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Publishing the Parodies: The Background to Hone's 1817 Censorship Trials

The decades of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as Hone's biography amply attests, were a long period of simmering tensions between radical groups bent on social and political reform and the governmental forces that sought to stifle the radicals. Occasionally, the tensions would precipitate direct confrontations in the form of legal trials, pamphlet wars, and even street riots. The civil unrest of the 1790s makes up one instance; so, too, do the sometimes violent demonstrations spawned by the Corn Bill in 1815. Another such uprising—the Spa Fields Riot—occurred on 2 December 1816. Spa Fields was supposedly going to be a large open meeting, a forum where people could gather to discuss the fate of a petition recently rejected by the Prince Regent and hear the addresses of the brilliant Henry Hunt and other radical orators. It turned out to be an explosive affair as, in David Worrall's terms, the "linguistic event turned into a revolutionary event." [1] Incited by the speeches of the two James Watsons (a father and son combination) and by the deliberate planning of an ultra-radical faction including the Watsons, Arthur Thistlewood, Thomas Preston, and others, the crowd grew restless and violent. Armed crudely with home-made cudgels and pikes, they took to the streets, broke into a gunshop, and followed a drunk and enthusiastic young Watson in a harebrained attempt to take the Tower. They succeeded only in holding an area of the Minories for a few hours before caving in to government forces. Spa Fields was a catastrophe for the radicals, for it provoked a split in the London radical community between the "physical force" revolutionaries and the more thoughtful and tactically patient reformers. The latter group included Thomas Evans and his son, Alexander Galloway, and other cool heads among the radical Spenceans, as well as Hone who, in December 1816 and January 1817, published several accounts of the Spa Fields Meetings, complete with transcripts of some of the speeches. [2]

Though Hone was not personally involved, the Spa Fields riots would nonetheless have a profound—if indirect—impact on him. In October 1816 Hone had moved both his family and his business to a new location at 67 Old Bailey, just a few doors up from Ludgate Hill; he also maintained the tiny shop at 55 Fleet Street. Unfortunately, this apparent expansion of Hone's business was not the sign of prosperity. During his December trials, Hone explained that "Within the last twelve months [his] children had not beds" and that when he moved into the Old Bailey house he could only afford to furnish a single room. [3] The sheer destitution prompted Hone to engage in ever more energetic and prolific writing and publishing projects; these included the liturgical parodies for which he was prosecuted, and also a weekly newspaper of political commentary called The Reformists' Register which commenced publication in late January of 1817. Francis Place claimed that he tried to help Hone by writing the first several issues of his two-penny weekly, [4] but whoever was most responsible, Hone's name was on the banner and it was a dangerous time to thrust oneself into the arena of public political speech. Owing to fears piqued by the Spa Fields uprising and then exacerbated by a stone thrown at the Prince Regent himself, [5] Parliament was contemplating a bill to suspend Habeas Corpus, essentially so that Sidmouth could more easily arrest and imprison persons who he felt were so sympathetic to the radical political cause that they constituted a threat to public order. The bill passed at its second reading on 4 March. Then, on 27 March, Sidmouth issued his infamous "circular letter" to all local magistrates, exhorting them to vigilance over the press and granting them unprecedented powers to take quick and decisive action against the writers, printers, publishers, and vendors of any suspect publications. Clearly this was not a propitious moment for Hone who made his living through ephemeral, topical, and inevitably political publishing.

Hone produced The Late John Wilkes's Catechism, The Political Litany, and The Sinecurist's Creed in late January or perhaps very early February of 1817 in the interim between the Spa Fields Riots and the suspension of Habeas Corpus. [6] These brief, pamphlet-length squibs proved extremely popular, and crowds began to gather around Hone's shops to snatch up copies both for their own reading and for resale in the country. Among the crowds on 11 February were two men from Chelmsford who were on business in the city for the day. John Bewley, a machine-maker, and Henry Webb, a carrier, purchased several copies of Hone's parodies and brought them home where they apparently proved quite popular. The local magistrates of Essex soon heard of the parodies and were alarmed by what they perceived as radical propaganda. Bewley and Webb were soon called in for questioning; Bewley professed his innocent intentions and offered a descriptive deposition, explaining to the magistrates that

they [Bewley and Webb] went to the Old Bailey to a public House there to get some refreshment, that after they had so done and were proceeding on their business they were attracted to a Booksellers Shop by the appearance of a great number of persons at No. 67 in the Old Bailey, that finding the people so assmbled were purchasing cheap printed Pamphlets or Publications he and Webb had the curiosity to go in and purchase some, that they were lying in large heaps or parcels in the window, that this Deponent selected out four of them from different parcels and asked the person in the shop the price of them he said they were eight pence but added that if this Deponent would take eight he should have them for a shilling which Deponent agreed to and asked Webb for a shilling to pay for them[.]

Webb agreed with Bewley's description, adding only that "the Shop at No. 67 Old Bailey was on that Morning like a Fair from the number of persons resorting there." [7] One would think, of course, that such popularity would be exactly what Hone needed at that moment, but, apparently owing to the religious disquiet of his father, he withdrew the parodies from sale just a few days later. [8] Nonetheless, the government was clearly alarmed by the "seditious and blasphemous tendency" of Hone's wit. On 17 February, Griffin Swanson, a government agent, purchased copies of each pamphlet from Hone's Fleet Street shop, and on 3 March, Sidmouth wrote to Attorney General William Garrow to ask if the publications themselves and the Bewley and Webb depositions taken by the Chelmsford magistrates might "afford fit matter for Prosecution." [9] The reply was quick and clear: "The Attorney General intends to prosecute."

It was some time before Hone actually learned of the Attorney General's intentions. Through March and April, he maintained as best he could the weekly numbers of The Reformists' Register and he wrote and published a few minor pieces. He was also one target of what appears to have been an unsuccessful Home Office scheme to entrap radical printers and publishers in libellous activity. [10] Finally, on Saturday, 3 May, while Hone was walking home from a local bookselling shop and reading his new books in the street, he was arrested and held in the custody of the tipstaff, where he remained until Monday morning when he was carried into court to plead before Justice Ellenborough. What followed was the first of several fascinating encounters between the radical and impoverished Hone and the awesome pomp and power of the Lord Chief Justice.

At this point, Hone was called upon only to hear the charges levelled against him—three ex officio informations for the three parodies—and then to register his plea. But, much to the consternation of Ellenborough and Garrow, Hone refused to plead until he had written copies of the warrants issued against him. Ellenborough explained repeatedly that the Court had never supplied such documents to defendants; Hone protested repeatedly of his ill usage by the Court. The encounter would likely have ended in an uneventful stalemate were it not for Hone's poor stamina. During the courtroom arguments Hone began to feel weak and asked Ellenborough if he might be allowed to sit down. The Lord Chief Justice responded with loud and extended shout of "NO!" which surprised everyone in the room and, ironically, had the effect of bracing Hone to redouble his protests against a calculating, unjust, and now—in Hone's mind, at any rate—demonstrably inhumane legal system. The incident also caught the attention of Hone's fellows in the press who shortly thereafter issued prints of a cruel and overbearing Ellenborough shouting an angry "NOOOOOO!" at a victimized and defenceless Hone. [11] The media had joined the battle, but Hone was remanded to the King's Bench Prison where he began to plot his legal and rhetorical strategy.

Hone's first move was apparently to solicit legal advice: a letter dated 7 May from Sir Richard Phillips to Francis Place (both, of course, long-time friends of Hone) offers Phillips' opinion that "It behooves a man . . . who is thus ulawfully [acted] against not to act as a defendant—not to plead or parley—but to consider his assailants as the . . . culprits." [12] Place passed the letter on to Hone who seems to have taken Phillips' suggestions to heart, for on 16 May he was again in Ellenborough's courtroom demanding that he be immediately released from prison on the grounds that his arrest and subsequent treatment had been "illegal." Henry Crabb Robinson, who happened to be in court that day, witnessed what he called a "comic scene": here was a virtually penniless, largely self-educated bookseller eloquently and vigorously assailing both Ellenborough and the new Attorney General Samuel Shepherd with charges of illegality—in effect, Hone was accusing the supreme embodiments of English law of acting unlawfully. [13] The performance amused Robinson more than it did the presiding authorities, and Hone was soon sent back to prison where, despite a severe illness, he continued to write and edit The Reformists' Register and was once again the target of a government entrapment scheme, this time by the infamous "Oliver the Spy." [14] Finally, on 2 July, Ellenborough ordered that Hone be released from the King's Bench, and the defendant was able to return to his family and patch up as best he could the sagging fortunes of his publishing and bookselling business.

Upon his release from prison Hone seems to have assumed that the affair was at an end. After all, Hone reasoned, he had already served two months in prison without any trial being announced, and he had not sold a single copy of the offending parodies since late February. It came as something of a shock, then, when on 22 November Hone received a letter from Shepherd informing him that he would go to trial in late December with the three informations. Hone wrote back immediately thinking that there must be some clerical mistake—perhaps Shepherd thought that Hone was connected with the radical publisher Richard Carlile who had republished the parodies in August and since that time had been detained in prison. In any event, Hone offered a concession to try to stop the prosecution:

As it would be extreme hardihood in me, with a very large Family and wholly inadequate means, to court a contest with the purse and power of the Crown, so I should feel no less pleasure in being indebted to your liberality for putting an end to the Prosecutions—in that case I pledge myself not to reissue the Publications, and indeed the entire quantity in my possession may be disposed of as you direct. [15]

It was a reasonable offer, but it misjudged the government's intentions. Shepherd was not so much interested in suppressing the parodies per se, and he had not confused Hone's actions with Carlile's; instead, Hone was to be a kind of scapegoat. Shepherd was pursuing a high-profile libel trial that, assuming he got a conviction, would deter other printers and publishers from circulating similar materials and would thus tend to stifle the radical press in general. Toward this end, Shepherd was even now prosecuting James Williams, a printer from Portsea who had reissued Hone's parodies in mid-February. Williams was a test case designed to see if the Attorney General could win an easy conviction. He could. Despite Robinson's expert defence, poor Williams spent a year in Winchester jail, remaining in the lock-up even after the chief perpetrator Hone was acquitted of virtually identical charges. Shepherd saw his opportunity. At least since the publication in 1816 of the satirical prints on the "Regent's Bomb," Hone had been an irritant to the seats of governmental power. His stature had only increased with the parodies and especially with his weekly commentaries in the Reformists' Register, where readers had been invited to follow along in the legally dubious process of Hone's imprisonment. A successful libel prosecution, Shepherd thought, might just put this radical nuisance out of commission for a while, and it might also silence some of the printers who kept Hone's things in circulation even after Hone himself had ceased publication. Thus, Hone's offer to suppress his own parodies was politely declined, and the parties to the case went about the business of selecting three juries. Hone's situation looked hopeless.

There was, however, one bright spot. At the same time that Hone had been going through his ordeal with the legal system, Thomas Wooler, editor and chief writer of the influential radical weekly The Black Dwarf, was the subject of a similar libel prosecution. Working with Charles Pearson, a brilliant young lawyer from the Common Council, Wooler had called into question the method by which juries were selected. The procedures were rather complex, but, in summary, an agent of the Crown Office would look over a large book that purportedly listed the names of all eligible jurors and then tick off those he wished to nominate for duty. Wooler and Pearson objected both to the composition of the jury books (they were incomplete and out of date) and to the method of selecting names (which was open to manipulation on the part of the Crown Office).[16] The net effect of this system, as Pearson's research demonstrated, was that some persons in the jury pool were essentially government lackeys who had served repeatedly—some as many as 40 or 50 times per year—while others were never called. [17] The evidence pointed clearly to a practice of jury-packing, and, on 21 November 1817, the day before Hone was notified of his forthcoming trials, Ellenborough himself acknowledged that the traditional practice of jury selection needed to be investigated and probably reformed. [18] More immediately to the point, Hone had ample grounds on which to challenge the juries selected for his own trials, which he did on 26 November. Furthermore, by late December when Hone's cases came to trial, the jury-packing issue had been well publicized, and the jury members themselves were thus less inclined simply to confirm the government's arguments—as had been the norm before the ground-breaking legal work of Pearson and Wooler. Obviously, this fact worked very much in Hone's favor during his trials, and, not surprisingly, in the celebrations after his acquittals the principle of trial by a fairly-impaneled jury was as often applauded as Hone's demonstrations of wit and courage in the face of legal power.

Such was the legal and historical background to Hone's trials. For Hone, the trials were a life-or-death struggle; at least he portrayed them as such to the jury, claiming that his ill health made it unlikely that he would survive a lengthy prison term. Obviously, the government had a heightened interest in the outcome as well—the very relationship between governmental power and a free press was at stake. The implications stretched far beyond the principal courtroom antagonists to encompass one of the key social and political questions of the day: Who, if anyone, can or should control the circulation of writing through English society?

 


Notes:

1.
Radical Culture, p. 104. Worrall's book offers a detailed account of the Spa Fields affair; see pp. 97-113.[return]

2.
See, for instance, Hone's Full Report of the Third Spa-Fields Meeting. A note from Hone to Thomas Evans, dated 13 December 1816, offers a clue to Hone's attitude toward the riots. Hone explains that he is preparing an account of Spa Fields but is apprehensive about publicizing Spence's land-reform plan, for fear that his publication might disrupt some design of Evans. See Add. MS 50746, ff. 1-2. [return]

3.
Third Trial, pp. 20-21. [return]

4.
See Graham Wallas, The Life of Francis Place (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1909), pp. 124-26. Wallas quotes Place about the newspaper: "I had put Hone's Register fairly on its legs; the profit was considerable, and I was in hopes he would have been able to continue it, and by its means have found a maintenance for his family; to this he was unequal--the sale soon declined. The work lingered on till October 25, and then expired." (Place, qtd. in Wallas 125-26, n.) [return]

5.
The Prince Regent's carriage was stoned and a window shattered while he was on his way to deliver his annual address to Parliament on 28 January, 1817. The government immediately offered a large reward for information leading to the culprit (see the Privy Council Register for 29 Jan., 1817, PRO PC 2/199). As if to illustrate just how close Hone was to this government/radical clash, his former partner John Bone was arrested as a suspect but later released (See J. Ann Hone, For the Cause of Truth, p. 266, n. 2); also, the two Thomas Evanses were arrested on sedition charges in mid-February. [return]

6.
William Hone, The Late John Wilkes's Catechism of a Ministerial Member, The Political Litany, and The Sinecurist's Creed (London: William Hone, 1817). A fourth parody called The Bullet Te Deum; or, The Canticle of the Stone was produced at about the same time; it was motivated by the stone thrown at the Prince Regent, but it was not singled out for prosecution. [return]

7.
Both depositions are in the Treasury Solicitor's Papers, PRO TS 11/44, book 164, ff. 27-28. [return]

8.
Rolleston, pp. 77-78. [return]

9.
Treasury Solicitor's Papers, PRO TS 11/44, book 164, f. 26. [return]

10.
Hone reports that in both March and April of 1817 a man had asked him to print a placard announcing a public meeting that would likely have led to open rebellion. It was clear to Hone that the man was a government agent, and he refused the job, as did several other printers upon whom the attempt at incrimination was made. In July, Hone prepared a long description of the entrapment scheme for Major Cartwright who intended to bring it to the attention of the reformist MP Maddocks. The narrative of the event was reported in the Reformists' Register of 28 June, 1817 (and qtd. in Hackwood, pp. 138-44). The account Hone prepared for Cartwright is in Add. MS ; see also the letter from Major Cartwright to Hone, 3 July, 1817, Add. MS 40120, ff. 61-62. [return]

11.
See, for example, George Cruikshank's Law versus Humanity, reproduced in Wood, p. 143. Hone describes the occasion in a letter to John Hunt, dated 8 May 1817: "I was ill when I came here [to King's Bench Prison], seriously ill. My application to the Court for leave to sit until the second Information was read proceeded from real indisposition. I was ready to fall & I believe had the Court dolivered it in civil terms I should have fallen-But Lord Ellenborough's NO! - (you might have heard it to the entrance door of Westminster Hall from the Palace Yard) - was as good as Thieves' vinegar; it startled me and recovered me till I was taken out of Court." Add. MS, 38108 f. 189. The record of Hone's imprisonment (PRO PRIS 4/29, pp. 250-51 ), which includes the charges levelled against him, is reprinted here in the BioText.[return]

12.
Sir Richard Phillips to Francis Place, 7 May 1817, Add. MS 40120, ff. 56-57. [return]

13.
Robinson, Henry Crabb. Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson. Ed. Thomas Sadler. 2 vols. (Boston: Fields and Osgood, 1869), pp. i.358-9. This was Shepherd's first day of service as Attorney General. [return]

14.
Reformists' Register, 28 June, 1817. [return]

15.
Hone to Samuel Shepherd, 23 November 1817, PRO TS 11/44, book 164, ff. 95b-97a. [return]

16.
The background materials for this matter, including depositions from Pearson, Wooler, and various government agents, can be found in the Treasury Solicitor's Papers, PRO TS 11/43, 4.1-4.2.[return]

17.
See report on the Court of Common Council in The Times, 12 December 1817. The Examiner also picked up the story. [return]

18.
PRO TS 11/43, 4.2, f. 181b.[return]