Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



SOME day in the first week of July (I fancy it was Thursday, the 6th, but I cannot distinguish it with perfect precision, as some of my memoranda were scattered by my imprisonment) I enjoyed one of those very rare trips into the country which my engagements allowed. I was accompanied by two old friends, Mr. J. M. Wheeler and Mr. John Robertson, the latter being then on a brief first visit to London. We went up the river by boat, walked for hours about Kew and Richmond, and sat on the famous Terrace in the early evening, enjoying the lovely prospect, and discussing a long letter from Italy, written by one of our best friends, who was spending a year in that poet's paradise. How we chattered all through that golden day on all subjects, in the heavens above, on the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth! With what fresh delight, in keeping with the scene, we compared our favorite authors and capped each other's quotations! Rare Walt Whitman told Mr. Conway that his forte was "loafing and writing poems." Well, we loafed too, and if we did not write poems, we startled the birds, the sheep, the cattle, and stray pedestrians, by reciting them. I returned home with that pleasant feeling of fatigue which is a good sign of health -- with tired limbs and a clear brain, languid but not jaded. Throwing myself into the chair before my desk, I lit my pipe, and sat calmly puffing, while the incidents of that happy day floated through my memory as I watched the floating smoke-wreaths. Casually turning round, I noticed a queer-looking sheet of paper on the desk. I picked it up and read it. It was a summons from the Lord Mayor, commanding my attendance at the Mansion House on the following Tuesday, to answer a charge of Blasphemy. Strange ending to such a day! What a tragi-comedy life is -- how full of contrasts and surprises, of laughter and tears.

Two others were summoned to appear with me: Mr. W. J. Ramsey, as publisher and proprietor, and Mr. E. W. Whittle, as printer. Mr. Bradlaugh, who was not included in the prosecution until a later stage of the proceedings, rendered us ungrudging assistance. Mr. Lickfold, of the well-known legal firm of Lewis and Lewis, was engaged to watch the case on behalf of Mr. Whittle. As for my own defence, I resolved from the very first to conduct it myself, a course for which I had excellent reasons, that were perfectly justified by subsequent events. In the Freethinker of July 30, 1882, I wrote:

"I have to defend a principle as well as myself. The most skilful counsel might be half-hearted and over-prudent. Every lawyer looks to himself as well as to his client. When Erskine made his great speech at the end of last century in a famous trial for treason, Thomas Paine said it was a splendid speech for Mr. Erskine, but a very poor defence of the "Rights of Man." If Freethought is attacked it must be defended, and the charge of Blasphemy must be retorted on those who try to suppress liberty in the name of God. For my part, I would rather be convicted after my own defence than after another man's; and before I leave the court, for whatever destination, I will make the ears of bigotry tingle, and shame the hypocrites who profess and disbelieve."

For whatever destination! Yes, I avow that from the moment I read the summons I never had a doubt as to my fate. I knew that prosecutions for Blasphemy had invariably succeeded. How, indeed, could they possibly fail? I might by skill or luck get one jury to disagree, but acquittal was hopeless; and the prosecution could go on trying me until they found a jury sufficiently orthodox to ensure a verdict of guilty. It was a foregone conclusion. The prosecution played, "Heads I win, tails you lose."

And now a word as to our prosecutor. Nominally, of course, we were prosecuted by the Crown; and Judge North had the ignorance or impudence to tell the Old Bailey jury that this was not only theory but fact. Lord Coleridge, when he tried us two months later in the Court of Queen's Bench, told the jury that although the nominal prosecutor was the Crown, the actual prosecutor, the real plaintiff who set the Crown in motion, was Sir Henry Tyler. He provided all the necessary funds. Without his cash, nobody would have paid for the summons, and the pious lawyers, from Sir Hardinge Giffard downwards, who harangued the magistrates, the judge and the jury, would have held their venal tongues, and left poor Religion to defend herself as she could. And who is Sir Henry Tyler? or, rather, who was he? for after emerging into public notoriety by playing the part of a prosecutor, he fell back into his natural obscurity. He remained a Member of Parliament, but no one heard of him in that capacity, except now and then when he asked a foolish question, like others of his kind, who are mysteriously permitted to sit in our national legislature. Three years ago, however, he was a more conspicuous personage. He was then chairman of the Board of Directors of the Brush Light Company; and according to Henry Labouchere's statements in Truth, he was a "notorious guinea-pig." He was certainly an adept in the profitable transfer of shares: so much so, indeed, that at length the shareholders revolted against their pious chairman, and appointed a committee to investigate his proceedings. Whereupon this modern Knight of the Holy Ghost levanted, preferring to resign rather than face the inquiry. This is the man who asked in the House of Commons whether Mr. Bradlaugh's daughters could not be deprived of their hard-earned grants for their pupils who successfully passed the South Kensington examinations! This is the man who posed as the amateur champion of omnipotence! Surely if deity wanted a champion, Sir Henry Tyler is about the last person who would receive an application. Yet it is men of this stamp who have usually set the Blasphemy Laws in operation. These infamous laws are allowed to slumber for years, until some contemptible wretch, to gratify his private malice or a baser passion, rouses them into vicious activity, and fastens their fangs on men whose characters are far superior to his own. With this fact before them, it is strange that Christians should continue to regard these detestable laws as a bulwark of their faith, or in any way calculated to defend it against the inroads of "infidelity."

Sir Henry Tyler may after all have been a tool in the hands of others, for the St. Stephen's Review has admitted that the object of this prosecution was to cripple Mr. Bradlaugh in his parliamentary struggle, and we expected a prosecution long before it came, in consequence of some conversation on the subject overheard in the Tea Room of the House of Commons. But this, if true, while it heightens his insignificance, in no wise lessens his infamy; and it certainly does not impair, but rather increases, the force of my strictures on the Blasphemy Laws.

Lord Coleridge, in the Court of Queen's Bench, on the occasion of Mr. Bradlaugh's trial, sarcastically alluded to Sir Henry Tyler as "a person entirely unknown to me" -- a very polite way of saying, "What does such an obscure person mean by assuming the role of Defender of the Faith?" His lordship must also have had that individual in his mind when, on the occasion of my own trial with Mr. Ramsey in the same Court on April 25, 1883, he delivered himself of these sentiments in the course of his famous summing-up:

"A difficult form of virtue is quietly and unostentatiously to obey what you believe to be God's will in your own lives. It is not very easy to do that, and if you do it, you don't make much noise in the world. It is very easy to turn upon somebody who differs from you, and in the guise of zeal for God's honor, to attack somebody who differs from you in point of opinion, but whose life may be very much more pleasing to God, whom you profess to honor, than your own. When it is done by persons whose own lives are full of pretending to be better than their neighbors, and who take that particular form of zeal for God which consists in putting the criminal law in force against somebody else -- that does not, in many people's minds, create a sympathy with the prosecutor, but rather with the defendant. There is no doubt that will be so; and if they should be men -- I don't know anything about these persons -- but if they should be men who enjoy the wit of Voltaire, and who do not turn away from the sneer of Gibbon, but rather relish the irony of Hume -- one's feelings do not go quite with the prosecutor, but one's feelings are rather apt to sympathise with the defendants. It is still worse if the person who takes this course takes it not from a kind of rough notion that God wants his assistance, and that he can give it -- less on his own account than by prosecuting other -- or if it is mixed up with anything of a partisan or political nature. Then it is impossible that anything can be more foreign from one's notions of what is high-minded, religious and noble. Indeed, I must say it strikes me that anyone who would do that, not for the honor of God, but for his own purposes, is entitled to the most disdainful disapprobation that the human mind can form."

Some of the orthodox Tory journals censured Lord Coleridge for these scathing remarks, but his lordship is not easily frightened by anonymous critics, and it is probable that, if he ever has to try another case like ours, he may denounce the prosecutors in still stronger language if their motives are so obviously sinister as were those of Sir Henry Tyler.

There was a great crowd of people outside the Mansion House on Tuesday morning, May 11, and we were lustily cheered as we entered. Long before the Lord Mayor, Sir Whittaker Ellis, took his seat on the Bench, every inch of standing space in the Justice Room was occupied. Mr. Bradlaugh took a seat near Mr. Lickfold and frequently tendered us hints and advice. Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Whittle, and I took our places in the dock as our names were called out by Mr. Gresham, the chief clerk of the court. Our summons alleged that we unlawfully did publish, or caused to be published, certain blasphemous libels in a newspaper called the Freethinker, dated the 28th of May, 1882.

Mr. Maloney, who appeared for the prosecution, seemed fully impressed with the gravity of his position, and when he rose he had the air of a man who bore the responsibility of defending in his single person the honor, if not the very existence, of our national religion. His first proceeding was very characteristic of a gentleman with such a noble task. He attempted to hand in as evidence against us several numbers of the Freethinker not mentioned in the summons, and these would have been at once admitted by the Lord Mayor, who was apparently used to accepting evidence in an extremely free and easy fashion, as is generally the case with the "great unpaid"; but Mr. Lickfold promptly intervened, and his lordship, seeing the necessity of carefulness, then held that it would be advisable to adhere to the one case that morning, and to take out fresh summonses for the other numbers. Mr. Maloney then proceeded to deal with the numbers before the Court. There were numerous blasphemies which, if we were committed for trial, would be set forth in the indictment, but he would "spare the ears of the Court." One passage, however, he did read, and it is well to put on record, for the sake of those who talk about our "indecent" attacks on Christianity, what a prosecuting barrister felt he could rely on to procure our committal. It was as follows: "As for the Freethinker, he will scorn to degrade himself by going through the farce of reconciling his soul to a God whom he justly regards as the embodiment of crime and ferocity." Those words were not mine; they were from an article by one of my contributors; but I ask any reasonable man whether it is not ludicrous to prate about religious freedom in a country where writers run the risk of imprisonment for a sentence like that? As Mr. Maloney ended the quotation his voice sank to a supernatural whisper, he dropped the paper on the desk before him, and regarded his lordship with a look of pathetic horror, which the worthy magistrate fully reciprocated. As I contemplated these two voluntary augurs of our national faith, and at the same time remembered that far stronger expressions might be found in the writings of Mill, Clifford, Amberley, Arnold, Newman, Conway, Swinburne, and other works in Mudie's circulating library, I could scarcely refrain from laughter.

The witnesses for the prosecution were of the ordinary type -- policemen, detectives, and lawyer's clerks -- with the exception of Mr. Charles Albert Watts, who by accident or design found himself in such questionable company. This young gentleman is the son of Mr. Charles Watts and printer of the Secular Review, and he was called to prove that I was the editor of the Freethinker. With the most cheerful alacrity he positively affirmed that I was, although he had absolutely no more knowledge on the subject -- as indeed he admitted on cross-examination -- than any other member of the British public. His appearance in the witness-box is still half a mystery to me and I can only ask, Que le diable allait-il faire dans cette galère?

Ultimately the case was remanded till the following Monday, Mr. Maloney intimating that he should apply for fresh summonses for other numbers of the Freethinker, as well as a summons against Mr. Bradlaugh for complicity in our crime.

Let me here pause to consider how these prosecutions for blasphemy are initiated. Under the Newspaper Libels Act no prosecution for libel can be commenced against the editor, publisher or proprietor of any newspaper, without the written fiat of the Public Prosecutor. This post is occupied by Sir John Maule, who enjoys a salary of £2,000 a year, and has the assistance of a well-appointed office in his strenuous labors. Punch once pictured him fast asleep before the fire, with a handkerchief over his face, while all sorts of unprosecuted criminals plied their nefarious trades; and Mr. Justice Hawkins (I think) has denounced him as a pretentious farce. He is practically irresponsible, unlike the Attorney-General, who, being a member of the Government, is amenable to public opinion. Press laws, except in cases of personal libel, ought not to be neglected or enforced at the discretion of such an official. Every interference with freedom of speech, whenever it is deemed necessary, should be undertaken by the Government, or at least have its express sanction. Nothing of the sort happened in our case. On the contrary, Sir John Maule allowed our prosecution after Sir William Harcourt had condemned it. The Public Prosecutor set himself above the Home Secretary. Unfortunately the general press saw nothing anomalous or dangerous in such a state of things; for an official like Sir John Maule, while ready enough to sanction the prosecution of an unpopular journal, which presumably has few friends, is naturally reluctant, as events have shown, to allow proceedings against a powerful journal whose friends may be numerous and influential. Fortunately, however, a Select Committee of the House of Commons has taken a more sensible view of the Public Prosecutor and the duties he has so muddled, and recommended the abolition of his office. Should this step be taken, his duties will probably be performed by the Solicitor-General, and the press will be freed from a danger it had not the sense or the courage to avert. As for Sir John Maule, he will of course retire with a big pension, and live in fat ease for the rest of his sluggish life.

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