William Hone was born in 1770, in Bath, but spent much of his life in London. A popular, radical socialist and bookseller, his political and religious satires such as ‘The Reformists’ Register’ and ‘The Political Litany’ (both published in 1817) courted ill-favour with the Prince Regent and many influential people of the day. Hone campaigned for the right of the working classes to vote, and attempted to set up an early form of credit union. In 1817 he made British history when a libel prosecution brought against him by the Attorney General failed – to public applause – leading to significant changes in the law surrounding press censorship.
But it is Hone’s folkloric works which were the major inspiration behind Hidden Highgate, for in the mid 1820s Hone began producing a well-loved series of publications, known as The Every-day Book, The Table-Book and The Year-Book.
These ground-breaking books and installments invited and embraced contributions from all strata of Regency society. Energised by a lifelong desire to share his passion for local history and customs with others, Hone encouraged readers to present their own additions to his heavily illustrated, calendar-themed articles, and travelled the country tracking down and interviewing ordinary people whose recollections of the (now) extraordinary would otherwise have been lost forever.
Some of these volumes were compiled in King’s Bench Prison, where Hone was incarcerated after falling into debt. This was largely as a result of his refusal to edit-down his outpourings, and the many brilliant and original woodcuts which he commissioned from his artistic collaborator George Cruikshank. Hone’s enthusiasm for involving the public in the process of documenting their own histories was never profitable, but it was extremely catching.
Perhaps the kernel of Hone’s popularity lay in his recognition of the fact that published accounts of the rapidly dying out customs of villages and towns alike would ultimately be rendered valueless in his time (and in ours) if they did not constitute as varied and inclusive a perspective as possible. Using this approach he managed to create a bridge between the tendency of the middle and upper classes to dismiss and devalue the rural superstitions and bawdy entertainments of the poor, and a more widely held desire to hold onto an idealised vision of an England which was shifting rapidly – economically, industrially and, subsequently, socially. Hone was a good friend of that great social reformer Charles Dickens (who set several scenes from his novels, including ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’, in and around Highgate), and never sugarcoated the unsavoury aspects of nineteenth century life. But by creating a kind of forum where dirty day to day reality sat in harmony with rustic descriptions of vanishing landscapes, customs and alehouses and romantic (and sometimes cutting) tales of the nobility and aristocracy Hone gave a collaborative platform to all those who mourned the passing of old Albion and feared the march of the machines. Most importantly he showed that everyone’s stories and histories matter and deserve to be preserved.
Hone’s holistic approach to documenting popular culture was successful in bringing people together, largely through helping to cultivate a shared appreciation of where they came from, and where they had ended up. In an era where many people were forced to move around the country to find suitable work, often leaving their families and friends behind, this found great appeal. Hone turned scrapbooking and reminiscing into an artform which has stood the test of time and which tells us more about the past than a sanitised and polarised miscellany ever could. It is his enduring example which I have tried to reproduce on this site. One stratum of a community – let alone one person – can never represent it entirely, and the recollections and thoughts of all are welcome here, whether paranormally or historically themed. A community, after all, can only ever be the sum of its parts.
The beautiful architecture and literary notables of Highgate will always have their story told, and retold: the unique physical character of Highgate especially must continue to have its profile raised and maintained if it is to remain preserved intact for future generations to enjoy. But there are other voices which we can still catch on the breeze, if we listen very carefully; other stories, other architectural and natural anomalies which are less salubrious but no less valid and which tell us about another, tougher, darker Highgate. It is these places and people, often nameless, these water-carriers and beggars, these lepers, highwaymen and creatures of the night who would be welcome in Hone’s pages as much as Coleridge or Keats. Hopefully Hidden Highgate will help them speak again.
If you would like to learn more about William Hone, please do check out some of the links below. Oh, and I forgot to mention – Hone adored the Northern Heights of London! So expect to read some of his thoughts on them here soon.
He is buried in Abney Park Cemetery, and died near Bruce Castle in 1842.
I wish we could have met.