Today in London’s history: Nicholas Amhurst nicked for writing seditious libels in the ‘Craftsman’, 1737.

As we wrote in a previous post, the satirical magazine, the Craftsman, opposed to the corrupt regime of prime minster Robert Walpole, was repeatedly prosecuted by the authorities.

In July 1737, the Craftsman was prosecuted once again, for its satire on the new Theatre Licensing Act (1737) in the issue of 2 July 1737. This had taken the form of a letter, supposedly from opportunist social climbing poet and actor-manager Colley Cibber, suggesting many plays by Shakespeare and the older dramatists contained passages which might be regarded as seditious, and advocating extending the Licensing Act to include old plays, most notably Shakespeare’s plays, as also seditious and “a danger to good order”. The letter then proposed Cibber be appointed censor of all plays brought on the stage.

This was regarded as a “suspected” libel, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of the printer, Henry Haines (who had succeeded Richard Francklin as printer of the journal, after Francklin’s repeated arrests and imprisonment). Printers then could be held responsible for any content in anything they printed, even if it was published by someone else.

Haines was immediately arrested and held on £600 bail, which he could not raise. He was not tried until February 1738, when he was brought “before a special jury and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment”  In the meantime, the Craftsman’s founder Nicholas Amhurst surrendered himself instead, on (September 20th 1737) and suffered a short imprisonment.

A poet and political writer, Amhurst had become a prominent pamphleteer on the opposition (whig) side against Walpole and the Tories. In 1726 he issued the first number of the Craftsman, as a weekly periodical, which he conducted under the pseudonym of Caleb D’Anvers. The paper was aimed mainly towards the overthrow of Sir Robert Walpole’s government; there is some debate about its effects, with most historians agreeing it did little more than preaching to the converted. Nevertheless it reached a circulation of 10,000 copies and was one of the biggest magazines of its time with authors such as Henry Fielding, John Gay and Alexander Pope contributing to it. For this success Amhurst’s editorship was not perhaps chiefly responsible. It was founded, and in the beginning financed, by Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke and William Pulteney, the latter being a frequent and caustic contributor.

The incident seems to have caused bad feeling between Henry Haines on the one side, and Amhurst and Francklin. Haines published a pamphlet in 1740, with the snappy title of Treachery, baseness, and cruelty display’d to the full, in the hardships and sufferings of Mr. Henry Haines, Late Printer of the Country Journal, or, Craftsman; Who now is, and for above Two Years has been, in close Imprisonment in the King’s Bench, for a Fine of Two hundred Pounds, at the Suit of the Crown, for Printing and Publishing the Craftsman of July 2, 1737, In which he criticised Amhurst and Francklin.

More on the history of the Craftsman can be found here

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

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