In January 1821 William Hone published a new satire, The Political Showman – At Home! In it he reflects on the role which the press had played in undermining the government’s attempts to subvert the constitution since 1819. The satire shows a printing press anthropomorphized into a circus ringmaster who is conducting the viewer through a menagerie of fantastical beasts which sport the heads of various members of the cabinet and the royal family. The ministers have now been tamed by the press and the power of the press will also finally bring about the downfall of ‘The Legitimate Vampire’, a huge man-eating monster which embodies the spirit of despotism.
Despite being the most well-considered and carefully executed of all the pamphlets Hone had produced, The Political Showman was also far less successful than his earlier publications. The sense of outrage and frustration which had engulfed Britain between Peterloo and the Queen’s trial was abating and with it went the public’s appetite for the kind of venomous radical satire which had been found in works such as The Political House.., Man in the Moon and The Queen’s Matrimonial Ladder. By early 1821 Hone’s own motivation had also moved beyond purely political concerns and it likely that his decision to return to political satire was also motivated by his growing financial problems.
The success of Hone’s pamphlets made him a considerable amount of money but Hone, who throughout his life repeatedly demonstrated a positive talent for fiscal incontinence, contrived to spend all the money he could muster on feeding his passion for collecting books and prints. He recalled that “I used to go to my cashier for £5 or £10 at a time generally to buy old prints and curious books; at last, asking for money, he said there were no funds. I insisted; ‘I must have the books I have been looking at’”. By the end of 1820, Hone’s most successful year as a publisher, he was forced to pledge his book collection for a loan. When he defaulted on the repayments of the loan the following year his entire library of 1,171 books was hurried into auction.
Hone’s workload from the winter of 1820 onwards seems to have been increasingly dictated by these financial pressures and despite the fact that there was a notable cooling off in the numbers of political pamphlets being produced by other radical publishers during this period, Hone kept up a grueling schedule of work. As well as writing new satires, he was also still publishing new editions of his most successful pamphlets, revising and reissuing updated versions of some of his works from the 1810s and conducting exhaustive research for a planned multi-volume history of parody.
Two months later he published another pamphlet; The Right Divine of Kings to Govern Wrong! This partial revision of Daniel Defoe’s Jure Divino launched an attack on concept of autocratic monarchy and an established church which earned Hone critical applause from the pages of the Examiner and other liberally-minded journals but was even less commercially successful than its predecessor. That it is remembered at all today is probably thanks only to the two stunning woodcuts which Cruikshank was able to produce for the cover and back page of the pamphlet.
By this point Hone’s relationship with Cruikshank was reaching a crisis point. In January 1821 Hone, whose patience was no doubt shortened by fatigue, was becoming increasingly irked by his young friend’s hedonistic lifestyle. Initially Hone tried pleading with Cruikshank to “foreswear late hours, blue ruin and dollies” and become “a man of business” but the 28 year old artist responded bluntly by telling Hone to “go to hell” and to “go teach my Granny to suck eggs”. He would later write an exasperated letter in which he recalled that Cruikshank had turned up at his house late one evening to request that Hone use his influence with the city Alderman to secure the dismissal of a watchman with whom Cruikshank had fought a drunken brawl during the previous night’s carousing. When the request was refused Cruikshank obnoxiously sat blowing “clouds of smoke over me and my books... for a couple of hours, demanded entrance to my wife’s bedroom to shave and smarten himself for an evening party, took possession of my best Brandenburg pumps, damned me... [and]... otherwise decomposed the wanted order of my mind and household and manifested what I had long suspected, that he is by no means friendly to Reform!”
Hone and Cruikshank’s professional relationship would endure for long enough to produce one more illustrated pamphlet in August 1821 but their friendship has run its course. The subject of Hone’s final pamphlet was to be Dr John Stoddart and the members of the Constitutional Association – A group which had been founded in December 1820 by wealthy Tories who were disgruntled by the government’s failure to crack down on the radical press and who pledged to provide funds for private prosecutions against reformist publications. In Hone’s eyes the Constitutional Association had the resources and the backing to emerge as a successor to the Crown prosecutors which had almost succeeded in silencing London’s radical satirists in the 1810s.
A Slap At Slop and the Bridge-Street Gang rendered the Constitutional Association, whose headquarters were located on Bridge Street in Blackfriars, a laughing stock just as effectively as Hone’s earlier pamphlets had undermined Sidmouth’s gagging acts and the dignity of the King. Hone revels in pointing out the hypocrisy of loyalist journalists who demanded that their political opponents be prosecuted for publishing libels which were no different from those they themselves were using to attack the reformists and slander the Queen. They were, Hone wrote, “like the hacknied procuress who, to effect her designs upon innocence, pretends an extraordinary affection for virtue... What an insolent appeal from the minions of power, and the overgorged feeders upon the public wealth, to their fellow parasites and gluttons!” Hone then goes on to point out that both Stoddart and Robert Southey, the ultra-conservative poet laureate and Constitutional Association member, had published pro-Jacobin material in their youth which would be considered libelous and that they too risked transportation to Botany Bay.
After failing to indict Hone on a charge of seditious libel the Constitutional Association would go on to waste large amounts of time and money harassing other radical publishers in an attempt to use private wealth to silence the popular press. In the end their efforts were a costly failure -- The Association secured just four convictions and only one sentence at a time when print shops and publishers were still carrying on a healthy trade in anti-government material.
As the recession and political upheaval of the post-war years gradually gave way to the prosperity of the 1820s public interest in radical satire rapidly began to wane. The violence which erupted at the funeral of Queen Caroline in September 1821 was the last incident to really capture the imaginations of the satirists and the remarkable single plate prints which George Cruikshank produced on this subject were amongst the last anti-government satires he produced before government bribes finally convinced him to pursue a more lucrative career producing humorous social satires and book illustrations. The political landscape also changed significantly after 1821, as many of the villains of the Regency-era retired from politics or was able to demonstrate their liberal credentials by offering support to republican revolutionaries in Latin America and Greece. Even the King, who increasingly confined himself to the seclusion of Windsor castle, ceased to be a figure of public mockery.
By the summer of 1821 William Hone, who had worked tirelessly and without rest since 1819, had reached the point of physical and mental breakdown. Out walking one day in September 1821 Hone claimed that he saw the disembodied upper half of his own body floating down the opposite side of Fleet Street and on a number of occasions he refused to enter his own house as he believed it to be surrounded by a huge wall of fire. Suffering from hallucinations, feelings of intense agoraphobia and paranoia, Hone spent more and more time confined to his study and to his books until one night, on hearing the clock of St Paul’s strike 2am, he looked up to his window and saw a “haggard” and “ferocious” face glaring through at the writing on his desk “as though it chiefly desired to be acquainted with the books that lay upon it”. Hone later recalled that in this, the final and most terrifying of his visions, it seemed as though an incubus had been summoned up to steal away his life's work.
Although Hone’s health gradually began to improve as the pressures upon him eased in the early 1820s, he would never again return to the world of political satire. Writing in 1824 he opined that he was “weary of strife” and that he believed that his once famous sense of humour had now left him. He became a successful auctioneer for a while before returning to antiquarian research and popular literature in a series of highly successful books on the origins and oddities of British culture. It is however for his political satires for which Hone is rightly remembered today.