In March 1771, Lord Mayor of London Brass Crosby was jailed in the Tower of London, after sanctioning the arrest of an agent of the Speaker of the House of Commons. The context was a struggle superficially about Parliament attempting to stop the printing of reports of Commons debates; at a deeper level, this was an episode in a battle between a government desperate to preserve the political status quo, and a growing movement for reform.
Over the previous few years London had been shaken by the riotous movement in support of John Wilkes, demagogue, agitator for reform, opportunist. Wilkes had many allies in the City of London, among powerful merchants who combined genuine opposition to the corrupt political establishment with an eye for their own advancement.
The printing of parliamentary debates in the newspapers had long been forbidden – repeated statues had renewed this. Parliament was dead set on that the only reports that the public should have of events there were to be released by Parliament itself or its own officers. Partly this was a concern with its own privilege; but in one debate on the subject, the Speaker of the Commons asserted that: “Modest timid members would never give us their sentiments if they were liable to be misrepresented and made the subject of ridicule and contempt thereby…” Or to have anyone actually know what they were doing and saying and hold them up to scrutiny ?
Occasional breaches of the regulation against parliamentary reporting had happened now and again in the eighteenth century. But since 1768, editors of the newspapers had begun to report debates and detailed accounts of parliamentary practice. This had been initiated by John Almon of the London Evening Post, but by 1771, over a dozen papers and journals were involved.
That this was connected to the growing movement for parliamentary reform was undeniable. As was the determination of pro-government MPs that a stop should by put to it. In those times printers of journals, books or pamphlets were liable to prosecution for the contents, and were usually the point at which pressure was applied by the authorities to repress radical or seditious ideas – ie anything challenging the status quo.
By a vote in the House of Commons in early February 1771 two of the most offending printers (John Wheble of the Middlesex Journal, and R. Thompson of the Gazetteer) were ordered to attend the House to be told off; after they defied the order, their arrest was ordered and they went into hiding. The plan to defy the Commons seems to have been encouraged or even proposed by John Wilkes and the circle of reformers connected to him, linked to the ‘city patriots’.
On 12th March, it was (after a long divisive debate in the Commons) ordered that 6 more of the printers be ordered to attend the House – four came, two didn’t show up. An order to arrest one – John Miller of the London Evening Post – was issued. When William Whittam, a Commons messenger, tried to nick Miller at his house, a City of London constable arrested Whittam, on the orders, or at least backed by, the Lord Mayor of London for 1771, Brass Crosby, who refused to release Whittam on the grounds that he had no jurisdiction to arrest Miller in the City. Crosby was himself summoned to the Commons, eventually appearing on March 25th (sent off with acclaim as a ‘friend of the people’ and defender of liberty, and accompanied by large crowds) He defended his action, “in protecting the liberty of the subject.”
When Crosby was ordered to the Commons again in the 27th, vast crowds (reputedly 50,000 people, “most of whom appeared to be respectable tradesmen”) surrounded his carriage, and blocked the roads to Parliament. They harassed government supporters; “Lord North’s Chariot glasses were broken to pieces… by which he received a wound, and was exceddingly terrified. The populace also took off his hat and cut it into pieces, and he narrowly escaped with his life.” Other pro-government MPs were pelted with mud and insulted. Mobs ran riot in Westminster for five hours.
The king was also insulted the next day as his state coach passed down Parliament Street… there was chaos as MPs abused each other, and Westminster magistrates tried to re-impose the rule of law.
Crosby was found guilty of ‘a breach of privilege’ and ordered to be held in the Tower (joining Alderman Richard Oliver, a supporter of Wilkes, accused of being part of the plot to detain Whittam).
Both Crosby and Oliver were held for several weeks, supported by mass demonstrations and speeches organized by allies in the City… But the printers went unpunished, the newspapers went on printing parliamentary debates, and the authority of the Parliament was seriously undermined.
When he was brought to trial several judges refused to hear the case and Crosby was released. No further attempts had ever been made to prevent the publication of Parliamentary debates, facilitating the emergence of Hansard.
In July 1771, the newly constructed obelisk at St George’s Circus in Southwark was given an additional inscription. Below the text: ERECTED IN/ XIth Year/ OF THE REIGN/ OF KING GEORGE THE THIRD/ MDCCLXXI was added THE RIGHT HONOURABLE/BRASS CROSBY ESQUIRE/ LORD MAYOR.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online