HL Deb 27 July 1888 vol 329 cc620-5

in rising to call attention to the impunity with which large numbers of indecent publications and photographs are sold or distributed illegally to young persons, and to ask the Government whether the Public Prosecutor may be instructed to take proceedings in the more important cases of the breach of this branch of the law, said, he was sorry to obtrude this subject upon the House; but he deemed it a public duty to bring under notice some striking facts illustrative of a very peculiar trade that was extensively carried on in London and a few large towns in this country that might be stopped by publicity. He had always supported Free Trade, but not smuggling, which was an illegal trade, prohibited by law. This trade was for the sale of the virtue and beauty of poor girls of the lower classes, who had to earn their livelihood by drudgery and hard work, and it became worse than the Slave Trade. This trade was one in which it was not easy to get a profit, particularly as much competition existed. The dealers had to increase their customers and also to provide the articles wanted by their customers, and all this required skill, ingenuity, hard hearts, and a degrading selfishness. The method which was now found most successful was the gratuitous distribution of leaflets and photographs to excite in pure-minded young women of the lower classes, the hope that they might have pleasant living without labour. Printed papers were thrust into the hands of young women walking in the streets, beginning with something attractive and interesting, and ending with a notice of where more could be obtained. He held in his hand one of these letters, which were sent by post to housemaids. It was directed to the young servant girl who cleaned the door steps, and contained obscene information and indecent photographs, and requested the servant girl, if she wanted more, to put a bit of white paper on the kitchen window at a time mentioned, and gave the house where the sender was to be found. That was only one out of many devices practised to influence the simple minds of young women. For example, pernicious pamphlets were thrown over the walls of girls' schools, and there were many well-known shops where books and pictures most pernicious to both sexes were sold in quantities; a translation of Zola's novels had been selling at the rate of 1,000 a week. The existing law might be sufficient if it were more easy of execution; but there was no effective execution of it in London. Much work and much time were required to obtain the necessary evidence, and the exertions for this object of the two vigilance societies had been unremitting. The stipendiary magistrates in London had been found unwilling to give the official meaning to the legal terms "obscene" and "indecent" the meaning that the Vigilance Associations contended for. Probably this was owing to their apprehension that they would not be supported by public opinion; but the National Vigilance Association often prosecuted a proper case when they did not obtain success, for the sake of attracting public attention to these evil practices which were unknown to the ordinary public, though the Public Prosecutor hesitated to bring an action in which he did not feel sure of success. The extensive demoralization of young women of the lower classes seemed to justify a more general intervention of the Public Prosecutor, on the ground that it was a public object to preserve the purity and modesty of the rising generation. This was not a case in which injured persons could appeal to the law; if done at all, it must be by those who had the care of national integrity and virtue. Foreign nations had much stricter laws than England. There were above 20 Germans carrying on this trade in London, because the application of the law in Germany prevented them from making the profits they got in England. They could also make money by decoying unsuspecting English girls to go to Germany to be employed in the singing coffee taverns, where careful arrangements were made for their ruin. In the United States the law was so effective that impure literature and pictures could hardly be obtained. He hoped that Her Majesty's Government, amid all the important and pressing subjects with which they had to deal, would find time to take steps to save thousands of weak and helpless girls from untold misery, degradation, and corruption of body and soul. In conclusion, he begged to ask the Government whether the Public Prosecutor might be instructed to take proceedings in the more important cases of the breach of this branch of the law?


said, he was certain that they would all recognize with the noble Lord that anything which undermined the moral character of the young was hurtful to the nation. He believed that what the noble Lord had said with regard to the practice of disseminating literature of this character was strictly true in every particular. There could be no doubt that owing to the facilities of the present day such literature could now be spread in a manner which would have been impossible at one time, and the greatest possible care should be taken that all these facilities should not be misused for immoral purposes. It was perfectly true that there were dealers going about throwing letters addressed to the servants down areas, telling them to put certain signs in the window if they wished for literature of the class referred to. It was impossible to get hold of these men, because they left no address. Their object was simply to pervert the minds of servants. These letters sometimes got into the hands of ladies. Again, a large number of indecent pamphlets were distributed by quacks, being sent round in many instances to schools. He was glad to say that in the case of one school he knew of, the boys had got hold of the man and given him a good ducking, so that he never came again. Then there were pamphlets which were addressed to ladies whose names appeared in the birth column of the newspapers. Were these things to be allowed to go on? Were they obliged to allow science and civilization to be so misused that they were to have this horrible literature thrust upon them by the Post Office? Of course, it was not the fault of the Post Office, but something ought to be done. Who was the Public Prosecutor? He did not know; he had not even known his name until the Lord Chancellor had told him yesterday. He would like to see the Public Prosecutor placed in a different position from that in which he now found himself. In the State of New York not only was there a Public Prosecutor for every county, but he could act on his own motion, without having to wait until the Treasury told him to prosecute. It might be said that it was impossible to pass any law which would check these evils. But in Sheffield there was a local Act under which any person posting or circulating any bill or printed or written paper of an obscene or indecent character rendered himself liable to a penalty not exceeding 40s., or to imprisonment for any term not exceeding one month. If it were possible for a Local Authority in Sheffield to pass a bye-law of that kind, he did not see why Parliament could not pass a general law of a similar kind for the whole Kingdom?


said, he did not believe there was any greater source of corruption in this country than that which the noble Lord near him had brought before their Lordships. It was not merely immoral publications to which he referred, but descriptions in writing which were criminal as well as immoral. He did not think that the Post Office ought to circulate poison of that sort. It must be surely possible to devise some means of preventing the Post Office and the public streets from being used for such purposes.


said, he was not aware that there was any legislation which dealt specially with the case of young persons in connection with this subject. On the contrary, the aim of all our legislation was to prevent the publication or exhibition in shop windows of indecent matter in regard to any age or sex. The practice of the Home Office was when notice had been given of the publication and distribution of indecent publications, photographs, or pictures, to refer the matter to the Commissioners of Police, who took steps immediately to deal with the evil. He thought he could say that the police had not been lax in the performance of their duties in that respect; they were perfectly alive to the importance of the subject, and there had been a great many prosecutions. With regard to the action of the Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman, in answer to a similar Question on the 8th of May, said that, acting on his own discretion, he would certainly urge prosecution in any case in which it did not appear that more harm than good would be the result. The practice of the police, when they endeavoured to put down the sale of any indecent publication or picture, was to bring the matter before the Public Prosecutor, who exercised his discretion in the case.


observed that it had been stated that, when the Public Prosecutor was put in motion, it was a necessary preliminary that the person who set him to act should make himself liable for half the cost. He had himself, on one occasion, put the Public Prosecutor in motion. He had not to give any guarantee, and the work was done entirely to his satisfaction.


said, the answer of the noble Lord was satisfactory as far as it went, but it did not go far enough. He thought that what was wanted in London was a less cumbrous law than the existing one—a summary mode of proceeding which should act surely, inexpensively, and rapidly, and in which, though the punishment might be small, it should be effectual.


said, he thought the noble Lord on the Cross Benches was under a misapprehension. The Attorney General could direct a public prosecution against anyone, and the Public Prosecutor must act under the direction of the Attorney General. As a matter of fact, Public Prosecutor was a name which had in recent years been given to the Solicitor to the Treasury. But in this country, subject to certain exceptions, anyone might prosecute. Anyone who prosecuted, however, whether a Public or Private Prosecutor, must prove what he alleged. There was no use in proceeding against a person unless you had some proof. Some of the most injurious practices were carried on by people whom no one was able to trace, and it was a strange complaint to make against the Public Prosecutor that he did not prosecute persons whom he had not discovered. Undoubtedly, those who indulged in this traffic surrounded their operations with all possible secrecy and took every precaution to avoid publicity. He would wish to say one word of caution. He quite recognized the excellence of the motives of the noble Lord who had introduced the subject. Everyone must heartily sympathize with his intentions. There was one remark of the noble Lord which revealed a state of mind with which he could not agree. The noble Lord said that it was not so much desirable to get a conviction as to make the matter public. Now, he believed that to make the matter public would only do more harm. He would give an illustration of what he meant. A very vile pamphlet was being sold in the City of London. The City Authorities thought it right to prosecute, and he himself was counsel for the prosecution. One result of that prosecution was that public attention was called to that which had been circulated only by the hundred, perhaps, and it went through several editions, and its circulation was increased by many thousands. The learned Judge who tried the case called the attention of the jury to the fact that the circle of impurity and corruption which existed before had been widened tenfold, or, perhaps, a hundredfold, by the institution of the prosecution. As to the complaint that if a prosecution was instituted in respect of the publication of indecent matter, the indecent matter had to be set out in the indictment, he would point out that there was now before their Lordships' House a Bill to provide that that need not be done. He thought it was his duty to refer to these matters, because, while entirely sympathizing with what had been said, he believed it would rather interfere with the improvement of the condition of things. Everyone desired to exaggerate the state of the case, and to suppose that by some alteration in the law the necessity of proof could be dispensed with. That must, in the first instance, be obtained before a prosecution was instituted, and he believed that, so far from its being desirable to prosecute unless there was a reasonable chance of conviction, the tendency should be exactly the other way, for if prosecutions were instituted in vain the commission of offences of a similar character was encouraged.