20 February 2007

 

Richard Carlile remembered

I've just put a page about Richard Carlile among the short biographies on our website. His name has come to mind since he was one of the many victims of the so-called "Society for the Suppression of Vice" founded by the sainted William Wilberforce, whose involvement in the abolition of the slave trade, 200 years ago, is widely celebrated (e.g. 'In Our Time' on BBC Radio 4 on Thursday 22nd), though his other less laudable activities, on behalf of evangelical christianity, tend to be forgotten.

The Society began with King George III's 1787 Royal Proclamation 'For the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality', which Wilberforce suggested, and followed by setting up the Proclamation Society, which became the SSV in 1802.

An interesting publication on the history of these issues is Making English Morals: Voluntary Association And Moral Reform In England, 1787-1886 by M. J. D. Roberts.
"... the allure of Jacobin ideas raised fears of godlessness. This was the spur to a revival of efforts of metropolitan and provincial elites, manifested for example in the Society for the Suppression of Vice, to support tougher application of the law as a bulwark against indiscipline."

Another useful source is: Jonathan Bayes (PDF). "His own personal impact on nineteenth-century society, I would suggest, was greater in his campaign for the reformation of manners. In the battle against slavery Wilberforce was one of a team of people united in the cause. He was not the prime mover, nor the chief visionary; neither was his the greatest intellect in the anti-slavery lobby. The reason why it is the name of William Wilberforce which is remembered in this connection today, rather than those of Charles Middleton, James Ramsay, Thomas Clarkson, Granville Sharp, James Stephen, Thomas Wilson, William Smith, Zachary Macaulay, Henry Brougham, Henry Petty or Fowell Buxton, is that, of this tight-knit circle, Wilberforce was the man with the public voice and the contacts in places of power. He certainly did not carry on the fight alone. The victory of the abolitionists was the result of committed and effective team-work. As regards his second objective, however, Wilberforce did bring about a change in the mood of the nation which, it is arguable, can be traced directly and solely to him."

See also a series of six articles by Adam Hochschild.

About Carlile there is: On Freemasonry "The young man was Richard Carlile, who, shortly after this incident, was to achieve national notoriety as a champion of freedom of speech and thought, a pioneer of the freedom of the press, a fierce opponent of the monarchy and supporter of republicanism, a militant atheist, and an advocate of such social novelties as vegetarianism and birth control. Indeed, Carlile can be seen as the forefather of many aspects of modern political protest. As a recent commentator Joss Marsh has put it, 'the Chartists' jailhouse refusals, the suffragettes' hunger strikes, the self-starvations and blanket rebellions of IRA terrorists and internees: all alike look back to Richard Carlile.' "

This site remarks on the role of the SSV in enforcing the stamp duty on newspapers: "Pressure to abolish stamp duty grew. It came not only from the radical press but also from the "responsible" papers who realised that once it had gone they would be able to compete on more than equal terms. The more perceptive politicians also saw the value in abolition. In 1834 Lord Brougham, the Lord Chancellor, argued that it was no longer a question of whether people should be allowed to read or not, but what they should read. He said: "The only question to answer ... is how they shall read in the best manner; how they shall be instructed politically and have political habits formed the most safe for the constitution of the country." In 1836 stamp duty was reduced to ld and in 1855 it was abolished."

Three other sites with more amusing observations are: Royalty Theatre and Saucy and Cheeky.

The Obscene Publications Act was introduced in September 1857. "The Act was also used to forbid the distribution of information about contraception and physiology to the working classes."

The SSV was still in operation in the 1770s: "This society has been the means of suppressing the circulation of several low and vicious periodicals. Within the last two years it has also been the means of bringing to punishment, by imprisonment, hard labour, and fines, upwards of forty of the most notorious dealers, and within a few years has seized and destroyed the following enormous mass of corrupting matters :—140,213 obscene prints, pictures, and photographs; 21,772 books and pamphlets; five tons of letterpress in sheets, besides large quantities of infidel and blasphemous publications; 17,060 sheets of obscene songs, catalogues, circulars, and handbills ; 5,712 cards, snuff-boxes, and vile articles; 844 engraved copper and steel plates ; 480 lithographic stones ; 146 wood blocks ; 11 printing presses, with type and apparatus; 81 cwt. of type, including the stereotype of several works of the vilest description." My underlining.

The SSV was merged with the National Vigilance Association in August 1885.

Although slavery is supposedly abolished, there is atill an Anti-Slavery Organisation active in 2007.

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