Looking back on his schooldays William Makepeace Thackeray fondly recalled the numerous hours he spent gazing up at the window displays of London’s print shops:
Knight’s in Sweeting’s Ally; Fairburn’s in a court off Ludgate Hill; Hone’s in Fleet Street – bright, enchanted palaces … How we used… to stray miles out of the way on holidays in order to ponder for an hour before that delightful window… There used to be a crowd round the window in those days of grinning, good-natured mechanics, who spelt the songs and spoke them out for the benefit of the company, and who received the points of humour with a general sympathizing roar.
For Thackeray and many others, the admiring crowds which assembled on the pavements outside print shops were a feature of London’s cultural topography which deserved to be remembered and celebrated as evidence of an unparalleled commercial and social vibrancy which could be enjoyed by all Englishmen. A German visitor in London during 1806 echoed the young Thackeray’s sentiments when he marveled that “The English, of high and low birth alike are so enamoured of these satires that… caricature shops are always besieged by the public.”
However there were many residents of London who took a far less rosy view of the crowds which habitually gathered on the pavement outside print shops. The playwright Oliver Goldsmith complained that such gatherings were little more than a collection of “quacks, pimps, and buffoons”, in which “noted stallions only made room for more noted strumpets”. References to printshops which appear in the records of the Old Bailey support Goldsmith’s assessment, indicating that thieves and pickpockets frequently prayed on those who lingered for too long in front of the printshop windows. This association with petty crime and the working classes prompted those of a conservative disposition to go a step further, condemning the printsellers windows as breeding grounds for sedition and revolt. The prospect of a crowd of Thackery’s ‘grinning mechanics’ gathering to laugh and sneer at the failings of their rulers and social betters filled many Tories with a sense of indignation and dread.
It is attitudes such as these which explain why the authorities took the extraordinary step of arresting the print and bookseller Richard Carlile in the autumn of 1834. Carlile was a well-known radical, a friend and associate of Henry Hunt and a man who had already served several jail terms on charges relating to the publication of seditious, blasphemous and libelous material. In October 1834 his shop in the Fleet Street was raided by police after the publisher refused to pay tithes to the Anglican church on the grounds that he was an atheist. Carlile retaliated by having two life-sized anti-clerical caricatures mounted in the first floor window of the shop. The first depicted a stereotypical image of a greedy pawnbroker and was labelled Temporal Broker, whilst the second consisted of a bishop cavorting arm-in-arm with Satan under the title Spiritual Broker. The title of, The Props of the Church was then painted across the front of the shop in large lettering.
Inevitably the decision to mount a life-sized large and deliberately provocative caricature 20 feet above one of London’s busiest thoroughfares resulted a huge crowds congregating in Fleet Steeet. The various witnesses who appeared at Carlile’s trial claimed that groups of at least 40-50 people were perpetually gathered outside Carlile’s shop and that omnibuses and coaches blocked the road as drivers stopped to gawp at the effigies. Worst of all, several ‘respectable’ ladies had been forced to flee into nearby shops in order to escape the leers and catcalls of many of the men who had gathered to see the display. A policeman who later appeared at Carlile’s trial said “I have lived in London all my life – I never saw a crowd of people congregate at a shop window in that way in my life – I never saw a caricature shop window as bad as that.”
Buried under a sea of complaints from local shopkeepers and outraged members of the middle classes, the civic authorities felt compelled to act but were unsure of how to proceed against the radical publisher. Whilst action had been taken to clear crowds from outside print shops in the past – in 1828 the police and local magistrates had been called to clear a large mob from outside G.S. Tregear’s shop in Cheapside – this would not result in the removal of the offensive caricature from Carlile’s window. On the other hand, the authorities could not simply take action against the content of the caricature because it was notoriously difficult to bring a charge of seditious libel against someone for publishing an image. In April 1812 the British government had considered taking legal action against the publishers of The Scourge but had abandoned the idea when the Solicitor General advised that a caricature “would require so much of difficult explanation in stating it as a libel that it does not appear to us advisable to make it the subject of criminal prosecution”.
Carlile’s prosecutors adopted a more novel line of attack; claiming that the publisher had created a public nuisance by drawing such huge crowds to the front of his shop and blocking a busy thoroughfare. Carlile was arrested and brought before a judge at the Old Bailey on 24th November 1834. A number of Carlile’s neighbours were encouraged to come forward and testify against him, complaining that the crowds that were permanently gathered on the street consisted of the “lowest of the low” and had damaged property, stolen from other shops in the area and caused a general decline in business. Carlile chose to conduct his own defence and dismissed the case against him on the grounds that the crowds gathered outside his shop were “no greater than a congregation leaving church – a funeral, or other processions” or one of countless other trifling inconvenience that one could encounter on the streets of London everyday. He also reminded the court that he had already been arrested and fined £5 for displaying a very similar anti-clerical print several months ago and that he could not be tried for the same crime twice. He concluded, probably rather unwisely, by reminding the court that any fine levied against him could only be paid using the proceeds derived from the sale of yet more political tracts and prints and that therefore a guilty verdict would only serve to increase his output of offensive material. He concluded his statement by grandly asserting that he was “anxious to live in peace and amity with all men… there do exist many political and moral evils which this deponent will, through life, labour to abate.”
Carlile was found guilty and, after refusing to pay sureties of £200 for the good behaviour of himself and two of his employees, sentenced to three years imprisonment for creating a public nuisance. After the sentence Carlile scoffed at the idea of handing money over to the authorities; “It is a mockery to say that I may, if I please, purchase my liberty. I cannot do it… I will not interfere to abate one hour of the imprisonment. When the gates are open to me I will walk out, but I will not pay or do anything to procure release” He also added that he would rather “be free in prison than shackled outside.”
A transcript of Carlile’s trial in November 1834 can be found at the Old Bailey Online.
G.A. Aldred, Richard Carlile: His Battle for the Free Press, London, 1912 and Richard Carlile, Agitator: His Life and Times, London 1923