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John Wilkes, Parliament and the freedom of the press 1771-2021

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This article was written by Robin Eagles, Editor, House of Lords 1660-1832, History of Parliament.

With Parliament now televised and a verbatim account of its debates recorded by the Hansard reporters, it is easy to forget that the right to report parliamentary proceedings freely was a hard-fought one. While no one person was responsible for achieving this, credit for overturning the restrictions that prevented the press from reporting debates is often attributed to John Wilkes, MP for Aylesbury and Middlesex, who took a leading role in ensuring that Parliament no longer prevented the public from knowing what was going on within the chambers of either House of Parliament.

Image of a white man with white hair sitting in front of a desk. The man is holding feather quill and is wearing a blue jacket.
John Wilkes 1727-97 M.P., Oil painting by Robert Edge Pine,
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2935.

Accessing Parliament

Although Parliament had always been fiercely protective of its privacy, for much of the 18th century the palace was surprisingly accessible to non-Members. In the 1690s Sir Christopher Wren had carried out extensive repairs to the Commons, including the installation of galleries, which were made use of on occasion by ‘strangers’. Sometimes, the Members enforced the standing orders for clearing the galleries, but accounts by visitors of being able to get into the chamber and watch proceedings make it plain that it was often possible to sidestep the restrictions. The Lords was sometimes harder to infiltrate. Galleries had been put up only to be torn down again twice in the century, but even so, various visitors noted accessing the Lords’ chamber as well. One even seems to have found space to sit next to the bishops.

Oil painting showing a large wood panelled room with seating along two sides. Includes balcony seating. The speaker is sat in between the two sitting areas on the ground.
The House of Commons in Session, Oil painting by Peter Tillemans,
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 2737.

As a result, both Houses of Parliament struggled with the issue of their proceedings being reported in a variety of media. On occasions in the late 17th and early 18th century producers of both print and scribal newsletters and papers were able to report details of parliamentary business. Sometimes Parliament responded by clapping fines on the authors and printers and confined them to brief periods of imprisonment, but more often than not they turned a blind eye to it. Some entrepreneurial producers of news, like the Huguenot Abel Boyer, were able to publish detailed accounts of parliamentary affairs with only occasional interruptions. During the 1740s, the gates were brought down and Parliament took a firmer line, but from the late 1760s journalists once again began to test the water. One example was John Almon’s Political Register, which relied on Augustine Wall for details of debates, which he committed to memory rather than risk censure by taking notes. Almon’s success encouraged others to join in and by 1771 a number of publications were once again active in breaching parliamentary privilege by reporting debates in their newspapers.

Efforts to limit reporting of debates

It was in this context that Colonel George Onslow (known not overly fondly as ‘Little Cocking George’ because of his fondness for cock-fighting), who was himself often on the receiving end of what he considered inaccurate reportage, decided to call for the practice once again to be stopped. On 5 February 1771 he rose in the Commons to complain about the publication of debates in the press and moved that the resolutions of 26 February 1728 preventing reporting be enforced. Two days after Onslow’s initial intervention, other MPs joined in and moved for the galleries to be cleared of strangers (with the exception of Members of the Irish Parliament). Onslow reasserted his concern about MPs’ speeches being misreported but was answered by William Burke, who suggested that if Onslow was worried about misrepresentation, it was likely to be much worse if strangers were excluded as they would then have to resort to making up their reports.

On the 8th Onslow returned to the subject, and was happy to admit to his nickname in underlining his determination to prevail on the issue:

To-day they call me “little cocking George”. They will find, sir, I am a cock they will not easily beat. I never will give up this point. I have nothing in view but the honour of this House. [Cavendish Debates, ii. 257]

He complained in particular about the publications of two printers Thompson and Wheble, who had deliberately ignored the Commons’ ruling and chosen to continue to print the debates. Many members found Onslow a rather absurd figure and a number spoke against him, but he was successful in winning a majority round to his view.

Parliament v. the City of London

Unfortunately for Onslow and his supporters, the Commons’ new resolve to prevent press reporting had drawn the attention of the notorious former MP John Wilkes, now creating a new role for himself in the City of London. Wilkes had been actively involved in encouraging Thompson and Wheble to test the Commons’ mettle, and he now took the opportunity of Onslow’s challenge to make an example of Parliament. By doing so he aimed to challenge once and for all their effort to prevent news of parliamentary debates from being related to the general public.

Parliament fell straight into the trap set for them and attempted to have Wheble and Thompson arrested. In a carefully orchestrated manoeuvre, the two men appeared before Wilkes as a City Magistrate, accompanied on the bench by another alderman (and one of the City’s MPs) Richard Oliver: both were discharged. Wilkes and Oliver then ruled that the parliamentary messenger sent to seize them should himself be arrested for infringing City liberties. A third printer, Miller of the London Evening Post, was then subjected to the same experience. He was brought before the lord mayor himself, Brass Crosby (who was also MP for Honiton), who acted in concert with Wilkes and had Miller released and the messenger from Parliament detained.

There followed a cat and mouse campaign, with the City of London protecting the printers, and arresting messengers from Parliament, while the Commons followed suit. The Lords had also joined in, committing another printer, William Woodfall of the Morning Chronicle, to custody as well [Lords Journal, vol. xxxiii. 110; HL/PO/JO/10/7/346; HL/PO/JO/10/7/345]. On 19 March the Commons ordered Lord Mayor Crosby to appear in the House to explain himself. He insisted that the Commons’ messenger had not sought proper authority from a City magistrate before trying to arrest the printers. He underlined that in this case, his duty was first and foremost to the City of London:

I took a solemn oath, that I would protect the city of London in their franchises and rights: I have ever done so to the best of my abilities. [Memoirs of Brass Crosby, 24-5]

Significantly, Parliament was reluctant to grapple with Wilkes himself, having had far too many dealings with him already and he had remained a problem for both Houses when in prison from 1768 to 1770. (Read more about Wilkes on the History of Parliament blog:

Handwritten document on parchment colour paper
Petition of John Wilkes to the House of Lords, 1768, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/7/293B

He ignored an order to appear on 20 March, after which no further effort was made to force him to attend the chamber. The Commons took a more forceful line with Crosby and Oliver, though, and on 25 March both were subjected to a close investigation. Crosby was allowed to withdraw through ill health, but the House persisted with the case against Oliver and, backed into a corner by his intransigent attitude, in the small hours of the next morning voted to send him to the Tower. On the 27th they resolved to send Crosby there as well.

Victory for the Press?

The Commons’ actions helped make martyrs of Crosby and Oliver, while Wilkes was left free to make the most of the affair. Print satires were published of Crosby and Oliver in the Tower (joined by Wilkes) and, after their release in May following the end of the session, the common council of the City of London awarded Crosby a commemorative silver cup, worth £200, and Oliver and Wilkes cups worth £100 a-piece. Wilkes may now be remembered as the driving force behind the campaign for press freedoms, but this helps remind us that it was a united effort and that the three men were viewed by contemporaries as a triumvirate.


In a room with stone walls and barred windows Lewes (r.) presents the 'Cardigan' Address to the Lord Mayor, Oliver reads that of 'Carmarthen', Wilkes holds that of 'Pembroke', the place-names being engraved on the respective documents. The three prisoners wear furred civic gowns. Beneath the design is engraved: "Thus Ancient Britons, gen'rous, bold & free, Untaught at Court to bend the supple Knee, Corruption's Shrine with honest Pride disdain And only bow to Freedom's Patriot Train." 1 September 1771
Watkin Lewes Esqr presenting the addresses from the counties of Pembroke, Carmarthen and Cardigan, to the Lord Mayor, Alderman Wilkes and Alderman Oliver in the Tower, 1771,
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The result, though, was the same: Wilkes and his associates triumphed and Parliament capitulated. Strictly speaking, the order relating to press reporting was not overturned, but from then on the Commons made no further effort to prevent reporting. The Lords held out for a couple more years before arriving at the same conclusion. By the time Thomas Hansard took over the publishing business begun by William Cobbett, press reporting of Parliament was no longer the restricted business it had once been. If it was still, technically, a breach of privilege, no one enforced it, and by the time it ceased to be so, it was part of the culture of news in the country.


Further Reading: for biographies of Crosby, Oliver, Onslow and Wilkes

Arthur Cash, John Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty (Yale, 2006)

Robin Eagles, ed. The Diaries of John Wilkes 1770-1797 (London Record Society  xliv)

Memoir of Brass Crosby, Esq. Alderman of the City of London, and Lord Mayor 1770-1771 (1829)

P.D.G. Thomas, Lord North (1976)

  1. Wright, ed. Sir Henry Cavendish’s Debates of the House of Commons during the Thirteenth Parliament of Great Britain commonly called the Unreported Parliament, 2 vols. (1841)

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