By Joseph Hone

Chatto & Windus. 251 pages. £18.99. ISBN 978-1-784-74306-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

London in 1705 was awash with conspiracies, plots, schemes, and rivalries. It hadn’t been long since James the Second, a Catholic sympathiser, had lost his throne when an invasion force from Holland, led by William of Orange and his English wife, Mary, landed and in due course took over the country. But there were still many people sympathetic to James. Jacobite supporters could be found everywhere, including Parliament, though it wasn’t always wise to be outspoken about it. In 1702  Anne, the daughter of James, had been proclaimed Queen following the death of William. She had been brought up in the Anglican faith and ruled over a kingdom that was still bitterly divided in many ways. And Britain was at war with France.

Before 1695 it had been necessary to submit printed matter for inspection, and possible censorship, prior to publication. The law was changed so that “government licensing of books, newspapers, and pamphlets officially came to an end”. It might seem that this, in effect, allowed anyone to write and publish anything they wanted. It wasn’t the case, of course, and there were strict laws which referred to treason, libel, and other matters that could lead to prosecution, possible imprisonment, and even the death penalty. Free expression was still a risky business. Even if the law didn’t take action against offenders, powerful people had their own ways of dealing with a writer or printer they thought had offended them. Threats, mysterious disappearances, and murders were not uncommon. It was little wonder that authors often chose to remain anonymous.

It was in this kind of atmosphere, in a London that could be violent, and where gossip and innuendo flourished in the coffee-houses and taverns, that hack writers, and even more-polished ones,  churned out poems and prose works commenting on the politics of the day and the personalities involved. There were always plenty of printers waiting to produce a pamphlet or a leaflet and numerous bookshops or street stalls where they might be bought. As noted, it could be dangerous to print something controversial, but printers often had political leanings that persuaded them to handle what was risky. They attempted to evade being identified by omitting their addresses. This wasn’t always a sure way of avoiding attention. Spies and informers abounded, and other printers sometimes recognised a publication’s origins from the kind of paper and type used.

David Edwards, a printer with premises in Nevil’s Alley, just off Fetter Lane in Holborn, was wary when in 1705 a masked woman turned up and handed him a manuscript she wanted him to print as a pamphlet. Edwards looked at the document, which bore the title, The Memorial of the Church of England. It was anonymous and appeared to be an attack on the church for allegedly watering-down its principles by allowing dissenters to be included in its ranks. It was clearly stating a case that had Tory backing. Joseph Hone says that “Dissenters and broadminded conformists gathered under the Whig banner to fight what they viewed as renewed tyranny and absolutism” whereas for the Tories, “Conformists and churchmen all………….Monarchy remained sacred in Tory doctrine and the king was owed blind, passive obedience by his subjects”.  Add to this a very strong current of Jacobitism and a divided view of Catholicism. Both parties were anti-Catholic, but some Whigs were perhaps inclined to be more tolerant of their presence in the interests of maintaining a broad-based form of government.  There were English Catholics who still supported the Stuart claims to the English throne, and responded when the “Old Pretender” marched down into England from Scotland in 1715. The overall situation in England in the early-1700s can best be described as unstable.

Edwards’ doubts about accepting the commission to print The Memorial of the Church of England were overcome by the fee offered, and perhaps his political commitments. His wife, Mary, was a Catholic, whereas he was Church of England. But both were of the opinion that, “the exiled King James had been treated abominably and that King William was nothing more than a usurper”. The sentiments expressed in the pamphlet would have appealed to them.  They would have known the dangers inherent in what they were doing. Edwards had been in trouble before when he printed works by Catholic theologians. And he was fined and spent time in the pillory for printing The Anti-Curse, a pro-King James tract.  As Hone puts it, “Ever since the outbreak of civil war, printed pamphlets had been the principal vessel for public debate”. Sold by hawkers in the streets, circulated in the coffee-houses where people, if inclined, talked about what was in the news, and passed from hand to hand, they were seen as dangerous when they attacked, often by way of satire, those in positions of power.

Once Edwards and his wife had produced the pamphlet the plot began to thicken. The mysterious veiled lady had re-appeared, and various others, such as porters who carried messages across London, became involved. No-one knew the identity of the lady, nor that of another woman who arrived with her but stayed outside the printer’s premises.  When the document came to the attention of the authorities the hunt began to ascertain who wrote the pamphlet and who printed it. Robert Harley, the Secretary of State, led the investigation, employing informants and “messengers”, men who were authorised to act in tracking down anyone suspected of subversion.  In this case its contents added up to allegations of “corruption, greed, and perversion within the corridors of power, a ‘heretick fever’ lurking in the bowels of church and state”. It is, perhaps, not always easy to understand that, at the time concerned, the interests of church and state were frequently closely combined. As Hone says, “religion served government by regulating social behaviour”.

One of the joys of reading The Paper Chase is encountering the wide range of characters that Hone introduces into the narrative. William Pittis, for example, “abandoned a prestigious junior fellowship at Oxford in 1695 to pursue a literary career in London”. He soon became associated with “an unruly crowd” which included Grub Street writers like Ned Ward, Thomas D’Urfey, and Tom Brown, who met at the Rose Tavern “on the corner of Cross Keys Alley and the Strand”. Pittis was “a drinker among drinkers”, and was said to be “brash in conversation and careless in the company he kept”. John Dunton, described in Pope’s The Dunciad, as a “broken bookseller and abusive scribbler”, said of Pittis that: “He can guzzle more at a sitting than wou’d keep a family a month”. It’s significant that Pittis and his cronies launched a monthly “poetic journal” with the title, Miscellanies Over Claret, from The Rose, though Hone doesn’t say how long it lasted.

The net was closing in on Edwards, but he had disappeared (he had fled to his native Wales), so his wife was arrested and questioned. She was eventually released, mainly so that she could be followed in the hope that she would lead the watchers to her husband. In the meantime suspicion had fallen on Thomas Mackworth, “a leading Tory backbencher” and Henry Poley, “a Lincoln’s Inn lawyer” as possible authors of the pamphlet. Poley was also a Tory backbencher. Mary had been roaming London, looking for the masked lady and her associates, and in many ways functioning as a detective in a more-convincing manner than most of Harley’s spies and enforcers. 

Edwards eventually agreed to return to London and co-operate with any enquiries into who wrote The Memorial, provided he was indemnified against prosecution. He felt, not without reason, that he had been abandoned by those who had written and financed the pamphlet, despite the masked lady assuring him that powerful men were behind it and would protect him in the event of trouble. They obviously had little or no intention of honouring any promises the lady had made – were they her own invention? – and Edwards therefore felt justified in defending his and Mary’s interests by telling what he knew.

His actions may have seemed necessary, given that he was living in impoverished circumstances. The news that he had agreed to act as an investigator and informer for Harley soon circulated among writers and printers in London. The result was that he “alienated many of his old friends. Men like William Pittis and Ned Ward, who had defended the Memorial in the press at great personal cost, would no longer even look at him”. Hone suggests that, in fact, much of the information that Edwards may have passed to Harley probably originated from Mary whose talents for tracking down suspects and unearthing details of their activities had come to the fore when Edwards was in hiding: “Having spent her childhood running errands for her stepfather and his shady associates in the Catholic book trade, it was a part Mary was born to play”.

That Edwards was not the only one who could switch sides was shown when Harley resigned from his position as Secretary of State due to a scandal involving a member of his staff. William Greg, a junior clerk, had been selling secret documents to the French. He had been given a job by Harley after playing a useful part in reporting on Jacobite activities in Scotland. There was nothing to suggest that Harley knew about Greg’s treachery, though he had little option but to resign. To retain a position in politics, he began to ingratiate himself with the Tories.

Interest in the Memorial faded with Harley’s fall from grace. There was, a few years later, a second edition, by which time it was said to be partly the work of Dr James Drake, along with Thomas Mackworth and Henry Poley. But neither Harley nor Edwards responded in print to its appearance. Hone says that Edwards could have commented on how and why the first edition was printed, and who was possibly behind it, but chose to stay silent: “Experience had taught him to avoid the fray”.  He had, thanks to Harley’s influence, been given a job in the Thames customs office, “inspecting and collecting duties on high-value goods from the East Indies, mostly silks and spices”. While his wife “continued occasionally to print and sell books from her stall on Fetter Lane, the press on Nevil’s Alley was mostly dormant”. She presumably played it safe by not printing anything likely to attract hostile attention, and the new edition of Memorial didn’t come from her print shop. The couple appear to have disappeared from history at that point.

The Paper Chase is an engaging book. It successfully mixes the personal stories of David and Mary Edwards with the wider account of the complex politics of the reign of Queen Anne. With memories of the Civil War and the Restoration still in mind, the Jacobite threat, the Glorious Revolution, and the general shifting nature of British society at the time, it was a turbulent period. It was also a colourful one, if sometimes brutal. Hone touches on the Grub Street writers and the taverns where they gathered and laid down plans for new publications, many of them admittedly not destined to have long lives. Not all of what was written and published had a political edge, nor was it meant to be taken seriously. But there were writers willing to engage in political matters, and printers who would risk publishing controversial material. Joseph Hone brings this world alive in The Paper Chase. His book is well-researched, with ample notes, and a useful bibliographical essay.