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- Prisoner for Blasphemy - 1/34 -

Prisoner for Blasphemy by George William Foote (11-Jan-1850 to 17-Oct-1915) Originally published 1886

Transcribed by the Freethought Archives



G. W. Foote

Persecution is not refutation, nor even triumph: the "wretched infidel" as he is called, is probably happier in his prison than the proudest of his assailants--BYRON.

London: Progressive Publishing Company 28 Stonecutter Street, E.C. 1886




I. The Storm Brewing

II. Our First Summons

III. Mr. Bradlaugh Included

IV. Our Indictment

V. Another Prosecution

VI. Preparing for Trial

VII. At the Old Bailey

VIII. Newgate

IX. The Second Trial

X. "Black Maria"

XI. Holloway Gaol

XII. Prison Life

XIII. Parson Plaford

XIV. The Third Trial

XV. Loss and Gain

XVI. A Long Night

XVII. Daylight


This little volume tells a strange and painful story; strange, because the experiences of a prisoner for blasphemy are only known to three living Englishmen; and painful, because their unmerited sufferings are a sad reflection on the boasted freedom of our age.

My own share in this misfortune is all I could pretend to describe with fidelity. Without (I hope) any meretricious display of fine writing, I have related the facts of my case, giving a precise account of my prosecutions, and as vivid a narrative as memory allows of my imprisonment in Holloway Gaol. I have striven throughout to be truthful and accurate, nothing extenuating, nor setting down aught in malice; and I have tried to hit the happy mean between negligence and prolixity. Whether or not I have succeeded in the second respect the reader must be the judge; and if he cannot be so in the former respect, he will at least be able to decide whether the writer means to be candid and bears the appearance of honesty.

One reason why I have striven to be exact is that my record may be of service to the future historian of our time. It is always rash to appeal to the future, as a posturing English novelist did in one of his Prefaces; and it is well to remember the witticism of Voltaire, who, on hearing an ambitious poeticule read his Ode to Posterity, doubted whether it would reach its address. But it is the facts, and not my personality, that are important in this case. My trial will be a conspicuous event in the history of the struggle for religious freedom, and in consequence of Lord Coleridge's and Sir James Stephen's utterances, it may be of considerable moment in the history of the Criminal Law. It is more than possible that I shall be the last prisoner for blasphemy in England. That alone is a circumstance of distinction, which gives my story a special character, quite apart from my individuality. As a muddle-headed acquaintance said, intending to be complimentary, Some men are born to greatness, others achieve it, and I had it thrust upon me.

Prosecutions for Blasphemy have not been frequent. Sir James Stephen was able to record nearly all of them in his "History of the Criminal Law." The last before mine occurred in 1857, when Thomas Pooley, a poor Cornish well-sinker, was sentenced by the late Mr. Justice Coleridge to twenty months' imprisonment for chalking some "blasphemous" words on a gate-post. Fortunately this monstrous punishment excited public indignation. Mill, Buckle, and other eminent men, interested themselves in the case, and Pooley was released after undergoing a quarter of his sentence. From that time until my prosecution, that is for nearly a whole generation, the odious law was allowed to slumber, although tons of "blasphemy" were published every year. This long desuetude induced Sir James Stephen, in his "Digest of the Criminal Law" to regard it as "practically obsolete." But the event has proved that no law is obsolete until it is repealed. It has also proved Lord Coleridge's observation that there is, in the case of some laws, a "discriminating laxity," as well as Professor Hunter's remark that the Blasphemy Laws survive as a dangerous weapon in the hands of any fool or fanatic who likes to set them in motion.

In the pamphlet entitled _Blasphemy No Crime_, which I published during my prosecution, and which is still in print if anyone is curious to see it, I contended that Blasphemy is only our old friend Heresy in disguise, and that, we know, is a priestly manufacture. My view has since been borne out by two high authorities. Lord Coleridge says that "this law of blasphemous libel first appears in our books-- at least the cases relating to it are first reported--shortly after the curtailment or abolition of the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts in matters temporal. Speaking broadly, before the time of Charles II. these things would have been dealt with as heresy; and the libellers so-called of more recent days would have suffered as heretics in earlier times." [Reference: _The Law of Blasphemous Libel_. The Summing-up in the case of Regina v. Foote and others. Revised with a Preface by the Lord Chief Justice of England. London, Stevens and Sons.] Sir James Stephen also, after referring to the writ _De Heretico Comburendo_, under which heresy and blasphemy were punishable by burning alive, and which was abolished in 1677, without abridging the jurisdiction of Ecclesiastical Courts "in cases of atheism, blasphemy, heresie, or schism, and other damnable doctrines and opinions," adds that "In this state of things, the Court of Queen's Bench took upon itself some of the functions of the old Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, and treated as misdemeanours at common law many things which those courts had formerly punished... This was the origin of the modern law as to blasphemy and blasphemous libel." [Reference: _Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel_. By Sir James Stephen. _Fortnightly Review_, March, 1884.]

Less than ten years after the "glorious revolution" of 1688 there was passed a statute, known as the 9 and 10 William III., c. 32, and called "An Act for the more effectual suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness." This enacts that "any person or persons having been educated in, or at any time having made profession of, the Christian religion within this realm who shall, by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking, deny any one of the persons in the Holy Trinity to be God, or shall assert or maintain there are more gods than one, or shall deny the Christian doctrine to be true, or the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be of divine authority," shall upon conviction be disabled from holding any ecclesiastical, civil, or military employment, and on a second conviction be imprisoned for three years and deprived for ever of all civil rights.

Lord Coleridge and Sir James Stephen call this statute "ferocious," but as it is still unrepealed there is no legal reason why it should not be enforced. Curiously, however, the reservation which was inserted to protect the Jews has frustrated the whole purpose of the Act; at any rate, there never has been a single prosecution under it. So much of the statute as affected the Unitarians was ostensibly repealed by the 53 George III., c. 160. But Lord Eldon in 1817 doubted whether it was ever repealed at all; and so late as 1867 Chief Baron Kelly and Lord Bramwell, in the Court of Exchequer, held that a lecture on "The Character and Teachings of Christ: the former defective, the latter misleading" was an offence against the statute. It is not so clear, therefore, that Unitarians are out of

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