Parliamentary Privilege and Libel, Part III: Stockdale v. Hansard

This is the third instalment of a series of blogs about how the privilege in parliamentary publication eventually came to be defined in the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. Part I can be read at Privilege, Libel and the long road to Stockdale v. Hansard, Part I: from Strode’s Case to Article IX; Part II is at Parliamentary Privilege and Libel, Part II: from Wilkes to 1835. This instalment deals with what happened after the Reform Act of 1832.


The publication resolution of 1835

The 1835 decision of the House of Commons that it would routinely publish the reports and returns that were formally presented to it would have a huge impact on the issue of parliamentary privilege. It was of a piece with other gestures of openness on the part of the post-Reform Parliament, most notably the decision to publish division lists, dealt with in this blog by Kathryn Rix. Unfortunately, it never seems to have crossed the minds of the men on the 1835 committee that dealt with parliamentary publication that there might have been an issue about privilege.

The Printed Papers committee of 1835, chaired by the radical Joseph Hume, was set up to deal with the huge growth in the number of reports, accounts, returns and assorted pieces of paper that it received and routinely sent off to be printed for the benefit of those members who needed copies. As we’ve seen, printing for the purposes of the House or its committees had been regarded by the courts as not raising any potential issues of libel, for they were ostensibly for internal purposes only. In fact, these papers were available to the public, though with some difficulty. They could be bought from the House of Commons Vote Office, but only in complete sessional sets (and since these could easily amount to 40 or 50 volumes, each volume containing numerous individual items, this was more than anyone but a library would be likely to want). Members of the public could get hold of them, but only through a member sending them on to them, using the free postal service.

The committee’s reforming remit was both to reduce the cost of such publications and to make them more easily accessible. It felt that the enormous amount of information contained in the sessional papers had been ‘hitherto too much confined to its members’. It concluded that the public should be supplied with parliamentary sessional papers in the same way as they were already able to obtain the daily Votes: it thought that ‘if the sessional papers were sold at fixed and moderate prices, and facilities given for their sale, that many of them would be purchased for the use of public libraries, reading rooms and public associations, and also by many public bodies and private individuals’. So they recommended ‘that the reports and parliamentary papers printed for the use of the house, should be rendered accessible to the public by purchase, at the lowest possible price for which they can be furnished; that a sufficient number of copies should be printed for that purpose; and that they should be sold by agents in the metropolis, from whom the country demand may be supplied’. (xxii, xxiii)

The implications on cost and management of all this were minutely examined in the report of the committee, for Hume was a notorious stickler for government economy. Its implications for parliamentary privilege were entirely ignored. The Commons casually accepted most of the recommendations in the middle of August at the end of the session. The government’s mild (though prescient) objection that it might be better to take a little longer for further deliberation was dispelled by Hume’s willingness to amend the scheme to allow for a scheme ‘founded on’ his own. Though there was a division on the appropriate size of type to be used (the report had gone into absurd detail on the subject), there seems to have been no other dissent.

It was probably was assumed that there would be no issue about privilege because most of the case law that had already built up had been about individuals publishing what they had said in the house for general consumption, and not about material that the house had specifically ordered to be printed. Perhaps the judgment of Lord Chief Justice Kenyon in the 1797 case of R v. Wright had made them believe that there was no issue at all when the House ordered something to be printed. They must have been given confidence by Kenyon’s ruling that the 1684 conviction of the Speaker in R v. Williams for authorising the publication of libellous material on the orders of the House was an obsolete and bad precedent, and another judge’s argument in the same case that ‘The general advantage to the country in having these proceedings made public, more than counterbalances the inconveniences to the private persons whose conduct may be the subject of such proceedings’.


The Report of the Inspectors of Prisons

As outlined in the first blog, the House’s complacency on the subject was punctured as a result of the report of the inspectors of Newgate Prison, presented to the House of Commons in 1836 and routinely sent off for printing on its orders. As part of a litany of complaints against those responsible for the prison, they wrote that they had ‘found several books: amongst them Guthrie’s Grammar, a song book, the Keepsake Annual for 1836, and the —- by —-, 18 plates, published by Stockdale, 1827. This last is a book of a most disgusting nature, and the plates are obscene and indecent in the extreme. It was claimed as his property by a prisoner named —-, and was kept in the cupboard without any attempt at concealment’. (Reports of the Inspectors appointed under the provisions of the Act 5 & 6 Will. IV. C. 38, to visit the different of Prisons of Great Britain: ordered to be printed 22 March 1836, HC 117, I. Home District , p. 5.)

The book concerned was The Generative System of John Roberton, a version of Roberton’s Diseases of the Generative System published by John Joseph Stockdale (1770-1840) under the pseudonym Thomas Little in 1827. Roberton was a Scottish specialist in the treatment of venereal disease with radical ideas about female sexuality; his study of the reproductive organs of both sexes, already controversial, was marketed by Stockdale in a version that made it (allegedly) into an explicitly pornographic work, including additional engraved plates. Stockdale had already built an unsavoury reputation for the titillating nature of many of his publications (including the notorious Memoirs of Hariette Wilson).

The authority in charge of Newgate prison, the London court of Aldermen, sent the Commons an indignant rebuttal to the report. The House printed that, too. As far as Stockdale’s publication was concerned, they wrote that ‘it appeared, on a careful examination, to be a scientific book; the plates to be purely anatomical, calculated only to attract the attention of persons connected with surgical science; and … that it belonged to the before-named prisoner, Foulger, who had been captain of a whaler, and had devoted himself to such studies’ (p. 5). Then the House further ordered the printing of a rejoinder to their rebuttal from the inspectors in which the defence of Stockdale’s publication was devoted to considerable scrutiny. They had asked the opinion of ‘several of the most distinguished persons of the medical and surgical profession’ and several medical booksellers, from whom they had discovered that, ‘so far from the volume in question being a scientific book, it is scouted and reprobated by the whole profession.’ It was published ‘with the intention of entrapping young men’; it was a ‘most disgusting and indecent work’ and was ‘one of Stockdale’s obscene works’.


Stockdale v. Hansard I

John Joseph Stockdale was an aggressive and highly litigious businessman. He may also have had a grudge against the House of Commons, which had initiated the (unsuccessful) prosecution for libel of his father, back in 1789. He sued the publishers used by the House of Commons, Thomas Curson Hansard, for libel. The case was heard in February 1837 in King’s Bench, with Sir John Campbell, the attorney general, acting for Hansard: the government would stand behind Hansard in all of this litigation.

The judge was Lord Denman, the lord chief justice. Denman had been a member of parliament for eighteenth years, a radical whig, attorney general in the government that had pushed through the reform bill, promoted to the head of the judiciary in 1832. He had, perhaps worryingly for the Hansards’ case, expressed the view over a previous case for libel that ‘great tyranny is often exercised by those who are the most clamorous advocates for freedom of opinion’. He had been on good terms with Campbell over the course of his career; but the litigation was probably not helped by the interaction of these two vain and difficult men which would lead to a continuing rivalty, piqued especially when Denman was forced by a series of strokes to retire from the lord chancellorship in 1850, leaving Campbell to succeed him.

In his judgment, Denman denied that the publication was privileged.

‘I am not aware of the existence in this country of any body whatever, which can privilege any servant of theirs to publish libels on any individual. Whatever arrangements may be made between the House of Commons and any publishers whom they may employ, I am of opinion that the person who publishes that in his shop, and especially for money, which can be injurious, and possibly ruinous, to any one of his Majesty’s subjects, must answer in a court of justice to that subject, if he challenges him for that libel. I wish to say so emphatically and distinctly, because I think, if, on this the first opportunity that has arisen in a court of justice on such a question, that point were left unsatisfactorily explained, the presiding judge might become an accomplice in the destruction of the liberties of his country, and expose every individual in it to a tyranny no man ought to submit to.’

Since the court also found that the description of the book was disgusting and the plates obscene and indecent, it was rather a pyrrhic victory for Stockdale. But it was a massive shock to the House of Commons.

What the Quarterly Review called ‘the high-spirited and independent tone of the Chief Justice’s remarks’ attracted considerable attention. ‘As might have been expected, his old friends and patrons the Whigs were amongst the foremost to assail and calumniate him for thus raising by anticipation the firm and (we trust) lasting barrier of judicial authority against the constant though gradual encroachments of democracy. An honest desire to preserve the immunities of each branch of the legislature unimpaired, induced many real friends of the constitution to unite in the first instance with its undoubted enemies in this attack, but most of them have now seen their error, and, unless we are much mistaken, the rest will not be sorry to be convinced that they were wrong’.

In less than ten days, at the motion of leader of the House Lord John Russell, the house of commons had appointed a select committee to review the case . Their report was a very detailed (though not always entirely accurate) rebuttal of Denman’s judgment, and a passionate plea for parliamentary publishing. The committee claimed that ‘the public circulation of papers printed by order of this house having thus been shown to have continued without interruption for nearly two centuries’, and ‘that it appears to have been the generally received opinion, during the whole of that period, that legal proceedings could not be instituted for any thing contained in papers so printed’. It concluded that if the lord chief justice were correct, then the House would have to abandon publication entirely. The ruling was ‘fatal to the proper exercise of its functions by the House’. It would be impossible to conduct proper investigations if the House were unable to communicate to the public the material it had received. It pointed to the example of the committee appointed in the year 1832 to investigate the condition of the enslaved people in the British colonies, which ‘was under the absolute necessity, in order to perform the duty assigned to them, of receiving a large mass of evidence as to cases of alleged cruelty committed towards slaves; this evidence, there can be no doubt, would have been regarded, if published in an unauthorized form, as affording good grounds for actions or prosecutions for libel to the parties to whom cruelty was imputed; yet, if its circulation had been confined to members of the House, or if, in printing it, the names of those accused had been omitted, the object in view would not have been obtained’ (para. 38). The committee insisted on ‘the utter impossibility of legislating with advantage which would result from depriving this House of the unrestricted power of communicating with the people whom it represents’. The precise limit of parliamentary privilege could not be defined, ‘because the emergencies which may call for its exercise cannot be foreseen. In the same manner a court of law does not a priori define a contempt’ (para. 47). R. v. Williams was the only case, it argued, in which the privilege had been challenged: and this, it claimed, should be considered as of no authority. The House, it went on, had an exclusive right to determine its own privileges, because to allow any limit would be inconsistent with the independence of parliament. Its report concluded with three resolutions:

That the power of publishing such of its reports, votes and proceedings as it shall deem necessary or conducive to the public interests, is an essential incident to the constitutional functions of parliament, more especially of this House, as the representative portion of it;

That by the law and privilege of parliament, this House has the sole and exclusive jurisdiction to determine upon the existence and extent of its privileges, and that the institution or prosecution of any action, suit or other proceeding for the purpose of bringing them into discussion or decision before any court or tribunal elsewhere than in parliament, is a high breach of such privilege, and renders all parties concerned therein amenable to its just displeasure, and to the punishment consequent thereon:

That for any court or tribunal to decide upon matters of privilege inconsistent with the determination of either House of Parliament thereon, is contrary to the law of parliament, and is a breach and contempt of the privileges of Parliament .’

The committee did, however, recognise the problem of potential libel, and conceded that it would be necessary to rely on ‘the discretion, and sense of justice of individual members respecting the presentation and printing of petitions, and of the chairmen and members of committees of inquiry, in respect to the prosecution of their inquiries, and particularly in respect to the printing of the evidence which may affect private character, until the opportunity be given of rebutting it.’

The House debated the report on 30 May 1837, within days of its publication. The committee’s resolutions were adopted, although far from all were happy. The Conservative Sir Robert Inglis, who had been a dissenter on the committee, pointed out the potential consequences of so aggressive a statement of parliamentary privilege. From an opposite political position, Thomas Duncombe, one of the few parliamentary allies of the Chartists, suggested that the resolutions were the House ‘giving to themselves the most despotic, tyrannical and arbitrary power, that ever was established’.


Stockdale v. Hansard II

Meanwhile Stockdale began a second prosecution, this time in response to the inspectors’ attack on the Court of Aldermen’s rebuttal. There was a long pause before it was dealt with, in April 1839 again before Denman, who was sitting with fellow justices Sir John Patteson, Sir John Coleridge, and Sir Joseph Littledale.  The Attorney General (still John Campbell) devoted an immense amount of effort to his speech – ‘by far the most formidable job I ever was concerned in’ he wrote, calling it ‘the privilege case between Lord Denman and the House of Commons’. Campbell had spent ‘many weeks in preparing for it during the two preceding long vacations… I had read everything that had the smallest bearing on the subject, from the earliest year book to the latest pamphlet—not confining myself to mere legal authorities, but diligently examining historians, antiquaries and general jurists, both English and foreign’. His address, he wrote smugly, would in any future dispute ‘be referred to as a repertory of all the learning on the subject; for, not confining myself to answer what was openly urged by the counsel for the plaintiff, I referred to and answered every authority and argument that could be urged against me’. He addressed the court, he wrote in his memoir, for sixteen hours, speaking entirely from memory.

All this was happening at a time when the government was deeply anxious about the scale of Chartist activity, and the attorney general heavily concerned with Chartist prosecutions. Not only that, but shortly after the hearing the government was defeated in the Commons and resigned, and Sir Robert Peel attempted, and failed, to form another one, in the royal and political comic opera known as the Bedchamber Crisis. By the time Denman gave his judgment, on 31 May, Melbourne’s administration, along with the Attorney General, had been reinstated. Lord Denman’s judgment, not that much shorter than Campbell’s speech, clearly took some pleasure in ripping the Attorney General’s argument to shreds. He argued that ‘no practical difference can be drawn between the right to sanction all things under the name of privilege, and the right to sanction all things whatever, by merely ordering them to be done. The second proposition differs from the first in words only. In both cases the law would be superseded by one assembly; and however dignified and respectable that body, in whatever degree superior to all temptations of abusing their power, the power claimed is arbitrary and irresponsible, in itself the most monstrous and intolerable of all abuses’. The 1835 resolution on publication ‘could only be defended’, he suggested, by one House of Parliament laying hold of ‘that sovereign power which is lodged in the three estates; an opinion confirmed by the report of the committee, by the attorney general’s argument, and by the concurrence of my learned brethren’.

Campbell went, he wrote in his memoir, hotfoot to the Commons, which was, he believed, just as outraged as he was. ‘There was’, he wrote later, ‘no resolution I could have proposed—if it had been at once to commit Lord Denman and the other judges of the Queen’s Bench to the Tower—which would not have been carried by acclamation’. In fact, while his motion for the appointment of another committee was agreed without division, some members cautioned against precipitate action. The Committee, too, was far from uniformly belligerent. When it reported it offered a tentative menu of possible responses. There could be an appeal, which would ultimately to lead to the House of Lords deciding on the case – an unattractive proposition, placing the privilege of the Commons in the hands of the upper House. Another option was a bill to assert the right of the House to publish its procceedings, i.e. a declaratory act, claiming and confirming the right; but this, too, gave the House of Lords a right to adjudicate on the privilege of the Commons. There could be a bill to enable both Houses of Parliament to publish such papers as they might think necessary – but this had the same problem. The House might precipitate a confrontation with the offers of the court. In one scenario ‘the sheriff and his subordinate officers would be prohibited by the House from levying the damages which have been awarded, and any failure on their part to yield obedience to this prohibition would be treated as a contempt, and dealt with as such in the ordinary manner’. In another, while allowing the damages in this case to be paid, the House would declare that it would permit no further actions of the same kind to be brought, and that it would ‘immediately commit for contempt any parties by whom such actions should be commenced or promoted’. The committee plumped, in the end, for the most confrontational course of resisting the execution of the judgement, as ‘the course most consistent with ancient parliamentary usage, and with the dignity of the House’. But they frankly acknowledged that the committee had been deeply split over the decision.

But a debate on the report on 17 June 1839  was introduced by Lord John Russell, who took a different view. He proposed that the House should not oppose the execution of the judgment, and asking the committee for a further, more considered investigation, was accepted. That very effectively kicked the can down the road, for at the end of the August the committee produced a short report saying that they had been unable to complete their inquiry. That put it off until the next session, which would not start until February 1840.


Stockdale v. Hansard III

It was all very well temporising on the subject, but others were starting to queue up to sue the poor Hansards. The House received a petition from the company at the end of July concerning evidence given before a committee of the House of Lords (but printed at the order of the House of Commons), relative to the island of New Zealand that allegedly contained a ‘false, scandalous and malicious libel on the character of Mr Polack’. Moreover, immediately after the Commons rose for the summer, Stockdale began a third prosecution for libel, which the government did not try to contest, and which resulted in another judgment against Hansard. In November the sheriffs of Middlesex proceeded to take action to recover from Hansard the damages that had been awarded. It was a direct challenge to the decision of the Commons, which could not be ignored.

Campbell was extremely anxious about the new case: ‘if the damages had been levied and paid over to the party before the meeting of parliament, the privileges of the House would have been for ever gone by such a precedent’. He persuaded the cabinet that the House should be recalled early from its recess in January to deal with the issue. The House spent the next two months in a ludicrous attempt to prevent the payment of the damages to Stockdale, and trying to prevent further actions against Hansard. The issue was rapidly becoming a party issue, for as Campbell wrote, ‘[Sir Robert] Peel was steadfast, but the great bulk of his party were against him, and the Tory lawyers, as if they thought he was insincere, exerted their utmost ingenuity and zeal to thwart the measures taken for the protection of the House’. But on his own side, Campbell was bothered by Serjeant Wilde, the solicitor general, ‘who was always for pushing privilege to be made extreme’.

On its first day back on 16 January 1840, before even the Queen’s Speech was read, the government got the House to consider Stockdale’s actions. Hansard presented a petition laying out the proceedings since the House had adjourned. (Campbell had travelled all night from the Monmouth assizes, where the trials had been taking place of the Chartist insurrectionists at Newport.) The House voted to question all of those concerned with executing the court’s judgment – the bailiffs, sheriffs and under-sheriffs of Middlesex, as well as Stockdale himself – on the following day. When Stockdale was interviewed at the bar, he was asked whether he was aware of the House’s resolutions of 1837, and the fact that it would be a breach of the privileges of the House to question its power to order such publications. He answered that he was, but ‘from my own reading, and my communication with the greatest statesmen of the age in other times’, he knew that the House did not have the powers it claimed to have. Someone quoted the letter he had written to Hansard at the beginning of his third action, in August 1839: ‘I hereby assert the unquestionable rights of Britons against an usurped privilege of the Commons in Parliament’ (Q. 76, 81). The House voted him guilty of a high contempt and a breach of privileges of the House. It questioned the bailiffs, too, who had in November executed the sheriff’s writ to recover £618 from Hansard: they had entered his property, taken printing presses, and sold them to a timber merchant in Great Russell Street. And it questioned the Sheriffs of Middlesex, under whose orders the bailiffs had acted. The sheriffs made clear that they were not able to return the goods as requested. After very lengthy debate and several votes (and ignoring the petition of the sheriffs, who pointed out that they had only been carrying out their sworn duty), the House voted that the sheriffs were also in contempt of the House and committed them, as well as Stockdale, to the custody of the serjeant-at-arms. Stockdale’s solicitor, Thomas Burton Howard, was reprimanded but let go. Within a couple of days it appeared that he had begun a further process against the Hansards, and he was hauled before the house again.

In Campbell’s account, a critical point was reached when on 24 January 1840 the serjeant at arms was served with writ of habeas corpus commanding him to bring the sheriffs to the Court of Queen’s Bench. Campbell ignored Wilde’s advice that the serjeant should defy the order of the court (‘the consequences would have been that the serjeant at arms, even with the mace in his hand, would have been sent to Newgate by the court of Queen’s Bench. The House must have retaliated by committing the judges. The Crown would then have had to determine on which side the army should be employed and for a time we must have lived under a military government’). He accepted that the courts had a right to direct such a writ to an officer of either House, though, he argued, that they did not have a right to challenge the House’s right to commit someone for a contempt. By not specifying the nature of the contempt he claimed that he had deprived Denman of the opportunity to question the response. The sheriffs were taken to Queen’s Bench and then returned to the Serjeant’s custody, since the court accepted that it could not challenge the right of the Commons to commit a person for a contempt. Not that the sheriffs had anything to complain about, Campbell believed, because they were held in a very luxurious confinement attended every morning by Tory MPs, ‘who congratulated them on their patriotism, and exhorted them to persevere’.

Although it had managed to avoid a direct confrontation over the habeas corpus case, the House of Commons had got itself into a hopeless mess, and a thoroughly unsustainable one: dealing with the claims of individuals suing Hansard and mopping up the claims made against the firm was threatening to take up a large part of the time of the House, as well as to get it into increasingly bizarre confrontations with the court. Few people outside were remotely interested in the case, and those who were were largely hostile to the claims of the Commons. The government seems to have recognised that some sort of climbdown was required, and over February and March came round to the view that the only practical solution was one of the rejected options in the list given by the committee in 1839: an act indemnifying parliamentary publication.

It was probably Lord John Russell who insisted on such a settlement: moving for a bill in early March he indicated his frustration with the amount of time the case was taking up. He accepted that by trying to clear up the confusion by means of a bill the House might be seen as implicitly conceding that it did not, at present, have the power that it thought it did: his assertion nevertheless that it was the House itself that defined its privileges rang rather hollow. Russell found himself opposed not only by Tories – Sir Edward Sugden argued that the route proposed failed to do anything to protect individuals from being libelled by the means of House of Commons publications – but also by his own solicitor-general, the gung-ho Serjeant Wilde, who believed that the bill would be ‘deeply and permanently injurious to the privileges of that House and of the public’. Others concurred with Wilde’s passionate attack on the measure. But as the Whig historian, Thomas Babington Macaulay, argued in the subsequent day’s debate, Russell’s bill was carefully designed to avoid making any concession to those who might see it as surrendering the House’s own jurisdiction over its privileges, and was simply intended to permit those privileges to be used fully and effectively. Despite the vehemence of its opponents, and largely because of the support of Peel, the bill passed into law within about six weeks, as the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840.


The monstrous pretension of privilege?

The reaction to Stockdale v. Hansard suggests that the feeling that the House of Commons was overreaching itself, that it was getting much too big for its boots, affected many more than Denman. The case reflects the historic irritation of the courts with the pretensions of Members of Parliament when it came to privilege. It had been well expressed in another, unrelated, case a few years earlier, the 1831 case of Wellesley v. the Duke of Beaufort, in which the odious William Pole Tylney Long Wellesley  tried to free himself from the prison to which he had been sent for his contempt of a chancery order concerning the custody of his little daughter. Wellesley had tried to plead parliamentary privilege (unsuccessfully) and Lord Chancellor Brougham had complained of the ‘monstrous pretension’ of certain claims of privilege. Brougham had cited the still infamous 1759 case of Admiral Griffin, in which Griffin had used parliamentary privilege to stop trespassers fishing in his fishponds. Griffin cropped up again in the Stockdale v. Hansard case.

But it was not just the courts. As we’ve seen, there wasn’t much sympathy in 1763, during the discussion of Wilkes’s case, for the idea that privilege should be used to enable MPs or anyone else to fling around allegations about the behaviour of other people. The indifference to Creevey’s plight in 1813 indicates that things had not changed much by then (though it could be said simply to show the hostility of most of the Commons to the radical Whig Creevey). In 1837-40 many MPs, particularly Conservative MPs, were still of that same view, and perhaps held it more strongly as they anxiously looked for the effects that the extension of the franchise in the 1832 Reform Act might have on parliamentary discourse. The issue was one of a number splitting the Conservative Party – revealing, as Matthew Cragoe has written, an ‘apparently irreconcilable difference of opinion about the nature of constitutional government in the wake of the Reform Act’.

In which case, why did the House of Commons so insouciantly decide to publish their proceedings in 1835, and why were they prepared to take their conflict with the courts so far? The failure to consider the legal implications of their actions in 1835 was extraordinary, particularly given the minute detail the committee had entered into concerning costs, and particularly given the number of cases in which those publishing vague and unsubstantiated allegations through parliamentary proceedings had come to one sort of grief or another. Perhaps the 1835 committee thought it safe to rely on Kenyon’s judgment in R. v. Wright, which seemed to give a privileged status to material which the House had published itself. But the fact that Kenyon had simply dismissed the other precedent might have given them pause for thought. The fault was perhaps that of Joseph Hume, who in his early crusade for open government did his best to bounce the government into precipitate acceptance of publication.

However it happened, the case dramatised an inherent conflict between the rule of law and a democratic parliament that still exists. But no doubt, in the late 1830s it was felt peculiarly acutely. For Sir Robert Peel it was crucial that the House of Commons should ensure that its leadership was recognised, in order to combat the forces of democracy and anarchy. For others the attitude of the courts would render enlightened, reforming and (as it wasn’t called then) ‘evidence-based’ policy making completely impossible. It was entirely reasonable that the House’s papers should be published, and that public policy would require private rights in information sometimes to be overridden. But it’s difficult not to sympathise a little with those who felt that the hysterical reaction to the affair showed a tendency of the post-Reform Act legislature, newly legitimated by the extension of the electorate to believe that an arrogant conviction of its own good intentions entitled it to ride entirely roughshod over private rights.


Further reading

The essential account is the article by the former judge, Eric Stockdale (I have no idea if he is any relation), ‘The unnecessary crisis: the background to the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840’, Public Law, 1990

For the conservative politics of the affair, see Matthew Cragoe, ‘Sir Robert Peel and the Moral Authority of the House of Commons, 1836-41’, English Historical Review, No. 530, Feb. 2013.





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