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Censorship and trials

posted on 2023-07-26, 13:01 authored by John Gardner
That newspapers were, unlike many books, relatively free from external censorship may be attributed to the Regency trials and acquittals for seditious libel of William Hone* and Thomas Wooler* in 1817, after which the press acquired freedom from similar prosecutions. Hone had been tried three times for what was pretty much the same charge; twice for blasphemous and seditious libel, and once for blasphemous libel, for printing The Late John Wilkes’s Catechism, The Political Litany and The Sinecurist’s Creed. Symbolically Hone linked himself with Wilkes’s early radicalism. In his publications released after 1816 Hone frequently states that his shop is at ‘45 Ludgate Hill’. As Robert Southey noted in a footnote to his ‘A Vision of Judgement’, ‘45’ was a significant number for radicals. Looking back to the unrest of the 1760s, Southey quotes Dr Franklin: ‘The mob [... required] gentlemen and ladies of all ranks, as they passed in their carriages, to shout for Wilkes and liberty, marking the same words on all their coaches with chalk, and No. 45 on every door’. Wilkes edited* the counter to the Ultra-Tory Briton – the North Briton, and, in number 45 of this paper (23 April 1763) he insinuated that the king had lied in a speech from the throne. Hone allied himself with the radicalism of the second half of the eighteenth century that had ferociously attacked Bute’s government and the King. Defending himself in court, without the aid of a lawyer, Hone used the unusual defence that his parodies attacked the state, and not the word of God. His acquittal was a great victory for the radical press and is said to have led to the early death of the presiding judge, Lord Ellenborough. Thomas Wooler*, who had shared a cell with Hone, was arrested in May 1817 and charged with seditious libel for two articles published in the Black Dwarf*: ‘The right of petition’ and ‘The past – the present – and the future’. His trial before Justice Charles Abbott took place in front of two special juries on 5 June 1817. Like Hone he gave a brilliant defence. Found guilty on the first trial, he was acquitted on the second. The government did not pursue another. Afterwards John Keats wrote, ‘Wooler and Hone have done us an essential service’. However Hone’s victory in court did not please everyone: Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, ‘The acquittal of Hone is enough to make one out of love with English Juries’. The effect of these victories was that successive governments were reluctant to question the freedom of the press. The issue of press freedom was displaced onto the conflict over the 4d newspaper* stamp* duty and the ‘taxes on knowledge’*, resulting in the mass defiance of the radical unstamped press in the 1830s. This campaign resulted in the reduction of the stamp duty to 1d in 1836. The next 25 years saw the abolition of remaining taxes: newspaper advertising* (1853), the stamp duty (1855) and paper duty (1861).



  • Yes

Number of pages





Academia Press

Place of publication

Ghent, Belgium

Title of book

Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism




Laurel Brake, Marysa Demoor


  • other

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Legacy Faculty/School/Department

ARCHIVED Faculty of Arts, Law & Social Sciences (until September 2018)

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