HC Deb 12 August 1857 vol 147 cc1475-84

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee.

Clauses agreed to.

SIR ERSKINE PERRY moved, on the part of the Lord Advocate, a clause, that the Bill do not extend to Scotland.


said, the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets (Mr. Ayrton), had Amendments which he meant to propose; but the Bill had rushed through Committee, and he presumed it was not for the present competent to move that they should be introduced. Meanwhile the Scotch Members objected to the Bill applying to Scotland, and he thought they were right; for a more preposterous Bill had never been sent down from the House of Lords—and that was saying a great deal. It was an attempt to make people virtuous by Act of Parliament; but it could never succeed. A man who had a taste for the class of prints and publications referred to in the Bill would get them in spite of all the laws they could pass. They would, therefore, not prevent mischief being done, while there was great danger of making mischief by an undue interference with the affairs of private life, and by encouraging an abuse of power. Suppose a country magistrate had a feeling of enmity against a poacher, whom he could not reach as such. The poacher, might, however, sell books, and some one came forward to complain that he had got obscene publications in his house. A warrant could be issued to search his house, and in the course of the search poaching materials might be found. The magistrate would thus gain his object, which otherwise he could not have done. In London, perhaps, this could not be done, for there the magistrate acted in the eye of the public, and with a police reporter in his court; but in the country there would be no such check, the proceedings taking place, it might be, in the magistrate's private parlour. He objected to any measure that would in reality create an inquisition, and operate despotically towards the people. Such consequences might flow from this Bill, and therefore he objected to it as it now stood.


observed, that the hon. Member for the Tower Hamlets intended to move his Amendments on the Report. With regard to the Bill he might state that it originated with the Lord Chief Justice, who found from facts that came under his own knowledge, that the sale of obscene prints and publications prevailed to a very great extent, and that much difficulty was experienced in obtaining a conviction against offenders, or, even when convictions were obtained, in preventing the trade being carried on successfully. He had been in communication with the Lord Chief Justice in reference to certain Amendments which he thought were called for in the Bill, and these he trusted would obviate some of the objections that might be entertained towards the measure. Upon the whole, he thought the objects of the Bill could be carried out without danger or inconvenience.


said, he sympathized as much as the right hon. Gentleman could do in the object of the Bill, but he wanted to know where the line could be drawn. Take Wycherley. The works of that dramatist might be found in many a house. It was an obscene book, but did they suppose they could put down Wycherley? There was an elegant translation by Stanley of an obscene work called the Basia of Johannes Secundus. It was written originally in beautiful Latin, and was a wonderfully fine classic production, but it contained some of the most obscene passages ever written. Did they hope to prevent the sale of such a book as that? If they began this crusade, where were they to end? Take Aristophanes. If the opinions of Greek scholars were asked for, they would tell us that he was a wonderful writer, who ought to be placed on a level with our Shakspeare; but every one knew how obscene his works were, and he again asked, would it be possible to put down such books by a Bill like this? Take Martial also, he was often most obscene. If they looked at the dramatists of the reign of Charles II. they would not find one of them whose works were not objectionable on the score of obscenity. There were the works of Prior. Even the works of Pope, elegant and beautiful though they were, contained passages which no decent woman could say she had read. In the Eloisa to Abelard, one of the most brilliant poems in the English language, there were lines which he would be ashamed to read aloud. They might depend upon it that the passions of youth were not half so much excited by vulgar obscenity as by refined licentiousness. Where were they to stop? They could lay down no rule. He would point to the existence of gambling-houses and houses of ill fame. They were to be found in some of the best streets in London; and if they were impotent in putting these down, he thought they would fail in putting down obscene books. If they armed policemen, or other persons with authority to break into private houses, under pretence of searching for obscene books and prints, they instituted an inquisition, and began the race of despotism. He had no faith in hypocritical pretensions to virtue, and believed that by depending upon the honest and manly feeling of the people, they would do more than could be accomplished by a thousand inquisitorial and despotic Acts of Parliament.


explained, that the Amendment which he had intended to propose was to the effect that before a justice should be at liberty, on an ex parte statement, to break into a house in search of obscene books or prints, it should be proved that some overt act had been committed by the owner, in the way of the sale or exposure of objectionable publications. Before the Bill came on, he gave his Amendment to the hon. and learned Member for Devonport (Sir K. Perry), who had charge of the measure, and who promised to introduce the provision in question. That had not been done, and the various clauses of the Bill having been agreed to in his temporary absence from the House, he found that he had lost his opportunity of proposing the Amendment himself. He trusted, however, that his hon. and learned Friend would take care to fulfil his promise at a subsequent stage of the Bill.


suggested that the hon. and learned Member for Devonport should withdraw his Motion for the exemption of Scotland, and renew it upon the Report. The Amendment of the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets might be considered at the same time.


said, he would adopt the suggestion of the Home Secretary, stating that his Motion had been suggested by the Lord Advocate, who believed that the existing law in Scotland was quite adequate to the suppression of the productions aimed at by the Bill. He saw no material objection to the Amendment of the hon. and learned Member for the Tower Hamlets, and if it had been proposed while the clauses were under consideration, he would not have opposed it. He would adopt the same course upon the bringing up of the Report. Referring to the principle of the Bill, he contended that it was one which the House ought to approve, and alluded to the success of similar legislation in the case of gaming houses.


supported the Bill, but thought that, instead of giving increased publicity to the sale of such publications, by a public prosecution, the moral poison ought to be destroyed on the spot. There was not, he conceived, a second opinion as to the desirableness of suppressing the sale of obscene books. The only question was, whether this Bill afforded the best means for such suppression. On the whole, he thought this measure provided the best remedy that could be afforded under the circumstances.


maintained, that the power granted by the Bill was not greater than that conferred upon Magistrates by the Act for the suppression of betting-houses, and he thought they would exercise a similarly wise discretion in the present case. He would quote a passage from the Moral Philosophy of Paley, to the effect that the writing, publication, and circulation, of obscene books and prints were productive of so much mischief from so mean a temptation, that few crimes within the reach of private wickedness had more to answer for or less to plead in their excuse.


said, he thought the Bill pointed to a species of legislation in which Parliament ought not to indulge without the greatest caution. He admitted that an immense deal of mischief resulted from the sale of obscene publications, but remarked that if they passed the Bill in its present shape they would require a statute to define what obscenity was. There was at present a law in America by which books designated as obscene were liable, not only to confiscation, but destruction, and it happened, curiously enough, that a book which might be found in the library of that House—the Museo Borbonico Napolitano—had been condemned under the American law, although he had been unable to discover anything indecent in it. Some people thought that the naked human figure, except to students of art, was objectionable, and he had even heard it whispered that some part of the Literary works of Lord Campbell himself—his Lives of the Lord Chancellors, and his Lives of the Lord Chief Justices—might and would be made the subject of prosecutions, in the event of this Bill becoming law.


said, he had been informed by several respectable booksellers in the metropolis, that they viewed with dread the progress of this Bill, not because they were capable, in any way, of infringing the law, but because, being accustomed to buy whole libraries and large masses of books containing many thousand volumes which it was impossible to examine thoroughly in a short time, they really were not acquainted with the nature of all the books which lay in stock in different parts of their large establishments at any particular moment. They entertained a well-grounded fear that, in a trade where so much competition existed, the Bill, if passed, would enable any man, hostilely disposed towards them, to give information, and declare upon oath, that he knew they had some obscene books in their possession. They said the chances were, that the allegation might turn out to be true; but, even supposing that no such books should be found in their possession—that they should be fully acquitted—did the Committee not think that the fact of their stocks having been overhauled by policemen, would, of itself, seriously damage their character, and prejudicially affect their business as private tradesmen? He believed that the evil complained of was limited to two or three streets in the Metropolis, which had become notorious for the exhibition and sale of indecent publications, and he was not to be told that they could not provide an adequate remedy without establishing a system of domiciliary visits most dangerous in principle and most injurious to private individuals. Nothing could be more easy than to arm the police, even on their own information, without the intervention of anybody else, with power to make application for warrants authorizing them, whenever they saw indecent books or prints exposed for sale, to seize and destroy them. But the Bill was a clumsy method of meeting the evil, one totally alien to the habits of this country, and certain, in the end, to be disgustful to the English people. He believed, in truth, that the Bill would never have reached its present shape if hon. Members had had the manliness to state what were their real opinions on the subject.


supported the Bill, which, he said, was intended to abate a nuisance of the most abominable character. Thirty years ago, there were no fewer than fifty-four shops for the sale of obscene books and prints existing in London. By means of prosecutions, instituted at various times, the number had been reduced to about twenty; but still the evil was one of the greatest magnitude. The present law was unable to provide an adequate remedy, and, although he admitted that the power granted to magistrates by this Bill was large and summary, yet they ought not to be too careful or chary when a great nuisance was to be abated. The hon. Member who spoke last had, no doubt, a billiard-table in his house, yet surely he was under no apprehension that he would be subjected to a domiciliary visit by the police, under the pretence that he kept a gaming-house. So with regard to the respectable booksellers, to whom allusion had been made. They need not fear that warrants would be taken to search their great collections of books. The object of the Bill was to put down a notorious and crying evil, and he was convinced, that, as in the case of the Act for the suppression of betting-houses, the powers granted by the Bill would not be abused. At the same time, he thought that, in the event of a seizure, the owner should have an appeal from the decision of the Magistrate as to whether the productions were obscene or not. What one magistrate might call obscene, another might regard as perfectly pure; and therefore, instead of giving the magistrate an absolute power to destroy the articles brought before him, he hoped that the simple power of impounding would alone be granted.


said, he could see no reason why Scotland should be excluded from the operation of the Bill. He did not at all agree with the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield, that country magistrates were at all likely to abuse the law for the purpose of getting at the materials of poaching; but thought the power of destruction under the Bill ought to be a little more guarded. At the same time he did not go quite so far as the hon. Member for Wallingford (Mr. Malins), in giving an appeal to the quarter sessions before destruction could be ordered. It struck him that would be giving a publicity to the existence of these obscene works very much to be avoided. He thought that sufficient protection against the arbitrary exercise of power on a matter of taste would be afforded by declaring that no such property could be destroyed except upon the order of two magistrates. At the same time he wished to observe that he believed that this evil was much more wide-spread than some hon. Gentlemen seemed to suppose. It was not merely that these obscene and filthy publications were exhibited in the shop windows for sale, but the poison was disseminated all over the country, and was introduced into schools through the agency of pedlars who gained admission into them. And it was within his own knowledge that these persons in many instances derived their principal gains from the sale of such books, so large was the profit upon them. It undoubtedly was a matter of the severest reproach that in this metropolis there should be found whole streets devoted to the sale of these publications, and that the law should be insufficient to suppress such a trade. He thought, therefore, that the country was under great obligations to the noble and learned Lord who had originated this Bill, to which he should have great pleasure in giving his hearty support.


thought, that to allow of an appeal to the quarter sessions would be tantamount to advertising the sale of these publications; as regarded, however, the other suggestion, of requiring the adjudication of two magistrates instead of one, he was quite willing to take that into consideration, and see if, on bringing up the Report, an Amendment to that effect might not be introduced.


said, he had not meant to fix upon the quarter session as of necessity the tribunal to which the appeal was to be made; he simply contended against the decision of one man being final in such a case.


opposed the Bill, and pointed out that the word "exhibition" in the first clause might be held to apply to a man who showed another a book or a picture in his own house. Then, again, the phrase "being otherwise published" was most objectionable. What did those words mean? If a libellous letter was handed to one person it was deemed publication of libel, and so the exhibition of an obscene book or print to one person would bring the party within the compass of the Bill. He thought before the measure was allowed to pass very material Amendments should be made in the first clause, and in addition—notwithstanding the objection that had been made to the proposal—there should be the ordinary clause giving an appeal to the quarter sessions.


reminded the Committee that the only question at present before them was whether Scotland should be exempted from the operation of the Bill. He understood that it had been agreed to that the discussion upon that point should be taken on bringing up the Report, and therefore he thought it would be most convenient to pass over the matter for that day and proceed at once to the other business upon the paper.


admitted that they were discussing the whole Bill upon one of its last stages, but the reason for that was to be found in the hurried manner in which it had passed through the House. The hon. and learned Member for Devonport (Sir E. Perry) in his innocence declared that, having arrived at years of discretion, he did not know of one gambling house in London, while in the fiery years of his youth he was acquainted with many. The change that had taken place with regard to the hon. and learned Gentleman was intelligible, but did he therefore believe that there were no gambling-houses in London? Then take another class of houses of ill-fame, which were just as mischievous as gambling-houses or obscene print shops. No man who walked the London streets could deny that such houses abounded in almost every street, and in some of the best streets of the Metropolis. If Parliament had been impotent to put down such houses, they would be equally impotent to suppress the traffic to which this Bill referred. He had been accused of libelling the magistracy, but when he remembered that within a few days a magistrate had been removed from the bench for having perverted the game laws for his own profit, he (Mr. Roebuck) was entitled to assume that others might be found who, for a similar object, might avail themselves of the stringent powers of the Bill. They were all agreed upon the desirability of stopping the abominable traffic, but they differed as to the means that should be employed. By the Bill a single magistrate's decision was supreme upon the question of what was obscene. Now, the Committee were aware that to some persons naked statues were obscene. There were persons of prurient imagination, who were well described by Swift when he said "the nicest people have the nastiest; ideas." Some persons had complained of the statue of "the Greek Slave," exhibited at the Crystal Palace, as indecent, although he should have thought that all men of taste would have regarded the cold as the marble with feelings as cold as the marble itself; but so prurient and heated were the imaginations of some that they positively called the work of art an indecent object, Might not such people be found upon the bench, who would be called upon to act under this Bill? There was a picture in the National Gallery of "Venus and Adonis." Supposing that a man, having an engraving of that picture, were charged under this Bill, and the magistrate chose to consider it an obscene print, he could order the engravings to be destroyed, while Parliament was now called upon to find money for building a place wherein to exhibit the original picture to all the world. There were some Surrey magistrates who wanted to shut up Vauxhall, and others who wished to put aprons on the statues in the Crystal Palace. If the Bill passed in its present shape, a canting, hypocritical justice could declare that what they called works of art were works of obscenity.


was strongly of opinion that jurisdiction, more especially in the first instance, ought not to be confided to less than two magistrates. For surely it was more difficult for a man to decide as to what he did not see than as to what was brought before him which he had an opportunity of inspecting. At the same time he thought there ought to be an appeal allowed by the Bill in some shape or other.


said, that during the discussion, which was not quite regular, several suggestions worthy of consideration had been thrown out, and he therefore would recommend the hon. and learned Member who had charge of the Bill to allow the Bill to be recommitted.


still retained the opinion that the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Sheffield was a libel upon the magistracy of England.


was willing to adopt the suggestion of the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary.

Clause negatived.

House resumed. Bill reported, with an Amendment; Re-committed for Friday.