HC Deb 19 March 1811 vol 19 cc439-44
Mr. Henry Martin

rose, pursuant to a notice which he had given a few days before. He reminded the House he had then stated it to be his intention to move for leave to bring in a Bill to explain and amend an Act passed in the 39th of his present Majesty, which at present was felt very heavily by printers, publishers, and others connected with the press of this country. He hoped the motion he intended to make would meet with no opposition, when his motives were known and his intentions fully understood by the House. The act in question was passed at a period when certain societies were in existence, against which it was thought necessary to guard, by preventing their privately disseminating seditious writings. The act appeared to have been passed in a moment of hurry, as it went to punish not merely the guilty, but all connected with the trade of printing. All persons acting as printers, booksellers, &c. were obliged by this act to give not only their names and residence, but the minutest particulars relative to the place of their abode. A distinct penalty was incurred by every single hand-bill or pamphlet in which the most insignificant word relating thereto was omitted. However unintentional such omission might be proved to be, no discretion was given to the magistrates to decide according, to the peculiar merits of the case, but they were directed to convict the printer, and cast him in the penalty of 20l. for every hand-bill or pamphlet so published; and those parties, who in any case might think themselves aggrieved by such decisions, were not enabled to make an appeal from them at the quarter sessions. This, he thought, was felt to be the cause of evils which had not been anticipated by the House, at the time of the passing of the act. He did not mean to move that it should be repealed altogether; and he should ground the motion he intended to submit to the House for explaining and amending the said act, on a statement of certain instances which had come to his knowledge, in which unfortunate persons had suffered great inconveniences, through the provisions of the act being such as he had described. The first case he should mention was that of an individual respecting whom information had been given, which subjected him to penalties amounting to more than the enormous sum of 100,000l. The hon. and learned gent, here read a passage from the evidence which had been given, in order to shew the House with what views such informations were preferred, and also to let them see how some persons had been entrapped into a violation of the law. From this it appeared that certain persons, knowing there were many numbers of an edition of the works of Cicero, commonly known by the name of the Elzevir edition, without title-pages, went about to different printers to get title-pages printed, under the pretence of wanting them to make the work complete. It was quite impossible to think that to these title-pages the address of the printer would be allowed to be affixed. One printer, however, more alive than the others to the provisions of the act, had put his name and place of abode on the title-pages he had thus been employed to print. This would not do, as it was obvious such title-pages were worse than useless, as they at once went to prove the work was not what it purported to be, the Elzevir edition. The others who were applied to in this manner, did not act with the same precaution, and in consequence penalties amounting to more than 100,000l. were incurred. The witness examined as to the fact, had, after stating the circumstances of the case, distinctly admitted that he had got them printed for the very purpose of giving information of the law having been violated. What was the consequence of all this? The magistrate, not being empowered by the act to exercise his own discretion in the case, and the party not being able to appeal at the quarter sessions, the former, to protect the individual, bad himself been obliged to violate the law. Now after this, he would ask if some alteration ought not to be made, and if such was the situation in which a magistrate ought to be placed? Another person, who had been anxious to conform to the provisions of the act of parliament, had incurred a penalty by the omission of a single word. Proposals had been issued respecting the publication of some new military work. The person employed on this occasion had put his name, and place of abode, "Paternoster-row," but he had inadvertently omitted the word "London." Shortly after, as the act required the name of the town as well as the street, the printer having issued from his press a thousand copies of the article in question, was called up to Guildhall to shew cause why he should not pay the sum of 20,000l. for penalties so incurred. These facts, he really thought, were almost enough to make it felt by every one, that some alteration of the act was necessary. It was true it might be said the evils he complained of had been subsequently counteracted, in some degree, by an act passed to indemnify persons suffering under the operation of this law; but was this a system to be praised, which called for indemnity for those who had violated the law? Was it not better to amend the act than thus to come forward from time to time with a bill of indemnity? He would now state the case of an individual who had been convicted of violating this law, and cast in penalties amounting to 20,000l. whose conduct had been as little objectionable as either of those he had already mentioned: some addresses had been published at Southampton by the bakers of that place to the people of the town. The magistrates there, as in London, regulate the price of bread, on inspecting the proper returns, &c. They had done so on one occasion, when the bakers finding that, in consequence of their decision, they must lose on each sack of flour the sum of 1s. 3d. thought proper publicly to state the case, and submitted the hardships of which they complained to the consideration of the town. A person of the name of Cunningham, who is a printer, was then absent from Southampton, having gone to Portsmouth: 1000 of these addresses were wanted immediately, as it was of the highest importance to the bakers that their case should be made public as soon as possible. They were accordingly printed off, and information was immediately given that the provisions of the act were in some measure accidentally violated; and in consequence the printer, though absent at the time, was convicted, and cast 20,000l. in penalties. The magistrate had no power of discretion to modify the sentence, and all he could do was to promise to write to the Secretary of State for the borne department; which, he understood, had since been done, and the printer relieved. In such a case, however, though the individual might never be called upon by government for the penalty thus incurred, the evil did not appear to be done away. It was to be remembered, that by the provisions of the act the informer was entitled to a moiety of the penalties recovered; and though the man might never be called upon for what he had been sentenced to pay to the King, he questioned if the informer could not commence an action for his moiety, and, in such a case, the unfortunate individual might be doomed to rot in gaol the remainder of his days. He could state fifty other cases in which persons might be cast in heavy penalties, where no such thing as the act was intended to guard against could be proved. He had seen papers relating to hospital vacancies, containing a list of the directors, &c.; articles relating to parties in that House; papers where the name was printed on one side, when according to the provisions of the act it should be printed on the four; and others in which omissions appeared of the most trifling nature, which subjected those connected with the press to severe penalties. He hoped the House would feel the propriety of that which he suggested, and without going at all into the original act, give the magistrates a discretionary power, or the parties who felt aggrieved a right to appeal at the quarter sessions. It was not his intention to go beyond these two points, but in one instance. The proprietors, printers, and publishers of newspapers were at present on a better footing than the printers of hand-bills and pamphlets, as the whole of their impression made but one offence. If a libel were printed tomorrow, in any newspaper, and a thousand numbers of it were circulated, the whole would constitute but one offence. He did not see why they should have this advantage over the printers of pamphlets and hand-bills, and he should therefore propose some arrangement for placing those last mentioned on the same footing in that respect as the former. He concluded by moving for leave to bring in a Bill to explain and amend part of the 39th of his present Majesty.

Lord Folkestone

seconded the motion.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

would not oppose the motion, but he thought it rather hard that the legislature should be complained of after making certain arrangements for the regulation of any trade, if the inadvertencies of individuals were punished; when the act, like that alluded to, was perfectly easy to be understood.

Mr. Henry Smith

spoke in favour of the Bill, for he thought what had been stated was argumentum ad hominem; and that of the assembly he addressed, there might be three-fourths of them subject to the penalties which the act imposed, and which might take their whole fortunes to pay. Many of them circulated a great number of printed receipts for rents, which receipts were equally liable, with all other printed papers, to the penalties, and all their rents might not be competent to the payment of them. He could mention a ridiculous circumstance. He had the honour of being attached to a guild, who had printed oaths, which they circulated to each freeman. The printing of these oaths was very ancient, and there was no name put to them; and he verily believed that all these oaths (oaths of allegiance) that were circulated since the passing of the act, might be said to be liable to the penalty.

Mr. D. Giddy

was of opinion that some distinction ought to be made between papers and pamphlets of a pernicious tendency, and those of a different description.

Mr. W. Smith

contended, that the provisons of the act might not be so easily known by those whom they might affect, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer seemed to think. He had just had a paper put into his hands, which had been issued by the right hon. gentleman himself, which was liable to be affected by the provisions of the act, and it was probable that he had incurred the penalties imposed by the act, in a thousand similar instances.

Mr. Martin

made a further observation on the responsibility of the pamphlet printer over that of the printer of a newspaper. The former, in addition to the penalties incurred by failing to observe the regulations of the act, was liable to be prosecuted for a libel, if the hand-bills of pamphlets he published contained one.—Leave was then given to bring in the Bill.