The three trials of William Hone

If there was ever a litmus test to prove the solidity of “vulgar” language by the “refined” section of society, it was in the activities of William Hone and his acquittal at the trials held against him at the Guildhall in London, on 18-20 December 1817.[1] The three charges made against Hone were (1) for publishing The Late John Wilkes’s Catechism of a Ministerial Member (1817); (2) for parodying the litany and libelling the prince regent in The Political Litany (1817); and (3) for publishing the Sinecurist’s Creed (1817), a parody on the Athanasian Creed.

Hone was born in Bath in 1780 into a strictly religious family in which his only education was learning to read from the Bible. The family had a small number of other books, among which were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and Milton’s Paradise Lost, which Hone read avidly throughout his childhood. The family moved to London in 1783, and at the age of 10 William was placed in an attorney’s office. However, after two and a half years working in a solicitor’s office in Chatham, Hone decided that the law was not where his interests lay. He had begun to think independently, and at the age of 16 he joined the London Corresponding Society, which set universal male suffrage as its goal.

After his marriage at age 20, he tried his hand in the printing and publishing trade and published his own first work, Shaw’s Gardener, in 1806. Olivia Smith (1984: chap. 5) maintains that Hone was able to profit from the fact that he wrote, printed and distributed his own work without the intervention of publishing houses and printing presses, although this must have restricted the print run drastically. In all probability, he had already attracted the attention of government agents by the publication in 1816 of The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Eliza Fenning. The book sets about dismantling the case against Elizabeth Fenning, a cook who was accused of murdering her employer’s family with arsenic in 1815. She was tried and executed on the flimsiest of evidence despite brave attempts by Hone in his Traveller newspaper to save her. The book is a masterpiece of investigative journalism that completely demolishes the case for the prosecution.

By the end of 1816, Hone had thus become a thorn in the flesh of the government and the legal system and an obvious political target. Hence it was no surprise, when he set up the Reformist’s Register, which ran from February to October 1817, and published the three parodies based on religious texts mentioned above, one of which he had written himself (The Sinecurist’s Creed), that three ex officio informations[2] were filed by the attorney general, Sir William Garrow, against him. Hone was forced to wait for five months without knowing whether he would be tried, and the scheduling of a trial for each published tract on three consecutive days shortly before Christmas 1817 was an open act of intimidation by the authorities. The charge against Hone was that the texts were blasphemous and were a danger to public morals. Hone decided to defend himself, and he had prepared himself well, bringing books and political tracts with him into the courtroom every day. Hone’s defence was based on the argument that using a religious text to create sociopolitical parody did not constitute a case of blasphemy. All attempts made by the prosecution (and by the judge) to prove that the language of the parodies was couched in vulgar language were nullified by the simple fact that a number of the most popular and significant texts in the canon of English literature would also have to be considered vulgar insofar as they were written in a nonlegitimate variety of English. In addition, Hone’s argument also touched the sensibilities of the jury with respect to the language they used on an everyday basis (cf. Hone [1818] 2009). Hone was acquitted of each of the three charges made against him.

Olivia Smith (1984: 176) makes a valid point in her assessment of the importance of these three trials, which I quote in full:

Hone’s three trials articulate the political and social pressures which such writers encountered. Hegemony of language gains an unusually discernible form as the Attorney-General and the Judge attempt to prove that Hone’s language is sufficiently indecent and improper to be criminal. Although the vocabulary to describe vulgar language tended to shift from “barbaric” and “vulgar” to “indecent” and “improper” between the 1790s and 1817, the concept remained largely the same and served the same purpose of defining the inadequacy of various classes according to their language. Had Hone lost his trials, such vague concepts would have gained legal currency, becoming evidence of criminality in themselves.

Fortunately for the future development of varieties of English, no legal status was attributed to the equation “vulgar language=criminality”, but this does not mean that the promoters of the legitimate language myth were defeated. There was a long, stony road ahead for those arguing against the concept of a legitimate language, and the equation itself was explicitly made, not quite in the terms I have given here, by Conservative politician Norman Tebbitt as late as 1985, as we shall see in chapter 10. The major advance in Hone’s acquittal of the charges made against him was that such an equation could no longer acquire legal status.

  • [1] The first part of this section on William Hone is based on chapter 5 of Olivia Smith 1984.
  • [2] The legal term is “an ex officio information”, and the plural is “informations”.
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