Today in London’s radical history: crowd prevent the burning of the North Briton, 1763

“Well! but we have had a prodigious riot: are not you impatient to know the particulars? It was so prodigious a tumult, that I verily thought half the administration would have run away to Harrowgate.
The North Briton was ordered to be burned by the hangman at Cheapside, on Saturday last.”

The North Briton was a radical newspaper published in 18th century London. It was written anonymously (as were many other similar earlier newspapers which opposed, questioned or satirised the government – largely because the authorities would prosecute writers, printers and editors for sedition on a regular basis); but The North Briton is closely associated with John Wilkes, demagogue, rakish hellraiser, sometime reformer (and eventual pillar of the establishment). The Briton became most famous and infamous for issue number 45, which sparked prosecution, seizure, arrest and exile for Wilkes, and forty or so court cases.

“45” became a popular slogan of liberty in the latter part of the 18th century, chalked as graffiti everywhere.

The North Briton was begun as a counter-blast to The Briton, a pro-government paper started by Tobias Smollett. Only eight days after that newspaper began publication, the first issue of The North Briton came out. It then came out weekly until the resignation of the Bute government.

Issue number 45 (23 April 1763) criticised a royal speech in which King George III praised the Treaty of Paris ending the Seven Years’ War. As a result Wilkes was charged with libel, in effect, accusing the King of lying, which got him locked up in the Tower of London for a while. However, Wilkes challenged the warrant for his arrest and the seizure of the paper, and won the case. His courtroom speeches kick-started the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty!”, which became a popular slogan for freedom of speech and resistance to the establishment. It merged with a powerful and growing movement working for political reform, but it was an uneasy alliance, temporarily thrusting middle class and aristocratic reformers and opportunists, elements of the powerful and volatile London mob, together. At its head Wilkes always had his own advancement and reputation as his primary focus…

Later in 1763, Wilkes reprinted the issue, which was again seized by the government. They ordered that copies should be burned publicly in Cheapside, the City of London’s main drag, by the official hangman. Given that the City was a stronghold of the reform movement, its politicians often Wiles’ allies, this was a provocation to Wilkes supporters. However, before the papers could be burned, the assembled crowd rescued the text, assaulting the hangman.

“The mob rose; the greatest mob, says Mr Sheriff Blunt, that he has known in forty years. They were armed with that most bloody instrument, the mud out of the kennels: they hissed in the most murderous manner; broke Mr Sheriff Harley’s coach glass in the most frangent manner; scratched his forehead, so that he is forced to wear a little patch in the most becoming manner; and obliged the hangman to burn the paper with a link, though faggots were prepared to execute it in a more solemn manner. Numbers of gentlemen, from windows and balconies, encouraged the mob, who, in about an hour and half, were so undutiful to the ministry, as to retire without doing any mischief…”

The ensuing uproar caused Wilkes to be flee across the English Channel to France; he was tried and found guilty in absentia of obscene libel and seditious libel, and was declared an outlaw on 19 January 1764.

He would return to England, be imprisoned again, stand for election as an MP for Middlesex, several times, and be barred, repeatedly, while mobs fought for him and the government fought to keep him – and them – out… Throughout his career he also had powerful allies among the rich merchant classes and City politicians, and eventually he would rise to command soldiers repressing the 1780 Gordon Rioters, and become Lord Mayor of London.

Nonetheless, by the time Wilkes was released from prison in 1770, “45” was still a popular icon not only of Wilkes, but of freedom of speech in general.

You can read the North Briton no 45 here.


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

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