As Election Fever sweeps the land let us not forget the old battle cry…
For Wilkes and Liberty!
In the 17th century the parliamentary elections for Middlesex were held on Hampstead Heath. The county was much larger than it is now and the poll lasted for 15 days to allow voters time to get there.
In 1701 the elections were moved to the Butts in Brentford and very quickly the town and its poll gained a reputation for rowdy behaviour. An eye witness wrote,
“It is impossible for any but those who have witnessed a Middlesex election to conceive the picture it exhibited; it was a continuous scene of riot, disorder and tumult.”
The problem was before the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1872, which widened the franchise, brought in more equitable representation and introduced the secret ballot, very few people actually had the right to vote. The only way that non-voters had of making their own views known was by noisy shouting with lots of pushing and shoving.
To make things worse the unruly non-voters were joined in the streets by gangs of hooligans brought in by the candidates to swell the tumult and intimidate any undecided voters. In those days ‘floating voters’ were sometimes found floating in the river. It was into this parliamentary punch-up of 1757 that arrived John Wilkes, a radical, a journalist, a part time pornographer and a man with a murky past. He was a rogue without morals of any kind and, as contemporary portraits show, a rather unattractive fellow with an unfortunate squint which lead to the popular epigram…
“The devil at Lincoln climbed up a steeple,
As Wilkes did at Brentford to squint at the people.’
For all his failings Wilkes had a right and crowd-pleasing cause – that voters should be allowed to choose their own candidates, rather than having them imposed by the House of Commons. With that cause triumphant in 1757 Wilkes was elected to Parliament.
In April 1763, in the 45th edition of his own scandal sheet “The North Briton”, Wilkes severely criticised a speech given in Parliament by King George 3rd. The Prime Minister, the Earl of Bute, and a close friend of the King, immediately issued a general warrant for Wilkes’s arrest. Wilkes retaliated by demanding the freedom of the Press – and questioning the validity of the general warrants which, with no names on them, were used as a universal ‘catch-all’ by the Secretary of State. Wilkes was arrested and thrown in the Tower where he sued for a writ of Habeas Corpus. He was eventually released by the Court. While he was in prison Parliament passed a resolution declaring general warrants to be illegal.
Although they agreed with him on the matter of the general warrants, Parliament thought that the 45th edition of “The North Briton” was a ‘false, scandalous and seditious libel’. Wilkes was expelled from Parliament, the 45th edition was burnt by the common hangman and Wilkes only escaped further prosecution by fleeing to France. When he returned home in 1768 he stood again for Parliament in Brentford and was elected unopposed – and once again Parliament expelled him. In 1769 a new election was called and this time Parliament put up a candidate against Wilkes – Colonel Henry Lawes Luttrell, 2nd Earl of Carhampton.
The struggle between Parliament and Wilkes took on nationwide interest, with popular opinion very much on Wilkes’s side, not just in Middlesex but across the entire country. The cry “Wilkes and Liberty” was heard everywhere. His effigy appeared on punch bowls and cream jugs, on salad dishes and plates, on the tops of walking sticks and chalked on walls. Benjamin Franklin was inspired to write…
“If the king had had a bad character and Wilkes a good one, George 3rd would have been turned off the throne”.
Street balladeers picked up the cause..
“Now nearer town and all agog,
They know dear London by its fog,
Bridges they cross, through lanes they wind,
Leave Hounslow’s dangerous heath behind,
Through Brentford win a passage free,
By shouting, “Wilkes and Liberty!”
The 1769 election in Brentford was the rowdiest and most turbulent ever seen. The crowd, shouting “Wilkes and Liberty”, burned the poll books. In the commotion one man was killed. At the hustings someone in the crowded shouted, “I would rather vote for the devil than for Wilkes”. Wilkes swiftly replied, “And for whom if your friend is not standing?”
At the end of the count Wilkes was found to have polled 1,143 votes against Colonel Luttrell’s measly 296, but Parliament declared that Wilkes was incapable of standing for re-election and gave the seat to Luttrell. There was disbelief and anger through the country. Realising that Parliament had turned itself into a judicial body and was flouting the electorate Wilkes’s support grew. People who had been against him were now on his side. He was elected an alderman of the City of London whose Lord Mayor and Liveries petitioned the King to dissolve Parliament.
When Parliamentary elections were held in 1774 Wilkes stood again, won again and this time the government conceded defeat and allowed him to take his seat. He remained in Parliament until 1790.
Wilkes’s electoral struggles in Brentford established a number of important constitutional liberties – the right for people to choose their own representatives, the right of members of parliament to be free from all threats of arrest except for treason, felony or breach of the peace, the abolition of general warrants and the right of the Press to criticise ministers, politicians and even the King himself.
Our right to vote secretly, without fear or favour, was hard earned. It is a tragedy of our time that some will squander and shame that right by not bothering when their chance comes to vote on Thursday May 6th.
For Wilkes and Liberty!
Just after the 1774 elections an inhabitant of Brentford was travelling in Germany where the title “Elector” was given to certain rulers. Arriving in a town the traveller was stopped by an official and asked who he was. “I am an elector of Middlesex,” he replied. The official, knowing only the German meaning of the word, immediately ordered out the guard and received “the Elector of Brentford” with full military honours.
— from Martyn Day