papers, iv. 95–6, 102, 105, 116.

(21.) Corr. of George III, ii. 219–20.

(22.) BL Egerton MSS 225, fos. 146–7; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 224.

(23.) Walpole, Memoirs of George III, iv. 190; Corr. of George III, ii. 229. There are many references in later debates to ministerial support of the campaign against Parliamentary reporting.

(24.) BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 2–43; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 249–51.

(25.) The sheriffs, William Baker and Joseph Martin, were both Rockinghamite MPs. There is no evidence that they took any part in the scheme.

(26.) BL Add. MSS 30871, fo. 69. After the visit of Morris, Thompson wrote to inform Wilkes, ‘agreeable to his desire…that not the least objection is at present seen to the adoption of the plan proposed’ (ibid., fo. 70).

(27.) In a public letter to the Speaker on that day, however, Evans announced his refusal to attend until ‘it is known whether a British subject has, or has not, a right to be tried by a jury’ (Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 3–4; London Evening Post, 21 Mar. 1771). The House of Commons did not read the order for his appearance that day, and never considered his case again.

(28.) BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 45–70; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 258–9.

(29.) London Evening Post, 16 Mar. 1771; Guildhall MSS. 3332(2), 10–13.

(p.256) (30.) In a Commons speech of 20 Mar. Solicitor-General Wedderburn denounced this arrest as ‘a plain and manifest collusion’ (BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 354–5). See also Almon, Wilkes, v. 54.

(31.) BL Add. MSS 30871, fo. 71; Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 1–3. Despite four applications to the Treasury Carpenter never received the reward (Middlesex Journal, 19, 23 Mar. 1771; Haig, Gazetteer, 112).

(32.) The following account is based on the reports given to the House of Commons on 18 Mar. (Commons Journals, xxxiii. 263–4; BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 70–81; Cobbett, Parl Hist., xvii. 96–102).

(33.) Almon, Memoirs, 120.

(34.) On 19 Mar. the Middlesex Journal reported that Morris, ‘whose pride is to be thought one of the lower class of the people’, had been given a general retainer by the City.

(35.) Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 9; Gazetteer, 16 Mar. 1771. Unlike Carpenter he was not identified, not charged with assault, and made no application for the reward (Haig, Gazetteer, 113–14).

(36.) Corr. of George III, ii. 232–3.

(37.) London Evening Post, 21 and 23 Mar. 1771; Walpole, Memoirs, iv. 191–2; Chatham Papers, iv. 121–2.

(38.) BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 70–141; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 263–4.

(39.) Chatham Papers, iv. 116,118.

(40.) Ibid., 121.

(41.) BL Egerton MSS 226, fo. 142.

(42.) Corr. of George III, ii. 235.

(43.) Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 13–17; London Evening Post, 23 Mar. 1771.

(44.) BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 346–65.

(45.) Corr. of George III, ii. 235–6.

(46.) Chatham Papers, iv. 122–3.

(47.) BL Egerton MSS 227, fos. 68–9; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 280–6.

(48.) When Crosby and Oliver went to the House of Commons on 20 Mar., Wilkes followed in another coach to Westminster, but then prudently returned to the City (Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 19).

(49.) BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 141–368; 227, fos. 2–62; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 265–80.

(50.) BL Egerton MSS 226, fos. 365–8.

(51.) John Yorke, MP, to Lord Hardwicke (BL Add. MSS 35375, fos. 37–8).

(52.) Cavendish Debates, ii. 443 n.

(53.) Walpole, Memoirs of George III, iv. 195–6.

(54.) Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 17–18; Middlesex Journal, 21 Mar. 1771.

(55.) London Evening Post, 21 Mar. 1771. There was soon a rumour that Kirkman would be elected a sheriff in recognition of his ‘support of liberty’ (Middlesex Journal, 28 Mar. 1771).

(56.) London Evening Post, 26 Mar. 1771; Middlesex Journal, 26 Mar. 1771.

(57.) Chatham Papers, iv. 123,126.

(p.257) (58.) Middlesex Journal, 28 Mar. 1771.

(59.) For the proceedings of the day see BL Egerton MSS 227, fos. 62–226; Chatham Papers, iv. 125–7,131–6; and Commons Journals, xxxiii. 283–6.

(60.) Middlesex Journal, 28 Mar. 1771.

(61.) London Evening Post, 30 Mar. 1771; Middlesex Journal, 30 Mar. 1771.

(62.) BL Egerton MSS 228, fos. 6–135; Chatham Papers, iv. 138–40; Commons Journals, xxxiii. 289–90.

(63.) Walpole, Memoirs of George III, iv. 201–2, 205.

(64.) The report is printed in Cobbett, Parl. Hist., xvii. 187–212.

(65.) Almon, Debates, ix. 305–7.

(66.) Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 25–8, 36–8.

(67.) Gentleman’s Magazine, 41 (1771), 141; Rockingham Memoirs, ii. 207–9.

(68.) London Evening Post, 6 and 23 Apr. 1771; General Evening Post, 2 May 1771; Chatham Papers, iv. 171. Newspapers reported that the ministry was also trying to put an end to the situation, by arranging for an MP unconnected with the administration to move for the discharge of the prisoners (St. James’s Chronicle, 13 Apr. 1771; London Evening Post, 18 Apr. 1771). Certainly an approach, through the Speaker, was made to Chathamite MP John Calcraft (Chatham Papers, iv. 152–3).

(69.) London Evening Post, 9 May 1771; Walpole, Memoirs of George III, iv. 125.

(70.) Middlesex Journal, 9 Apr. 1771.

(71.) London Evening Post, 14 May 1771.

(72.) Guildhall MSS 3332(2), 41–2.

(73.) Ibid. 149–50.

(74.) No copies have been found of the Whitehall Evening Post, or of the other two papers prosecuted, the Morning Chronicle and the London Packet.

(75.) Thomas, EHR 74 (1959), 629–30.

(76.) Cannon, Junius Letters, 437.

(77.) Almon, Wilkes, v. 62–3.

(78.) Cannon, Junius Letters, 416, 420–1, 437; Grenville Papers, iv. 536. Bill of Rights Society member Edmund Dayrell reported the scheme to Lord Temple, saying that Wilkes ‘wishes to repose in the faithful bosom of his Mentor, who never deserted him in his greatest difficulties, and in whom alone he will confide’ (ibid., iv. 537). Yet this letter was written long after the breach between Temple and Wilkes.

(79.) Middlesex Journal, 14 Feb. 1775; Walpole, Last Journals, i. 432. On this episode see Lowe, Parliamentary History, 7 (1988), 248–56.