Who was J. Almon?
by Kelly Schmidt
Burlington House in 1707
John Almon, the British publisher of Common Sense located “opposite Burlington-House, Piccadilly,” was a London bookseller and journalist, famous as a parliamentary reporter and political writer who struggled on behalf of the press for rights to publish reports of debates held in Parliament.
Almon was born in Liverpool, England, on December 17, 1737. After attending school in Warrington, he moved to Liverpool in March 1751 and apprenticed with a bookseller and printer. In September 1758 he traveled through Holland and the rest of Europe, establishing himself in London as a journeyman printer in 1759. There, in 1760, he met and married Elizabeth Jackson, with whom he would have ten children, and began his publishing career.
The London publishing scene quickly recognized Almon's talent. In January 1761, Mr. Say, the publisher of London’s Gazetteer, employed Almon to write letters of political journalism for the paper. When King George II died, he wrote “A Review of his late Majesty’s Reign;" and in October 1761 he published “A Review of Mr. Pitt’s Administration,” which put him in favor with members of the opposition party, including Edmund Burke. With the support of patronage from members of the political opposition, particularly of the club “The Coterie,” Almon was able to set up his own printing and bookselling establishment in 1763. His shop was located at 178 Piccadilly, where his wealth and renown grew with each publication. By 1763 he had become the official bookseller to the Coterie.
Of the acquaintances Almon made in this position, the most influential was John Wilkes, a Whig political reformer. Wilkes and Almon developed a lifelong friendship and correspondence. They delivered letters through friends to avoid detection by spies in the post office. Through his shop, Almon spread Wilkes’ political writings, as well as treatises of his own, often under a pseudonym such as “The Father of Candor.”
Almon’s politicized publications supporting the efforts of Wilkes and his followers against British ministers eventually got him into trouble with the British government. On May 1, 1765, Almon was prosecuted for publishing A Letter Concerning Libels, but the charges were dropped. In 1770, Almon’s shop sold the London Museum, which contained a copy of “Junius’s Letter to the King,” a controversial pamphlet first produced by the opposition in 1768. The pamphlet’s pseudonymous author accused the royal ministry of corruption and attacked the immorality of influential politicians. Almon was soon put on trial in one of the most famous seditious libel cases of the era. Almon was imprisoned brifely as a result, but was eventually released with a fine of £800 and probation of two years’ good behavior. Daringly, within this period, Almon published “The Trials of John Almon,” containing another copy of Junius’s letter disguised as a report on Almon’s own trial produced by the Attorney General, which Almon signed, “filed ex officio by William De Grey."
In 1771, Almon precipitated a controversy between British printers and Parliament when he released Parliamentary reports in the London Evening Post. John Wilkes, now alderman of the City of London, used his position to protect Almon and his fellow printers from arrest and punishment. Despite the risk, Almon continued to print controversial material. In 1773, he published an article in the London Evening Post accusing John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, of selling an office of trust. As a result, the printer of the post was fined £2,000. Taking advantage of the freedom John Wilkes had secured for printers to publish parliamentary reports, Almon established The Parliamentary Register in 1774, which reported on Parliamentary proceedings until 1813.
Because of his earlier arrest, it was critical that Almon avoid another charge of seditious libel. So, when he decided to publish Common Sense, Almon removed the incriminating portions of the text that might get him into trouble with the Crown. In addition to publishing Common Sense and several other American pamphlets during the imperial crisis, Almon published The Remembrancer, a monthly series of articles on developments in the colonies during the American Revolution.
In 1781, Almon's wife Elizabeth died. Almon retired to Boxmoor in Hertfordshire, where he continued to write on miscellaneous subjects, supported by the small fortune he had acquired over the course of his printing career. Finding retirement irritating, he became proprietor and editor of the General Advertizer, a newspaper, at 183 Fleet Street in London. Around this time, Almon married Mrs. Parker, the widow of the former proprietor of the General Advertizer.
Almon continued to publish incendiary material in the General Advertizer. In 1786 Lord Mansfield accused Almon of libel against William Pitt, and Almon faced another trial. Despite this, Almon was prosecuted again in 1788 for libelling King George III by commenting on the King's insanity in the General Advertizer. Almon became an outlaw when he failed to appear for his sentence. He retreated temporarily to France, before resuming his retirement in Boxmoor. Nevertheless, Almon was imprisoned in the King’s Bench for fourteen months from 1792-1793, and then put on bail for the rest of his life. Beset by the trial and financial difficulties, he returned to Boxmoor to finish his days. There he edited an edition of Junius and some of his other writings, living on the remainder of his fortune until he died on December 12, 1805.
Barget, Monika. "Political opposition and publishing - the trial of bookseller and journalist John Almon in 1770." Open Edition Books, July 31, 2014. http://revolt.hypotheses.org/367.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. "John Almon." Encyclopaedia Britannica (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1998). https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Almon.
Rogers, Deborah. Bookseller as Rogue: John Almon and the Politics of Eighteenth-Century Publishing. New York: Peter Lang, 1986.
Smith, Edward. "Almon, John." Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 1 (London: Elder Smith & Co., 1885). https://archive.org/details/dictionarynatio43stepgoog.
Stockdale, Eric, and Charles A. Keely. 'Tis Treason, My Good Man!: Four Revolutionary Presidents and a Piccadilly Bookshop. London: The British Library, 2005.
Almon, John, Memoirs of a Late Eminent Bookseller.