Remembering John Wilkes and the Massacre of St George’s Fields

On this day, May 10th 1768, government troops opened fire on demonstrators protesting in St George’s Fields, Southwark against the imprisonment of radical Middlesex MP, John Wilkes. The death tool of this massacre remains hotly contested – at it’s lowest estimate it is said to be six, at it’s highest, 11 – but it is generally accepted that 15 protesters were wounded at what became known as the Massacre of St George’s Fields.

So, who was John Wilkes? Born in Clerkenwell in 1725, Wilkes’ legacy is that of a libertine, a caustic wit and, on account of a protruding jaw and a pronounced squint, “the ugliest man in England”. A member of the Hellfire Club, he is said to have brought about the demise of that notorious society when he introduced a baboon, dressed in cape and horns into the rituals, causing considerable panic and mayhem. In 1762, Wilkes started a radical publication entitled The North Briton. The paper was a satirical response to the government’s own paper, The Briton, and was filled with an anti-Scots sentiment that left no one in any doubt that Wilkes was not a supporter of John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute and the then Prime Minister. Indeed, even the title Wilkes selected, makes reference to Stuart being Scottish; ‘The North Briton’.

The first real controversy to arise from Wilkes’ publication occurred in issue 12 whereupon he ridiculed William, Earl of Talbot. A staunch supporter of the PM, William Talbot also served the Royal Household of George III and felt his reputation tarnished by Wilkes’ paper. He challenged the radical to a duel, which took place under cover of darkness in Bagshot. Though both men fired upon one another, neither was hit and they subsequently retired to a nearby inn to share a bottle of claret. The affair quickly became known and was viewed as a comical folly, though some critics claimed the whole thing had been a stunt to bolster the standing of both men within society.

Wilkes gained further notoriety in April the following year when, as a fervent supporter of the Seven Years War, he used his paper to attack George III’s endorsment of the Paris Peace Treaty that brought the conflict to a successful conclusion at the opening of Parliament. The speech, whose authorship was widely attributed to the King’s PM, was attacked in issue 45 of The North Briton; an ironically appropriate number given that it was synonymous with the Jacobite Rising of 1745; a perception which Wilkes, as Bute’s staunchest critic, played upon. Feeling gravely insulted, George III subsequently issued arrest warrants for Wilkes and his publishers on the charge of seditious libel. Despite a mass outcry, Forty-nine people were arrested, including Wilkes himself. At his court hearing, Wilkes argued that his standing as a Radical MP meant he was protected by parliamentary privilege. The Lord Chief Justice was inclined to agree and he was swiftly restored to his seat as a free man, whereupon he sued his arresters for trespass. The cry of “Wilkes, Liberty and Number 45” was taken up by his many supporters, but Parliament swiftly moved to vote in a measure removing protection of MPs from arrest for the writing and publishing of seditious libel. It was a move that would subsequently befall Wilkes and bring about the massacre of working class supporters of free speech on 10th May, 1768.

Undeterred, Wilkes continued to use his renowned satirical wit to condemn the powers that be. In November 1763, he was once again challenged to a duel by a supporter of the King. This time, he did not get off so lightly; his opponent, the politician Samuel Martin, managed to shoot him in the stomach. Yet still Wilkes continued to hold George III and his Parliament to account. The printing of  a pornographic poem entitled ‘An Essay on Woman’, a parody of Pope’s An Essay on Man, dedicated to Fanny Murray, the infamous courtesan and mistress of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, led to Wilkes being declared an outlaw. Montagu, who had long since harboured a grudge against Wilkes stretching back to the days of the Hellfire Club (it is alleged that Wilkes frightened and embarrassed the Earl during a seance at the club), read the poem to the House of Lords in an effort to denounce Wilkes’ morality (neatly sidestepping the hypocrisy of his own moral failings in relation to his mistress, the subject of the poem), The Lords found that Wilkes had committed blasphemy and obscenity and moved to remove him from the Commons. Fleeing to Paris before any expulsion, Wilkes was found guilty in absentia of obscene and seditious libel in January, 1764.

Exiled in France, Wilkes hoped for a change in power that would ensure the charges against him were dropped, but his prayers were not answered. After four long years, mired in debt and pressured by his French creditors, he felt that he had no option but to return to England. His plan was to gather enough support on his return to stand once again as an MP, this time on an anti-government ticket. Remarkably, his gamble paid off as Parliament decreed that his arrest would only inflame popular support and bring about anarachy. He was remarkably well favoured in Middlesex and was subsequently elected for that constituency to serve as a Radical, but he knew that he would have to face justice some day. In April, he reported to the King’s Bench whereupon he was sentenced to two years and fined £1,000. The charge of outlawry, brought about by the Lords, was overturned.

Upon hearing the news of his conviction and imprisonment, crowds began to gather south of the King’s Bench Prison where he was held, at a large open space between Southwark and Lambeth known as St George’s Fields. For two weeks, the protest grew with the crowds increasing with each passing day. On 10th May, as many as 15,000 occupied St George’s Fields, taking up the cries of “Wilkes and Liberty”, “No Liberty, No King”, and “Damn the King! Damn the Government! Damn the Justices!”

Concerned at the strength of the crowd, four Surrey justices of the peace made a request for military protection that was answered by a detachment of the Horse Grenadier Guards, positioned between the prison and the protesters. The sight of the troops only served to inflame the passions of the crowd and the order to apprehend one man in a red coat, whom the authorities singled out as a prominent ringleader, soon went out. Unfortunately, the troops charged with this task chased the man to a nearby barn whereupon they fatally shot an innocent young farmhand called William Allen.

News of Allen’s death quickly spread to the demonstrators. The panicked JP’s, fearing that the 15,000 would endeavour to free Wilkes by force, ordered them to disperse by reading the Riot Act. As this occurred, a call was made for more troops and a further detachment, this time of Third Regiment of Foot Guards, arrived at the field. By now, the incensed crowd, angered at the injustice not only of Wilkes arrest but now the murder of an innocent man, had begun to throw stones – an action that was by bloodshed. The troops opened fire indiscriminately into the crowd, killing somewhere between 6 and 11 people (including a further innocent passer-by) and wounding 15.

The outbreak of shooting saw the crowd disperse, naturally fearful for their lives. Word soon spread about what had occurred upon St George’s Fields, leading to a series of riots across the capital. Benjamin Franklin, visiting London at the time, recorded that he saw great unrest as a result of the massacre, including “sawyers destroying saw-mills; sailors unrigging all the outward bound ships and watermen destroying private boats and threatening bridges.” Further rioting occurred when Hugh Kelly, an Irish playwright and staunch supporter of the government, defended the actions of the troops, leading to the abandonment of a performance of his play A Word to the Wise when impassioned Wilkes supporters attended Drury Lane en masse. The crisis proved so severe that it is widely considered that George III contemplated abdication.

However, as is often the case, the establishment swiftly moved to protect itself. Though two soldiers from the Horse Grenadier Guards were brought before a grand jury at Surrey Assizes for the murder of William Allen, neither were indicted. One was mysteriously freed from the gaol attached to the courthouse during proceedings, bringing about a peculiar collapse of the trial. The subsequent inquiry into the massacre itself was nothing more than a whitewash, its findings being that the deaths were caused by “chance medley”.

In February of the following year, Parliament once again moved that Wilkes was an outlaw and expelled him. A bizarre merry-go-round ensued with his Middlesex constituency doggedly returning their incarcerated MP, only to see him expelled once more . This occurred again in March and April, concluding when Parliament insisted that Wilkes’ opponent, the 2nd Earl of Carhampton, Henry Luttrell, be recognised as the victor and their representative, despite Wilkes outpolling him by a considerable margin. As a reward for ridding them of Wiles, Parliament made Luttrell Adjutant-General for Ireland in 1770 and he subsequently proved his worth as an establishment lackey by leading the British suppression of the United Irishmen Rebellion in 1798.

Wilkes remained defiant, securing for himself the position of Alderman of London in 1769 from his prison cell, thanks to his supporters group, the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Released from prison in 1770, Wilkes was appointed a sheriff in the capital and, just four years later, he achieved his greatest success, by becoming both Lord Mayor of London and being returned once more as the representative for his beloved and loyal Middlesex constituents. From this newly re-secured position in the House of Commons, Wilkes continued to be a thorn in the side of government and the crown, condemning their policy towards the American colonies during the War of Independence. However, by 1780 it appeared that Radicalism was beginning to lose its appeal for Wilkes and he lost considerable sympathy from the working classes when he was placed in charge of the troops stationed to protect the Bank of England during the Gordon Riots. His reputation and appeal tarnished, he was nonetheless returned to Parliament again in 1784, but was forced to withdraw very early in the subsequent election of 1790, conceding that he had little support. The working class now saw him as a hypocrite, rather than a man of the people. He spent his final years serving as a magistrate and died, at home in Westminster, on Boxing Day, 1797 from malnutrition.

Today we remember the deaths of those working class men and women who, in Wilkes’ name, rallied to the cause of liberty and freedom of speech (to say nothing of the unfortunate William Allen) and we condemn those soldiers and government with blood on their hands. Unfortunately, no lesson was learned by the Massacre of St George’s Fields. Just fifty-one years later, a similar – and more famous – situation occurred on St Peter’s Field, Manchester – forever remembered as the Peterloo Massacre. Incidents on UK soil like the Merthyr Rising of 1831, the Newport Rising of 1839, the Preston Strike of 1842, the Liverpool transport strike of 1911, The Croke Park Massacre of 1921 and Derry’s Bloody Sunday of 1972 show that the British government and its military forces will always be quick to murder or maim their own people to protect the status quo that favours their privilege and position. We must be forever thankful that the Battle of Orgreave resulted in no loss of life, as it so easily could have done.

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