Skip to content

Blog Posts

Currently Filtering by Tags: John Wilkes

BlockView

Statue of John Wilkes in Fetter LaneAmong the panoply of 18th-century ‘characters’, John Wilkes stands out as one of the most memorable. His twisted visage, which was such a gift to the caricaturists of the day, his libertine lifestyle and championing of radical causes are by themselves more than enough to warrant interest in him. To these may be added his mercurial character, at the one time a friend of the mob, at another an aspiring gentleman and patron of the arts. It is unsurprising, then, that he has attracted so much interest from a variety of angles. But there is another aspect of John Wilkes, for which he is perhaps less well known: Wilkes the tourist.

Wilkes the traveller in France and Italy is well documented, most notably in his own unfinished autobiography, his voluminous correspondence and two recent book-length studies.[1] Wilkes had fled to the continent in the winter of 1763 to avoid imprisonment over the North Briton number 45 affair and his publication of the pornographic Essay on Woman. He remained there, on and off, until 1768. The majority of his time was passed in Paris but there was also an extended tour of Italy, taking in Bologna, Rome and Naples, as well as a visit to Geneva and time spent with Voltaire.

On Wilkes’s return from exile he was sentenced to 22 months imprisonment in King’s Bench prison. It is to the period after this that his significance as a source for the history of travel in England is most obvious. At first his tireless journeyings were closely connected with his political campaigning, but latterly they were more dominated by leisure pursuits. He visited notable country houses and watering holes, as well as friends and acquaintances, mostly in the south of the country. Besides his correspondence, documentation for these peregrinations comes from his diaries, which he kept (with the odd interruption) between 1770 and 1797.[2] At first sight they are a little disappointing. They lack the repartee of his letters but they do reveal a good deal about the logistics of travel in the period. There were certain favoured destinations: Bath and Tunbridge Wells for his health, the Isle of Wight for relaxation. In December 1776, for example, Wilkes left his London residence in Prince’s Court for a sojourn at Bath. He left at 10 in the morning on the 7th and by 1.30pm had arrived at his first port of call, the Castle Inn at Salt Hill. The next day he left Salt Hill at 9am and by 11.30am was at Reading, 18 miles away, where he paused to change horses. He then proceeded for a further 17 miles to Speenhill, before continuing on the next 19-mile stage to Marlborough, where he passed the night. The next day two more stages of 14 and 19 miles respectively at last brought him to his lodgings in Bath. For Wilkes, this was a relatively leisurely journey. In August 1792 he journeyed back and forth from the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth to dine with friends and acquaintances, enjoying swift crossings of just an hour each way.

The value of Wilkes’s diaries for the history of travel and tourism lies in the careful detail he provides of his trips. He notes his regular stopping places – some he liked, others were visited by accident, a few condemned as poor hostelries. Timings too are instructive. He could make it from Portsmouth to the Isle of Wight in as little as 40 minutes on a good day and he names the captains who commanded the vessels on which he tended to rely. Wilkes’s later career may often be dismissed as one of relative mediocrity (the final 15 years of his life are dealt with summarily in Arthur Cash’s otherwise supremely detailed study in just 17 pages) but there is much about the history of travel in England that can still be mined from a study of Wilkes’s activities in his respectable twilight years.

 

Robin Eagles

Robin Eagles is a senior research fellow at the History of Parliament. His edition The Diaries of John Wilkes 1770-1797 (London Record Society, 2014) has recently been published through Boydell and he is now embarking on a study of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

 

 


 

[1] Arthur Cash, John Wilkes: the scandalous father of civil liberty (New Haven: Yale, 2006), ch.8; John Sainsbury, John Wilkes: the lives of a libertine (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 120-3, 179-81, 215-17.

[2] British Library, Add. MSS 30866; Robin Eagles, ed., The Diaries of John Wilkes 1770-1797 (Woodbridge: London Record Society, 2014).

0 Comments Read full post »