AN EXHAUSTED VOLCANO – 1780-1788
IN the summer that followed the melancholy visit to Bath, when Wilkes had sat and sighed in Mrs. Stafford’s empty home, he was once more in the midst of a political tumult that affected his reputation more considerably than any event since his release from prison. After having caused the rising of a hundred mobs, he was obliged at last to take his share in quelling the fiercest riot that the capital had ever seen. A woeful object lesson showed him the fallacy of the convenient doctrine that “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” For the first time since the accession of George the Third, he found himself on the side of the Government. It was the outbreak of the Gordon Riots that caused this remarkable tergiversation, and he played his new role as resolutely as he had played the demagogue.
One of the periodical epidemics of religious intolerance had swept over the kingdom. All the legions of rabid Protestantism were ablaze with wrath because Parliament had put an end to the persecution of Catholics by allowing them the right to worship in their own faith and by removing the penalties under which their property had been liable to forfeiture. With Lord George Gordon as their hysterical leader, the most combative of the fanatics began a fierce agitation against “Popery,” and it was resolved that a procession of twenty thousand malcontents should march to St. Stephen’s with a petition for the repeal of the Relief Act. On the appointed day a turbulent mob, three times as large as was expected, surged around the walls of Westminster Palace. The demonstration speedily became a riot. Maddened by religious bigotry the crowd was determined that Parliament should obey its commands. Every member, as he made his way through Palace Yard, was obliged to assume the blue cockade, and to promise that he would vote for the repeal of the obnoxious laws. All who were suspected of sympathising with the Catholics were seized and beaten, some of them being grievously hurt before they could be rescued. With wild shouts of “No Popery,” a multitude forced its way into the lobbies, where Lord George Gordon addressed them in an incendiary speech, denouncing his fellow-members as the emissaries of Rome. For several hours both the Lords and the Commons were kept prisoners in their respective Houses, waiting, sword in hand, for the onslaught of the rioters, who were expected every moment to burst through the locked doors. It was not until the arrival of the Guards that Parliament was rescued from its humiliating position, when the mob withdrew without any attempt at resistance, manifesting its zeal for the Protestant faith by burning two Catholic chapels near Golden Square and Lincoln’s Inn Fields before it dispersed into the slums.
Excerpt from Life of John Wilkes by Horace Bleackley – 1907
Chapter 20 – An Exhausted Volcano
Further Reading and External Links
The National Archives – The second half of the 18th century saw a flowering of ideas concerning popular rights. In the 1760s, many of these concern John Wilkes MP.
Remember John Wilkes
The radical, journalist and politician, John Wilkes, is remembered by a statue on Fetter Lane in the City of London.
John Wilkes on Google Books