COMMONS

The Massacre of St George's Fields and the petition of William Allen

31 October 2016

In 1768 the radical MP and journalist John Wilkes was imprisoned for seditious libel. The incarceration of Wilkes led to a riot at St George's Fields, London, in which an innocent bystander named William Allen was killed. His father, seeking justice for his son, petitioned Parliament.

Public disorder

On 10 May 1768, the day of the state opening of Parliament, a large crowd gathered on St George's Fields in Lambeth, London. The 'unarmed giddy mob', as one commentator noted, called for the release of the radical MP John Wilkes following his arrest and imprisonment in the King's Bench Prison. Wilkes had been charged with seditious libel in 1763 as the author of the North Briton, a satirical publication that had not only criticised the prime minister, the Earl of Bute, but also King George III. In the same year he fled to France. He was tried and found guilty in his absence, returning to England in 1768 to escape his French creditors. 

Among the disorder that day, one of the crowd posted a note on the wall of the prison that 'talked about liberty' and was swiftly taken down on the orders of the magistrates. It was dismissed as 'the raving of some patriotic bedlamite'. This prompted a barrage of stones and jeers from the 'exceedingly riotous' crowd, which had now swelled to as many as 15,000 people, if some contemporaries are to be believed. Alarmed at the disorder, the magistrates read the Riot Act and sent an urgent request for troops to the War Office. A detachment of grenadiers was quickly dispatched to try to restore order.

Wilful murder?

More people had gathered on the fields out of curiosity by the time that the soldiers arrived. Among the commotion, three Scottish soldiers named Donald Macleane, Donald Maclauray and Alexander Murray broke away to pursue a man who had thrown a stone. Following him they came to a cowhouse, adjoining the Horseshoe Inn on the east side of St George's Fields, into which the man ran. William Allen the younger, the son of William Allen, innkeeper of the Horseshoe, entered the cowhouse as the soldiers came in. The other man had already made his escape. Allen was mistakenly identified by the soldiers as the culprit who had thrown the stone and Maclane fired his musket, the bullet hitting him above the breast and killing him. He was one of a number of people killed in the disorder that day, which critics of the government were soon to label a massacre.

The trial and petition

Distressed at the loss of his son, William's father began a private prosecution of the three soldiers—in this period the majority of prosecutions were initiated and paid for by the victim and could be costly affairs. Donald Macleane, the man who fired the musket, was tried for wilful murder at Guildford Assizes in August 1768. He was acquitted and his accomplices, Maclauray and Murray, were discharged. This fuelled the suspicions of supporters of John Wilkes of the authorities and the government.

Using one of the few channels left open to him, William Allen the elder decided to petition the House of Commons. On the 25 April 1771 John Glynn MP begged leave to bring up the petition. Glynn was a friend and supporter of John Wilkes and had acted as his legal counsel in 1768. While the petition was the appeal of a grieving father, a greater concern was the threat of what appeared to be an increasingly oppressive government led by the king's ministers. They had supported Macleane's defence and through 'oppressive and collusive acts' had 'entirely defeated [Mr Allen] in his pursuit of justice'. The Secretary at War, Viscount Barrington, had also commended the soldiers and rewarded Macleane. Mr Allen hoped that by petitioning parliament 'his great and unspeakable loss should be confined to himself, and not be made a precedent, for bringing destruction and slavery upon his fellow subjects.'

The petition prompted a debate on the floor of the House of Commons. The prime minister, Lord North, opposed it being brought up, while Edmund Burke, a critic of North's ministry, suggested the setting up of a parliamentary inquiry to look into the matter. Sir George Savile MP also spoke in favour of the petition 'with great energy' as it 'came with greater propriety from a father, as he complained of the loss of a son, for which loss he was prevented by power from paying his last duty.' A division was called by the Speaker and members voted on whether or not to accept the petition. It was decided by 158 votes to 33 that the petition should not be brought up.

Aftermath

The text of the petition was published shortly after being put to Parliament in the Annual Register, a publication edited by one of its supporters. It was accompanied by a letter from Mr Allen, which expressed his disappointment while thanking the MPs who supported his cause. The death of William Allen played into the hands of critics of the King and his ministers at a time of crisis and boosted popular support for John Wilkes. He was buried in Newington Churchyard, Southwark and a large monument was erected in memory of 'An Englishman of unspotted life and amiable disposition […] murdered […] on the pretence of supporting the Civil Power, which he never insulted, but had through life obeyed and respected.' William Allen the elder was said to have died in 1804 at the age of 95, having outlived his wife and children.

Sean Harris, Committee Assistant, Petitions Committee.

All quotations are taken from the following sources:
The Tyburn Chronicle, Volume IV. London: J. Cook, 1768.
The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics and Literature, for the Year 1771. London: J. Dodsley, 1772.

Image: detail of 'John Glynn, John Wilkes and John Horne Tooke', engraving by Richard Houston, 1769.
© Parliamentary Art Collection, WOA 272.

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