At Bow Street Police Court on Saturday, Mr Noel Pemberton Billing, MP for East Herts, of 5 St James’ Place, SW, appeared in answer to a summons in which it was alleged that he had unlawfully published a false defamatory libel upon Miss Maud Allan and Mr Jack Thomas Grein in a paragraph of a newspaper called the ‘Vigilante’ in the issue dated 16th February. Mr Billing conducted his own defence. Mr Travers Humphreys and Mr Valetta appeared in support of the summons.
Mr Humphreys, in opening the case, said that the defendant was charged with libelling two persons. The first prosecutor was Miss Maud Allan who, for the last 10 years, had been before the public as a dramatic artist, and one of her many successes was the presentation first made by her in 1908 at the Palace Theatre in a dance called “The Vision of Salome”. The dance did not pretend to be that danced by Salome in the Bible story, but was supposed to represent a vision seen by Salome after she had danced the dance for which her mother had received as reward the head of John the Baptist.
The second prosecutor in the case was Mr Grein, who was born in Amsterdam, and was well known as a dramatic critic. For years he had been in the habit of producing plays by means of what he called J.T. Grein’s Independent Theatre, which was not run for profit but for the sake of art. It had recently been proposed by Mr Grein that, at the Independent Theatre, he should re-introduce to the public a play called “Salome”, originally written by the late Oscar Wilde, in French. The book could be bought at any respectable bookshop by anyone.
Mr Grein’s idea was that that play should be represented in the theatre and that Miss Allan should take the part of Salome, which included a dance. It was alleged by the prosecution that the defendant had made an attack on Miss Allan such as it was unworthy of any man to make upon any woman.
The alleged libel was printed in a paper founded in 1916 as the Imperialist, but now known as the Vigilante, which was conducted by the defendant. The heading of the paragraph complained of consisted of words the meaning of which no-one could doubt even after reading them as they stood alone. A more horrible libel it was impossible to imagine, and many a woman might have hesitated before coming into court and publishing to people who might not have otherwise seen them these horrible words.
Had Miss Allan not taken these proceedings, some of those whose mental food was garbage might in the hereafter say that those things had been said of her but she had taken no steps to stop them. The obvious meaning of the passage complained of was that there was some connection between nameless vice and the performance at the Independent Theatre. That that was intended was made clearer by a cryptic reference suggesting that, if Scotland Yard were to seize a list of the members subscribing to the Independent Theatre, there was ‘no doubt they would secure the names of several thousand of the first 47,000’. The explanation of this reference was discovered in an article in a previous issue of the paper in which the libels were directed not against Miss Allan or Mr Grein, but against whole classes of other people, not excepting the very highest in the land.
The writer said there had been many persons who had been prevented from putting their whole strength into the war by corruption and blackmail and the fear of exposure: and that there were reasons for supposing that the Germans, with their usual efficiency, were making use of the most productive and the cheapest methods. The paper stated that a dossier of ‘The Forty-Seven Thousand’ was in course of preparation, and that when it was ready the necessary steps to bring some of those people to justice would be taken.
The paragraph went on to state “There exists in the ‘cabinet noir’ of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past 20 years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive, and only German bodies execute”. The article said that their book, or the outlines of its contents, had been handed to the writer of this paragraph.
It went on “More than 1,000 pages are filled with the names mentioned by German agents in their reports. There are the names of 47,000 English men and women”. Then there was the suggestion that the most secret reports of State were threatened. It also said that German agents, under the guise of indecent liaisons, could obtain information as to the disposition of the Fleet, and that ‘the thought that 47,000 English men and women were held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat’.
It also said, under the heading “Fall of Rome” , “All the horrors of shells and gas and pestilence introduced by the Germans in their open warfare would have but a fraction of the effect in exterminating the manhood of Britain as the plan by which they have already destroyed the first 47,000”.
The readers were intended to understand that the reference in the paragraph complained of was to the 47,000 people who were addicted to evils which, to use the expression in the article, “all decent men thought had perished in Sodom and Lesbia”. The suggestion was that if the police were to seize a list of the subscribing members of the Independent Theatre they would find the names of several thousand addicted to the hideous vices hinted at. Witnesses were then called.
During the evidence of the clerk who brought a copy of the paper for the solicitors, Mr Pemberton Billing complained that the permission given by Mr Justice Slater was for proceedings for obscene and indecent libel – the present charge. Mr Travers Humphreys replied that he was quite willing to charge the defendant with an obscene libel, and he asked the Magistrate to commit the defendant for trial on that charge.
Miss Maud Allan then went into the box. She described herself as a spinster and dramatic artiste, born in Toronto and educated principally in the United States and abroad. She came to Britain in 1908 and danced ‘Salome’ at the Palace Theatre. She had given the performance on the Continent in 1906. After her London appearance, she went to Russia and then made a world tour.
It was Mr Grein who suggested in January that she should appear in Oscar Wilde’s play at the Independent Theatre. “I have read the book” she said, “and there was a place where a dance should be and I proposed to give the dance”. Mr Grein called her attention to the offending paragraph and she at once consulted her solicitor, taking it that she was meant to be the person indicated. The defendant said that he had no questions to ask Miss Allan, who then left the box.
Mr Grein was next called, and was subjected to a lengthy cross-examination by the defendant. It was a fact, he said, that he had recently been appointed to some official position in connection with the propaganda of British drama in neutral countries. ‘Salome’ would be one of the repertoire if they had sufficient money. The performances would be public. There had been no public performances in this country because the play was not licensed.
The witness was of Dutch origin. It was true that he founded the German colony in London and held certain German decorations. Miss Allan had no German associations to his knowledge. In regard to his appointment for propaganda work, he reported all his plans to his chief, Lord Beaverbrook. His work would of course be subsidised by the government, but he would have no government salary. He considered it quite fair to appeal to the public for donations. He did not consider that ‘Salome’, as a play, made any appeal to moral perversity. At this stage, the hearing was adjourned.
On the same day, however, before Sir John Dickinson, the hearing was resumed, and concluded, in respect of the summons against Mr Pemberton Billing for having published a defamatory libel against Miss Maud Allan and Mr. Jack Thomas Grein. As at the earlier hearing, the Court was crowded. Mr Grein, re-called for further cross-examination, was understood to say that he did not adhere to his former statement that he was receiving, from Lord Beaverbrook, a government subsidy for presenting British plays in neutral countries.
The performance of Oscar Wilde’s play ‘Salome’, advertised for the previous Tuesday at the Kennington Theatre, was cancelled, but it took place elsewhere on Friday. Mr Billing said “Would you consider it correct to say that the play only interests ‘an afflicted few who can fairly claim kindred with Wilde’s erotic maniac ‘Tetrarch’ and less unfortunate ‘Salome’ “, and Mr Grein replied “I should consider that ‘bosh’. (There was laughter in court). Sir John Dickinson asked “What are you quoting from ?”, and Mr Billing said “A criticism of yesterday’s production in today’s Morning Post”. To the witness, Mr Billing asked “Would you suggest that persons who are healthy and desire to remain healthy had better avoid performances of this description ?”, and the witness responded “I think it is a healthy performance for healthy people to witness”. The witness was questioned as to many passages in the play, and the magistrate pointed out that many of Mr Billing’s questions appeared very wide of the matter before the Court.
The defendant said “I believe that, having stated that the exhibition given by those people directly ministers to sexual perverts, the onus appears to be on me to show the type of the performance”. Sir John Dickinson said “If you think it is advancing your case, it is not for me to stop you, but it is my duty to remind you of what is the particular charge against you”. Mr Pemberton Billing asked the witness “Speaking as a manager and financier of theatrical performances, would you consider it almost impossible for a woman to make her way on the stage if she does not sell herself to some financier or manager ?”
At this point, Sir John Dickinson interposed and said that these questions were going altogether outside the issue before the Court, and that, if they went into these general questions of morality they would be kept there for days. The defendant next questioned the witness as to what he knew of a certain form of vice, but the Magistrate again pointed out that the questions were irrelevant. The defendant said “I am desirous you should know that the witness, who is responsible for certain performances, is aware of the existence of a particular form of vice that does exist and my submission is that, consciously or unconsciously, he is catering for it in this country”.
Sir John Dickinson said that the defendant, in his cross-examination at the last hearing of the solicitor’s clerk who attended the preliminary proceedings before a Judge of the High Court, suggested that it was something in the nature of a hardship upon him that, application having been made for process for an obscene libel, the summons itself only charged him with defamatory libel. As a matter of fact, the Judge, in giving authority for the prosecution, did not specify the form of the charge. He (Sir John) would not like the defendant to feel that he had a grievance in that respect, and he was able to remove such grievance because the evidence which had been given justified him in committing the defendant for trial for both an obscene and a defamatory libel and, accordingly, he intended to commit him on both these charges.
Being asked, in the usual form, if he wished to make any statement before committal, the defendant submitted that there was no evidence of any libel on any of the complainants. All that the paragraph complained of actually referred to was the fact that one of these two – the other one only by inference – was engaged in presenting a performance which was calculated to appear to moral perverts and the practices of unnatural vices. It was a performance calculated to attract moral perverts who, whilst they may not be prepared to go to such extremes in their own perversity as to endanger not only their freedom but their lives, would, nevertheless, seek satisfaction in watching the exhibition. He held that any public man who, knowing these things to be true, refrained, through lack of moral courage or fear of the consequences, from criticising or even attacking them, had failed to appreciate his public duty. (There was suppressed applause at the back of the court).
He stood there, not so much a public man or a Member of Parliament, but as President of a Society which had been founded to fight for purity in public life. The practising of the vices to which reference had been made, holding, as they did, their devotees up to blackmail, had a national and international significance which was not calculated to prosper our cause in this war.
He did not state that either Miss Allan or Mr Grein was a member of the cult, but they had chosen a moment when our national existence was at stake to produce the most depraved of the many depraved works of a man who had suffered an extreme penalty at the hands of the law for his misdeeds. They had chosen this moment to present it to the nation in its sorrow as a ‘solace’ for the tragedy of the war. In so doing, they were ministering to unnatural promptings in the minds of their audiences.
That was a statement of fact and truth, and so great was the issue, so wide and so significant were the powers for evil that this cult possessed that he welcomed the opportunity given him of presenting in a criminal court, before a jury of his countrymen, the particulars which had been laid before the Magistrate, and other evidence which he would consider it his duty at the proper time to submit.
The defendant was formally committed for trial at the Central Criminal Court, his own recognisances in £500 being accepted for his appearance. In consequence of the above, Lord Beaverbrook issued a disclaimer, as follows:- The following communication has been issued through the Press Bureau: “The Minister of Information has never authorised any scheme or granted any subsidy for the production of plays in Neutral countries. Lord Beaverbrook does not know Mr J.T. Grein, and has no correspondence with him. Mr Grein is not employed by the Ministry.”
At the Central Criminal Court on Wednesday, before Mr Justice Atkin, Mr Pemberton Billing informed the Court that he was going to lodge a plea of justification, and asked for a day for the trial to be fixed. Mr Justice Atkin said that the best thing would be to put that trial off until the next Sessions. Mr Travers Humphreys, for the prosecution, said the practice was that a plea of justification must be served not later than a week before the hearing, and Mr Justice Atkin said the next Sessions commenced on 28th May and that Mr Billing must therefore serve his plea a week before that date. Mr Billing said that he would be quite prepared to go on with the case, and respectfully submitted that the sooner the case could be heard, the better it would be. Mr Justice Atkin said “That is true of all criminal cases, but it would be better to fix the trial for the next Sessions.” Mr Travers Humphreys said that he had to call the attention of the Court to a somewhat serious matter.
“The alleged libel”, said Counsel, “was contained in a paper published by the defendant. The issue of that paper, the Vigilante, of 13th April, containing a verbatim report of the proceedings at the Police Court, has apparently been distributed in the neighbourhood of this Court. So far from being merely a report of the proceedings, the paper contains the defendant’s comments upon his defence in the case, and there are a number of headings, some of them of a most objectionable character, in fact, a repetition of the libel. There are carefully selected words for the headings so as to make the repetition as offensive as possible. If the case is to go on to the next Sessions, it is most undesirable that the defendant or anybody else should be distributing close to this Court where the jurymen will have to try the case. I must ask your Lordship to take steps, not for contempt of Court, but to see that the defendant , as between now and the time of this case coming on does not make any reference to the case in his paper”, and Mr Justice Atkin responded “That seems right”.
Mr Billing said “Quite right. This is the first intimation I have had of this matter. Directly this case was brought, I resigned the position I held as president of the Society and Editor of the paper, and I have appointed someone else in my stead. The paper is only supplied to subscribers by post, and until this moment I had not the slightest idea that copies had been distributed. I should like to make the closest enquiries as to how it was possible for anyone to get these papers. It came as a complete surprise to me. The paper is the official organ of the Society, and the heading referred to is simply the object of the Society, as embodied in its constitution.” Mr Justice Atkin asked “You would undertake until the trial not to distribute copies of the paper except to subscribers, and not to comment on the proceedings ?” “Certainly”, responded Mr Billing. Mr Justice Atkin said “That undertaking could be enforced, though I am sure it is unnecessary to say so. I will make it a term of the postponement”, and Mr Billing agreed.
The trial of Mr Noel Pemberton Billing, MP for East Herts, on charges of publishing a false and defamatory libel on Miss Maud Allan and Mr Jack Thomas Grein, and on the further charge of publishing an obscene libel, began at the Central Criminal Court before Mr.Justice Darling on Wednesday, 29th May. Mr Hume-Williams KC, Mr Travers Humphreys, and Mr Valetta, appeared for the prosecution, and Mr Billing conducted his own defence.
The first of the three indictments, that relating to the alleged libel on Miss Allan, recited that Mr Billing maliciously published on 16th February a false and defamatory libel concerning her in the form of a paragraph in a newspaper called ‘Vigilante’, meaning that the said Miss Allan was a lewd, unchaste, and immoral woman and was about to give private performances of an obscene and indecent character, so designed as to foster and encourage unnatural practices among women, and that the said Miss Allan associated herself with persons addicted to unnatural practices.
The paragraph in question appeared under a heading that is unprintable. At the opening of the case, Mr Billing protested against Mr Justice Darling trying the case because he (Mr Billing) had on many occasions criticized his Lordship’s administration of justice, and referred to the atmosphere of levity which his Lordship had frequently introduced in cases he had tried. His Lordship replied that he had not read or heard of these criticisms, but the fact that Mr Billing took an unfavourable view of him could not be any reason why he should not try the case because, by the same process, the defendant might exhaust the Bench. He could not listen to such a protest. People could not choose their own judges, and they certainly could not exclude a judge by criticizing him beforehand.
During the first day’s hearing there were several dramatic incidents between Mr Billing and the Judge, and between him and Miss Allan. The case for the prosecution was closed, and the defence adjourned to the second day. On Thursday, there were some exciting incidents: Mr Billing declined to give evidence, but called his witnesses and examined them. The Judge had to intervene on several occasions, and once or twice threatened to put an end to the case if the defendant and his witnesses did not conduct themselves properly and according to the rules of the Court.
Repeated references were made to the ‘German Blackbook’ containing 47,000 names of English people, and quite a sensation was created when it was stated that the Judge’s name was on the list, and also those of Mr and Mrs Asquith, Lord Haldane, and other prominent persons. Mr Justice Darling said “I have not the least objection to my own name being given, but I am determined to protect people who are absolutely defenceless. If you ask questions of this character, I shall say ‘Sit down, they cannot be answered’ “. The case was again adjourned.
After a trial at the Central Criminal Court lasting over six days, Mr Noel Pemberton-Billing, MP for East Herts, was on Tuesday found not guilty on the charge of publishing a false and defamatory libel on Miss Maud Allan, the well-known actress. There was a remarkable demonstration in court when the verdict was returned. The charges were based upon a paragraph published in a newspaper called the Vigilante on 16th February under a headline which connoted unnatural practices.
The paragraph referred to ‘members of Maud Allan’s private performance in Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”, and suggested that among their names were some of the ‘First 47,000’ – a phrase which, according to an earlier statement in the same paper, then known as the Imperialist, had reference to an alleged book in the possession of a German Prince containing the names of 47,000 English men and women, with records of their alleged moral and sexual weaknesses, together with other information which, it was suggested, would render them easy victims of German agents.
The last day was occupied in speeches to the jury by Mr Hume-Williams KC and Mr Justice Darling. In the course of his remarks, the Judge referred to the withdrawal by the defendant of any charge of lesbianism against Miss Maud Allan. The defendant now said that he never intended to accuse Miss Allan of any lesbian practice. “That”, he said, “cannot be too well known, and the case stands in that position as regards Miss Maud Allan, namely, that the defendant does not allege, and if he had ever alleged and could have been understood to have been alleging, that she had been guilty of any such practices, he withdraws it, and no one is entitled henceforth to say that any such charge as that is made against her, or that she appears under any such imputation”.
That clears away a great deal, but it still leaves to be dealt with the question of what was the meaning of the cult referred to in the libel. He understood that what was relied upon was that she took part in playing in an indecent and obscene play which did not represent simply a natural, although exaggerated, passion of a young girl for a man, but a beastly, unnatural, passion, something that was unnatural in its intensity, and between a man and a woman. Questions had been put to show that Salome was guilty of an unnatural vice. It was for the jury to say whether they had come to the conclusion that that was the intention of the play and then whether, if it were, that was the way in which the actress represented it.
There were many ways of playing a part. They would not see two actors alike in the part of Hamlet. The jury had had the book ‘Salome’ before them as Oscar Wilde wrote it. Really, it was the work of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in collaboration. If they believed Lord Alfred Douglas, the play was written with the vilest possible intention to glorify unclear love. Lord Alfred Douglas had said that when they wrote it Oscar Wilde constantly used language making it perfectly clear what he meant. He sincerely hoped Lord Alfred Douglas repented of the share he had had in the disgraceful business. If the jury had any doubt what was meant by the play it was given them in the letter Lord Alfred wrote to Mr Labouchere.
That was a letter stupefying in its effrontery, abusing Mr Labouchere, the late editor of Truth, because he ventured to disapprove of “Salome”, telling him that he was a prejudiced, narrow-minded, man who objected to practices which were a perfect credit to those who were guilty of them and advocating the repeal of the laws against them. Mr Labouchere was told that by the next generation he would be quite out of date, and that those practices that he condemned would be looked on as creditable to those who practised them. As the jury might know, the crime of sodomy which Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas glorified was known in law books as a crime not to be mentioned amongst Christians. The reason was that it was a common practice of which no-one was ashamed amongst the pagans of ancient Greece and Rome.
Lord Alfred Douglas told Mr Labouchere in the letter that glorious days would return when all the laws against it would be repealed, and called attention to Kraft-Ebbing who tried to abolish the laws against it in Austria. Mr Labouchere did not live to see the glory of that era.
Dealing with Miss Maud Allan’s remark, that she regarded Oscar Wilde as a great artist, the Judge exclaimed “It is possible to regard him as a great artist, but he certainly was a great beast. There is certainly no doubt about that”. Calling attention to the words of the alleged libel and their meaning, the Judge said “I am not going to soil my tongue with any more description of what these words mean. It is impossible to conceive anything more filthy. The defendant took credit in the fact that the word used in the headline was a Greek word and that people would not know what it meant unless they asked somebody, but if one used a word that was offensive and indecent and people did not understand it they would run about enquiring about it”.
Coming to the question of what was the effect and nature and intention of the performance, the Judge said that it was common knowledge that one could go to a theatre and see a play performed decently, and go to another theatre and see the same play played very vulgarly. There were some actors, capable without any words being needed, of doing very indecent things, and some did them. Then a play might be an indecent play and yet it might be played with restraint and refinement which might conceal the indecency.
On the other hand, the words of a play might not have anything impure or indecent, and yet it might be played with such gestures as to be wholly unfit for the stage at all. Proceeding to allude to the evidence of Mr Morrisey, the dramatic critic of the Morning Post who, he said, was an experienced witness, it would not surprise him if the jury agreed with him that it was a play that never ought to be put on the stage. But Miss Allan did not write it; she did not produce it. She was asked to take a part in it. Mr Morrisey said he condemned the play. He called it a ‘drama of disease’, and he said that even the ‘Salome’ part had indications of disease in it, but he said “less when performed by Miss Maud Allan than would appear in the book”. If that were true, Miss Maud Allan did not play up to what the authors intended. Then came the question as to whether the dancing was indecent, and Mr Morrisey had stated “At this time of day it would be impossible to object to Miss Maud Allan’s dance as indecent”. It did not suggest the cult referred to, but he did not know what to more experienced people it might suggest.
The Judge alluded to Lord Alfred Douglas, who was sitting at the back of the dock, and his association with Wilde in the writing of the play. Lord Alfred Douglas rose to his feet and, almost at the top of his voice, shouted at the Judge “You have no right to say I wrote that. You are lying. It is a damned lie”. “Turn him out of Court” retorted the Judge, and Police Officers, who were already attempting to deal with the interrupter, seized Lord Alfred Douglas and forcibly ejected him.
People in the public gallery and many of those who had been sitting in the vicinity of Lord Alfred Douglas loudly applauded the incident. Captain Spencer, one of Mr Pemberton-Billing’s witnesses, had previously been expelled. Concluding, the Judge said that the jury were asked to say that Miss Allan was a lewd woman, among other things because she wore a too indecent costume, too light for the stage, but Mr Morrisey had said that the costume was not as light as he had seen worn by amateurs in other performances. The question was how did Miss Allan produce the play, and if there was anything improper and indecent, did she tone it down or exaggerate it or play it exactly as the collaborators meant it to be played ? The jury took an hour and a half to consider their verdict and, on returning to Court, they said the defendant was not guilty.
There was a remarkable demonstration in Court when the verdict was announced, and being unable to obtain a hearing the Judge ordered the Court to be cleared, which was eventually done after much trouble. Before formally discharging the defendant, the Judge delivered a homily on dancing and the costumes worn on the stage. He said “No one can pick up many of the illustrated papers without seeing representations of actresses in almost nothing at all. In fact, worse than nothing are some of the things they wear, and to my mind the law wants altering in these two respects. It might be made impossible for plays of this kind to be produced before any audience, either privately or by subscription, or by any other means, and those who have the power, or believe they have the power, to prevent improper dances from being danced or such costumes worn on the stage ought to exercise their powers most stringently to put a stop to that kind of thing”.
Mr Pemberton-Billing asked for costs, but his application was ignored. Outside the Court, a crowd of a thousand people made a great demonstration when Mr Pemberton-Billing and his wife made their appearance, and everybody wanted to shake hands with the Member for East Herts.
In its first leading article on Wednesday, under the heading of “A scandalous trial”, the Times said “It is safe to say that no law suit of modern times has attracted such universal and painful interest as the deplorable libel action which terminated yesterday at the Central Criminal Court. Not only in London, but even more in the provincial towns and countryside the daily reports have been read and discussed with almost as deep anxiety as the news of the war itself. Like other journals, we have given them fully – for the obvious reason that the whole case was invested with the suspicion of a wholesale conspiracy to suppress the truth – and we would say at once that we believe the anxiety of the public to have been due far more to this aspect of it than to any merely prurient curiosity. It was essentially one of the cases where there should be no possible excuse for the charge of ‘hushing up’.
The action arose, as everyone knows by this time, from a deliberately indecent paragraph in a small newspaper, conducted in Hertford by Mr Pemberton-Billing MP, with the object, as he practically boasted, of forcing exposures by means of libel. In this particular instance the primary object of his attack was Miss Maud Allan and her performance of Oscar Wilde’s play ‘Salome’. But the case very soon developed, as it was intended to develop, into a whole series of promiscuous innuendos, in which pro-Germanism was united with every sort of unnatural vice, against many thousands of English men and women, some few of whom were actually named in Court. The Judge himself was early included by the defendant in his list of suspected persons, and to this beginning we must attribute in part the astonishing laxity with which much of the case was conducted. Any issue was on trial at most times except the one which was legally at stake.
As an essential document in the case, ‘Salome’ was soon overshadowed by the mysterious German ‘Black Book’, mentioned by various witnesses as a sinister compilation of names in this country likely to be useful to the Germans. Father Vaughan and Sir Alfred Fripp gave place in the kaleidoscope to the half-forgotten figure of Prince William of Wied. Well-worn discussions of the character of Oscar Wilde were exceeded by excited revelations of talk in suburban hotels and Albanian palaces. It is hardly surprising that a week of indiscriminate mud-flinging should have diverted all attention from the real cause of the action and profoundly disturbed the public throughout the length and breadth of the land.
In all the circumstances, the actual verdict of the jury became a small and, indeed, an inevitable matter. The vital point, and the one which affects the whole nation, is that vague suggestion of vice and want of energetic patriotism have been publicly canvassed without the remotest prospect of proving or disproving them, which is the whole object of justice. It is frankly monstrous that the names of public men, still more that the names of dead soldiers, should be left suspended in an atmosphere of scandalous suspicion.
As for Mr Pemberton Billing, who is now in a position of greater freedom than ever, it is probably useless to tell him that there is no sort of obstruction to the work of a self-constituted reformer if he really wishes to arrive at the truth of what he professes. He is honestly convinced, we must assume, that this country is paralysed in prosecuting the war by German blackmail levied on the private lives of thousands of men and women. It is a monstrous libel on the nation, of course, but if he sincerely believes it he has nothing in the world to do but to bring his charge against any single one of the 47,000 whom he suspects. Not a shred of real evidence affecting any of them has so far seen the light.
He cannot possibly leave the matter where it stands and still pose as a patriotic purist. There has unquestionably been far too much excuse in the past for the suggestion of a lax moral outlook in high places. An unthinking public, we are afraid, will draw from these proceedings the inference that there is real fire behind so much smoke. That, no doubt, was the main intention of Mr Pemberton Billing and his friends, and if the public fulfil it we tell them plainly that they will be wrong.
We are absolutely convinced that the state of affairs which it was sought to represent is grossly exaggerated, limited to an infinitesimal section in every class, very largely the result of gossip and sheer thoughtlessness. Neither in public patriotism nor in private morals has England cause to fear comparison with any country in the world. But the tolerance of evil is a fertile breeding ground of suspicion. No public man or woman can afford unnecessary contact with questionable companions. In the days before the war, there was growing in London, beyond any sort of question, that passion for excitement and for the latest novelty which is always the familiar beginning of a corrupt society. It originated in every class with a small and insignificant clique. What matters is that it was openly condoned by those whose public duty called them to set the loftiest example of private scruples.
If one of the consequences of the Pemberton Billing case is to give new value to the ancient virtues, to make public men and women realise that their responsibilities are not ended with their public functions, to remind them that countless eyes are watching their doings and their associates, then there may be some compensation after all for the work of a scandalous week”. The Daily Mail said “A scandalous case which has been watched with keen and painful interest by all sections of the public, and which reflected very little credit on anyone concerned, came to a surprising end. It would be difficult to pretend that the verdict was delivered on the merits of the evidence.
Mr Pemberton Billing hardly troubled to address himself to the specific counts on which he was indicted. He brought forward, instead, a vast deal of hearsay testimony more appropriate to Bedlam or to a Drury Lane melodrama than to a British court of justice. He contrived to create an atmosphere of heated and vitiated suspicion. He and his witnesses flung charges against whole classes of prominent people, and succeeded in producing an impression that that there are many leaders of British politics and society who are addicted to nameless vices, and in that way and in other ways have come under German influence.
This impression we sincerely believe to be profoundly unjust and, if Mr Pemberton Billing has any real evidence to the contrary it is his clear duty to produce it. The proceedings in court constituted in this respect nothing less than a libel on the nation. Names and innuendos were bandied about with a recklessness that was as unfair to the persons mentioned as it was prejudicial to a fair hearing of the case. Scenes were enacted of such grotesque unseemliness that the court at times resembled a madhouse. A weak judge, a feeble counsel, and a bewildered jury combined to score for the defendant a striking and undeserved success.” The Daily Telegraph said “The real issue was smothered under a vast heap of purely irrelevant interrogatories. Men are expelled from the court; the gallery closes; the judge is hissed; and the public who look on at all these things, who have been taught to believe that the ritual of procedure in an English Court of Law is removed from all occasions of passion and excitement, sees before its eyes a panorama of chaos and disorder, upsetting every notion of decency and right conduct.
From beginning to end, the trial has been a deplorable scandal, and the sooner this is recognised and some steps are taken to make its repetition forever impossible, the better it will be for the welfare of the kingdom and the honesty of that public life, the credit of which has been so severely impugned.” On the 15th June, Mr Pemberton Billing issued an appeal to his constituents:- “An appeal to my constituents On Saturday, June 15th, at 3.30 p.m., I am putting a Resolution from the Chair at a MASS MEETING at the ROYAL ALBERT HALL, London, to Denaturalise and Intern all GERMANS, Register all ALIENS, and secure BRITAIN for the BRITISH PEOPLE.
The Platform seats have been reserved for my friends in East Herts and I ask them to make a special effort to be present and support me on this occasion”. On the 1st July, Mr Billing, the Member for East Herts, in the House of Commons, asked leave to move an adjournment to discuss a definite matter of urgent public importance. He had asked permission on the previous Thursday to move the adjournment of the House on the subject of aliens. The Speaker responded “Since then, the Honourable Member may observe a blocking notice has been put down which will prevent that.”
Mr Billing said that he was ignorant of parliamentary procedure (at which there was much laughter in the House) and asked what a ‘blocking notice’ might be and whether it had been put down in the interests of the enemy. The Speaker responded “If he will consult either of the two gentlemen sitting on his right or his left they may be able to give him an explanation.” Again, there was much laughter in the House. On the customary motion put by the Speaker after questions “The Clerk will now proceed to read the Order of the Day”, Mr Billing rose again to a point of order and said that he could not discover on the Order Paper for the day any blocking motion put down for the purpose of preventing debate in the House on the internment of enemy aliens. At this point, the Speaker responded “If the Honourable Member will kindly look in the Order Book he will see it.” Mr Billing asked “Are we to understand that all it is necessary to do to prevent free speech in the House on so urgent and important a question as the internment of enemy aliens is for one of their Government friends to put down a blocking motion?”, to which the Speaker responded by saying that he could not undertake to discuss the procedure of the House with the Honourable Gentleman. Mr Billing again rose and was greeted with loud cries of “Sit down”, and, when turning upon the shouting members, he angrily exclaimed “I’m not going to sit down when there are a lot of damned Germans running about this country”. The Speaker announced “I call the attention of the House to the continued disorderly conduct of the Honourable Member and call upon him to leave the House.” (There were loud cheers). Mr Billing said “I rise to a point of order”, and the Speaker responded “I cannot listen to any other points of order. This is not a Court of Law.” (To which there were loud cheers and much laughter). Mr Billing said “It is not a place of free speech either”. The Speaker responded “If the Honourable Member will not carry out my injunction and leave the House, the House will probably consider the question of suspending him”, but Mr Billing argued “I am here to do my duty. I have no intention of leaving the House until the question of internment of enemy aliens is decided” (to which there were cries of “names, names”). The Speaker said “The Honourable Member keeps on shouting. I warn him that if he does not carry out my order and leave the House, he stands a chance of being suspended by order of the House, and that suspension will last for some time”. Mr Billing started “I feel it my duty to say…….” (to renewed cries of “name, name”), but the Speaker then said “I name Mr Billing for disregarding the authority of the Chair”.
Mr Bonar Law, at once rising as Leader of the House, moved the suspension of Mr Billing from the service of the House. The motion having been put to the House by the Speaker, it was endorsed by loud cries of “Aye” and, so far as could be heard, there was only one voice of “No”. The Speaker called upon Mr Billing to withdraw in accordance with the decision of the House, but the Honourable Member retained his seat on the front bench below the gangway on the Opposition side, saying “I’ll not leave. I’m doing what I conceive to be my duty”, and the Sergeant-at Arms was directed by the Speaker to remove him. The Sergeant-at-Arms approached Mr Billing and, after a brief talk with the Honourable Member, walked up the floor to the table where, addressing the Speaker, he said “The Honourable Member continues to dispute your ruling.” “Then”, said the Speaker, “I will suspend the sitting of the House until such time as the Honourable Member has left”, and, speaking with the Sergeant-at Arms, he added “Call in the Officers and have him removed while the House is suspended.” The Speaker left the Chamber but most of the members remained in their seats. Those in the immediate proximity to Mr Billing, on the front Bench and the Bench immediately behind, removed to other places.
The Sergeant-at-Arms again spoke to Mr Billing but the Honourable Member evidently persisted in refusing to leave, and waved aside Mr King, the only Member who came to him with advice or remonstrance. Then, at a signal from the Sergeant-at-Arms, four of the attendants came in and, seizing Mr Billing by the arms and legs, lifted him out of his seat and carried him, struggling, out of the House. Some Members loudly cheered, a few hissed, and there was a cry of “Silence”, as if in deprecation of any expression of feeling.