The Diaries of John Wilkes, 1770-1797

Edited by Robin Eagles

John Wilkes (1725-1797) was one of the most intriguing characters in the eighteenth-century political world – if one with a mixed and colourful reputation. From relatively obscure beginnings, he rose to be a significant force for change in journalism and politics, first as a Whig MP for Aylesbury, later for Middlesex. Having gained attention as proprietor of the opposition paper, the North Briton, he underwent a remarkable fall from grace, eventually being imprisoned for libel. After his release he was the focus of various reform movements. He cultivated the City of London to further his ends and in 1774 was elected Lord Mayor. Towards the end of his life he co-operated with the Pitt administration and by the close was considered almost “respectable”.
His diaries chart his daily activities from his release from prison in 1770 to a few weeks before his death. They reveal a busy public figure and his habitual haunts in London, Bath and the Isle of Wight; but also, although he was on close terms with some of the most celebrated figures of his day, such as Boswell, Garrick, Reynolds and the cross-dressing Chevalier d’Eon, they show a private man, never happier than in the company of his beloved daughter, Polly.
The diaries themselves are presented here with introduction and full explanatory notes.

Dr Robin Eagles is a Senior Research Fellow at the History of Parliament.

Available to purchase from Boydell and Brewer

Clerkenwell Post Article

A radical, rake and reformer, John Wilkes remains a hero for lovers of liberty 290 years after his birth in Clerkenwell. The MP and Lord Mayor of London was adulterous and famously ugly – yet hugely popular with the people. Dr Robin Eagles, editor of Wilkes’s diaries, explores the personal history and political legacy of this 18th century political maverick.

The diaries of John Wilkes chart day by day the people with whom he dined between 1770 and 1797. They show how he cultivated the people of Middlesex and the City of London in his campaign to be elected to Parliament and tosecure the mayoralty; they also off er evidence for how ruthlessly he ditched some of these and how his later career was more focused on the elite and the arts. Wilkes was a friend of actor David Garrick, critic Edmond Malone and the cross-dressing French diplomat Chevalier d’Eon.

Wilkes said of himself that it took him half an hour to talk away his face. His looks were undoubtedly a problem – satirists like William Hogarth were able to make much of his lantern jaw and pronounced squint. Although he may have been ugly, Wilkes’s manners were immaculate (George III said as much, as did Dr Johnson).

Wilkes’s well-known libertinism was more acceptable then – provided it was conducted with discretion. If his early association with the Hellfire Club was not much liked it did provide an entry into the political elite, and his later
association with courtesans and mistresses did him no real harm at all. It is interesting that when he served as Lord Mayor of London he installed his daughter, Polly, as his ‘Lady Mayoress’ instead of either his mistress or estranged wife. Wilkes was devoted to his daughter, who was remarkably tolerant of her father, and closely involved with at least two children by mistresses.

By the time Wilkes started the diaries he had left the Clerkenwell of his early family life behind. It does feature, but only in terms of his official duties. There are several references to him attending the Sessions House on Clerkenwell Green. His mother seems to have quit the house in St John’s Square where he was born for an address in Westminster.

Pubs around Fleet Street, such as the Globe Tavern, are a recurring feature of the diaries, many of them being the regular meeting places for the various societies and fraternities of which Wilkes was a member. I have attempted to list as many as possible in the index to make searching for his favourite haunts as easy as possible. Wilkes was also a regular at coffee houses around St Paul’s, which was closely associated with hacks and other publishing hangers-on.

Wilkes had a rare gift for inspiring the crowd, but he aspired to more elevated company. He was extremely scornful of some of his followers and his colleagues in the City of London (he referred to the latter as ‘fat-headed turtle-eating aldermen’). He also fell out with his two main colleagues in the Society for Gentlemen Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Wilkes was clearly not very good at sharing the limelight.

It’s almost impossible to disentangle Wilkes the self-publicist from Wilkes the reformer. That said, I do believe that Wilkes had true political courage. He was not afraid to fight his corner in court or parliament, and did not find imprisonment a deterrent to continuing to campaign. On at least two occasions he was prepared to take part in duels: an important demonstration of his courage and gentlemanly status.

His speech to Parliament arguing in favour of reform of the franchise (1776) was genuinely forward thinking, and he was committed to the cause of the arts. His greatest achievement was undoubtedly his contribution to securing freedom for London printers to publish the content of parliamentary debates without fear of prosecution, even though it remained technically an abuse of privilege until the early 20th century. Wilkes’s increasing distancing from radical causes in the final decade of his life was undoubtedly a result of his more settled position in society, as well as his horror at the excesses of the French Revolution.

‘Wilkes said it took him half an hour to talk away his face’

A recent Radio 4 broadcast compared Wilkes with Nigel Farage – and there are some points of contact there: the ability to latch onto a popular cause is certainly one, and both have a talent for presenting themselves as ‘men of the people’. If Farage’s cause is Europe, Wilkes’s causes were criticism of ministerial corruption, annoyance at the terms of the treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War and dislike of the political influence of Scotsmen like the Earl of Bute.

As a journalist and Mayor of London, Boris Johnson has some appeal as a point of comparison. A better one, though, might be the late MP Tony Banks, who wrote the foreword to John Sainsbury’s 2006 biography. Both Wilkes and Banks were famed for their ready (and sometimes acid) wit and were particularly associated with London politics; both pursued causes with determination.

Wilkes appears to be much better known in America, where he is lauded for his involvement in support of the War of Independence. There is even a university named after him. Outside of British political historians and some officers of the City of London – I am told the current City Chamberlain quotes Wilkes when welcoming new freemen – he is not as well known as he deserves to be.

When the city wards were subject to boundary changes, complaints were made that Wilkes’s statue would end up outside his old ward of Farringdon Without. So the boundary was redrawn to incorporate the statue. It’s more than 250 years since he first shook up the Establishment, but it seems John Wilkes is still standing his ground.

Dr Robin Eagles is Senior Research Fellow at the History of Parliament “The Diaries of John Wilkes 1770-1797” are published by the London Record Society and Boydell Press

Review from Journal for Eighteenth Century Studies, May 2017

John Wilkes (1725-1797) is surely one of the most important and interesting political figures of the eighteenth century. A pioneering radical who championed parliamentary reform and numerous civil rights, he also had a famously colourful private life, which came to embody his public commitment to ‘liberty’ in all its forms. As such, it is remarkable that it has taken until now for his diaries to be published.

As the editor of this fine new edition acknowledges, however, the diaries themselves may initially appear disappointing as a historical source. Robin Eagles even wonders out loud whether ‘diary’ may be a misnomer. ‘Dining book’ may be a more appropriate label, given that the daily entries almost exclusively record where he dined, and with whom (p.xxxii). These are not ‘journals’ in the same sense as those of his friend James Boswell. There is almost no narrative, little anecdote and nothing overt about the inner life. As Eagles argues in his introduction, the diaries ‘may say little of what he thought of it, but they do reveal much of the environment in which he lived’ (p.xii). To take a typical entry, that of 30 July 1786 reads: ‘dined at Richmond with Sir Joshua Reynolds, Miss Palmer, Mr W[illia]m Windham, Mr Cambridge, Mr Boswell, Mr Malone, Mr Courtn[e]nay, Lord Wentworth, Mr Metcalf, &c.’ (p.188). What immediately strikes the reader is the sheer extent of his acquaintance – the diaries read like a Who’s Who of Georgian Britain – and the regularity with which Wilkes dines out, and in company. Rare indeed is the entry ‘dined at home alone’. The editor’s excellent footnotes (which are more interesting than the diaries themselves) reveal that entries like this can be tellingly gnomic: ‘it is perhaps significant that he sought to dine alone’ on 16 October 1771, when he attracted criticism for presiding over the execution of an eighteen-year-old woman (p.27). Using the diaries in conjunction with our wider knowledge about Wilkes can therefore hint at his character. His choice of dining companions can also tell us a lot about his politics. On 21 April 1784, when Charles James Fox was fighting the famous Westminster election, Wilkes dined with his opponents Hood and Wray, revealing that he had by then decisively gone over to Pitt the Younger.

This is a handsome edition. Eagles has done some judicious editorial tidying up, combining various sources into a single chronological thread and cutting out duplication. The introduction gives us an excellent potted biography and reflects interestingly on the nature of the sources themselves. Few readers will read this book from cover to cover, as the present reviewer did for this review: it is more likely that researchers will head for a particular date, or will go in via the index (which only lists names and places, given that this is all there is to list). The only potential misgiving is whether a book is the best form for these sources. Although a conventional book is the obvious vehicle for an edition of a diary, this is essentially quantitative rather than qualitative data, which lends itself to an electronic format. Given that this is basically a record of people and places, Wilkes’s diaries present opportunities to map networks and locations. Crunching these data via an online tool such as Locating London’s Past could tell us a great deal about the social and political spaces of the capital. Wilkes was constantly on the move, often on foot, and often spending the night with friends or mistresses. The diaries also reveal how often this quintessentially metropolitan character travelled beyond London, such as when he took an excursion to the West Country in August 1772 on a pilgrimage to the site where William of Orange made his landing. It is therefore up to readers themselves to decide what they are going to make of these deceptively revealing sources, but Eagles deserves our thanks for bringing them to a wider audience.

Matthew McCormack