[UPDATE: where I worked, in the new manuscripts portion, built ca. 1974]

This is where I’m working this week–the Guildhall Library–so that I can spend some more time unraveling the complicated legal fortunes of John Wilkes between 1762 and 1771.  These records, convoluted as they are, are definitely giving me more respect for Wilkes, who single-handedly evaded all the Government’s attempts to silence him (though not to jail him) during this period.  In fact, jailing him just made him more popular, so the Government essentially gave it up and contented itself with jailing or harassing his associates.

I must say that manuscript work of this type feels more exhausting than any other kind of research, because deciphering even a single letter can take ages, and Wilkes is a peculiarly well-documented indvidual with volume after volume of papers collected about him.

While reading these papers, along with the political periodicals Wilkes worked on, I was struck at the discrepancy between the political circumstances–which were highly mutable yet inconclusive–and the rigidity of the political discourse–which felt absolutely stereotyped.  It was a huge relief to find a speech of Edmund Burke’s, which perfectly diagnosed the causes of the discontents.  Yet it was equally clear that Burke’s eloquence was having little effect on his fellow-politicians.  It’s a good example of a period where the participants seem more than usually blind to the significance of what they’re doing. 


[and this is the old Guildhall building]


4 responses to “manuscripts

  1. Being a library type, I took a look at the Guildhall Library. Is it in the old Guildhall Building or a separate facility? (The Guildhall is beautiful – apparently a 15th century building updated with a “Hindoostani Gothic” entrance).

    Reading about Wilkes in an old library in London sounds like a lot of fun. From the Cash biography it certainly sounded like the government just didn’t know what to do with him. So are you saying that the government was trying to carry on with business as usual without recognizing or responding to the underlying discontents that made Wilkes such a hero?

  2. Dave Mazella

    According to my little handout, we’re next to the St. Lawrence Jewry, and housed in the west wing of Guildhall, which was built in 1974. It’s about as comfortable and attractive as any other building from 1974. It looks like it could be an interior from Kojak.

    As for Wilkes, that arch-criminal, the documents I’ve been looking at have centered mostly on his prosecution for the Essay on Woman, and the machinations of the government to put him in jail. The interesting aspect of this is how Wilkes essentially rewrote constitutional law for his own benefit, by discrediting general warrants to the point where the government’s own justices disowned these practices.

    As for the underlying discontents, it’s unclear how those could be registered in an atmosphere with a new and headstrong king playing constitutional hardball, a pliant parliament filled with his placemen, and a divided opposition. Wilkes filled a void in leadership, but the government and the opposition both had little sense of what to do with him.


  3. Julie Grob

    Ah, it sounds like what they did with the British Museum – moved the materials out of a fabulous old building into a new space. The website says:

    The Old Library building housed the Guildhall library and the Guildhall Museum from 1873 until 1974, when the collections moved to the newly constructed west wing and the Museum of London. Both the Old Library and the adjacent Print Room are now used as reception rooms.

    But it sounds like your Kojak-era library is part of the same compound with the 15th century/Hindoostani Guildhall:

    The present Guildhall was begun in 1411 and, having survived both the Great Fire of London and the Blitz, it is the only secular stone structure dating from before 1666 still standing in the City.

    I think on your next stretch-your-legs break you should try to find the front of the old Guildhall and ask one of the librarians if you can check out the Old Library or the Print Room.


  4. Dave Mazella

    I spent my last day frantically photographing as many pages as I could, while taking notes and trying to check my battery levels. At the end of the day I reviewed a bunch of prints, satirical and otherwise, that they also had there. Most of this stuff is on Collage, but some is not. So I spent almost all my time in the Kojakastani building.

    I looked in the little bookshop, which is very well-stocked with expensive London books, and saw that the Gallery had an exquisite portrait of a very fleshy looking Brass Crosby from the mid-70s, and a slightly ludicrous picture of a prophetic Richard Oliver reading scripture in 71. There should be a trading card series or something, called Heroes of English Liberty, featuring these guys and their portraits.

    But I’ll be back in Houston shortly.