Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



OUR victory in the Court of Queen's Bench was an unmitigated loss to Sir Henry Tyler and his backers, for it threw upon them the whole costs of the prosecution. It was also a loss to ourselves; for I have it on the best authority that, if we had been found guilty, Lord Coleridge would have made his sentence concurrent with Judge North's, and shifted us from the criminal to the civil side of the prison, where we should have enjoyed each other's society, worn our own clothes, eaten our own food, seen our friends frequently, received and answered letters, and spent our time in rational occupations. To the Freethought cause, however, our victory was a pure gain. As I had anticipated, the press gave our new trial a good deal of attention. The Daily News printed a leading article on the case, calling on the Home Secretary to remit the rest of our sentence. The Times published a long and admirable report of my defence, as well as of Lord Coleridge's summing-up, and predicted that the trial would be historical, "chiefly because of the remarkable defence made by one of the defendants." A similar prediction appeared in the Manchester Weekly Times, according to which "the defendant Foote argued his case with consummate skill." Across the Atlantic, the New York World said that "Mr. Foote, in particular, delivered a speech which, for closeness of argument and vividness of presentation, has not often been equalled." Even the grave and reverend Westminster Review found "after reading what the Lord Chief Justice himself characterises as Mr. Foote's very striking and able speech, that the editor of the Freethinker is very far from being the vulgar and uneducated disputant which the Spectator appears to have supposed him." Other Liberal papers, like the Pall Mall Gazette and the Referee, that had at first joined in the chorus of execration over the fallen "blasphemer," now found that my sentence was "monstrous."

So true is it that nothing succeeds like success! I did not let these compliments turn my head. My speeches at the Old Bailey were little, if anything, inferior to the one I made in the Court of Queen's Bench. There was no change in me, but only in the platform I spoke from. The great fact to my mind was this, that given an impartial judge, and a fair trial, it was difficult to convict any Freethinker of "blasphemy" if he could only defend himself with some courage and address. This fact shone like a star of hope in the night of my suffering. As I said in one of my three letters from prison: "For the first time juries have disagreed, and chances are already slightly against a verdict of Guilty. Now the jury is the hand by which the enemy grasps us, and when we have absolutely secured the twelfth man we shall have amputated the thumb."

On May 1 the following letter from Admiral Maxse appeared in the Daily News:


SIR, -- Foote's brilliant defence last week will probably have awakened some fastidious critics to their error in having depicted him as a low and coarse controversialist, while Lord Coleridge's judgment will have convinced the public that had Lord Coleridge occupied the place of Justice North, the defendant would have escaped with a mild penalty. In the meantime, Mr. Foote continues to undergo what is virtually 'solitary confinement' in a cell, and is condemned to this punishment for a year. A more wicked sentence, or a more wicked law, than the one which Mr. Foote and his companions suffer from, is, in my opinion, impossible to conceive, that is to say in a country which professes to enjoy religious liberty. His crime consisted in caricaturing a grotesque representation of a religion which has certainly a higher side. People who are truly religious should be obliged to Mr. Foote, if he managed to shock some people concerning any feature of religion which is gross and degrading to that religion. I know something of Mr. Foote, and I am quite certain he would not say anything to shock a refined interpretation of religion. Refined Christians are anxious themselves to get rid of the excrescences of their creed. The question at issue really is as to whether a coarse picture of religion, and of one religion only, is to be protected by the State from caricature, and from caricature alone; because it seems to be granted that an intellectual absurdity may be intellectually impeached. It is impossible such a monstrous doctrine as this can stand. It will pass away, and probably in a few years it will be remembered with some astonishment; but oppressive and persecuting laws are only got rid of by the spectacle of an impaled victim. 'By the light of burning heretics Christ's bleeding feet I track.' The impaled victim is now Mr. Foote. It is a disgrace to England that his solitary confinement -- twenty-three out of the twenty-four hours are solitary -- or indeed, that any punishment whatever is possible for a man's style in religious controversy; and to a Liberal it is profoundly humiliating that such a proceeding takes place under a Liberal Government and without one word of remonstrance in the House of Commons. Where are the Radicals? --
Yours obediently,


"April 30th."

Let me take this opportunity of thanking Admiral Maxse for his courageous generosity on my behalf. Directly he heard of my infamous sentence he wrote me a brave letter, which the prison rules forbade my receiving, stating that he would join in any agitation for my release, or for the repeal of the wretched law under which I was suffering "the utmost martyrdom which society can at present impose." I have always regarded Admiral Maxse as one of the purest and noblest of our public men, and I valued his sympathy even more than his assistance.

Further correspondence appeared in the Daily News, and the Liberal papers called on Sir William Harcourt to intervene. Memorials for our release flowed in from all parts of the country. One of these deserves especial mention. The signatures were procured, at great expense of time and labor, by Dr. E. B. Aveling and an eminent psychologist who desired to avoid publicity. Among them I find the following names: --
Admiral Maxse George Bullen
C. Crompton, Q.C. George Du Maurier
Charles Maclaren, M.P. George Dixon
Dr. G. J. Romanes Henry Sidgwick
Dr. Charlton Bastian Herbert Spencer
Dr. Edward Clodd Hon. E. Lyulph Stanley, M.P.
Dr. E. B. Tylor J. Cotter Morison
Dr. W. Aldis Wright Jonathan Hutchinson
Dr. Macallister John Collier
Dr. E. Bond John Pettie
Dr. J. H. Jackson James Sully
Dr. H. Maudsley Leslie Stephen
Editor Daily News Lient.-Col. Osborne
Editor Spectator P. A. Taylor, M.P.
Editor Academy Professor Alexander Bain
Editor Manchester Examiner Professor Huxley
Editor Liverpool Daily Post Professor Tyndall
Francis Galton Professor Knight
F. Guthrie, F.R.S. Professor E. S. Beesly
Frederick Harrison Professor H. S. Foxwell
G. H. Darwin Professor R. Adamson
Professor G. Croom Robertson Rev. Dr. Fairbairn
Professor E. Ray Lancaster Rev. R. Glover
Professor Drummond Rev. J. G. Rogers
Professor T. Rhys Davids Rev. J. Aldis
R. H. Moncrieff Rev. Charles Beard
Rev. J. Llewellyn Davies Rev. Dr. Crosskey
Rev. Dr. Abbot S. H. Vines
Rev. A. Ainger The Mayor of Birmingham
Rev. Stopford A. Brooke

I doubt whether such a memorial, signed by so many illustrious men, was ever before presented to a Home Secretary for the release of any prisoners. But it made no impression on Sir William Harcourt, for the simple reason that the signatories were not politicians, but only men of genius. As the Weekly Dispatch said, "Sir William Harcourt never does the right thing when he has a chance of going wrong." The Echo also "regretted" the Home Secretary's decision, while the Pall Mall Gazette, then under the editorship of Mr. John Morley, concluded its article on the subject by saying, "The fact remains that Mr. Foote is suffering a scandalously excessive punishment, and that the Home Office must now share the general condemnation that has hitherto been confined to the judge."

On July 11 a mass meeting was held in St. James's Hall to protest against our continued imprisonment. Despite the summer weather, the huge building was crammed with people, every inch of standing room being occupied, and thousands turned away from the doors. Letters of sympathy were sent by Canon Shuttleworth, Admiral Maxse and Mr. P. A. Taylor M.P. Among the speakers were the Rev. W. Sharman, the Rev. S. D. Headlam, the Rev. E. M. Geldart, Mr. C. Bradlaugh M.P., Mrs. Annie Besant, Dr. E. B. Aveling, Mr. Joseph Symes, Mr. Moncure D. Conway and Mr. H. Burrows. The greatest enthusiasm prevailed, and the resolutions were carried with only two dissentients.

Still Sir William Harcourt made no sign. At last Mr. Peter Taylor, the honored member for Leicester, publicly interrogated the Home Secretary in the House of Commons. Mr. Taylor's question was as follows:

"Mr. P. A. TAYLOR asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he had received memorials from many thousands of persons, including clergymen of the Church of England, Nonconformist ministers, and persons of high literary and scientific position, asking for a mitigation of the sentences of George William Foote and William James Ramsey, now imprisoned in Holloway Gaol on a charge of blasphemy; whether they have already suffered five months' imprisonment, involving until lately confinement in their respective cells for twenty-three hours out of every twenty-four, and now involving twenty-two hours of such solitary confinement out of each 24; and whether he will advise the remission of the remainder of their sentences."

Thereupon Sir William Harcourt reared his unblushing front and gave this answer:

"Sir WILLIAM HARCOURT -- The question of my hon. friend is founded upon misconception of the duties and rights of the Secretary of State in reference to sentences of the law, which I have often endeavoured to remove, but apparently with entire want of success. It is perfectly true that I have received many memorials on this subject, most of them founded on misconception of the law on which the sentence rested. This is not a matter I can take into consideration, either upon my own opinion or upon that of 'clergymen of the Church of England, Nonconformist ministers, and persons of high literary and scientific position.' I am bound to assume that until Parliament alters the law that law is right, and that those who administer the law administer it rightly. If I took any other course, outside my opinion -- if I had one upon this subject -- I should be interfering with the making and with the administration of the law, and transferring it from Parliament to the Executive and to a Minister of the Crown. I am quite sure my hon. friend would not like that course. It has been said, "Oh, but you can deal with sentences." (Hear, hear.) Sentences must be dealt with not upon the assumption that the law was wrong, and that the jury and judge were wrong, but upon special circumstances applicable to the particular case which would justify a Minister in recommending to the Crown a remission of sentence. What are the circumstances? Nobody -- I do not care whether legal persons or belonging to the classes mentioned in this question -- who has not seen the publication can judge of the matter. I have seen it, and I have no hesitation in saying that it is in the most strict sense of the word an obscene libel. It is a scandalous outrage upon public decency. (Opposition cheers.) That being so, the law has declared that it is punishable by law. I have no authority to declare that the law shall not be obeyed; nor do I think that within less than half the period of the punishment awarded by the Court, if I were to advise the Crown to remit the sentence, I should be discharging the responsibility which rests upon me with a sound or sober judgment. (Opposition cheers, and murmurs below the gangway.)"

The Tory cheers which greeted this malicious reply suffice to condemn it. Sir William Harcourt has told many lies in his time, but this was the most brazen of all. He knew we were not prosecuted for obscenity; he knew there was not a suggestion of indecency in our indictment; and he had before him the distinct language of the Lord Chief Justice of England, exonerating us from the slander. Yet he deliberately libelled us, in a place where his utterances are privileged, in order to conciliate the Tories and please the bigots. Some of the Radical papers protested against this wanton misrepresentation, but I am not aware that a single Christian journal censured the lie which was used to justify persecution.

Freethinkers have not forgotten Sir William Harcourt, nor have I. Some day we may be able to punish him for the insult. Meanwhile, I venture to think that if the member for Derby and the editor of the Freethinker were placed side by side, an unprejudiced stranger would have little difficulty in deciding which of the two was the more likely to be bestial.

Poor Mr. Ramsey, not knowing his man, innocently petitioned the Home Secretary from prison, pointing out that he was tried and imprisoned for blasphemy, asking to be released at once, and offering to supply Sir William Harcourt with fresh copies of our Christmas Number for a new trial for obscenity. Of course he received no reply.

My counsel, Mr. Cluer, gallantly defended my reputation in the columns of the Daily News, and he was supported by one of the Jury, who wrote as follows:

"SIR, -- From the reference in your short leader on the subject, it appears that the Home Secretary, in answer to Mr. Taylor, declined to consent to the release of Messrs. Foote and Ramsey, on the ground that they had published an obscene libel. On the late trial before the Lord Chief Justice, certain numbers of the Freethinker, on which the prisoners were being tried, were charged by the prosecution with being (inter alia) blasphemous and indecent. The judge in the course of his remarks said, the articles inculpated might be blasphemous, but assuredly they were not indecent. The opinion of Sir William Harcourt, consequently, though in harmony with that of the junior counsel for the prosecution, is altogether opposed to that of Lord Coleridge, who was the judge in the case."

The Daily News itself put the matter very clearly. "Mr. Foote and Mr. Ramsey," it said, "were sent to prison by Mr. Justice North for publishing a blasphemous libel. Sir William Harcourt declines to release them on the ground that they have published an obscene libel. It is not usual to keep Englishmen in gaol on the ground that they committed an offence of which they have not been convicted, and against which they have had no opportunity of defending themselves." But Sir William Harcourt thought otherwise, and kept us in prison, acting at once as prosecutor, witness, jury and judge.

Mr. Gladstone was appealed to, but he "regretted he could do nothing," presumably because we were only Englishmen and not Bulgarians. An answer to this piece of callous hypocrisy came from the London clubs. One resolution passed by the Combined Radical Clubs of Chelsea, representing thousands of working men, characterised our continued imprisonment as an indelible stigma on the Liberal Government.

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