Library volunteer Marjorie, with her musings as she has cleaned books in the Library’s Thomas Paine Room – comparing things she’s read about there with current events – has inspired us to mark Parliament Week with an object of the month from that room.
The item is William Hone’s 1819 pamphlet ‘The political house that Jack built’.
From 19 to 25 November is Parliament Week, which aims to raise people’s awareness of and engagement with parliamentary democracy. Given that so much of the collection here at the WCML is given to charting the fight for recognition by parliament, the object of the month which we have chosen is a pamphlet from 1819 which satirises the lack of parliamentary democracy. The aim is to show that voting, now seen as a right, was not so long ago a distant dream for the majority of people.
The radical printer William Hone published The Political House that Jack Built in 1819, just after the Peterloo Massacre. The pamphlet is a combination of Hone’s pithy rhyming couplets and illustrations by George Cruikshank, who rose to fame on the back of working for Hone. The pamphlet attacks the power and corruption of privilege. For instance Cruikshank drew the then Prince Regent as a fat, bloated dullard, a cork-screw hanging from his pocket to point towards the volume of his majesty’s drinking. The lines Hone included with the image were some of the pamphlet’s most biting:
‘The Dandy of Sixty,
who bows with a grace,
and has taste in wigs, collars,
cuirasses and lace,
Who, to tricksters, and fools,
leaves the state and its treasure,
And, when Britain’s in tears,
sails about at his pleasure’.
Towards the end of the pamphlet there is an image of ‘The People all tattered and torn’. In the background of Cruikshank’s image of despair you can see yeomen attacking the people at Peterloo.
These were people described by Hone as
‘Who, peaceably Meeting
to ask for Reform,
Were sabred by Yeomanry Cavalry,
Were thank’d by THE MAN,
all shaven and shorn’
Later still Cruikshank drew a banner with the slogan ‘Reform’ written upon it. Underneath Hone described this as ‘the watchword, the talisman word’, which during the period it was. Very few people had the vote, and the majority were denied access to their democratic rights. People fought and died for the right to vote. Hone suffered too. In 1817 he was tried for the inflammatory nature of his publications, although he was acquitted.
It was not until 1929 that universal adult suffrage arrived in Britain. With the recent expenses scandal and the apparent apathy of many towards voting, parliamentary democracy may not seem something with which many people are keen to engage. As Parliament Week seeks to celebrate democracy it is worth remembering, however, those who gave up their liberty, and in some cases their lives, to fight for it.
On the final page of The House that Jack Built is a remarkable drawing of a cap of liberty, from which rays emanate (the sun being a historic symbol for political rebirth). Underneath this image are words from William Cowper’s epic poem Task which are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in 1785, or when Hone used them again in 1819.
‘Tis Liberty alone, that gives the flow’r
Of fleeting life its lustre and perfume;
And we are weeds without it’.
Chris Burgess, Collections Access Officer with the new Esmee Fairbairn Foundation-funded joint project betwen the Library and the People`s History Museum