William Hone

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

William Hone by William Patten[1]

William Hone (3 June 1780 – 8 November 1842) was an English writer, satirist and bookseller. His victorious court battle against government censorship in 1817 marked a turning point in the fight for British press freedom.[2]


William Hone was born at Bath on June 3, 1780, one of three children to William Hone Senior and Francis Stalwell. William's only surviving brother, Joseph Hone (1874 - 1861) was a High Court Judge in Tasmania, Australia.

Being an inquisitive child, William's father taught him to read from the Bible. For a number of years William attended a small school run by Dame Bettridge, to whom he was very close.

In 1783, William's father moved to London and for a time the family endured long separations. In 1790 William Senior found work in an attorney's office. He encouraged William the younger to follow suit. After two-and-a-half years in the office of a solicitor at Chatham he returned to London to become clerk to a solicitor at Gray's Inn. William disliked the law, and decided to follow a new interest in the rights of the ordinary man. To the great concern of his father, he joined the London Corresponding Society in 1796, which campaigned to extend the vote to working men and was deeply unpopular with the government, who had tried to charge its leaders with treason.

Hone married in 1800 to Sarah Johnson. William and Sarah had 12 children. With money given to him by his mother in law, William started a book and print shop with a circulating library in Lambeth Walk. He soon moved to St Martin's Churchyard, where he published, Shaw's Gardener (1806). It was at this time that he and his friend, John Bone, tried to establish a popular savings bank. Despite the backing of various wealthy patrons, they were unsuccessful. Bone then joined Hone in a bookseller's business; but bankruptcy was the result.[2]

In 1811, Hone was employed by the booksellers as auctioneer to the trade, and had an office in Ivy Lane. Independent investigations carried out by him into the condition of lunatic asylums led again to business difficulties and failure, but he took a small lodging in the Old Bailey, keeping himself and his now large family by contributions to magazines and reviews. He hired a small shop, or rather box, in Fleet Street but this was twice robbed, and valuable books lent for show were stolen. In 1815 he started the Traveller newspaper, and tried in vain to save Elizabeth Fenning, a cook convicted on thin evidence of poisoning her employers with arsenic.[2] Although Fenning was executed, Hone's 240 page book on the subject, The Important Results of an Elaborate Investigation into the Mysterious Case of Eliza Fenning — a landmark in investigative journalism – demolished the prosecution's case.{ The Laughter of Triumph by Ben Wilson. Pub. 2005 by Faber & Faber}

An unflattering 1819 caricature of the Prince Regent by George Cruikshank, illustrating "The Political House that Jack Built".

From 1 February to 25 October 1817, Hone published the Reformists' Register, using it to criticise state abuses, which he later attacked in the famous political squibs and parodies, illustrated by George Cruikshank. In April 1817 three ex-officio informations were filed against him by the attorney-general, Sir William Garrow. Three separate trials took place in the Guildhall before special juries on 18, 19 and 20 December 1817. The first, for publishing The Late John Wilkes's Catechism of a Ministerial Member (1817), was before Mr Justice Abbot (afterwards Lord Tenterden); the second, for parodying the litany and libelling the Prince Regent in The Political Litany (1817), and the third, for publishing the Sinecurist's Creed (1817), a parody on the Athanasian Creed, were before Lord Ellenborough.[2]

Every Day Book, typical page format, content and illustration. (1830 printing).

The prosecution took the ground that the prints were harmful to public morals and brought the prayer-book and even religion itself into contempt. The real motives of the prosecution were political: Hone had ridiculed the habits and exposed the corruption of those in power. He went to the root of the matter when he wished the jury "to understand that, had he been a publisher of ministerial parodies, he would not then have been defending himself on the floor of that court." In spite of illness and exhaustion Hone spoke on each of the three days for about seven hours. Although his judges were biased against him, he was acquitted on each count, and the result was received enthusiastically by immense crowds inside and outside the court.[2] Soon afterwards, a public collection was made on his behalf. A play about the 1817 trials, Trial by Laughter was written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman. It began its run in English theatres in September 2018.

Among Hone's most successful political satires were The Political house that Jack built (1819), The Queen's Matrimonial Ladder (1820), Ill favour of Queen Caroline, The Man in the Moon (1820) and The Political Showman (1821), all illustrated by Cruikshank. Many of his squibs are directed against a certain "Dr Slop", a nickname given by him to Dr (afterwards Sir John) Stoddart, publisher of The Times. In researches for his defence he had come upon some curious and at that time little trodden literary ground, and the results were shown by his publication in 1820 of his Apocryphal New Testament, and in 1823 of his Ancient Mysteries Explained. In 1826 he published the Every-day Book, in 1827-1828 the Table-Book, and in 1829 the Year-Book. All three were collections of curious information on manners, antiquities and various other subjects.[2]

These are the works by which Hone is best remembered. In preparing them he had the approval of Robert Southey and the assistance of Charles Lamb, (with whom he was great friends), but they were not financially successful, and Hone was lodged in King's Bench Prison for debt. Friends, however, again came to his assistance, and he was established in a coffeehouse in Gracechurch Street; but this, like most of his business enterprises, ended in failure. Hone's attitude of mind had gradually changed to that of extreme devoutness, and during the latter years of his life, he became a follower of Rev. Thomas Binney and preached in Binney's Weigh House Chapel, Eastcheap. In 1830 he edited Strutt's Sports and Pastimes of the people of England, and he contributed to the first number of The Penny Magazine. He was also for some years sub-editor of The Patriot.[2] After a series of strokes, William Hone died at Tottenham on November 8, 1842 and is buried at Dr Watts' Walk in Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington. Besides his immediate family, his funeral was attended by his long term collaborator George Cruikshank and Charles Dickens.

There are many books available on William's life and career. In the years before William's death, he and his oldest daughter, Sarah Burn worked together to compile his personal papers and information in order to put together a biography of his life. Sarah transcribed while William spoke. Unfortunately they were not successful in achieving a published work. However, the compilation of documents was given to writer Frederick Hackworth by William's younger daughter Ellen Soul, who then created the book - "William Hone. His life and times" in 1912.

A short biography of Hone's life written by his friend and sometime neighbor, Frances Rolleston, was published five years after his death, a revised edition six years later, under the title Some Account of the Conversion from Atheism to Christianity of the Late William Hone.

A website to mark the 200th anniversary of the Guildhall Trials, with information about William's descendants in the UK, Australia, Estonia, France, Canada, Germany and South Africa can be viewed at http://thedescendantsofwilliamhone.blogspot.com.au/. The noted Australian, Sir Brian Hone, is a descendant of William's via his son Alfred.

In popular culture[edit]

The 2018 play Trial by Laughter by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman covers the three trials of Hone in 1817.[3]


  1. ^ National Portrait Gallery, London
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Wikisource Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Hone, William". Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 652.
  3. ^ https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/sep/27/trial-laughter-review-watermill-newbury-william-hone-ian-hislop-private-eye-nick-newman


  • Wilson, Ben. The Laughter of Triumph: William Hone and the Fight for the Free Press. Faber and Faber, 2005. 356 pages.
  • The Descendants of William Hone by William's descendant, Tracey Hawkins Budge (http://thedescendantsofwilliamhone.blogspot.com/) 2018
  • Hackwood, Frederick. "William Hone. His Life and Times". Originally published 1912 in London (US edition published by Burt Franklin NYC)
  • The William Hone Biotext website by Associate Professor Kyle Grimes (http://honearchive.org/) 2008

External links[edit]