Taking Liberties | John Wilkes

A radical, rake and reformer, John Wilkes remains a hero for lovers of liberty 290 years after his birth in Clerkenwell.

The MP and Lord Mayor of London was adulterous and famously ugly – yet hugely popular with the people. Dr Robin Eagles, editor of Wilkes’s diaries, explores the personal history and political legacy of this 18th century political maverick.

The diaries of John Wilkes chart day by day the people with whom he dined between 1770 and 1797. They show how he cultivated the people of Middlesex and the City of London in his campaign to be elected to Parliament and to
secure the mayoralty; they also off er evidence for how ruthlessly he ditched some of these and how his later career was more focused on the elite and the arts. Wilkes was a friend of actor David Garrick, critic Edmond Malone and the cross-dressing French diplomat Chevalier d’Eon.

Wilkes said of himself that it took him half an hour to talk away his face. His looks were undoubtedly a problem – satirists like William Hogarth were able to make much of his lantern jaw and pronounced squint. Although he may have been ugly, Wilkes’s manners were immaculate (George III said as much, as did Dr Johnson). 

Wilkes’s well-known libertinism was more acceptable then – provided it was conducted with discretion. If his early association with the Hellfi re Club was not much liked it did provide an entry into the political elite, and his later
association with courtesans and mistresses did him no real harm at all. It is interesting that when he served as Lord Mayor of London he installed his daughter, Polly, as his ‘Lady Mayoress’ instead of either his mistress or estranged wife. Wilkes was devoted to his daughter, who was remarkably tolerant of her father, and closely involved with at least two children by mistresses.

By the time Wilkes started the diaries he had left the Clerkenwell of his early family life behind. It does feature, but only in terms of his official duties. There are several references to him attending the Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green. His mother seems to have quit the house in St John’s Square where he was born for an address in Westminster.

Pubs around Fleet Street, such as the Globe Tavern, are a recurring feature of the diaries, many of them being the regular meeting places for the various societies and fraternities of which Wilkes was a member. I have attempted to list as many as possible in the index to make searching for his favourite haunts as easy as possible. Wilkes was also a regular at coffee houses around St Paul’s, which was closely associated with hacks and other publishing hangers-on.

Wilkes had a rare gift for inspiring the crowd, but he aspired to more elevated company. He was extremely scornful of some of his followers and his colleagues in the City of London (he referred to the latter as ‘fat-headed turtle-eating aldermen’). He also fell out with his two main colleagues in the Society for Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Wilkes was clearly not very good at sharing the limelight.

It’s almost impossible to disentangle Wilkes the self-publicist from Wilkes the reformer. That said, I do believe that Wilkes had true political courage. He was not afraid to fight his corner in court or parliament, and did not find imprisonment a deterrent to continuing to campaign. On at least two occasions he was prepared to take part in duels: an important demonstration of his courage and gentlemanly status.

His speech to Parliament arguing in favour of reform of the franchise (1776) was genuinely forward thinking, and he was committed to the cause of the arts. His greatest achievement was undoubtedly his contribution to securing
freedom for London printers to publish the content of parliamentary debates without

‘Wilkes said it took him half an hour to talk away his face’

fear of prosecution, even though it remained technically an abuse of privilege until the early 20th century. Wilkes’s increasing distancing from radical causes in the final decade of his life was undoubtedly a result of his more settled position in society, as well as his horror at the excesses of the French Revolution.

A recent Radio 4 broadcast compared Wilkes with Nigel Farage – and there are some points of contact there: the ability to latch onto a popular cause is certainly one, and both have a talent for presenting themselves as ‘men of the people’. If Farage’s cause is Europe, Wilkes’s causes were criticism of ministerial corruption, annoyance at the terms of the treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War and dislike of the political influence of Scotsmen like the Earl of Bute.

As a journalist and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has some appeal as a point of comparison. A better one, though, might be the late MP Tony Banks, who wrote the foreword to John Sainsbury’s 2006 biography. Both Wilkes and
Banks were famed for their ready (and sometimes acid) wit and were particularly associated with London politics; both pursued causes with determination.

Wilkes appears to be much better known in America, where he is lauded for his involvement in support of the War of Independence. There is even a university named after him. Outside of British political historians and some officers of the City of London – I am told the current City Chamberlain quotes Wilkes when welcoming new freemen – he is not as well known as he deserves to be.

When the city wards were subject to boundary changes, complaints were made that Wilkes’s statue would end up outside his old ward of Farringdon Without. So the boundary was redrawn to incorporate the statue. It’s more than 250 years since he first shook up the Establishment, but it seems John Wilkes is still standing his ground.

Dr Robin Eagles is Senior Research Fellow at the History of Parliament “The Diaries of John Wilkes 1770-1797” are published by the London Record Society and Boydell Press


The life of the man George III dubbed “that devil Wilkes”…

1725 Born in St John’s Square, son of a wealthy distiller

1744 Studies at Leiden University, Netherlands, indulged in ‘incessant whoring and drinking’

1747 Marries heiress Mary Mead

1750 Birth of daughter, Mary (known as Polly)

1754 Appointed sheriff of Buckinghamshire

1756 Separates from wife, lives with Polly in Mayfair

1757 Elected MP for Aylesbury (later re-elected thanks to ‘crude bribery’)

1763 April: Arrested for libelling George III in his radical newspaper, The North Briton, but released to cheers of supporters

1763 November: Parliament finds co-written pornographic poem Essay on Women blasphemous and The North Briton guilty of seditious libel; wounded in a duel, flees to France

1764 Expelled from Commons in absence, declared an outlaw

1768 Returns from exile, elected MP for Middlesex; sentenced to two years in prison prompting rioting by supporters – and violent suppression by troops

1769 Elected alderman Farringdon Without; expelled from Parliament, returned at three by elections but results declared void

1770 Released from King’s Bench Prison

1774 Returned as Middlesex MP (served until 1790), elected Lord Mayor

1779 Elected City Chamberlain

1780 Controversial role in helping suppress Gordon riots

1797 Dies aged 72, buried in Mayfair