Campaigning in the Streets of London: An Early Wilkes Ballad
♫ Listen to it here ♫
The rousing ballad ‘Wilkes and Freedom’ supports John Wilkes’s bid to be elected as an anti-ministerial MP for London in March 1768. Although Wilkes was not returned for London – indeed he came last in the poll –, the ballad anticipates the politician’s far more developed and successful popularising campaigns for Middlesex, which produced a flurry of cultural forms, including items of print, material culture, and song.

The ballad enlists the well-known and catchy tune ‘Gee Ho Dobbin’ to celebrate Wilkes as the heroic opponent of authoritarian government (Wilkes had sensationally challenged the legality of his arrest for involvement in the anti-ministerial paper the North Briton, and had been outlawed in 1764). It is included in The Battle of the Quills (1768), a collection of texts concerning Wilkes from the time he stood as an MP for London to the time of his election for Middlesex, issued by John Williams, Wilkes's printer previously convicted of seditious libel for reprinting the North Briton. The collection states that ‘Wilkes and Freedom’ was one of a number of pieces which appeared as soon as Wilkes declared his intention to stand for London, to ‘stimulate’ the city electors ‘to engage in his cause’.

Nancy Kerr and Matt Quinn’s interpretation uses concertina to update and recreate the festive spirit of this piece, which was probably sung by ballad singers in the streets of London and which, set to a jig tune, could have inspired communal singing and dancing.

‘Wilkes and Freedom: A New Ballad. Tune,—Geho Dobbin’, in The Battle of the Quills: Or, Wilkes Attacked and Defended ... (London, 1768), pp. 7-8, LSE Library, OW1769/30