Tuesday, 27 August 2013

On ale houses and sedition



My usual hostelry on a Friday night is the Wilkes Head named after the radical politician John Wilkes whose cross-eyed portrait stares ,one eye looking down St Edward Street and the other toward Napoli Pizza restaurant. Wilkes libertine, zealous defender of free speech and dogged opponent of monarchical absolutism-was still alive when the pub was called after him in 1786.

( Wilkes was responsible for a memorable put down directed at his great rival and inventor of the snack, the Earl of Sandwich. “ Wilkes, I have long considered your fate and have concluded that you will either hang or die of a pox” Wilkes “ It depends if I embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistress”)

T.here are now only two pubs named after the great reprobate . One in in Leek and the other in up Chichester in Sussex.

I believe that the pub has a long history in the dissident tradition from its earliest days to 1900s where it was the meeting place of trade unionists up until today. In the early 19th century it was a much bigger pub and crucial to my argument it was also a coaching inn with regular coaches to Birmingham and Manchester ,both hotbeds of radicalism. News would have been carried and information on the upheavals gripping the country in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars would have been eagerly debated. Every town would have a pub while working men, some in more formal groups than others met to discuss current affairs.

The Tory poet Southey described the scene, the crackling fire, a hard days labour done, smoking pipes, heady brews and over heated political debate. “ Every pot house is supplied with the Sunday papers- doses of weekly poisons . One reader serves for the whole tap room full of open mouthed listeners and at the moment the army is the single plank between us and destruction”. He wrote this on the day that the Prime Minster Percieval was assassinated in 1812.


For the authorities it was a dangerous, unsettling prospect. In 1819 Magistrates issued a threat . “They had learnt that SEDITIOUS PAPERS are taken in, for the purpose of poisoning the minds of the ignorant and unwary” so they reminded the publicans that their business could be closed any time until they stopped circulating such papers. Despite the threat of official sanction alehouses like the Wilkes Head provided a rowdy setting for political debate and would not have been exceptional.