John Wilkes – cross eyed politician and reformer
Standing almost unnoticed amongst the new office buildings crowding the City today, is a statue of a very interesting London figure, who certainly didn’t go unnoticed during his lifetime.
John Wilkes was born in nearby Clerkenwell in 1725, the son of a successful distiller and when only 18 years old, married a wealthy heiress 10 years his senior, which not only gave him considerable wealth but also the Manor of Aylesbury, thus enabling him to become one of the landed gentry.
He was not however the ideal husband. Despite being famously ugly (and cross eyed to boot) he can be best described in those early years as a Rake – womanising and spending most of his time at the Hell Fire Club, an elitist club where ‘persons of quality’ could go who wished to take part in socially immoral acts!
However Wilkes soon grew bored of his life of pleasure and decided to go into politics, becoming the MP for Aylesbury and fast developing a reputation as a radical.
He was not afraid to be outspoken, setting up a newspaper called the North Briton, where he criticised King George III on his choice of Prime Minister.
Arrested and charged with seditious libel, Wilkes only avoided prosecution because of MP’s privilege and soon became popular amongst ordinary people as a champion of liberty.
He was also a well known wit, and in one heated exchange between himself and the 4th Earl of Sandwich who said to him:
“Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox”
Wilkes famously replied:
That depends my Lord, on whether I embrace your lordship’s principles or your mistress”
But Wilkes had made powerful enemies. He was challenged to a duel by one of the Kings supporters and was shot in the stomach. Wounded, he fled to Paris for his own safety.
Five years later he returned to London and assumed a new name in an attempt to lay low and not attract attention. But the quiet life was not for John Wilkes and soon he was championing workers rights and standing for Parliament again, this time in the constituency of Middlesex.
The authorities had him arrested and put in the King Benches Prison in Southwark, where a large mob gathered demanding his release, chanting the slogan “Wilkes and Liberty!” Fearing the crowd would storm the prison, troops opened fire and 5 people were killed in what became known as the St. Georges Field Massacre.
Wilkes was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment but continued to stand for Member of Parliament for the Middlesex constituency, winning the seat three times. But each time Parliament overturned the decision. When he was finally released he continued to campaign, this time for religious toleration and freedom for the press, and also angered the government by publicly supporting the American Colonies in their fight for independence.
In 1774 Wilkes became Lord Mayor of London and although in later years he became more conservative and lost some of his popularity as a radical, it’s no doubt that he remains one of the great political reformers and characters of his time.
BY THE WAY… He is a distant cousin of John Wilkes Booth, the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln!