HC Deb 19 July 1859 vol 155 cc66-74

said, he rose to move for a Select Committee to inquire into the Queen's Printers' patent in respect to the printing of the Holy Scriptures. The matter to which he asked the attention of the House was one of urgency, inasmuch as the letters patent of the Queen's Printers would expire from the lapse of time on the 21st of January next. If, therefore, Parliament was to express any opinion at all on the subject, it must do so during the present Session. These letters patent related to the printing of the Holy Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Statutes enacted by the Legislature, and several other works; but on that occasion it was his intention to confine himself to the provisions they contained, restricting to the Queen's Printers the right of printing the Scriptures. Notwithstanding this restriction, however, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge possessed by law a licence to print and publish the Bible. He need not say that the Book to which his Motion referred demanded their utmost reverence and regard; nor that the authorized version of it, which he did not seek to alter, was one of the noblest monuments of the Anglo-Saxon tongue. The printing of the Bible had been made the subject of patents in all the three great divisions of the United Kingdom. The Irish patent, however, was in 1794 declared to be invalid by a decision of Lord Clare, then Lord Chancellor, who in delivering judgment was reported to have said, I can conceive that the King, as the bead of the Church, may say there shall be but one man who shall print Bibles and Books of Common Prayer for the use of churches and other particular purposes, and that none other shall be deemed correct books for such purposes; but I cannot conceive the King has a prerogative to grant the monopoly of Bibles for the instruction of mankind in revealed religion: if he had, it would be in the power of the patentee to put what price he pleased on the book, and thus prevent the instruction of men in the Christian religion; the patent could not mean to give an exclusive right to the printing of Bibles. The Scottish patent was also put an end to by the Crown, in compliance with the recommendations of a Select Committee of that House which sat in 1837 and 1838. That Committee was moved for by the then Lord Advocate Murray, and the Resolution to which he now asked the assent of the House was, mutatis mutandis, couched in the very terms of the Lord Advocate's Motion. The Committee in their report stated as follows:— That it appears by the evidence given before the Committee in 1837, and also from the Reports of previous Committees, that the prices of Bibles and Testaments, of which Her Majesty's Printers have thus had the sole monopoly in Scotland, have been increased by that monopoly to a considerable amount, so as to interfere with the free distribution of the Scriptures, and that obstacles have been thrown in the way of devout persons obtaining such copies of the Sacred Volume as they wished to possess. That in the opinion of this Committee the Queen's Printers' patent in Scotland should not be renewed, and that the people of Scotland should have the advantage of the competition which the free introduction of Bibles and Testaments from the press of the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and from Her Majesty's printers in England and Ireland, will afford. The Scottish patent was accordingly abolished; but at the same time a Bible Board, consisting of both lay and clerical members, was established there to superintend the printing of the Bible, and all printers were required to give a security of £500 for the accuracy of their editions of the sacred text. The only remaining patent of this kind extended to England and Wales, and it would soon expire. These patents had been repeatedly condemned by the highest authorities. Lord Coke said emphatically that they were opposed to the laws and liberty of England; and by an Act of James I. they were expressly condemned. The scope of the English patent was so large that the patentees had not ventured to put the whole of it in force. It gave them the monopoly of printing editions whether with or without note or comment, but they had abandoned that right, and confined themselves to the authorized version alone, without notes. The free dissemination of the Scriptures was one of the plainest and most precious elements of religious liberty; and it was unnecessary to prove that com-petition was one of the best guarantees for cheapness and excellence. The Bible, it was true, was at present printed cheaply and well; but this was the result not of monopoly, but of freedom; for the abolition of the Scottish patent had had the effect of bringing down the prices in England, and had led to a wider diffusion of the sacred volume. In consequence of the abolition of the patent the price of the Bible in Scotland had been reduced by more than a half, while the number printed had been increased threefold. The following was an extract from the Report of the Scotch Bible Board in 1840, the year after the abolition of the patent:— Among the advantages arising from the abolition of a monopoly in printing, a prominent place must be given to the reduction of price in the various works that were formerly to be procured only from one patentee. The sum already saved to the public in this manner is very considerable, and as this saving becomes available chiefly to the middle and lower classes of society, is a matter of infinite importance, and to Bible societies, by which they are enabled to circulate the Scriptures to a greater extent among those who, though most needing them, would otherwise have been altogether deprived of their instruction and consolations, the money that is saved must be considered as having a value far beyond its nominal amount. In November, 1840, the old prices were still maintained in England, but in February, 1841, the Queen's Printers in England published a catalogue, in which they brought down their prices by more than a half. This example was followed by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and from that time dated a great increase in the circulation of the Scriptures. There were several causes for the Bible being cheaper than any other book. The first was the drawback of the paper duty; the second, the vast demand for the Scriptures; the third consisted in the fact that all the editions were sold off without leaving a single copy behind; and the fourth, that the types were kept standing. In 1804 the British and Foreign Bible Society computed that there were at that time about 4,000,000 copies of the Bible in existence in all the countries of the world; but in the half century which had since elapsed the Bible Society alone had caused to be circulated in England and abroad no fewer than 40,000,000 copies, or ten times the whole number sup- posed to exist in the world prior to 1804. That could not have been done without the reduction of price effected by the abolition of the patent in Scotland; as might he inferred from the fact that the number of Bibles and Testaments issued by the Bible Society in England was only 369,764 in the year 1838, whilst it was 727,830 in 1843, and 1,104,787 in 1846. He was sure that the Home Secretary was too much of a logician and economist to adduce the fruits of freedom in defence of monopoly, or to state that the fact of the cheapness of the Bible was a reason against the abolition of the only remaining monopoly that existed in England. But the right hon. Gentleman might plead that accuracy was promoted by restricting the printing of the Bible to a few hands. Accuracy, however, was not attained by that means, but was the result of the public vigilance and other causes. Serious errors had crept into the Scriptures under the existing monopoly. Thus it was stated before Mr. Hume's Committee that a Gentleman took the trouble to go over an Oxford edition of the Bible, and he found 12,000 errors in it, and he sent a statement of the fact to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who sent him a £10 note in his letter in reply to his communication. A mistake made by a former Queen's printer was the omission of the word "not" in one of the Ten Commandments, entirely reversing its meaning; and another was the introduction of a "not" in one of the promises of the New Testament, by which it was said that the righteous should not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. There were several things upon which they might confidently rely for the accuracy of the Sacred Text under the most perfect freedom of printing. In the first place was the interest of the printers, who would lose the outlay on a whole edition if it was proved to be inaccurate: secondly they could rely on the knowledge of booksellers, who knew whether a particular edition was accurate or not; thirdly, on the advantages possessed by the present patentees, and the two Universities, whose continued circulation of vast numbers of the Scriptures would be a guarantee that no inferior production was palmed on the public; fourthly, a guarantee for accuracy would be found in the vigilance exercised over every version of the Scriptures by every section of the Christian Church. Then there was the operation of the great religious societies, like the Bible Society, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Then there was also the vast number of Sunday Schools, not less than 30,000, in which the authorized version was used and its accuracy guarded. And, lastly, there was the jealousy for truth which existed in every private Christian in the land. These were the natural and best guarantees for the accuracy with which the Sacred Text would be printed in future; and having confidence in them he did not believe it was in the slightest degree necessary to establish in England any such clumsy expedient as the Bible Board in Scotland. It would be difficult to constitute a Board with perfect impartiality, and it must be impartial if it was to command general confidence. There were unauthorized versions of the Scriptures already published, such as the translation from the Latin Vulgate of the Roman Catholics, and that which was called the "improved version" of the Unitarians; and there were some in verse. He asked the House, lastly, to consider whether it had itself any right or prerogative to restrict the printing of the Holy Scriptures? Let it produce its own patent for the exercise of such an authority. He knew no sign-manual of any earthly potentate which could give validity to such an instrument. The Holy Scriptures were given in charge to no particular section of the Church, to no priest, to no prince, to no sanhedrim or senate, neither to Jew nor to Gentile, but liberally and impartially as the rains and dews of Heaven. They were made the universal patrimony of mankind. He appealed to the House, as they had given freedom to trade and industry and to the negro slave, removed every restriction from conscience, and maintained the liberty of the press, to bestow upon England the crowning blessing of a free and unlicensed Bible. The hon. Member concluded by moving for a Select Committee to inquire into the nature and extent of the Queen's Printers' Patent for England and Wales so far as relates to the right of printing the Holy Scriptures, and to report their opinion as to the propriety of any future grant of that Patent.


seconded the Motion.


—Sir, I came down to the House prepared to agree to the Motion of the hon. Gentleman for a Committee to inquire into the expediency of continuing the system under which the Bible is at present printed in England, and therefore I was not prepared either to dis- cuss the question at any length, or to express a confident opinion on the subject, inasmuch as I wish to keep my mind open for the consideration of any evidence which may he taken by this Committee, and of any arguments that may be adduced in their report. Having heard the address of the hon. Gentleman, however, I cannot refrain from making a few remarks upon some of the points to which he has referred. He concluded his speech by an impassioned appeal to the House to sanction the free and unlicensed printing of the Bible, and to establish a system of religious liberty in that respect. Now, I cannot at all accede to the doctrine that any change of system which can be introduced would be attended with the important and wholesome effects anticipated by the hon. Gentleman, or that any great practical benefit would arise from such a change. It is true, as Lord Coke says, that the law of England condemns monopolies, and that the presumption is always against them. But in discussing this particular question there are certain difficulties which require the consideration of the House, In the first place, there are the difficulties which might stand in the way of entire freedom; and in the next place we have to consider whether, under the existing system, we do not practically enjoy the advantages of free competition. We must remember at starting that this monopoly is at present practically confined to the authorized version of the Holy Scripures and to the copy of the Prayer Book which is fixed by Act of Parliament, and of which there is an authentic original. There is nothing to prevent a person from printing the Hebrew version of the Old or the Greek of the New Testament; there is nothing to prevent a person from printing any new version of either of those portions of the Holy Scriptures. The monopoly, as at present exercised, is exclusively confined to the authorized version, and it does not even extend to the printing of the authorized version with notes. Now, in this country the publication of the statutes is restricted, and I believe it is a principle generally accepted that the authorized version of the Bible ought not to be printed without some public authentication. This principle has been acted upon here by means of the patent of the Queen's Printers and the privilege granted to the two Universities, while in Scotland it has been carried out through the medium of the Bible Board. That Board produces just as great an interference with the liberty of printing the Holy Scriptures as exists here, because in Scotland no person can publish them without the consent of the Bible Board, and if any serious errors are found in any of the sheets the whole edition is suppressed. In Ireland there is no printing of the Bible, although there is a patent to the Queen's Printer. I say, then, that the work of authentication is carried out in England by one system, in Scotland by another, the former costing nothing, while the latter requires an annual vote for its maintenance. Of course, if the House think the principle of authentication unnecessary they may throw open the printing of the authorized version, which will then be on the same footing as the text of Shakspeare and Milton, or any other work in the language. As to the right of free printing, although the authority of Lord Coke is quoted in support of that proposition, my hon. Friend will find in the second volume of Blackstone that the right of the Crown to control the printing of the authorized version of the Scriptures is distinctly laid down. That right has been affirmed by repeated judgments of courts of law and equity, and I believe there is no more doubt of its legality than there is of any other right which can be suggested. But then there is the question of cheapness. My hon. Friend has referred to the effect of abolishing monopoly in Scotland. I am not prepared to assent to or dissent from the statement he has made on this subject; all I can say is that, as I am informed, the cheapness of the Bible in England is not at all dependent on the competition which exists in Scotland, that the number of Bibles printed in Scotland is small, and that Scotland itself is to a great extent supplied with Bibles printed in England. Their cheapness is, indeed, extraordinary, and cannot, I conceive, be exceeded. I believe you can buy a Bible in sheets for 5d. or 6d., and bound for 9d., while a Testament costs considerably less. The price amounts to but little more than the cost of the paper and ink consumed in printing. That cheapness, as I am assured, is produced not by the competition of the Scotch printers, but by the very active rivalry which exists between the Queen's Printers and the two Universities. I have communicated with the Bible Society and some of the religious societies which circulate large numbers of the Holy Scriptures, and they assure me that they are perfectly satisfied both with the accu- racy and with the cheapness of the Bible as now produced by the presses of this country, and that they have no desire to see any change of system. The hon. Gentleman talks of one edition of the Bible in which 12,000 errors were pointed out. I am of course bound to accept that assertion, but I can only say that that statement differs very widely from information which I have received as to the accuracy at present existing. I was told by an officer of one of the great religious societies that, having been apprized of an edition of the Bible in which one word was printed with an error of one letter—I think "saw" was printed "say"— they required that a large part of an edition, consisting of 10,000 or 15,000 copies, should he cancelled. Now, everybody knows that in ordinary printing such an error would be thought wholly insignificant, and it is my belief that the accuracy required is almost unnecessarily strict, because it is carried beyond the point at which errors could lead to any practical inconvenience. Although, therefore, I am not at all prepared to defend monopoly where freedom of printing can be introduced, my information does not lead me to expect that if the patent of the Queen's Printers were allowed to expire, and the privileges of the two Universities abolished, the editions of the Bible would be either more accurate or less expensive than at present. At the same time, I am quite prepared to assent to the Motion for inquiry by a Select Committee, and to form no decided opinion until I receive the report of that Committee.


said, there was now no real restriction against printing the Bible in Scotland, and the only thing necessary to do was that the printer should give security to the Bible Board that the edition to be printed should be accurate. He should support the Motion.


said, he wished it to be distinctly understood that, as the patent would expire in January next, and as the Committee would not be able to report this Session, the patent ought not to be renewed until after the Committee had reported. No person could print the Bible without infringing the patent, for the words were, that "all and singular Bibles and New Testaments in the English tongue, or any other tongue, or any translation thereof, with or without notes," &c., should not be printed by persons other than the patentees; and, therefore, the statement of the right hon. Baronet the Secretary for the Home Department was not quite accurate.


said, Bibles were printed by licence in Scotland, and were prohibited from being brought into England; and he wished to know whether this useless prohibition was to be kept up in future. It appeared only just that Bibles printed in Scotland should be allowed to be imported into England, while those printed in England were taken to Scotland.


said, the Committee could not report this Session, and it ought to be insisted on by the House that no new patent should be granted until the report was received.

Motion agreed to.

Select Committee appointed:To inquire into the nature and extent of the Queen's Printers' Patent for England and Wales, so far as relates to the right of printing the Holy Scriptures; and to report their opinion as to the propriety of any future grant of that patent.