How William Hone, one of Abney Park’s ‘awkward squad’, stood up for press freedom 200 years ago

Fleet Street, the home of the British newspaper industry, in the 1890s. It was here, decades earlier

Fleet Street, the home of the British newspaper industry, in the 1890s. It was here, decades earlier, that William Hone's paper was printed and distributed. Picture: PA Archive - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The Abney Park Trust is celebrating the bicentenary of William Hones’ victorious court battle against government censorship in 1817. It marked a turning point in the fight for the freedom of Britain’s press. Emma Bartholomew finds out more.

Alan Gartrell and John Baldock by William Hone's grave in Abney Park. Picture: Abney Park Trust

Alan Gartrell and John Baldock by William Hone's grave in Abney Park. Picture: Abney Park Trust - Credit: Abney Park Trust

Freedom of speech is something we take for granted in the UK, and it’s easy to forget the government here wasn’t always so tolerant.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of William Hone’s three-day landmark trial at the Guildhall, where he was prosecuted for blasphemous libel in his newspaper.

The era was marked by strong government repression. Terrified by the 1789 French revolution, it was convinced there was a conspiracy to overthrow it by the 1810s. Add to this the surge in trade unions and pressure for universal suffrage, the government suspended Habeas Corpus in 1817 – meaning people could be imprisoned without trial.

In the same year Hone, a 37-year-old London writer and bookseller, set up his own magazine, The Reformists’ Register.

“Hone must have known he was setting himself up,” said Alan Gartrell – a chartered surveyor who gives historical lectures in Abney Park, and who will speak about Hone this weekend.

“In fact the famous radical journalist William Cobbett fled the country to America.”

Abney Park cemetery. Picture: Ellie Hoskins

Abney Park cemetery. Picture: Ellie Hoskins - Credit: Archant

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Sure enough, Hone was soon arrested and held in prison for several months not knowing what he was accused of.

Standing up for people’s rights and calling for political reform, he had published a series of articles making fun of the Prince Regent and the government. Despite the 1815 newspaper tax that made them too expensive to read for most, Hone’s paper was widely disseminated – and fast. Through a network of volunteers the paper travelled from the printing press in Fleet Street to free houses as far as Carlisle and Exeter within four days, where people would gather to hear them read out.

Rather than treason, the government thought it would be a “cunning plan” to try Hone for blasphemous libel because of his parodies of the Lord’s Prayer, Catechism and Creed. Huge crowds gathered outside the Guildhall as he was prosecuted by the Attorney-General over the course of three days in December.

Despite being unwell and an inexperienced orator, Hone defended himself each day with six-hour addresses using his immense erudition to demonstrate a long history of religious parody from the Greeks to then Cabinet Ministers. The heart of his defence was that his writing had made a mockery of government, not religion. Each day the senior judges of the land guided the juries to convict – and each day he was acquitted.

“He had the courtroom in stitches, virtually laughing the prosecution out of court,” said Alan. “On the third day the prosecution asked if he wanted to defer as he didn’t look well but he insisted on going through it – they probably wanted to sweep it under the carpet.”

So how did the situation change afterwards in terms of freedom of speech?

“It’s all part of a long, long story,” said Alan. “They appealed the suspension of Habeas Corpus the next year, and the newspapers continued.

“I can’t say that everything was sweetness and light and full freedom of the press was restored, but it’s an important milestone leading to suffrage.”

Hone was buried in Abney Park in 1842 at a funeral attended by Charles Dickens and his illustrator Cruikshank, who apparently took offence and wanted to punch the minister in the head.

Alan said: “The cemetery was non-denominational consecrationalist, and it has many of the ‘awkward squad’ buried there. Dickens went to his funeral because he was amazed someone carried shoulder high through the city should die and be buried in total obscurity 23 years later. We would like to bring Hone out of this obscurity.”

Events listing: October 1:

1pm: William Hone and Georgian Satire - tour led by Alan Gartrell.

4 pm: William Hone and the Freedom of the Press - tour led by Russell Miller

October 8:

1pm: Local author, Paul Ashton, reads a Hone related short story and talks about his work, in the chapel.

2pm: William Hone and the Abney Radicals - tour led by Alan Gartrell

On both days there will be an exhibition in the visitor centre about the Hone Trial.

Abney Park Trust is asking for suggested donations of £5 which will fund restoration works in the cemetery.