Part 4 out of 4
Our victory in the Court of Queen's Bench was an unmitigated loss
to Sir Henry Tyler and his backers, for it threw upon them the whole
costs of the prosecution. It was also a loss to ourselves; for I
have it on the best authority that, if we had been found guilty,
Lord Coleridge would have made his sentence concurrent with
Judge North's, and shifted us from the criminal to the civil
side of the prison, where we should have enjoyed each other's
society, worn our own clothes, eaten our own food, seen our friends
frequently, received and answered letters, and spent our time in
rational occupations. To the Freethought cause, however, our victory
was a pure gain. As I had anticipated, the press gave our new trial
a good deal of attention. The _Daily News_ printed a leading article
on the case, calling on the Home Secretary to remit the rest of our
sentence. The _Times_ published a long and admirable report of my
defence, as well as of Lord Coleridge's summing-up, and predicted
that the trial would be historical, "chiefly because of the remarkable
defence made by one of the defendants." A similar prediction appeared
in the Manchester _Weekly Times_, according to which "the defendant
Foote argued his case with consummate skill." Across the Atlantic,
the _New York World_ said that "Mr. Foote, in particular, delivered a
speech which, for closeness of argument and vividness of presentation,
has not often been equalled." Even the grave and reverend
_Westminster Review_ found "after reading what the Lord Chief Justice
himself characterises as Mr. Foote's very striking and able speech,
that the editor of the _Freethinker_ is very far from being the
vulgar and uneducated disputant which the _Spectator_ appears to
have supposed him." Other Liberal papers, like the _Pall Mall Gazette_
and the _Referee_, that had at first joined in the chorus of execration
over the fallen "blasphemer," now found that my sentence was "monstrous."
So true is it that nothing succeeds like success! I did not let these
compliments turn my head. My speeches at the Old Bailey were little,
if anything, inferior to the one I made in the Court of Queen's Bench.
There was no change in me, but only in the platform I spoke from.
The great fact to my mind was this, that given an impartial judge,
and a fair trial, it was difficult to convict any Freethinker of
"blasphemy" if he could only defend himself with some courage and
address. This fact shone like a star of hope in the night of my
suffering. As I said in one of my three letters from prison:
"For the first time juries have disagreed, and chances are already
slightly against a verdict of Guilty. Now the jury is the hand
by which the enemy grasps us, and when we have absolutely secured
the twelfth man we shall have amputated the _thumb_."
On May 1 the following letter from Admiral Maxse appeared in the
"TO THE EDITOR OF THE 'DAILY NEWS.'
SIR,--Foote's brilliant defence last week will probably have
awakened some fastidious critics to their error in having depicted
him as a low and coarse controversialist, while Lord Coleridge's
judgment will have convinced the public that had Lord Coleridge
occupied the place of Justice North, the defendant would have
escaped with a mild penalty. In the meantime, Mr. Foote continues
to undergo what is virtually 'solitary confinement' in a cell,
and is condemned to this punishment for a year. A more wicked
sentence, or a more wicked law, than the one which Mr. Foote
and his companions suffer from, is, in my opinion, impossible
to conceive, that is to say in a country which professes to
enjoy religious liberty. His crime consisted in caricaturing
a grotesque representation of a religion which has certainly
a higher side. People who are truly religious should be obliged
to Mr. Foote, if he managed to shock some people concerning any
feature of religion which is gross and degrading to that religion.
I know something of Mr. Foote, and I am quite certain he would
not say anything to shock a refined interpretation of religion.
Refined Christians are anxious themselves to get rid of the
excrescences of their creed. The question at issue really is
as to whether a coarse picture of religion, and of one religion
only, is to be protected by the State from caricature, and from
caricature alone; because it seems to be granted that an
intellectual absurdity may be intellectually impeached. It is
impossible such a monstrous doctrine as this can stand. It will
pass away, and probably in a few years it will be remembered
with some astonishment; but oppressive and persecuting laws
are only got rid of by the spectacle of an impaled victim.
'By the light of burning heretics Christ's bleeding feet I track.'
The impaled victim is now Mr. Foote. It is a disgrace to England
that his solitary confinement--twenty-three out of the twenty-four
hours are solitary--or indeed, that any punishment whatever is
possible for a man's style in religious controversy; and to a
Liberal it is profoundly humiliating that such a proceeding
takes place under a Liberal Government and without one word of
remonstrance in the House of Commons. Where are the Radicals?--
Yours obediently, FREDK. A. MAXSE.
Let me take this opportunity of thanking Admiral Maxse for his courageous
generosity on my behalf. Directly he heard of my infamous sentence he
wrote me a brave letter, which the prison rules forbade my receiving,
stating that he would join in any agitation for my release, or for the
repeal of the wretched law under which I was suffering "the utmost
martyrdom which society can at present impose." I have always regarded
Admiral Maxse as one of the purest and noblest of our public men, and
I valued his sympathy even more than his assistance.
Further correspondence appeared in the _Daily News_, and the Liberal
papers called on Sir William Harcourt to intervene. Memorials for
our release flowed in from all parts of the country. One of these
deserves especial mention. The signatures were procured, at great
expense of time and labor, by Dr. E. B. Aveling and an eminent
psychologist who desired to avoid publicity. Among them I find
the following names:--
Admiral Maxse George Bullen
C. Crompton, Q.C. George Du Maurier
Charles Maclaren, M.P. George Dixon
Dr. G. J. Romanes Henry Sidgwick.
Dr. Charlton Bastian Herbert Spencer
Dr. Edward Clodd Hon. E. Lyulph Stanley, M.P.
Dr. E. B. Tylor J. Cotter Morison
Dr. W. Aldis Wright Jonathan Hutchinson
Dr. Macallister John Collier
Dr. E. Bond John Pettie
Dr. J. H. Jackson James Sully
Dr. H. Maudsley Leslie Stephen
Editor _Daily News_ Lient.-Col. Osborne
Editor _Spectator_ P. A. Taylor, M.P.
Editor _Academy_ Professor Alexander Bain
Editor _Manchester Examiner_ Professor Huxley
Editor _Liverpool Daily Post_ Professor Tyndall
Francis Galton Professor Knight
F. Guthrie, F.R.S. Professor E. S. Beesly
Frederick Harrison Professor H. S. Foxwell
G. H. Darwin Professor R. Adamson
Professor G. Croom Robertson Rev. Dr. Fairbairn
Professor E. Ray Lancaster Rev. R. Glover
Professor Drummond Rev. J. G. Rogers
Professor T. Rhys Davids Rev. J. Aldis
R. H. Moncrieff Rev. Charles Beard
Rev. J. Llewellyn Davies Rev. Dr. Crosskey
Rev. Dr. Abbot S. H. Vines
Rev. A. Ainger The Mayor of Birmingham
Rev. Stopford A. Brooke
I doubt whether such a memorial, signed by so many illustrious men,
was ever before presented to a Home Secretary for the release of
any prisoners. But it made no impression on Sir William Harcourt,
for the simple reason that the signatories were not politicians,
but only men of genius. As the _Weekly Dispatch_ said, "Sir
William Harcourt never does the right thing when he has a chance
of going wrong." The _Echo_ also "regretted" the Home Secretary's
decision, while the _Pall Mall Gazette_, then under the editorship
of Mr. John Morley, concluded its article on the subject by saying,
"The fact remains that Mr. Foote is suffering a scandalously excessive
punishment, and that the Home Office must now share the general
condemnation that has hitherto been confined to the judge."
On July 11 a mass meeting was held in St. James's Hall to protest
against our continued imprisonment. Despite the summer weather,
the huge building was crammed with people, every inch of standing
room being occupied, and thousands turned away from the doors.
Letters of sympathy were sent by Canon Shuttleworth, Admiral Maxse
and Mr. P. A. Taylor M.P. Among the speakers were the Rev. W. Sharman,
the Rev. S. D. Headlam, the Rev. E. M. Geldart, Mr. C. Bradlaugh M.P.,
Mrs. Annie Besant, Dr. E. B. Aveling, Mr. Joseph Symes,
Mr. Moncure D. Conway and Mr. H. Burrows. The greatest enthusiasm
prevailed, and the resolutions were carried with only two dissentients.
Still Sir William Harcourt made no sign. At last Mr. Peter Taylor,
the honored member for Leicester, publicly interrogated the
Home Secretary in the House of Commons. Mr. Taylor's question was
"Mr. P. A. TAYLOR asked the Secretary of State for the Home
Department whether he had received memorials from many
thousands of persons, including clergymen of the Church of
England, Nonconformist ministers, and persons of high literary
and scientific position, asking for a mitigation of the sentences
of George William Foote and William James Ramsey, now imprisoned
in Holloway Gaol on a charge of blasphemy; whether they have
already suffered five months' imprisonment, involving until
lately confinement in their respective cells for twenty-three
hours out of every twenty-four, and now involving twenty-two
hours of such solitary confinement out of each 24; and whether
he will advise the remission of the remainder of their sentences."
Thereupon Sir William Harcourt reared his unblushing front and gave
"Sir WILLIAM HARCOURT--The question of my hon. friend is founded
upon misconception of the duties and rights of the Secretary of
State in reference to sentences of the law, which I have often
endeavoured to remove, but apparently with entire want of success.
It is perfectly true that I have received many memorials on this
subject, most of them founded on misconception of the law on
which the sentence rested. This is not a matter I can take into
consideration, either upon my own opinion or upon that of 'clergymen
of the Church of England, Nonconformist ministers, and persons of
high literary and scientific position.' I am bound to assume that
until Parliament alters the law that law is right, and that those
who administer the law administer it rightly. If I took any other
course, outside my opinion--if I had one upon this subject--I should
be interfering with the making and with the administration of the law,
and transferring it from Parliament to the Executive and to a Minister
of the Crown. I am quite sure my hon. friend would not like that
course. It has been said, "Oh, but you can deal with sentences."
(Hear, hear.) Sentences must be dealt with not upon the assumption
that the law was wrong, and that the jury and judge were wrong,
but upon special circumstances applicable to the particular case
which would justify a Minister in recommending to the Crown a
remission of sentence. What are the circumstances? Nobody--I do
not care whether legal persons or belonging to the classes mentioned
in this question--who has not seen the publication can judge of
the matter. I have seen it, and I have no hesitation in saying
that it is in the most strict sense of the word an obscene libel.
It is a scandalous outrage upon public decency. (Opposition cheers.)
That being so, the law has declared that it is punishable by law.
I have no authority to declare that the law shall not be obeyed;
nor do I think that within less than half the period of the punishment
awarded by the Court, if I were to advise the Crown to remit the
sentence, I should be discharging the responsibility which rests
upon me with a sound or sober judgment. (Opposition cheers, and
murmurs below the gangway.)"
The Tory cheers which greeted this malicious reply suffice to condemn it.
Sir William Harcourt has told many lies in his time, but this was the
most brazen of all. He knew we were not prosecuted for obscenity; he
knew there was not a suggestion of indecency in our indictment; and
he had before him the distinct language of the Lord Chief Justice of
England, exonerating us from the slander. Yet he deliberately libelled
us, in a place where his utterances are privileged, in order to conciliate
the Tories and please the bigots. Some of the Radical papers protested
against this wanton misrepresentation, but I am not aware that a single
Christian journal censured the lie which was used to justify persecution.
Freethinkers have not forgotten Sir William Harcourt, nor have I.
Some day we may be able to punish him for the insult. Meanwhile,
I venture to think that if the member for Derby and the editor of
the _Freethinker_ were placed side by side, an unprejudiced stranger
would have little difficulty in deciding which of the two was the
more likely to be bestial.
Poor Mr. Ramsey, not knowing his man, innocently petitioned the
Home Secretary from prison, pointing out that he was tried and
imprisoned for _blasphemy_, asking to be released at once, and
offering to supply Sir William Harcourt with fresh copies of our
Christmas Number for a new trial for _obscenity_. Of course he
received no reply.
My counsel, Mr. Cluer, gallantly defended my reputation in the columns
of the _Daily News_, and he was supported by one of the Jury, who wrote
"SIR,--From the reference in your short leader on the subject,
it appears that the Home Secretary, in answer to Mr. Taylor,
declined to consent to the release of Messrs. Foote and Ramsey,
on the ground that they had published an obscene libel. On
the late trial before the Lord Chief Justice, certain numbers
of the _Freethinker_, on which the prisoners were being tried,
were charged by the prosecution with being (_inter alia_) blasphemous
and indecent. The judge in the course of his remarks said, the
articles inculpated might be blasphemous, but assuredly they
were not indecent. The opinion of Sir William Harcourt,
consequently, though in harmony with that of the junior counsel
for the prosecution, is altogether opposed to that of Lord Coleridge,
who was the judge in the case."
The _Daily News_ itself put the matter very clearly. "Mr. Foote and
Mr. Ramsey," it said, "were sent to prison by Mr. Justice North for
publishing a blasphemous libel. Sir William Harcourt declines to
release them on the ground that they have published an obscene libel.
It is not usual to keep Englishmen in gaol on the ground that they
committed an offence of which they have not been convicted, and
against which they have had no opportunity of defending themselves."
But Sir William Harcourt thought otherwise, and kept us in prison,
acting at once as prosecutor, witness, jury and judge.
Mr. Gladstone was appealed to, but he "regretted he could do nothing,"
presumably because we were only Englishmen and not Bulgarians. An
answer to this piece of callous hypocrisy came from the London clubs.
One resolution passed by the Combined Radical Clubs of Chelsea,
representing thousands of working men, characterised our continued
imprisonment as an indelible stigma on the Liberal Government.
A LONG NIGHT.
Feeling there was no prospect of release, and resigned to my fate,
I settled down to endure it, with a resolution to avail myself of
every possible mitigation. Colonel Milman included us among the
special exercise men, and we enjoyed the luxury of two outings every
day; our solitary confinement being thus reduced to twenty-two hours
instead of twenty-three. By finessing I also managed to get an old
feather pillow from the store-room, which proved a comfortable addition
to the wooden bolster. The alteration in our food I have already
Sir William Harcourt did absolutely nothing for us, but the Secretary
of the Prison Commissioners gave instructions that we were to be
treated as kindly as possible, so that "nothing might happen" to us.
One of the upper officers, whom I have seen since, told me we were
a source of great anxiety to the authorities, and they were very
glad to see our backs.
Mr. Anderson called on me in my cell and asked what he could do for me.
"Open the front door," I answered.
With a pleasant smile he regretted his inability to do that.
"Well then," I continued, "let me have something to read."
"Yes," he said, "I can do that. There are many books in the prison
"But not one," I retorted, "fit for an educated man to read.
They are all selected by the chaplain."
"Well," he answered, "I cannot give you what we haven't got."
"But why not let me have my own books to read?" I asked.
Mr. Anderson replied that such a thing was unheard of, but I persisted
in my plea, which Colonel Milman generously supported.
"Well," said Mr. Anderson, "I suppose we must. Your own books may be
sent in, and the Governor can let you have them two at a time. But,
you know, you mustn't have such writings as you are here for."
"Oh," I replied, "you have the power to check that. They will all
pass through the Governor's hands, and I will order in nothing but
what Colonel Milman might read himself."
"Oh," said Mr. Anderson, with a humorous smile, which the Governor
and the Inspector shared, "I can't say what Colonel Milman might
like to read."
The interview ended and my books came. What a joy they were! I read
Gibbon and Mosheim right through again, with Carlyle's "Frederick,"
"French Revolution" and "Cromwell," Forster's "Statesmen of the
Commonwealth," and a mass of literature on the Rebellion and the
Protectorate. I dug deep into the literature of Evolution. I read
over again all Shakespeare, Shelley, Spenser, Swift and Byron, besides
a number of more modern writers. French books were not debarred, so
I read Diderot, Voltaire, Paul Louis Courier, and the whole of Flaubert,
including "L'Education Sentimentale," which I never attacked before,
but which I found, after conquering the apparent dullness of the first
half of the first volume, to be one of the greatest of his triumphs.
Mr. Gerald Massey, then on a visit to England, was churlishly refused
a visiting order from the Home Office, but he sent me his two
magnificent volumes on "Natural Genesis," and a note to the interim
editor of the _Freethinker_, requesting him to tell me that I had
his sympathy. "I fight the same battle as himself," said Mr. Massey,
"although with a somewhat different weapon." I was also favored
with a presentation copy of verses by the one writer I most admire,
whose genius I reverenced long before the public and its critics
discovered it. It would gratify my vanity rather than my prudence
to reveal his name.
Agreeably to the proverb that if you give some men an inch they will
take an ell, I induced the Governor to let me pursue my study of Italian.
First he allowed me a Grammar, then a Conversation Book, then a
Dictionary, then a Prose Reading Book, and then a Poetical Anthology.
These volumes, being an addition to the two ordinary ones, gave my
little domicile a civilised appearance. Cleaners sometimes, when
my door was opened, looked in from the corridor with an expression
of awe. "Why," I heard one say, "he's got a cell like a bookshop."
With my books, my Italian, and my Colenso, I managed to kill the
time; and although the snake-like days were still long, they were
less venomous. Yet the remainder of my sentence was a terrible ordeal.
I never lost heart, but I lost strength. My brain was miraculously
clear, but it grew weaker as the body languished; and before my
release I could hardly read more than an hour or two a day.
The only break in the monotony of my life was when I received a visit.
Mrs. Besant, Dr. Aveling, Mr. Wheeler and my wife, saw me occasionally;
either in the ordinary way, at the end of every three months, or by
special order from the Home Office. I saw my visitors in the prison
cages, only our faces being visible to each other through a narrow slit.
We stood about six feet apart, with a warder between us to stop
"improper conversation." I could not shake a friend's hand or kiss
my wife. The interviews lasted only half an hour. In the middle of
a sentence "Time!" was shouted, the keys rattled, and the little
oasis had to be left for another journey over the desert sand.
Every three months I wrote a letter on a prison sheet. Two sides
were printed on, and the others ruled wide, with a notice that
nothing was to be written between the lines. No doubt the authorities
were anxious to save the prisoners the pain of too much mental exertion.
I foiled them by writing small, and abbreviating nearly every word.
My letters were of course read before they were sent out, and the
answers read before they reached me. No respect being shown for
the privacies of affection, I addressed my letters to Dr. Aveling
for publication in the _Freethinker_.
One of these documents lies before me as I write. It was the extra
letter I sent to my wife before leaving, and contains directions as
to clothes and other domestic matters. I venture to reproduce the
advertisement, which occupies the whole front page:
"A prisoner is permitted to write and receive a Letter after
three months of his sentence have expired, provided his
conduct and industry have been satisfactory during that time,
and the same privilege will be continued afterwards on the same
conditions and at the same intervals.
"All Letters of an improper or idle tendency, either to or
from Prisoners, or containing slang or other objectionable
expressions, will be suppressed. The permission to write and
receive letters is given to the Prisoners for the purpose of
enabling them to keep up a connexion with their respectable
friends, and not that they may hear the news of the day.
"All Letters are read by the Authorities of the Prison,
and must be legibly written, and not crossed.
"Neither clothes, money, nor any other articles, are allowed
to be received by any Officers of the Prison for the use of
Prisoners; all parcels containing such articles intended for
Prisoners on discharge must bear outside the name of the
Prisoner, and be sent to the Governor, or they will not be
received. Persons attempting otherwise to introduce any article
to or for a prisoner, are liable to a fine or imprisonment, and
the Prisoner concerned may be severely punished."
The authorities are not so careful about the letter being legible by
its recipient. They do not insert it in an envelope, but just fold
it up and fasten it with a little gum, so that the letter is nearly
sure to be torn in the opening. The address is written on the back
by the prisoner himself, before the sheet is folded. Lines are
provided for the purpose, and it is pretty easy to see what the
letter is. Surely a little more consideration might be shown for
a prisoner's friends. _They_ are not criminals, and as the prison
authorities incur the expense of postage, they might throw in a
cheap envelope without ruining the nation.
Mr. Kemp was released on May 25 in a state of exhaustion. It is
doubtful if he could have survived another three months' torture.
What illness in the frightful solitude of a prison cell is I know.
I once caught a bad cold, and for the first time in my life had the
toothache. It came on about two o'clock in the afternoon, and as
applications for the doctor are only received before breakfast,
I had to wait until the next day before I could obtain relief.
It arrived of itself about one o'clock. The doctor had considerately
left my case till last, in order to give me proper attention.
Mr. Ramsey was released on November 24. He was welcomed at the
prison gates by a crowd of sympathisers, and entertained at a
breakfast in the Hall of Science, where he made an interesting speech.
By a whimsical calculation, I reckoned that I had still to swallow
twenty-one gallons of prison tea and twelve prison sermons.
Christmas Day was the only variation in the remainder of my "term."
Being regarded as a Sabbath, it was a day of idleness. The fibre
was removed from my cell, my apartment was clean and tidy, a bit
of dubbin gave an air of newness to my old shoes, and after a good
wash and an energetic use of my three-inch comb, I was ready for
the festivities of the season. After a sumptuous breakfast on dry
bread, and sweet water misnamed tea, I took a walk in the yard; and
on returning to my cell I sat down and wondered how my poor wife
was spending the auspicious day. What a "merry Christmas" for a
woman whose husband was eating his heart out in gaol! The chapel-bell
roused me from phantasy. While the other half of the prison was
engaged in "devotion," I did an hour's grinding at Italian, and read
a chapter of Gibbon; after which I heard the "miserable sinners"
return from the chapel to their cells.
My Christmas dinner consisted of the usual diet, and after eating
it I went for another brief tramp in the yard. The officers seemed
to relax their usual rigor, and many of the prisoners exchanged greetings.
"How did yer like the figgy duff?" "Did the beef stick in yer ribs?"
Such were the flowers of conversation. From the talk I overheard,
I gathered that under the old management, while Holloway Gaol was
the City Prison, all the inmates had a "blow-out" on Christmas Day,
in the shape of beef, vegetables, plum-pudding, and a pint of beer.
Some of the old hands, who remembered those happy days, bitterly
bewailed the decay of prison hospitality. Their lamentations were
worthy of a Conservative orator at a rural meeting. The present was
a poor thing compared with the past, and they sighed for "the tender
grace of a day that is dead."
After exercise I went to chapel. Parson Plaford preached a seasonable
sermon, which would have been more heartily relished on a full stomach.
He told us what a blessed time Christmas was, and that people did well
to be joyful on the anniversary of their Savior's birth. Before
dismissing us with his blessing to our "little rooms," which was
his habitual euphemism for our cells, he remarked that he could
not wish us a happy Christmas in our unhappy condition, but he
would wish us a peaceful Christmas; and he ventured to promise us
that boon if, after leaving chapel, we fell on our knees and besought
pardon for our sins. Most of the prisoners received this advice with
a grin, for their cell floors were black-leaded, and genuflexions in
their "little rooms" gave them too much knee-cap to their trousers.
At six o'clock I had my third instalment of Christmas fare, the last
mouthfuls being consumed to the accompaniment of church bells. The
neighboring Bethels were announcing their evening performance, and
the sound penetrated into my cell. True believers were wending their
way to church, while the heretic, who had dared to deride their creed
and denounce their hypocrisy, was regaling himself on dry bread in
one of their dungeons. The bells rang out against each other with a
wild glee as I paced my narrow floor. They seemed mad with intoxication
of victory; they mocked me with a bacchanalian frenzy of triumph.
Yet I smiled grimly, for their clamor was no more than the ancient
fool's shout, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." Great Christ has
had his day since, but he in turn is dead; dead in man's intellect,
dead in man's heart, dead in man's life; a mere phantom, flitting
about the aisles of churches, where priestly mummers go through the
rites of a phantom creed.
I took my prison Bible and read the story of Christ's birth in Matthew
and Luke, Mark and John having never heard of it or forgotten it.
What an incongruous jumble of absurdities! A poor fairy tale of
the world's childhood, utterly insignificant beside the stupendous
revelations of science. From the fanciful story of the Magi following
a star to Shelley's "World on worlds are rolling ever," what an advance!
As I retired to sleep on my plank-bed my mind was full of these
reflections, and when the gas was turned out, and I was left in
darkness and silence, I felt serene and almost happy.
A new day dawned for me on the twenty-fifth of February. I rose
as usual a few minutes before six. It was the morning of my release,
or in prison language my "discharge." Yet I felt no excitement.
I was as calm as my cell walls. "Strange!" the reader will say.
Yet not so strange after all. Every day had been filled with expectancy,
and anticipation had discounted the reality.
Instead of waiting till eight o'clock, the usual breakfast hour,
superintendent Burchell brought my last prison meal at seven.
I wondered at his haste, but when he came again, a few minutes later,
to see if I had done, I saw through the game. The authorities wished
to "discharge" me rapidly, before the hour when my friends would
assemble at the prison gates, and so lessen the force of the
demonstration. I slackened speed at once, drank my tea in sips,
and munched my dry bread with great deliberation. "Come," said
superintendent Burchell, "you're very slow this morning." "Oh,"
I replied, "there's no hurry; after twelve months of it a few minutes
make little difference." Burchell put the words and my smile together,
and gave the game up.
Down in the bathroom at the foot of the debtors' wing my clothes
were set out, and some kind hand had spread a piece of bright carpet
for my feet. I dressed very leisurely. With equal tardiness I went
through the ceremony of receiving my effects, carefully checking
every article, and counting the money coin by coin. The Governor
tendered me half a sovereign, the highest sum a prisoner can earn.
"Thank you," I said, "but I can't take their money." We had to go
through the farce.
In the little gate-house I met Mr. Bradlaugh, Mrs. Besant, and my wife.
Colonel Milman wished us good-bye, the gate opened, and a mighty shout
broke from the huge crowd outside. From all parts of London they had
wended in the early morning to greet me, and there they stood in their
thousands. Yet I felt rather sad than elated. The world was so full
of wrong, though the hearts of those men and women beat so true!
As our open carriage crawled through the dense crowd I saw men's
lips twitching and women shedding tears. They crowded round us,
eager for a shake of the hand, a word, a look. At length we got free,
and drove towards the Hall of Science, followed by a procession of
brakes and other vehicles over half a mile long.
There was a public breakfast, at which hundreds sat down. I took a
cup of tea, but ate nothing. After a long imprisonment I could not
trust my stomach, and I had to make a speech.
After Mr. Bradlaugh, Mrs. Besant and the Rev. W. Sharman (secretary
of the Society for the Repeal of the Blasphemy Laws), had made speeches,
which I should blush to transcribe, I rose to respond. It was a
ticklish moment. But I found I had a voice still, and the words
came readily enough. Concluding my address I said: "I thank you
for your greeting. I am not played out. I am thinner. The doctor
told me I had lost two stone, and I believe it. But after all I
do not think the ship's timbers are much injured. The rogues ran
me aground, but they never made me haul down the flag. Now I am
floated again I mean to let the old flag stream out on the wind
as of yore. I mean to join the rest of our fleet in fighting the
pirates and slavers on the high seas of thought."
An hour afterwards my feet were on my own fender. I was _home_ again.
What a delicious sensation after twelve months in a prison cell!
Friends prescribed a rest at the seaside for me, but I felt that
the best tonic was work. In less than three days I settled everything.
I resumed the editorship of the _Freethinker_ at once, and began
filling up my list of engagements. On meeting the Committee, who
had managed our affairs in our absence, I found everything in perfect
order, besides a considerable profit at the banker's. Messrs. A. Hilditch,
R. O. Smith, J., Grout and G. Standring had given ungrudgingly of
their time; Mr. C. Herbert, acting as treasurer, had kept the accounts
with painstaking precision; and Mrs. Besant had proved how a woman
could take the lead of men. Nor must I forget Mr. Robert Forder,
the Secretary of the National Secular Society, who acted as shopman
at our publishing office, and sustained the business by his assiduity.
I had also to thank Dr. Aveling for his interim editorship of the
_Freethinker_, and the admirable manner in which he had conducted
The first number of the _Freethinker_ under my fresh editorship
appeared on the following Thursday. In concluding my introductory
address I said:
"I promise the readers of the _Freethinker_ that they shall,
so far as my powers avail, find no diminution in the vigor and
vivacity of its attacks on the shams and superstitions of our age.
Not only the writer's pen, but the artist's pencil, shall be busy
in this good work; and the absurdities of faith shall, if possible,
be slain with laughter. Priests and fools are, as Goldsmith said,
the two classes who dread ridicule, and we are pledged to an
implacable war with both."
The artist's pencil! Yes, I had resolved to repeat what I was punished
for. I left written instructions against the publication of Comic Bible
Sketches in the _Freethinker_ during my imprisonment; but although I
would not impose the risk on others, I was determined to face it myself.
A fortnight after my release the Sketches were resumed, and they have
been continued ever since. My reasons for this decision were expressed
at a public banquet in the Hall of Science on March 12. I then said:
"Mr. Bradlaugh has said that the Freethought party--which no
one will dispute his right to speak for--looks to me, among
others, after my imprisonment, to maintain with dignity whatever
position I have won. I hope I shall not disappoint the expectation.
But I should like it to be clearly understood that I consider
the most dignified attitude for a man who has just left gaol
after suffering a cruel and unjust sentence, for no crime except
that of thinking and speaking freely, is to stand again for the
same right he exercised before, to pursue the very policy for
which he was attacked, precisely because he _was_ attacked,
and to flinch no hair's breadth from the line he pursued before,
at least until the opposition resorts to suasion instead of
force, and tries to win by criticism what it will never win
by the gaol. It is my intention to-morrow morning to drive
to the West of London, and to leave the first copy of this week's
_Freethinker_ pulled from the press at Judge North's house with
my compliments and my card."
Prolonged applause greeted this announcement, and I kept my word.
Judge North had the first copy of the re-illustrated _Freethinker_
and I hope he relished. At any rate, it showed him, as John Bright
says, that "force is no remedy."
At the banquet I refer to I was presented with a purse of gold, in
common with Mr. Ramsey, and an Illuminated Address, which ran as follows:
"To GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, Vice-President of the National Secular
Society, who suffered for twelve months in Holloway Gaol for the
so-called offence of Blasphemy.
"In offering you on your release this illuminated address, and
the accompanying purse of gold, we do not seek to give you
recompense for the sufferings and insults which have been
heaped upon you. We bring them only as a symbol of our thanks
to you--thanks, because, on your trial, you spoke nobly for
the right of free speech on religious questions; thanks,
because you bore, without a sign of flinching, a sentence
at once cruel and unjust; thanks, because you have carried
on our days the traditions of a Freethought faithful in the
prison as on the platform.
"Signed on behalf of the National Secular Society
C. BRADLAUGH, President.
R. FORDER, Secretary."
Greatly also did I value the greeting I received, with my two fellow
prisoners, from the working men of East London. At a crowded meeting
in the large hall of the Haggerston Road Club, attended by representatives
of other associations, I was presented with the following address:
"The Political Council of the Borough of Hackney Workmen's Club
present this testimonial to George William Foote as a token of
admiration of the courage displayed by him in the advocacy of
free speech, and in sympathy for the sufferings endured during
twelve months' imprisonment for the same under barbarous laws
unfitted for the spirit of a free people.
"Signed on behalf of the Council
ALFRED PIKE, President.
CHAS. KNIGHT, Secretary."
The largest audience that ever assembled at the Hall of Science
listened to my first lecture, at which Mr. Bradlaugh presided, two
days after my release. Seventeen hundred people crowded into a
room that seats nine hundred, and as many were unable to gain
admission. Similar welcomes awaited me in the provinces; and
ever since my audiences, as well as the sale of my journal and
writings, have been far larger than before my imprisonment.
Hundreds of people, as they have told me, have been converted
to Freethought by my sufferings, my lectures, and my pamphlets.
I hope Judge North is satisfied.
To prevent a break-down in case of another prosecution, Mr. Ramsey
and I clubbed our resources, and purchased printing plant and
machinery, so that the production of the _Freethinker_ and other
"blasphemous" literature might be done under our own root. The
bigots had proved themselves unable to intimidate us, and as we
were no longer at the mercy of printers they gave up the idea of
molesting us. May Freethinkers ever act in this spirit, and be
true to the great traditions of our cause!
F I N I S