DAVID ARNOLD - ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ cried the crowds

John Wilkes (left) and Thomas Paine were leading radicals in 18th century England. We know that Paine lived in Lewes in August 1770 when Wilkes paid a visit to the town. It is more than likely that the pair met and were probably joined by local newspaper editor William Lee.
John Wilkes (left) and Thomas Paine were leading radicals in 18th century England. We know that Paine lived in Lewes in August 1770 when Wilkes paid a visit to the town. It is more than likely that the pair met and were probably joined by local newspaper editor William Lee.
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Last week I mentioned a reference in Gideon Mantell’s diary to a balloon flight he made together with “Mr Lee, Editor of the Lewes paper who was aged upwards of 80”.

The Mr Lee in question had the Christian name of William and was named after his father, William Lee (1713-86), a native of Chichester, who founded the Sussex Weekly Advertiser (also known as the Lewes & Brighthelmstone Journal) in 1745. This publication is considered to be the county’s first-ever newspaper.

Along with Thomas Paine, the elder Lee became a member of the Headstrong Club that met regularly at the White Hart in Lewes to drink, discuss politics and debate the issues of the day – most likely in that order!

Having a strong republican bent that reflected the opinions of Editor Lee, the Journal carried letters under the nom de plume of “Junius” that regularly attacked the government. Other articles deplored the British state and its colonial system, the nobility and social inequality. Paine contributed several pieces.

Lee was a great supporter of John Wilkes, a one-time English MP and journalist with radical views; Lee regarded him as a “great patriot” who championed the rights of electors and advocated freedom of the press. Like Lee and Paine, Wilkes supported the cause of the American rebels seeking independence from Britain.

In August 1770, Wilkes visited Lewes, where the popular politician was given a warm welcome with pealing bells and applauding crowds crying out “Wilkes and Liberty”. It is very likely that Lee, Wilkes and Paine would have met up, most likely at the White Hart.

In 1772 (when Paine was still in Lewes), Lee moved his press to 64 High Street, a building that still stands today. This same year it is believed it was Lee who printed 4,000 copies of Thomas Paine’s 21-page article, “The Case of the King of England and his Officers of Excise”, an unsuccessful plea for better pay and working conditions for excisemen. Paine was employed as one of the latter in Lewes.

Lee remembered Paine as “a shrewd and sensible fellow” who displayed an abnormal “depth of political knowledge”. In further praise he wrote a poem that included these words: “Immortal Paine!
Thy logic vanquish’d error, and thy mind
knew no bounds, but those of right and truth.”

Lee’s sons William (1747-1830) and Arthur (1759-1824) succeeded him as joint editors of the Lewes Journal. William Lee undertook his tethered balloon trip with Gideon Mantell in 1828. Mantell attended William Lee’s funeral on 26th November 1830. In his diary he wrote: “He (Lee) has been Editor of the Lewes Paper for above half a century and was a beau-ideal of a country editor of the old school.

“He had not kept pace with the progress of knowledge and although remarkable quick and shrewd he was lamentably ignorant of every principle of science.

“He was an antiquist and fond of collecting old things, without understanding them. He affected universal knowledge, without being acquainted with any branch thoroughly. Yet with all this there was an independence about him and an originality that rendered him valuable.”