Once given the accolade as ’the ugliest man in England’ John Wilkes’ statue on Fetter Lane faithfully reproduces his likeness and is thought to be the only cross-eyed statue to be found in London. Some of his other attributes: protruding jaw, dropsically ugliness, a pug-jawed appearance [see contemporary picture below], and spectacular drunkenness have not been reproduced standing upon his plinth striking a frankly rather camp pose.
[A] 18th century parliamentarian advocate of free speech and political liberty, his looks did not curb his rakish ways, a member of the notorious Hell Fire Club he would boast “I might be the ugliest man in England but leave me alone with your wife or daughter, and you’d better be back within 20 minutes or I’ll have talked my face away, and we’ll be upstairs”.
The fairly recent installation in 1988 could have been a precursor of the recent attempts to curb the British press with journalists’ homes being searched in the early hours and they having to wait months before learning whether charges were being brought against them.
When asked by Madame de Pompadour how far the freedom of the press extended in England, Wilkes the radical politician and journalist replied “that is what I’m trying to find out”. Famed for his acerbic wit, John Wilkes could almost be the model newspaper hack transforming him into a radical icon.
Portrait of John Wilkes by Richard Houston, 1769
As an opposition Whig under George III, Wilkes loyally attacked the Government at every opportunity, but the MP for Buckinghamshire made himself better known when he founded the North Briton newspaper in 1762, which he then used to attack relentlessly the king’s chief minister, the Earl of Bute.
When in 1763 the North Briton suggested that Bute had Jacobite sympathies – and that he owed his power to an alleged affair with George III’s mother – the Government decided enough was enough.
The offending newspaper was deemed to contain seditious libel Wilkes was arrested and placed on trial where, to the king’s consternation; he was acquitted and awarded damages for false arrest. Wilkes had argued that he had only been exercising traditional English liberties, “a question”, he claimed in court “of such importance as to determine, at once, whether English Liberty be reality or shadow”.
Having won the battle, Wilkes found himself at war with the king and his ministers; in 1764 he was expelled from the House of Commons, again for seditious libel. Rather than fall foul of the law again he fled to France. When he returned four years later he successfully stood for the parliamentary seat of Middlesex.
The state responded by exhuming the old libel charge of 1764, for which Wilkes was fined and imprisoned. Released in 1769 to take his seat in the Commons, Wilkes, on arrival, was expelled from Parliament. He was immediately re-elected MP for Middlesex – and re-expelled. A third election was declared in favour of his opponent, a Government stooge who had actually polled fewer votes than Wilkes.
A small riot ensued with Wilkes’ supporters declaring ‘For Wilkes and Liberty’. Alas Wilkes was not re-admitted to Parliament until 1774 but his treatment promoted the formation of the Society of Supporters of the Bill of Rights in London.
While Wilkes was no saint, his defence of the freedom of the press and his attacks on arbitrary state power questioned the very relationship between Britain’s Governors and the governed – issues as important today as when Wilkes first raised them.
As a footnote: Abraham Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth is said to have been named after John Wilkes, and may have been a distant relative.
Picture: John Wilkes Statue by Richard Gillin (CC BY-SA 2.0)