Today in London’s rebel history: John Horne Tooke nicked for libelling the Speaker of the House of Commons, 1774.

To be honest this one is a bit crap… sometimes otherwise reasonably sound people do something a bit questionable, and you commemorate it before really checking it out…

John Horne, originally a clergyman, resigned from his church benefice in 1773 and began the study of the law and philology. He qas already known as a pro-reform activist of sorts; having been associated with notorious reforming demagogue John Wilkes, who had already been jailed for libeling king George III, exiled, elected MP and refused entry to parliament, and had various mobs riot in his support and more (though Wilkes and Horne had become somewhat estranged).

An accident, however, occurred at this moment which largely affected Tooke’s future. His friend William Tooke had bought a large estate, including Purley Lodge, south of Croydon. The possession of this property brought about frequent disputes with an adjoining landowner, Thomas de Grey, and, after various court battles, Grey’s friends forced a bill through the houses of parliament, to try and obtain some advantages over Tooke which the law had not assigned to him (February 1774). Horne hit on a bold stroke to try and call atantion to this stratagem – he published a libel on the Speaker of the house of Commons, which drew public attention to the case. Although he himself was placed for a time in the custody of Parliament’s serjeant-at-arms, the clauses which were injurious to the interest of Tooke were eliminated from the bill. A grateful William Tooke declared his intention of making Horne the heir to his fortune, and during his lifetime he bestowed upon him large gifts of money.This did allow Horne (who adopted his benefactor’s name added to his own) some freedom to publish , write and act as an independent politically maverick radical.

A couple of Horne Tooke’s later arrests were slightly more noteworthy.
Almost immediately after the libel case, for his signing the advertisement soliciting subscriptions for the relief of the relatives of the Americans “murdered by the king’s troops at Lexington and Concord,” (considered to be treasonable betrayal of the patriotic war against the American colonies in their fight for independence) he was tried at the Guildhall on the 4th of July 1777, before Lord Mansfield, found guilty, and committed to the King’s Bench prison in St George’s Fields, from which he only emerged after a year’s durance, and after a loss in fines and costs amounting to £1200.

Much later, after the French Revolution had driven the British authorities onto a total panic which brought down repression on anyone agitating for even the most innocuous reform, Horne Tooke was arrested early on the morning of the 16th of May 1794, and committed to the Tower. Other pro-French, reforming or radical activists were also being rounded up, including a number more associated with London Corresponding Society and other democratic groups. Horne Tooke’s trial for high treason lasted for six days (17th to 22nd of November) and ended in his acquittal, the jury only taking eight minutes to settle their verdict. Tooke later became an MP (for one term only…)


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online


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