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Fenning Case

The Fenning Case and the Rise of the Watchdog Press

Just at the time of Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Hone found himself in a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, his work on the case of Edward Vyse had given him a freshly energized political purpose, but, on the other hand, his politics had cost him his job at the Critical Review and he was thus without any reliable source of income. The Hone family's financial situation was becoming particularly grave in late summer, when, by a kind of chance inspiration, they were saved by a wonderfully profitable pamphlet. Since April, Hone had been intensely interested in the case of Elizabeth Fenning, a servant girl who, on circumstancial evidence, was convicted of poisoning her master's family. Following on his practice in the Vyse case, Hone intended to publish the full proceedings against Fenning and thus to publicize once again what he deemed to be a horrendous miscarriage of judicial power. In July and August (Fenning was hanged on 26 July), [1] Hone was living in lodgings separate from his family and preparing his work for the press, when Sarah came to ask him for money so that she might feed the children. Hone borrowed a few pounds from a bookseller friend, and then, while walking home to give the money to Sarah, he stopped to see La Pie Voleuse, a melodrama then playing to enthusiastic crowds in London.

Hone was instantly struck with the parallels between the case portrayed in the play—the story of a young woman wrongly accused of thefts that were actually the work of a magpie—and the case of Elizabeth Fenning. That same evening, as Hone explains it,

I went home and said to my wife, 'Give me a pair of candles and snuffers upstairs, and send for George Cruikshank.' He came; I said, 'Make me a cut of a Magpie hung by the neck to the gallows'—and I put my head on one side, and looked as like a dying Magpie as I could. [2]

The work was very quickly completed—Hone wrote a rather crude and schematic prose version of the narrative from the play, Cruikshank supplied the cut for the title page, and Sarah Hone stitched the sheets together. At six o'clock the following morning when the coaches were picking up their goods for the country, Hone was ready with his pamphlets. Sales were very good; in fact, Hone claims that he and his family "lived for four months on 'The Maid and the Magpie.'" [3] It was an eye-opening experience for a Grub Street entrepreneur, and just a few months later, supplying the coaches for the country trade became a staple segment of Hone's marketing strategy. Hone quickly developed a reputation as a supplier of quick-selling pamphlets: as James Routledge puts it, "[Hone] could write squibs which brought the newsmen to his shop door long before dawn for large numbers of copies for the country." [4]

La Pie Voleuse: The Narrative of the Magpie was a productive work for Hone in more ways than one. Not only did it answer to the immediate financial need, but it also demonstrated quite vividly that, to publicize the wrongs of his society to the largest possible audience, it was not always necessary (or even desirable) to set forth the material in straightforward, earnest, non-fiction prose. At least since he had found himself engrossed in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Hone had known that a strong narrative with vividly drawn characters could convey a "message" seemingly far removed from the text's explicit content. With La Pie Voleuse he came to recognize the usefulness of such literary devices in his distinctive marriage of social criticism and popular publishing. It was the narrative of La Pie Voleuse, after all, and not the association with the Fenning case, that readers found most gripping. In printing the pamphlet, Hone even italicizes the passages that earned the greatest applause in the stage production, apparently so that silent readers would also know where their emotional involvement should be most profoundly felt. And emotional involvement was the key to Hone's success as a publicist. As he says in the introduction to his sketchy tale: "There is little to attach us to the victim of injustice beyond the fact of her oppression; but innocence suffering the punishment of the guilty seizes with firm grasp upon the feelings, and the combination of the attendant circumstances produce an effect truly astonishing [sic]." [5] The "truly astonishing" effect Hone hoped for in his pamphlet was that the readers' sympathy for Annette (the heroine/victim of La Pie Voleuse) and their disgust with the Justice (the sinister figure of law that would have Annette executed) would carry over to the case of Elizabeth Fenning who, of course, had been put to death by the inexorable workings of the British legal system. More broadly, Hone hoped to foster in his readers a sense of the need for popular vigilance over and, when necessary, intervention in the nation's legal and political systems. Toward this end, Hone's pamphlet concludes with several "Curious Anecdotes and Facts"—little one- or two-paragraph accounts of persons who had been wrongly accused and even executed on the basis of merely circumstantial evidence. The message, of course, is that the Fenning case, for all its poignancy, is not as unusual as it might at first appear to be. In fact, the history of English jurisprudence is peppered with cases in which the innocent have been condemned, and the only redress people have against such atrocities is constant vigilance, publicity, and protest.

In other words, Hone's substantial publishing output in 1815-16 combines the political function of a "watchdog press" with a kind of opportunistic and occasionally profitable catering to a popular taste for the sentimental, the sensational, or the merely funny. This would prove to be a devastating and powerful combination for it served rhetorically to place Hone's popular readership in the position of judges or arbitors of the socio-political systems that had heretofore been represented as their unquestioned "superiors." Nowhere is this stance of popular vigilance more clearly expressed than in a neglected 1816 pamphlet called Hone's Interesting History of the Memorable Blood Conspiracy, Carried on by S. Macdaniel, J. Berry, J. Egan, and J. Salmon, Thief-Takers. The pamphlet tells the story of a criminal ring that, in 1756, would accuse their unsuspecting victims with (fictitious) crimes, testify in court in such a way as to insure a conviction, and then collect the reward money. Hone asserts that as many as 70 innocent persons were actually sent to the gallows as a result of the conspiracy, the conspirators themselves earning an average of £40 per conviction. What was worse, when the conspirators were finally taken, they were quickly released from prison because it was not clear legally whether setting up an innocent person for hanging actually fit the definition of murder. Obviously, both the multiple convictions of the victims and the freeing of the culprits amounted to a massive miscarriage of justice. And, as with La Pie Voleuse, Hone offers the story not simply for its intrinsic interest, but because it implicitly comments on a hot contemporary issue: the immediate political context for this sensational little tale was likely the system of government spies and "public informers" who, it was felt, entrapped innocent persons in political intrigues only to accuse them in court and have them arrested and imprisoned. In Hone's view, the practice was little short of a "blood conspiracy" carried on by the government under the bogus pretense of "keeping the peace." (In 1817, Hone would have ample opportunity to consider first-hand the functioning of the government spy system.) Both "blood conspiracies"—the historical and present—demonstrated for Hone the necessity of vigilance and intervention lest "blind justice" become the pawn of these kind of designing profiteers and roll cruelly and stupidly over the innocent.

The preface to Blood Conspiracy sets forth in very pointed language Hone's attitude toward the 1756 case and, more importantly, his view of the need for popular vigilance over the courts. Some, Hone suggests, claim that all is well in the English system of jurisprudence and that, left alone, the law and its slow accretion of precedent would eventually correct all of its inherent wrongs and inconsistencies. Against this complacent position Hone argues that (and it is necessary to quote at length)

The indulgence claimed for the laws, must be extended to their administrators; and we are gravely called upon, not only to make the usual allowances for human infirmity, but absolutely to forego that vigilance and exposure of abuses, without which laws would soon become the mere discretion of the magistracy. Now, and with all due respect to the powers that be, it may be contended that almost every improvement, both in theory and practice, has originated in this country from EXTRA-OFFICIAL interference; and that public opinion, freely but decently expressed, is as essential to the regulation of the magistrate as the criminal. All the world know what implicit confidence engenders in this respect, and how round and voluble the exclamation of "All's well" is re-echoed from one worshipful quarter to another, until humane and public-spirited individuals penetrate into the painted sepulchre, and draw forth the rottenness and bones. . . . [A]nd, if a poor person should be sent to the gallows on scant evidence (and, worse, with the prosecutor and judge being friends), those apathetic onlookers claim: "It is a sad thing, to be sure; but the individual is hanged now, and if we meddle it will only unsettle the minds of the lower orders."—Lower orders!—it would be difficult to discover an order lower than that which contains minds to whom such abuses are indifferent. [6]

It is a remarkable passage, one that expresses the founding logic of much of Hone's publishing activity. Casting himself in the role of the "humane and public-spirited individual," Hone seeks to dispel the aura of pomp and mystery surrounding and protecting the justice system and to expose those cases—Fenning's, for instance—in which the court's actions were all "rottenness and bones." His publications, he hopes, will enable his readership to engage in the kind of vigilance and intervention ("EXTRA-OFFICIAL interference") that Hone sees as essential to the "improvement" of the legal system and the regulation of the magistrates. What is perhaps most striking here, however, is the emphasis on social class. Those who argue that people should overlook the occasional error of the legal system, Hone suggests, do so out of a patrician fear of or disdain for the "lower orders." But, in the rhetorical play on the word "lower," Hone inverts the social hierarchy, celebrating the active, even meddling concern of the so-called "lower orders" as holding a position morally and ethically superior to the self-serving complacency that, he imagines, is pervasive among the upper classes.

This is partly, of course, the familiar logic of the "watchdog press"—that is, a press that takes upon itself the responsibility for publicizing the wrongs of public institutions and public servants—and Hone is hardly the inventor of the practice. What distinguishes Hone's work, though, is his ability to couch his exposés in forms that were both accessible and attractive to a large-scale lower-class readership. His commentary on the Fenning trial takes the form of an already popular, dramatic narrative; his commentary on the government's practice of domestic surveillance takes the form of a sensational historical thriller, complete with the luridly captivating title, Blood Conspiracy. With his publications and his marketing strategies, Hone was reaching out to a readership that had not previously been encouraged to take an active, critical interest in English legal and political systems. Furthermore, the inter-class element of Hone's publishing completely alters the nature of the "watchdog press," for it converts the works themselves into what might be thought of as discursive levellers. No longer could public political debate be simply a matter of the competitive statement of divergent opinions, all exressed by and for persons already comfortably settled in the ruling classes; with work like Hone's, the audience is greatly expanded and the English common reader—to borrow Altick's term—comes to take part, often for the first time, in the policies and institutions that have heretofore dominated the culture. It is little wonder that late in 1816 such governmental authorities as Lord Sidmouth were beginning to take some notice of Hone's potentially inflammatory political journalism.

In the most thorough and reliable study to date of Hone's early publishing, Ann Bowden contends that, because of their consistently and creatively expressed sympathy for the victims of oppression, the works of 1815-1816 form "a cohesive body of material," but also that Hone himself may not always have been aware of this "driving motivation" behind his work. [7] An examination of the works about the Vyse and Fenning cases tends to substantiate Bowden's argument. Hone, after all, seems more often to be responding to chance occurence than engaged in a deliberate and premeditated publicity campaign on behalf of the mistreated. He "happened" to be in Old Burlington Street at the time Vyse was shot; he "happened," in a moment of financial desperation, to duck into a theater to see La Pie Voleuse. Nonetheless, the works that emerged from such happenstance experience suggest that Hone was deeply committed to the cause of the downtrodden and ill-used, and they also reveal a concomitant disdain for English judicial and political institutions—a disdain that is likely a kind of secular echo of his father's antinomian leanings. Too often, Hone's works claim, the operations of these powerful institutions are shrouded in mystery and carried on in a language that effectively shields them from public scrutiny. Hone's pamphlets and books set out demystify them, to reveal to a rapidly growing mass readership that "the emperor has no clothes."

But Hone was not a merely calculating and humorless radical operative, as some of his early work might suggest. Another strand of his Fleet Street publishing shows glimmers of the comic, parodic, satirical, and even burlesque wit that was to become the cornerstone of his later and most popular work. A case in point here is a piece called Hone's View of the Regent's Bomb, Now Uncovered. Hone produced this half-sheet broadside in response to an event commemorating the anniversary of the Prince Regent's birthday. The Spanish government had recently given the Regent a large, short-barrelled cannon—Hone dubs it the "Regent's Bomb"—that had been fired during a raid on Cadiz in 1812. On 12 August, 1816, the cannon, now mounted on a stumpy sculpted column that was "Supposed to Represent Legitimate Sovereignty," was unveiled for public display in St. James's Park. The opportunity was too rich for a radical comedian to pass up, especially given that, in Hone's parlance, the word "bomb" sounds like "bum," a winking allusion to the Regent's ample posteriors. The broadside itself has Cruikshank's hand-colored engraving of the cannon at the top, and then a prose account of the unveiling ceremony:

It having, for some time past, been customary for the Prince Regent to indulge curiosity, by some spectacle on the Anniversaries of his birth, on Monday, August 12th, 1816, preparations were duly made, and His Royal Highness was graciously pleased to cause his Bomb to be uncovered, in which state it will henceforth remain for public inspection.

This Bomb/Bum double entendre continues throughout the three columns of text, which then close with a short commemorative poem by Hone, who for obvious reasons signs his name "Bombastes" on this occasion. An excerpt:

For roundness, smoothness, breech, and bore,
Then, Britain! be not this forgotten,
That, when we all are dead and rotten,
And every other trace is gone
Of all thy matchless glory won,
This mighty Bomb shall grace thy fame
And boast thy glorious Regent's name!

The corpulent Prince Regent was not a popular figure, especially with the lower and middle classes who despised his extravagant "taste," but rarely had he been so cheekily upbraided. Indeed, Bowden argues that it was because of these comic portrayals of the "Regent's Bomb" that Hone was marked for a government libel prosecution at the first opportunity. [8] At least the government had more sense than to try to prosecute and thereby publicize in court and in the press these baudy lampoons of the Regent.


Twenty years later Hone would claim to his correspondent Frances Rolleston that he was inadvertently caught up in the large crowd that witnessed Fenning's execution. The relevant passage is from Rolleston's Some Account of the Conversion from Atheism to Christianity of the Late William Hone, 2nd ed., rev. (London: Francis and John Rivington; Keswick: James Ivison, 1853), pp. 30-31:

I was going down Newgate Street on some business of my own. I got into an immense crowd that carried me along with them against my will; at length I found myself under the gallows where Eliza Fenning was to be hanged. I had the greatest horror of witnessing an execution, and of this in particular; a young girl of whose guilt I had grave doubts. But I could not help myself; I was closely wedged in; she was brought out. I saw nothing, but I heard all. I heard her protesting her innocence—I heard the prayer—I could hear no more. I stopped my ears, and knew nothing else till I found myself in the dispersing crowd, and far from the dreadful spot.

It is hard to know how seriously to take this claim, though virtually all of Hone's biographers repeat it (see Hackwood, pp. 99-100, for instance). I am suspicious because there is no mention of the details of the execution in the works Hone published in 1815 (where one would most expect to find it), nor to my knowledge does the account appear anywhere else in Hone's writing. Nonetheless, if he really was an accidental witness to the event, the fact might help to explain the sudden urgency with which Hone approaches the case in the last half of 1815. [return]

Rolleston, p. 31, qtd. in Hackwood, p. 101. A useful account of the genesis of La Pie Voleuse can also be found in Robert Patten's George Cruikshank's Life, Times, and Art. Volume 1: 1792-1835 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1992), pp. 125-26. [return]

Hackwood, p. 101. The correct title for Hone's pamphlet, as Ann Bowden has discovered, is La Pie Voleuse: The Narrative of the Magpie; or the Maid of Palaiseau. Being the History of the Maid and the Magpie. Founded upon the circumstance of an unfortunate female having been unjustly sentenced to death, on strong presumptive evidence (London: William Hone, 1815). [return]

James Routledge, Chapters in the History of Popular Progress Chiefly in Relation to the Freedom of the Press and Trial by Jury (London: Macmillan, 1876), p. 276. [return]

La Pie Voleuse, pp. iii-iv. [return]

Hone's Interesting History of the Memorable Blood Conspiracy, p. 3. [return]

Bowden, Part I, p. 75. [return]

Bowden, Part I, p. 61. There were three other publications in much the same vein as The Regent's Bomb: Saluting the R——t's Bomb, The Appearance of an Apparition to James Sympson, and The Yacht for the R——t's B-m-. The last of these works is especially noteworthy because it forgoes the baudiness and the "bum" gags to launch an attack on the sheer extravagance of the Prince Regent who was fitting up a sailing ship in unheard of opulence while many in England were literally starving. It could be that Hone was trying to harness the popularity of his lampoons and put them into the service of a more focused political and economic critique. [return]