The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for a Free Press 
by Ben Wilson.
Faber, 455 pp., £16.99, April 2005, 0 571 22470 9
Show More
Show More

In a speech given early last month, Michael Howard shared his thoughts on education with the Welsh Conservative Party Conference in Cardiff. He was mainly concerned with the problem of discipline. ‘Guess which class children are most likely to misbehave in?’ The answer turned out to be Citizenship. And which subject would best teach children ‘respect for authority and the importance of discipline in school’? History. Not any old history, however, and certainly not the trendy kind that asks them to empathise with particular historical characters. Only by learning ‘what actually happened’, by studying ‘Britain’s past and her traditions’, would children learn to become ‘responsible citizens’.

As the Welsh Tory faithful no doubt knew, Howard was picking up on a speech made a few weeks earlier by Tim Collins, his shadow education secretary, to the National Catholic Heads’ Conference. In a zealous attack on the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the only school subject Collins had discussed at any length was history: ‘The problems surrounding it,’ he explained, ‘have become simply too great to ignore.’ He had come to announce a plan ‘to revitalise history’s place in our schools’. ‘Nothing is more important to the survival of the British nation,’ he declared, ‘than an understanding among its young of our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms.’

We cannot be surprised that some within the next generation do not value our parliamentary democracy if they know nothing of the English Civil War, do not vote if they are not taught about the struggles to widen the franchise, and do not value authority figures if they are not told the inspiring tales of the national heroes of our past.

A nation which loses sight of its past cannot long expect to enjoy its future.

It is for that reason that we must put history back where it belongs – at the centre of our school lives.

Collins’s speech fascinates me for so many different reasons that if I discuss it at any length I will be in danger of forgetting why I referred to it here in the first place. I have read it several times now, and it still boggles my mind: of all the possible reasons why parliamentary democracy has become devalued, and why so many fewer people vote now than they did twenty-five years ago, I would never for a moment have identified the QCA as the ‘heart of the problem’. For present purposes, however, what especially intrigues me is how Collins imagines he can square the belief he shares with Howard, that history, properly taught, will teach children ‘respect for authority’, with the idea that a proper history curriculum should include ‘the struggles to widen the franchise’.

Part of Collins’s plan to put history at the centre of our school lives includes commissioning ‘the distinguished historian and biographer Andrew Roberts … to chair a panel of academics who will draw up a simple but clear list of key facts, personalities and dates which every child should be taught’. I wonder, disingenuously perhaps, if one of those ‘key personalities’ will be William Hone. He certainly should be. Hone is one of the ‘national heroes of our past’ who struggled to secure our freedoms and to widen the franchise. He fought hard to resist the encroachment of the executive on the province of the judiciary, and now that the debates on the Prevention of Terrorism Act have taught us to look to the Conservatives to do the same, he can be embraced as a hero by the very party that persecuted him so mercilessly while he was alive. Where he scores poorly is in respect for authority, for like every other extra-parliamentary campaigner for reform of the franchise, from the Levellers to the Suffragettes, he didn’t have any. It was beaten out of him. Hone, indeed, regarded the politicians who attacked, often oppressively, sometimes illegally, the popular demand for parliamentary reform, not simply as corrupt – and they were certainly that – but as ridiculous.

Hone was born in Bath in 1780, the son of a devout Calvinist Methodist who three years later moved the family to London. After a brief formal education Hone was educated at home by his father, a solicitor’s clerk, who designed him for the same occupation. In his early teens he was a convinced anti-Jacobin; an enthusiastic loyalist song, a very good one, that he wrote aged 13 earned a letter of commendation from the Society for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers. Two years later, however, he joined the London Corresponding Society, and remained active in radical politics for the next thirty-odd years. At the age of 19 he married Sarah Johnson, his landlady’s daughter, and she brought him enough money to establish himself in Lambeth as a bookseller and stationer. He campaigned among other things for a new, more humane system of poor relief, improvement in the management of lunatic asylums, and a reform of Parliament. In 1817 he became a national hero, following his acquittal in three successive trials for libel.

In October 1795, when George III was on his way to open the new session of Parliament, the window of the state coach was broken by a missile which came from an angry crowd demanding lower food prices and an end to the war with France. It was probably a stone, but the king and his government chose to believe it was a bullet, and used the occasion to introduce new legislation which, among other things, increased the penalty for seditious libel and put severe restrictions on the meetings of the popular societies for parliamentary reform. Groundhog day came in January 1817, at the height of a new petitioning campaign for reform. The prince regent was on his way to open the new session of Parliament, when the window of the state coach was shattered by a stone which the government again insisted had been a bullet. It used the occasion to help push through a suspension of habeas corpus. The suspension was aimed mainly at silencing radical publishers, in particular William Cobbett, who – not wishing to be imprisoned yet again – fled to America, the Yorkshireman Thomas Wooler, editor of the Black Dwarf, and Hone himself, now the editor of a new periodical, the Reformists’ Register.

Hone had also just written and published three parodies of the Book of Common Prayer: The Late John Wilkes’s Catechism of a Ministerial Member, The Political Litany and The Sinecurists’ Creed, which satirised the venality of Tory MPs willing to say, vote for and even believe whatever their ministers told them to in exchange for the sinecures and pensions which guaranteed the government’s majority in the Commons. In Parliament the three parodies caused uproar: ministers knew that radical publishers like Hone had established a distribution system that could reach into the furthest corners of the country; the parodies were clearly designed to appeal to the widest possible public, and threatened to undermine the respect in which figures of authority were supposed to be held. Outside Parliament they caused a sensation, for though Hone published only 3000 of each (and withdrew them from sale partly because they had offended his father), the notoriety given them in speeches by the attorney-general and Lord Sidmouth, the home secretary, both of whom anticipated the judgment of the court by telling Parliament that the parodies were libellous, ensured that they were republished in major towns and cities from Southampton to Newcastle. The government determined to prosecute Hone, but not on the obvious charge of seditious libel, which would give him the opportunity of arguing that his parodies were an accurate account of the behaviour of Tory MPs; for though in law the truth of an alleged libel was no mitigation of the offence, rather an aggravation of it, it was more than possible that a jury, even one of the packed ‘special juries’ hired for libel trials, would ignore the judge’s advice and acquit. As the solicitor-general had remarked a year earlier, if journalists could win acquittals simply by showing that what they had written was based in truth, the government could be criticised with impunity. Instead, it was decided to treat the parodies as blasphemous libels, and to argue that their target was the Book of Common Prayer itself. It was a foolish argument and, for the government, a disastrous miscalculation.

The attorney-general decided to proceed against Hone not by an indictment, which would have to be endorsed by a grand jury and would give Hone enough notice to arrange his bail and prepare an elaborate defence, but by an ‘information’, which would bring him directly to trial with as little time for preparation as possible. In the event he was arrested on a Saturday afternoon in May for trial the following Monday. In the Court of King’s Bench, the attorney-general read out the charge contained in the information. Hone asked for a copy of the charges against him, but was refused one unless he was willing to pay to have the information transcribed. He had no money, and so, to the immense irritation of Lord Chief Justice Ellenborough, he refused to plead. He was offered the alternatives of bail, vindictively set at the enormous sum of £1000, or to go back to prison until the next legal term. He was led away to King’s Bench Prison, and while he was there Sidmouth decided to see if he could spice up the charges against him. He arranged for Oliver the Spy, masquerading as a gentleman revolutionary, to visit Hone in his cell and attempt to persuade him into joining a treasonable plot to ‘crush’ the government. Oliver visited Wooler, too, who had also been arrested and was being held in a nearby cell. Both radicals recognised a Home Office conspiracy when they saw one, but they would have refused Oliver’s overtures anyway, for both were committed to parliamentary reform by constitutional means.

The government would not understand that, though he had no respect for corrupt figures of authority, Hone had a great deal more respect for the constitution than did the government itself or the judiciary. Over and over again, the crown and the judges attempted to cut legal corners in order to railroad Hone to a conviction. Each time he refused to be railroaded. In the next legal term, he was brought before Ellenborough again and told to enter a plea, still without seeing the charges against him, in relation to each of the three parodies, which in order to maximise the chances of a conviction the attorney-general had chosen to prosecute in three separate trials. Once again Hone refused to plead, protesting against this ‘unconstitutional’ manner of proceeding, only to be told that, unless he complied, he would be held in contempt and sentenced without trial. He entered three pleas of not guilty, each time protesting against the proceedings as ‘arbitrary and unjust’.

After some laborious detective work, Hone and Wooler managed to prove that the juries supposedly selected at random to try them had been carefully and illegally packed with government nominees. The evidence was incontrovertible, and the crown was forced to admit it. Hone’s bail was reduced, and he was released from custody. The government refused, however, to give up the case or its nefarious methods. It managed to secure a precedent when James Williams, a Portsmouth bookseller, was tried for selling cheap reproductions of satires by Hone, and sentenced to a heavy fine and a year’s imprisonment. Hone discovered that Williams, a strong supporter of the government, had agreed to act as a fall-guy, with a promise of being released as soon as Hone was convicted. In November, Hone was summoned to trial again, and watched in disbelief as the master of the Crown Office, and two Treasury solicitors, went through the motions of choosing three juries at random from the list of special jurors, and once again came up with three pre-selected lists of men guaranteed to convict him. Again Hone protested, and again the court was forced to acknowledge that the juries had been chosen ‘illegally, improperly and partially’. New juries were chosen, this time apparently without chicanery, and the trials began. They were held in the Guildhall, the most august, intimidating and capacious of all the courts in London, a place for show trials.

In his first trial Hone was charged with publishing Wilkes’s Catechism ‘with intent to excite impiety and irreligion in the minds of His Majesty’s liege subjects, to ridicule and scandalise the Christian religion, and to bring into contempt the Catechism’. The prosecution’s case was simple. ‘The Christian religion’, in the words of the great jurist Sir Matthew Hale, was ‘parcel of the Common Law of England’; the Book of Common Prayer, in which the catechism was contained, was established by statute; it was criminal therefore to vilify Christianity in general, or the prayer book in particular. Indeed, the attorney-general claimed, it was ‘a proposition of the law’ that to parody the prayer book was to be guilty of a libel. This was the first of several occasions in the trials when the prosecution or the judges would misrepresent the law of libel to the juries in an attempt to persuade them that once Hone’s publication of the parodies was proved or admitted, they had no alternative but to convict. This kind of argument had been common in the 18th century, when the notorious ‘Mansfield doctrine’ had reserved the decision on whether or not a publication was libellous to the judges, leaving the jury with little more to do than determine whether or not the accused had published the alleged libel, an issue which was almost never in question. The argument had been removed, however, from the armoury of crown lawyers by Fox’s Libel Act of 1792, which had reserved the question of whether a publication was libellous or not to the decision of the jury. Judges and crown lawyers had never been happy with the notion that a jury was competent to decide the matter, and a quarter of a century later they were still fighting to undermine Fox’s reform.

The trial began to go badly wrong for the government as soon as the attorney-general started quoting Hone’s parody. It was a key part of the prosecution’s case that cheap publications like Hone’s were especially dangerous, for they were designed to be read by ‘the lower classes of society’, people incapable of exercising judgment, who would ingest Hone’s poison with his humour, and find their faith undermined before they realised it was under attack. As the attorney-general began to read, the huge audience, overcome by the absurdity of hearing his voice intoning Hone’s hilarious catechism and echoing round the cavernous Guildhall, collapsed into laughter, like unruly children in a citizenship class. It was only too evident, however, that the laughter was directed not at the Christian religion, but at the delightful incongruity with which Hone had dressed up the squalid particulars of Old Corruption in the language of pious reverence, and at the wonderful irony of hearing a representative of that corruption solemnly repeating the responses that Hone had written for such as him. From that moment on, all three trials were repeatedly interrupted by suppressed titters, irrepressible giggles and outright guffaws which the judges were incapable of silencing.

Though he was a successful publisher, Hone almost never made much money, and when he did, it ran through his fingers like the finest sand. Unable to afford counsel, he was forced to speak in his own defence, though he had never spoken in public before. From childhood he had been a bibliophile, and by now, at the age of 37, he had assembled a massive library, was immensely well read, and had a memory which retained everything. He arrived in court in a tattered coat and with a huge armful of books which he had used to prepare his defence. After protesting at length at the difficulty of defending himself on a charge of which the home secretary himself and numerous other men of authority had already declared him guilty, he argued that he had not had the slightest intention of vilifying the prayer book. Turning to his books, he produced one parody after another of religious texts, by Luther, Latimer, Milton and a host of other writers, many of them churchmen. The Tory government itself, he demonstrated, had shown that it regarded parodies of religious texts as a legitimate and effective form of propaganda. An anti-Napoleonic parody of the Te Deum had been circulated by the government during the war with France. The sedition-finder general in the 1790s, John Reeves, credited with saving the country from revolution in 1793, and founder of the society which had commended the youthful Hone for his anti-Jacobin song, had published a parody of the catechism, and had subsequently been appointed the official publisher of the Book of Common Prayer itself. The government had paid James Gillray to produce anti-Jacobin parodies of religious paintings. George Canning, once the editor of the Anti-Jacobin, now a senior cabinet minister, had included a parody of various passages from the Bible and prayer book in his loyalist poem ‘The New Morality’. None of these had been prosecuted for blasphemy; none had ever been suspected as blasphemers.

Hone had spoken for six hours. The judge, Lord Justice Abbott, had attempted several times to stem his torrent of examples by reminding him that one offence could not excuse another. Hone agreed, but that was not his point: there was a long history, going back at least three hundred years, of parodies of the prayer book. Their true point was universally understood, and it was not ‘to ridicule and scandalise the Christian religion’. He was charged with blasphemous libel simply so that the government could avoid the risk of trying him for seditious libel. In his summing-up, Abbott told the jury to disregard Hone’s defence; if Luther or Milton were alive today, he would prosecute them himself: to acquit Hone would be a victory for atheism. The jury retired, and returned in less than fifteen minutes with a verdict of not guilty. ‘The loudest acclamations of applause were instantly heard from all parts of the court.’

Incredulous that Abbott had failed to secure a conviction, Ellenborough decided to hear the second trial, to be held the following day, himself. He was a bullying, thundering judge with a reputation for intimidating defendants and their counsel, and for being an eager accomplice of the government in its more corrupt attempts to secure the conviction of radicals. In 1794 he had prosecuted the Manchester reformer Thomas Walker for a treasonable conspiracy on the basis of evidence he knew to be perjured. In order to prevent the court hearing evidence of the perjury, he had attempted, apparently on the advice of John Scott, the then attorney-general, to persuade the judge to call a halt to the trial by instructing the jury to return a special verdict, stating that the facts of the case were exactly as charged, and reserving to the judges the decision as to what crime if any they amounted to. He saw himself as the ideal judge to silence both Hone and the audience at the trial, and if any judge could do it, it was certainly him.

Almost as soon as Hone began to speak, Ellenborough ruled his defence inadmissible, on the same grounds as Abbott but more ferociously. He repeatedly harassed Hone, referring to his Political Litany as a libel, and insisting, on the terms of the old Mansfield doctrine, that Hone had effectively admitted it was such when he admitted publishing it. He was powerless, however, to silence the laughter and applause of the audience, and eventually, with their support, Hone managed to repeat, over seven gruelling hours, his defence of the day before. Ellenborough was beaten; his summing-up was barely audible. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty, and once again the court erupted in applause. Incredibly, however, the crown would not give up. Perhaps the attorney-general reckoned that Hone would be too exhausted to mount a proper defence on the third day. Hone was indeed ill, but it was Ellenborough whose stamina failed. As Hone made his third defence, this time lasting a full eight hours, the lord chief justice sat quietly on the bench as if waiting for a nightmare to end. The jury took twenty minutes to acquit Hone for a third and final time. Escaping from the uproar in the Guildhall, Ellenborough went home and wrote a letter of resignation to the home secretary.

Hone published the records of his three trials and had to republish them repeatedly as they became bestsellers; the proceeds, together with a subscription fund that had been established by his supporters, seemed to have set him up for life, but for one reason or another the money disappeared. He began writing a long history of parody that would set out the defence he had offered in the form of a theory of the genre, but abandoned it after a few years when he was forced to sell his library to help pay his debts. His victories in court did not immediately damage Old Corruption, which was far too unblushing, and too profitable to its beneficiaries, to crumble easily; but there can be no doubt that Hone’s exposure of corruption and his resistance to its oppressions contributed very considerably to the development of an increasingly reformist public opinion in the 1820s. He had won admirers even among Tories themselves: of the three great apostate poets, Southey and Wordsworth were mortified by the acquittals, but Coleridge believed firmly in ‘the necessity of saving Hone in order to save English law’. Hone’s acquittal put him beyond the reach of the law of libel, and enabled him, in collaboration with George Cruikshank, to produce with impunity the marvellously innovative and scandalous series of satires on the Tory government and the prince regent for which (if for anything) he is now remembered.

The story of the three trials is the superbly dramatic centrepiece of Ben Wilson’s fine new biography of Hone, the first for nearly a century. It tells many more stories besides: that, for example, of the brilliant investigative journalism by which Hone sought to vindicate the serving-maid Eliza Fenning, hanged for attempting to murder the family that employed her. Hone was able to show that as the day of the execution approached, and evidence that supported Fenning’s innocence began to appear, the trial judge visited the house of her alleged victims and persuaded them not to withdraw their perjured evidence against her. It offers excellent accounts of the great Hone-Cruikshank collaborations, of Hone’s friendship with Hazlitt, and of his memorialising of the country round London before it was buried under Victorian development. Frederick Hackwood’s biography of 1912 is probably better on – at least more sympathetic to – Hone’s late conversion to Methodism and his renunciation of his radical past, and reprints Hone’s own autobiographical account of his first twenty years. Kevin Gilmartin’s brilliant Print Politics (1996) offers a fuller and more careful understanding of the wider context in which Hone was working, and Joss Marsh’s excellent Word Crimes (1998), which Wilson seems not to know, is more thoughtful on the issue of Hone and blasphemy, and offers a fascinating account of his antiquarian researches, to the horror of churchmen, into the New Testament Apocrypha and their relation to the mystery plays. For those who want to read Hone’s writings, Paul Keen has edited the Reformists’ Register for Pickering and Chatto (2003), and David Kent and D.R. Ewen have published, with Wayne State University Press, a generous selection of his satires and letters (2002).

But no one has told the story of the trials more grippingly than Wilson, or conveyed better the extraordinary atmosphere in the Guildhall, or given a clearer sense of how intriguingly different each trial was from the next. He is young enough too not to have become too familiar with Old Corruption, and he recounts its abuses with a refreshingly incredulous outrage. If Michael Howard wins the forthcoming election, and Tim Collins becomes secretary for education, the one consolation will be the possibility that, when Andrew Roberts submits his report, the career of William Hone will become part of the school history curriculum, as a representative of the many men and women who struggled to secure our freedoms and extend the franchise, and were persecuted by a corrupt cabal of politicians and judges who demanded respect simply because they occupied high positions of authority.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences