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The Gordon Riots (enter: William Hone)

4-11 June, 1780. London erupts in inter-class violence. Enraged by poverty, gin, and the bungling imperialism of the American war, rioters take to the streets. Great numbers, including the visionary artist William Blake, collect around Newgate; in a portent of the Bastille, the legendary prison becomes a focus--both literal and symbolic--of popular wrath. Walls are toppled, gates smashed; more than one hundred prisoners are freed into the eerie light from the flames engulfing the adjacent house of the Keeper, Richard Akerman. George Crabbe looks on as a dozen rioters climb to halloo from the top of the prison now likewise set ablaze; seen against flame and smoke, their screaming black silhouettes remind the horrified poet of Milton's devils. Other aristocratic homes are attacked, plundered, burned. The house of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield is ransacked, the windows smashed, the formidable railings pulled down; many of the Noble Lord's notebooks are given to the flames. The crowd--still raging, still furious--swirls through the narrow streets of the old city before surging westward, gathering now around the Houses of Parliament. Inside, a surreal tableau: hovering near Lord George Gordon, the nominal instigator of this unrest, are several terrified MPs who, fingers trembling on the hilts of their swords, threaten to run Sir George through should the chaos outside somehow tumble into the venerable halls. Finally, after several days of more or less strategic violence, the crowd loses its focus; now motivated as much by wanton drunkeness and blind anger as by social or political solidarity, it surrounds the Bank where no less a personage than Alderman John Wilkes tries to restore some sense of order, reason, and calm. His efforts fail. Insurrection ruptures the elegant punctilios of eighteenth-century social order; the celebrated British legal system--from the lowliest prisoner to the Lord Chief Justice himself--is momentarily levelled into chaos; aristocratic and municipal authority teeters on the brink of utter collapse.[1]

3 June, 1780. A few dozens of miles to the west in Bath, a young woman is delivered of her first child--a boy named after his father, William Hone. The Gordon Riots, as an amused Hone would remember in his later years, offered an entirely fitting backdrop for his introduction into the world. After all, Hone worked for much of his life to level the economic divisions and aristocratic hierarchies that constituted the very fabric of eighteenth-century life in Britain. He achieved celebrity (or notoriety, depending on one's perspective) as an "infidel" parodist, and, though his methods were not so overtly disruptive as the various popular insurrections that troubled England during his lifetime, he nonetheless became a kind of humble giant-killer who permanently altered the nature of the printing and publishing industries and paved the way for the emergence of a free and politically critical press. To put the case simply, Hone, more than any of the other radical journalist/publishers of the early nineteeth century, reconfigured the relations between writers, publishers, and the reading public. At the beginning of his career, "print culture," and the social and political clout that goes with it, was chiefly the province of the wealthy or aristocratic few; at the end, a mass reading public that is the precursor to a more modern demographics of mass readership had emerged. Hone's activities as a parodist, a publisher, a political commentator, and even as an antiquarian did much to encourage this shift.

 


Notes:

1. Useful discussions of the Gordon Riots can be found in George Rudé's Hanoverian London, 1714-1808 (Berkeley: U of California P, 1971) and Peter Linebaugh's The London Hanged. See also Douglas Hay's "Property, Authority and Criminal Law" in Albion's Fatal Tree (New York: Pantheon, 1975), pp. 17-63, and David Erdman's Blake: Prophet Against Empire (3rd. ed. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977), pp. 7-11. George Crabbe's eyewitness account is recorded in his London journal; see The Life and Poetical Works of the Rev. George Crabbe. Ed. George Crabbe [the poet's son] (London: John Murray, 1847), pp. 23-24. [return]