Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



MR. MALONEY obtained his summons against Mr. Bradlaugh, whose name was included in a new document which was served on all of us. I have lost our first Summons, but I am able to give a copy of the second. It ran thus:

"TO WILLIAM JAMES RAMSEY, of 28 Stonecutter Street, in the City of London, and 20 Brownlow Street, Dalston, in the county of Middlesex; GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, of 9 South Crescent, Bedford Square, in the county of Middlesex; EDWARD WILLIAM WHITTLE, of 170 Saint John Street, Clerkenwell, in the county of Middlesex; and CHARLES BRADLAUGH, of 20 Circus Road, Saint John's Wood, in the county of Middlesex, and 28 Stonecutter Street, in the City of London.

"Whereas you have this day been charged before the under-signed, the Lord Mayor of the City of London, being one of Her Majesty's justices of the peace in and for the said City, and the liberties thereof, by Sir Henry Tyler, of Dashwood House, 9 New Broad Street, in the said City, for that you, in the said City, unlawfully did publish, or cause and procure to be published, certain blasphemous libels in a newspaper called the Freethinker, dated and published on the days following -- that is to say, on the 26th day of March, 1882, on the 9th, 23rd and 30th days of April, 1882, and on the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th days of May, 1882, and on the 11th and 18th days of June, 1882, against the peace, etc.:

"These are therefore to command you, in Her Majesty's name, to be and appear before me, on Monday, the 17th day of July, 1882, at eleven of the clock in the forenoon, at the Mansion House Justice-Room, in the said City, or before such other justice or justices of the peace for the same City as may then be there, to answer to the said charge, and to be further dealt with according to law. Herein fail not.

"Given under my hand and seal, this 12th day of July, in the year of our Lord 1882, at the Mansion House Justice-Room, aforesaid.

Lord Mayor, London."

On the following Monday, July 17, the junior Member for Northampton stood beside us in the Mansion House dock. The court was of course crowded, and a great number of people stood outside waiting for a chance of admission. The Lord Mayor considerately allowed us seats on hearing that the case would occupy a long time, a piece of attention which he might also have displayed on the previous Tuesday. It seems extremely unjust that men who are defending themselves, who need all their strength for the task, and who may after all be innocent, should be obliged to stand for hours in a crowded court in the dog-days, and waste half their energies in the perfectly gratuitous exertion of maintaining their physical equilibrium.

I shall not describe the proceedings before the Lord Mayor on this occasion. Properly speaking, it was Mr. Bradlaugh's day, and some time or other its incidents will be recorded in his biography. Suffice it to say that he showed his usual legal dexterity, sat on poor Mr. Maloney, and sadly puzzled the Lord Mayor. I must, however, refer to one point, as it illustrates the high Christian morality of our prosecutors. Mr. Maloney had obtained an illegal order from the Lord Mayor to inspect Mr. Bradlaugh's bank account, and armed with this order, which, even if it were legal, would not have extended beyond the limits of the City, this enterprising barrister had overhauled the books of the St. John's Wood Branch of the London and South-Western Bank. Lord Coleridge's astonishment at this unheard-of proceeding was only equalled by his trenchant sarcasm on the Lord Mayor as a legal functionary, and his bitter cold sneer at Mr. Maloney, who, it further appeared, had actually played the part of an amateur detective, by setting street policemen to watch Mr. Bradlaugh's entries and exits from his publishing office.

On the following Friday, July 21, the hearing of our case was resumed. We were all committed for trial at the Old Bailey, with the exception of Mr. Whittle, the printer, against whom the prosecution was abandoned on the ground that he had ceased to print the Freethinker. This was an unpleasant fact, and alas! it was only one of a good many I shall have to relate presently.

Before our committal I essayed to read a brief protest against the prosecution, which I had carefully prepared. In defiance of the statute, the Lord Mayor refused to hear it. An altercation then ensued, and I should have insisted on my right unless stopped by brute force; but on his lordship promising that a copy should be attached to the depositions, I yielded in order to let Mr. Bradlaugh have a full opportunity of stigmatising Sir Henry Tyler, who had left his questionable business at Dashwood House during a part of the day, to gloat over the spectacle of his enemy in a criminal dock.

Some portions of my half-suppressed protest ought not to be omitted in this history. After dealing in a few lines with the origin of the Blasphemy Laws, censuring the conduct of Sir Henry Tyler, and alluding to Sir. William Harcourt's reply to Mr. Freshfield, I expressed myself as follows:

"What, indeed, do the prosecutors hope or expect to gain? Freethought is no longer a weak, tentative, apologetic thing; it is strong, bold, and aggressive; and no law could now suppress it except one of extermination. Every breach made in its ranks by imprisonment would be instantly filled; and as punishment is not eternal on this side of death, the imprisoned man would some day return to his old place, fiercer than ever for the fight, and inflamed with an unappeasable hatred of the religion whose guardians prefer punishment to persuasion, and supplement the weakness of argument by the force of brutality.

"Blasphemy is a very general offence if we take even the lenient definitions of Sir James Stephen in his 'Digest of the Criminal Law.' All who publicly advocate the disestablishment of the Church are guilty under one clause, and half the leading writers of our age are guilty under another. It is difficult to find a book by any eminent scientist or thinker which does not contain open or covert attacks on Christianity and Scripture, and the Archbishop of Canterbury has pathetically complained that it is dangerous to introduce high-class magazines to the family circle, because they are nearly sure to contain a large quantity of scepticism. Why are these propagators of heresy never molested? Because it would be perilous to touch them. Prosecutions are always reserved for those who are unprotected by wealth and position. Heresy in expensive books for the upper classes is safe, but heresy in cheap publications for the people incurs a terrible danger. The one is flattered and conciliated, while the other is liable at any moment to be put on its defence in a criminal court, and is always at the mercy of any man who may choose to indulge his political animosity, his social enmity, or his private spite.

"Blasphemy is entirely a matter of opinion. What is blasphemy in one country is piety in another. Progress tends to reduce it from a crime to an affair of taste. To deal with it in the bad spirit of the old laws, which are only unrepealed because they have been treated as obsolete, is to outrage the conscience of civilisation, and to violate that liberty of the press which Bentham justly called 'the foundation of all other liberties.' If opinions are not forced on people's attention, if they are expressed in publications which are sold, which can be patronised or neglected, and which must be deliberately sought before they can be read; then, unless they contain incitements to crime, they are entitled to immunity from molestation, and to interfere with them is the height of gratuitous impertinence."

In the ordinary course our Indictment would have been tried at the Old Bailey. The grand jury found a true bill against us, after being charged by the Recorder, Sir Thomas Chambers, who addressed them as fellow Christians, quite forgetful of the fact that Jews and Deists are eligible as jurymen no less than orthodox believers. According to the newspapers this bigot described our blasphemous libels as "shocking," and said that "it was impossible for any Christian man to read them without feeling that they came within that description, and they ought to return a true bill." This same Sir Thomas Chambers is a patron of piety, especially when it takes the form of aggressive polemics. Some time afterwards he joined a committee, with the late Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Mayor Fowler, and other religious worthies, whose object was to raise a testimonial to Samuel Kinns, an obscure author who has written a stupid volume on "Moses and Geology" for the purpose of showing that the book of Genesis, to use Huxley's expression, contains the beginning and the end of sound science. It thus appears that a Christian magistrate may subscribe (or, which is quite as pious and far more economical, induce others to subscribe) for the confutation of heretics, and afterwards send them to gaol for not being confuted. What a glorious commentary on the great truth that England is a free country, and that Christianity relies entirely on the force of persuasion! Fortunately, however, our case was not tried at the Old Bailey. Mr. Bradlaugh obtained a writ of certiorari removing the indictment to the Court of Queen's Bench, where our case was put in the Crown List, and did not come on for hearing until two months after I was imprisoned on another indictment. Mr. Bradlaugh obtained the writ on July 29, 1882. It was during the long vacation, and we had to appear before more than one judge in chambers, Mr. Justice Stephen being the one who granted the writ. I remember roaming the Law Courts with Mr. Bradlaugh that morning. We went from office to office in the most perplexing manner. Everything seemed designed to baffle suitors who conduct their own cases. Obsolete technicalities, only half intelligible even to experts, met one at every turn, and when I left the Law Courts I felt that the thing was indeed done, but that it would almost puzzle omniscience to do it again in exactly the same way. Over seven pounds was spent in stamps, documents, and other items; and I was informed that a solicitor's charges for the morning's work would have exceeded thirty pounds. Securities for costs were required to the extent of six hundred pounds, and of course they had to be given. Yet we were merely seeking justice and a fair trial! As I walked home I pondered the great truth that England is a free country, and that there is one law for the rich and the poor; yet I reflected that as only the rich could afford it, the poor might as well have no law at all.

I have already referred to our printer's defection. Acting under advice, Mr. Whittle declined to print the Comic Bible Sketch in the number for July 16, and the following week he refused to print at all. He announced this decision after all the type was set up and the "formes" were almost ready for the press. Only forty-eight hours remained before the Freethinker was due. During that period, in company with my friend and sub-editor, Mr. J. M. Wheeler, I made desperate efforts to get a printer to undertake the work. At last I discovered a Freethinker who placed his inadequate resources at my disposal. He could only set up four pages of type, and only print copies with a hand-press. Even that was better than nothing; anything being preferable to lowering the flag in the heat of battle. But alas! fate is stronger than gods or men. I was foiled at the last moment, just as victory seemed within my grasp; how I forbear to explain, although the incidents of that eventful day would form an interesting chapter of my Autobiography. Enough copies were pulled to constitute a legal issue of the paper, and one of these is safely deposited in the British Museum; but none were printed for the market, and it was everywhere reported that the Freethinker was dead. Christian Evidence lecturers joyously announced the fact at their meetings, and Mr. Maloney ironically alluded to it in Court. I bore all these taunts with grim silence, which was at last broken, not by words, but by deeds. These people did not know that the Freethinker, like the founder of their faith, had disappeared one week only to reappear the next. With the aid of Mr. Ramsey, who again stood by our side, we succeeded in restoring our paper to the light of day. Type was purchased, compositors were engaged, and a little shop was taken in Harp Alley. The Freethinker for July 30 struck astonishment into the souls of those who had rejoiced over its death when they saw no Freethinker for July 23. From that moment our issue was never once suspended, although we had some desperate close shaves.

In the number for August 6, as I could not get our machiner to print any Comic Bible Sketches just then, I published a serious one, reproduced from an old Dutch Bible of 1669. It represented Moses obtaining a panoramic view of Jehovah's back parts. Below the text I inserted the following notice: "As the bigots object to our Comic Bible Sketches, we shall publish a few Serious Bible Sketches, copied accurately from old Bibles of the ages of faith, to show what the Christians have done themselves in the way of familiar interpretation. We hope the bigots will like the change." By the next week, however, I had overcome our machiner's scruples, and the Comic Bible Sketches were resumed and continued up to the day of my imprisonment.

My attitude towards the prosecution is amply expressed by these facts, but a few words from my pen at that time may not be altogether superfluous. In an article entitled "Crucify Him!" in the Freethinker of August 6, 1882, I wrote:

"We are charged with blasphemy, and so was Jesus Christ. What a grim joke it will be if the Freethinker is found guilty and punished for the same crime as the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount! Truly adversity makes us acquainted with strange bedfellows.

"Yet, whatever happens, we will not quail. We will not vapor about legions of angels, but trust in the living legions of Freethought. We will not yield to the weakness of an agony and bloody sweat, nor pray that the cup may pass from us, nor cry out that we are forsaken; for our sources of strength are all within us, and cannot be taken away. We have a sense of truth, a conviction of right, and a spirit of courage, caught from the gallant men who fought before. Let the bigots do their worst; they will not break our spirit nor extinguish our cause. Let the Christian mob clamor as loudly as they can, 'Crucify him, crucify him!' They will not daunt us. We look with prophetic eyes over all the tumult, and see in the distance the radiant form of Liberty, bearing in her left hand the olive branch and in her right hand the sword, the holy victress, destined by treaty or conquest to bring the whole world under her sway. And across all the din we hear her great rich voice, banishing despair, inspiring hope, and infusing a joyous ardour in every nerve."

From the first I was sure that the Freethought party would support those who were fighting its battle, and I was not deceived. The Freethinker Defence Fund was liberally subscribed to throughout the country, several working men putting by a few pence every week for the purpose; and as I travelled up and down on my lecturing tours I experienced everywhere the heartiest greetings. I saw that the party's blood was up, and that however it might ultimately fare with me, the battle would be fought to the bitter end.

Considerable controversy took place in the daily and weekly press. Professor W. A. Hunter contributed a timely letter to the Daily News, in which he described the Blasphemy Laws as "a weapon always ready to the hand of mischievous fools or designing knaves." Mr. G. J. Holyoake wrote in his usual vein of covert attack on Freethinkers in danger. Mrs. Besant joined in the fray anonymously, and a letter appeared also from my own pen. There were articles on the subject in the provincial newspapers, and amongst the London journals I must especially commend the Weekly Dispatch, which never wavered in faithfulness to its Liberal traditions, and stood firm in its censure of our prosecution from first to last, even when other journals turned from the path of religious liberty, proved traitors to their principles, and joined the bigots in their cry of "To prison, to prison!" against the obnoxious heretics.

For some time after this we pursued the even tenor of our way. Many of the wholesale newsagents, who had been frightened when our prosecution was initiated, regained confidence and resumed their orders. Early in October we removed from Harp Alley to 28 Stonecutter Street, which had just been vacated by the Freethought Publishing Company, and which has ever since been the publishing office of the Freethinker. About the same time I issued a pamphlet entitled "Blasphemy no Crime," a copy of which was sent to every newspaper in the United Kingdom. It traversed the whole field of discussion, and gave a brief history of past prosecutions for Blasphemy, as well as the principal facts of our own case. In November I announced the preparation of the second Christmas Number of the Freethinker, the publication for which I paid the penalty of twelve months' imprisonment. Before, however, I deal fully with that awful subject I will redeem my promise to inform my readers of the nature of our indictment, and what were the actual charges preferred against us by Sir Henry Tyler on behalf of the insulted universe.

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