HL Deb 21 March 1895 vol 31 cc1523-33

, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill, said it was an attempt to obtain relief for a class of Her Majesty's subjects who believed they were doing a good work in a quiet way, and were harassed by the law in doing it. They were those who attempted to provide for themselves and their neighbours some sober, reasonable recreation or refreshment on Sundays apart from the religious observance of the day. Their principal opponents, he thought, were the members of the Lord's Day Observance Society, who held that there were Divine precepts which forbade them to do on the Sunday that which it was not only lawful, but useful and advantageous, to do on other days of the week. Those who were in favour of the Bill held that, on the whole, it was wiser—apart from the positive law necessary for the government of the whole community—that grown men and women should be left to form their own judgments as to the best modes of spending the day. He did not propose even to touch upon the truth or error of the two doctrines. He himself belonged to the second and freer of the two schools of thought, but in his opponents he recognised a powerful faith which had laid hold of powerful minds who had influenced the whole community in this part of the world; he believed mainly for good. Nor did he blame his opponents for having put in motion a law which he thought to be harsh, but which they thought to be right and just. He gave them every credit for good motives, as he expected them to do to their opponents. The leading statutes relating to the employment of Sunday dated back to the reigns of Charles I. and Charles II., and prohibited certain games and trades upon the Sunday. The leading statute with respect to public amusements was passed in the reign of George II. and required licences to be obtained from the proper authority for the performance of public dancing or music, or public entertainment of that kind. These statutes, he believed, would be left totally untouched by this Bill. He said that because there was alarm in some quarters lest there should be an entire absence of legal restriction as to the use of the Sunday if the Bill passed into law. The Act to which the Bill applied was the Act of George III., which was passed in 1781. There was a memorandum attached to this Bill which gave a bird's-eye view of the Act, of the law, and of its recent development, and they would see that three conditions must concur to attract the penalties of that Act—the existence of entertainment or amusement or debate, publicity, and payment. The place where those three conditions concurred became a disorderly house, and all the penalties, whether by statute or common, law, attaching to disorderly houses could be enforced, and also certain pecuniary forfeits for which any common informer might sue. That enactment went far beyond what its promoters intended, and far beyond what had been considered to be its effect for many years. The author of the Bill was the well-known Bishop Porteus; and in the Memorandum attached to the Bill would be found an extract from some notes left by that prelate among his papers. It would rather seem as if he had been taken to task for putting a harsh Act on the Statute Book; and in justifying himself he gives his view of the effect of the Act. He says— It restrains no one from speaking, conversing, or writing on religions subjects. That depended upon where the speaking was. It imposes no other restraint than this (which is surely not a great hardship), that no one shall either pay or be paid for talking blasphemy or profaneness in a public room on the Lord's Day. It takes away, in short, no other liberty than the liberty of burlesquing Scripture and making religion a public amusement and a public trade which I was inclined to think their Lordships would not consider essential marks of religious freedom. If the Act had done nothing but this the House would not have been troubled with the Bill. But unfortunately the Act did a great deal more. They had only to compare the Preamble of the Act with the enacting part to see that. The Preamble was much to the effect of Bishop Porteus's note. The thing complained of was the pretended discussion by ignorant and incompetent persons for the purpose of bringing Scripture and religion into contempt, and promoting irreligion and profaneness. This was the Preamble. But the enacting part prohibited the debate of any subject whatever—nothing about religion, nothing about incompetent persons or the promotion of irreligion and profaneness, and so on; but public debate on any subject whatever—given the other condition of payment—was struck at, by the Act. This was a very severe law, and he trembled to think how often he must have been nearly within, if not quite within, the clutches of the Act. Twenty-five years ago he combined with a number of other persons—ladies and gentlemen—much more eminent than himself, to form the Sunday Lecture Society in London, believing as they did that they were meeting a social want, for a different occupation from what was then available on a Sunday afternoon; and since that time he had taken the chair at some other places, and had himself delivered lectures before his own society. Now, according to the law recently expounded, he could not help thinking that if he had not brought himself within the provisions of the Act it was only due to the most melancholy of all causes—that nobody could be found bold enough to enter the witness box and aver that his lecture was either entertaining or amusing. If he were only dull enough he escaped the provisions of the Act, but if, in a moment's forgetfulness, he had been entertaining or amusing, he would have been part of a disorderly meeting in a disorderly house. Supposing a person with a little more wit; and that ho bubbled over into a vein of fun, and made his audience laugh, the mischief was done. Then if questions and a discussion followed, and the lecture were entertaining, the same result would ensue. The painstaking lecturer and his earnest audience—grave, silent, and attentive though they might be—and the students who desired instruction, constituted a disorderly assembly, and incurred penalties for which any common informer might sue. He had heard it said this might be the literal construction of the Act, but it was impossible it could be applied in that way. But it had been so applied, and but for that fact their Lordships would not have been troubled with this Bill. Certain lectures were delivered at Leeds under the auspices of the Leeds Sunday Lecture Society, which was formed on the model of the London Sunday Lecture Society, by Mr. Villiers on "Chicago," and by Mr. Max O'Rell on "John Bull, Sandy, and Pat.'' The lecturers said something comic, and made their audience laugh, whereupon the Lord's Day Observance Society pounced upon them and contended that the lecture hall was a place of entertainment and amusement, and of course there were the other conditions, publicity and payment, and so it was a disorderly house. There was nothing improper in the lectures, no ribaldry. The lectures merely appealed successfully to the risible faculties of the audience; as eminent preachers, in the pulpit had done. The penalties were sued for, and the jury who tried the case found that the place was a place of public entertainment and amusement because the audience were entertained and amused. It was true that the actions failed because the wrong men were sued, but that was only a bit of bad luck for the assailants; another time, no doubt, they would sue the right men, and strike at these very innocent and useful societies a blow from which they would hardly recover. Now he contended it was not right that the law should be in this state. The tribunals had uttered opinions on this matter. He did not wish to give judicial utterances more weight than they were entitled to. A learned and able lawyer was not always a great authority on matters of general policy. But judges had the working of the law before them in concrete cases, and they saw how the law worked in a crucial way which would not happen to other persons; and when they came forward to say they thought the law was a bad law they were entitled to some weight in the controversy. In the Brighton Aquarium case some 20 years ago, no doubt there was a considerable commercial element, and the case was clearly within the Act. But even in that case the judges—Lord Blackburn and Lord Field—regretted that the law should have been as they found it. The judge who presided at the trial, and, secondly, the Lords Justices of Appeal, expressed the opinion that the law was exceedingly harsh, or was, at all events, harshly applied. The jury also, twelve men drawn from the middle class, who might be taken as representing the average feeling current among their class, expressed the opinion that the Act under which they had given their verdict should be repealed. He did not wish to exaggerate the amount of injury done by this law, or the number of people whom it affected. He did not suppose he was representing a very a substantial section. It consisted of numerous section of society, but it was orderly, quiet, well-educated people, belonging mainly to the middle and lower middle classes, and to the more solid and steady class of artisans. They were people who desired to have some wholesome recreation on Sunday afternoons, whether by the exercise of their reasoning faculties, or the æsthetic side of their mind, or simply by that pleasant feeling of repose which came over us when we could sit still for an hour or two and simply be amused. They found this refreshing, and they wished to have it on Sundays, some because they were too busy on other days to find time for such things; others because they were too tired to profit by them even if they could find time; others again because quite apart from the use of other days, they found there were 24 hours in the Sunday, and that their day was best spent when they employed an hour or two in the kind of mental occupation he had described. The promoters of these lectures had no wish to encroach on the Sunday rest; they valued it, he believed, as much as any class in England valued it; but they thought they got the most out of it by employing a portion of it in the way he had described. What they did was esteemed by a considerable number of their neighbours, and they thought that they were playing a useful part in society. They did not go out into the highways and byeways and compel their opponents to come in; they did not blow trumpets, beat drums and wave flags in the face of their opponents, or do anything to insult them; but they kept themselves to themselves in rooms obtained by themselves, and they sat there for their own recreation and refreshment without any thought of injuring or offending their neighbours. These people were worthy of the attention of the Legislature and of the relief which was asked for them by the Bill. It would not be denied that since 1781 there had been a great change in public opinion upon the proper mode of employing Sunday. At that time the stricter school of thought was very much in the ascendant, and it might still be in the ascendant; but the freer school of thought had obtained a great many more adherents. You might see it by walking about out-of-doors; and the out-door amusements that people thought right showed that a great change of feeling had come over society at large during the last 50 years. Even supposing the opponents of the change he was advocating were in a majority, they certainly were not in such a majority as to be entitled to call themselves the nation, or to be entitled to coerce the minority on the plea that the feelings of the nation ought not to be scandalised. He was pleading for a cause which had usually found favour in the English Parliament, the cause of individual liberty, which surely ought not to be interfered with so long as it did no injury to the interests of the community at large, and so long as it was not exercised to the injury of people's neighbours. The principal change to be made by the Bill would be effected by the second clause. The first and principal object was to enable Sunday lectures to be given. Then it was desired that music might be set more free than it is at present. It might be given now in the open air with prices charged for chairs; and they wanted to give it in a room. They wanted to have it provided that music should not be a disorderly proceeding because it was an entertainment, and that it should not be a disorderly proceeding if a lecture deviated into fun or if a debate ensued upon it. They desired to make charges for admission in order to secure a certain and steady support for these efforts, and in order that they might not be dependent upon the more or less precarious help of the wealthy or the open-handed among their supporters. They did not desire the proceedings should be conducted in a commercial spirit or with any idea of making profit. Sometimes at the end of a course of lectures there was a little deficit, which was made up by well-wishers. Sometimes there was a little surplus, which was used to improve the next course of lectures. Whether the wording of the clause was all that could be desired was a question that could be discussed in Committee. On this question of profit-making a somewhat intemperate paper had been issued by the Lord's Day Observance Society, who said that under the Bill any place of entertainment could be opened on Sunday for the pecuniary advantage of the same persons as benefited on the week-day, and this without the slightest risk of their being judicially called to account. Their only evidence of profit-making was the accounts of the Leeds Sunday Lecture Society. The year's income had been £379, and the expenditure £361. The expenses included the rent of the Coliseum, printing, lecturers, and the general machinery of the Society. So far from the element of personal profit entering into these proceedings, the evidence was that it had been uniformly absent. Where were the profits of the ladies and gentlemen who laboured to arrange these matters? They were not to be found. Of course they must pay for their machinery; but the work of these Societies was sustained entirely by gratuitous labour, and the moment the voluntary Committees ceased to act, the whole Sunday lecture system would come to nought. If a lecturer could not be obtained gratuitously one must be paid for; but was it to be pretended that the movement was carried on for the benefit of the lecturers, or of the owners of the halls, or of the firms who did the printing? It was suggested that when the Bill was passed the Sunday lecture societies would become frauds and shams, bogus societies, and that the real persons getting up lectures with music would be lessees of theatres, and persons of that kind. He envied the imagination of those who could conceive of such a thing. But if it were to happen—if lessees of theatres should become, promoters of Sunday lectures with the object of profit they would not be protected by this Bill, and he would not so underrate the vigilance and ability of the Lord's Day Observance Society as to suppose that they would not immediately unmask the fraud and bring the perpetrators to justice. There was another clause, but, as it would not affect the judgment of their Lordships upon this principle of the Bill, he would not discuss it, but conclude by moving that the Bill be read a second time.


I think people who are very much interested in this Bill have a certain right to complain on account of the very short time they have had to consider it. The Bill was only circulated on Tuesday, and many people who would be extremely interested in it could not receive it till Wednesday, and it is not possible for them to be here at a day's notice. Your Lordships must know that the Bishops would feel it a reproach not to be present on the occasion of Second Reading of a Bill like this, yet it is totally impossible for them to be here. They cannot alter their arrangements at a moment's notice, for the present season is the season of Lent, when they are holding confirmations every day. At the last moment almost all the Bishops did receive a reminder from me, but not one of them is able to be here except the Bishop of London. As regards the arguments which have been brought before your Lordships, I must confess that I think the noble Lord has stated his case with regard to the Act which is now on the Statute Book very moderately. He has not made the most of it. I believe one of the sets of lectures objected to was delivered by Sir Robert Ball on astronomy, and persons who wish to prevent Sir Robert Ball from delivering lectures on astronomy on Sunday can do so by pleading that he entered a disorderly house, according to Bishop Porteus's explanation of the purpose of the Act, as "a talker of profaneness and blasphemy." The Act in question does certainly want amending. It was never intended to touch such cases. It is not right to use such weapons, and I would not act with persons who use them. But clearly we come to another part of the subject altogether when we ask whether the provisions of this Bill afford the right remedy. That is another affair, and I think your Lordships will admit that this Bill does want safeguarding in very important points. According to this Bill the Statute which is to remain on the Statute Book is not to apply— to any house, room, or place opened or used for any lecture or address on science, ethics, social duties, literature, art, or any other kindred subject. I would ask whether your Lordships can name or think of any subject in the world which could not be called a kindred subject to literature or art. There is no limitation in these words, and they might include a lecture or address on any subject whatever. In the next place the Bill excludes from the operation of the Act any house, room, or place opened or used "for the performance of music." Is "music" to stand in that unqualified way. If so, there is no music-hall programme which might not become the programme of some philanthropic, scientific, and excellent Sunday society. Of course I do not for a moment believe that the noble and learned Lord thought of introducing music-hall programmes, but I want to know how they are to be excluded under this Bill. Then the section goes on— if the proceeding's are undertaken by their promoters with a view to the public good, and not by way of trade or for the pecuniary profit of the promoters, I would ask whether "promoters" would include the proprietors of music-halls, and, if not, why not? What could be easier than the formation of a bogus society as a society to promote entertainments by the performance of music? They need not take any profits, and they would be entirely beyond the reach of the Bill. The noble and learned Lord says that the opponents would be acute enough to discover a way of dealing with such societies. I wish very much the noble and learned Lord would point out to us a way of dealing with so-called political clubs. At this moment there is a large number of them which are nothing but public-houses, and are really open the whole of Sunday against the law, only under the name of a bogus club. If we do not know how to deal with a club we should not be able to deal with a bogus society for the promotion of the kind of entertainment I have referred to. There is one other point I should like to call your Lordships' attention to. We are told that the number of people that would be employed would not be large; but, as I have said, this Bill opens the way to any kind of entertainment, and would bring about what I am perfectly certain the working people of England strongly object to—an enormous increase of Sunday labour. Half-a-million of people are said to be employed on amusements. A large proportion of these would have a seventh day added to their work. I believe the Bill will be very far from pleasing the people for whose benefit it is devised, and that its promoters will find it a very unpopular measure, because it would produce a great reduction of Sunday rest, to which the people are rightly so much attached. I do not know whether your Lordships will say that the Bill shall not be read a Second time; but, if it should be, I should desire that it should be dealt with by a Select Committee, who could consider every word of it.


This matter was brought under my notice some years ago in connection with the Brighton Aquarium. I think that what has fallen from the most reverend Prelate is perfectly true, that people in the country have no notion of what is contained in this Bill. It was only printed a day or two ago, and only placed in our hands yesterday. I think the Bill is very crude in its present form, and would require a great deal of amendment. I would venture, therefore to suggest that it would be better to adjourn the Second Reading since die, because I am sure we could not come to a proper conclusion today. I would then move that a Select Committee be appointed to consider, irrespective of this Bill, what Amendments it is wise to make in the Act of George III. This Bill would then be hung up until after the Committee has reported. If that suggestion meets with your Lordships' approval, I will give notice that on a future day I will move for a Committee.


thought he could not do better than fall in with the suggestion of the noble Viscount. He quite agreed that it was inconvenient to take the Second Reading so soon. No doubt those who wished to oppose the Bill had some reason to complain. He fully expected that the Second Reading would have been postponed, and all those who were supporting him were quite prepared for a postponement. He was quite content to accept the particular form of Motion suggested by the noble Viscount.

Debate adjourned.