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Great Meeting of Working Men

March 18, 1870 — Working Men’s Meeting, Richmond Hall, Liverpool, England


[Mrs. Butler,  on rising to address the meeting, was received with prolonged cheering. With admirable calmness, dignity, and simplicity of manner, she proceeded to discuss the question in an exceedingly able and eloquent address. In the course of an explanation of the principal features of the Act, and its cruel and immoral tendencies, similar to that which she gave at the meeting at Manchester, and at the meetings at Birmingham and Nottingham which we reported last week, she quoted a most interesting historical parallel. After saying that every woman who walked out in an evening would be accompanied by a policeman, who would form his opinion as to her character, and would act accordingly, and also remarking that several of Major Greig’s policemen in Liverpool had assured her that they would not for any money accept such a post, a statement which called forth loud applause, Mrs. Butler said . . . ]

. . . by this Act a woman was required to prove before a magistrate that she was chaste. Was there ever such a monstrous law in existence? The chastest woman could not prove her own chastity. Never in the history of our country, at its worst periods, had there been such a blow struck at our first principles of jurisprudence. Our great constitutional historian, Hallam, records that in 1737 a Bill was brought into Parliament to prevent smuggling. In some of its features it resembled the Act we are considering. On the oath of two witnesses, who swore that they had good cause to believe a man was a smuggler, the man suspected might be arrested and condemned. One of the witnesses examined before the Select Committee recently was asked how he came to the conclusion that any woman was a prostitute, and answered, “It is more a matter of mannerism than anything else.” Perhaps the accusers of the smuggler, in the same way, found that smuggling was more a matter of mannerism than anything else. That Bill was warmly opposed by the Lord Chancellor Talbot, and by Lord Hardwicke, a Crown lawyer. They objected to persons being condemned on accusation so vague as this. In an able speech made by Lord Hardwicke on this occasion, he used the following words — words which every true Englishmen will endorse: ‘Facts only are admitted as proof by our laws, and by these facts a judge and jury are to form their opinion of the character of the accused. A great security for our liberties is this — that no subject of this realm can be imprisoned unless some felonious and high crime be sworn against him, or her. This with respect to private persons is the very foundation-stone of all our liberties; and if we remove it, if we but knock off a corner, we may probably overturn the whole fabric.’ But you will observe that at this day, in our so-called free England, under this Act, women are being arrested and imprisoned without jury, without witnesses, except the paid official who accuses them, and without any “felonious or high crime” being sworn against them.

[After dwelling further upon the evils inseparable from the system, Mrs. Butler referred to the question which is often asked as to the character and motives of the originators and supporters of this Act. She said there is no need to attack persons — our warfare is with evil Principles — yet we cannot fail to be aware that the promoters of this Act are backed up by a powerful phalanx of persons whose character and motives are not good.]

We know this to our cost, through the cynical nature of the opposition we have to encounter. It is quite clear that many good men have been induced to go in for this legislation, most of them having regarded it as merely a sanitary question, and not having looked at its moral bearings at all. Others have been seized with a panic, hearing of the ravages of the disease, and, believing that it might be checked, have thought that any measures, however exceptional and severe, might be temporarily adopted. Vast numbers of honest private persons throughout the country who had previously endorsed this legislation are now recanting, since they have had time to look into the matter, and it will, I trust, be a lesson to them not to subscribe so hastily again to measures involving grave moral consequences. But however benevolent and honest may have been the motives of some of our legislators, it is certain that there is a strong and sinister influence backing them up. Even one of the most pertinacious advocates of the system, Mr Acton himself, says — “It must be remembered that there are a great number of persons who desire to obtain by legal enactments immunity from danger in the gratification of base desires.” Now, of these persons I am not going to say a word of good or flattery. The world we live in is a stage, upon which the powers of light and of darkness are maintaining, and will maintain to the end, a most deadly conflict. Nor are we justified in believing that evil men are an extinct race, or that they are an inactive race. If not, how are they occupied? It is not impossible that some of those wandering stars who are reserved for darkness may have even found their way into Parliament, into high places, into posts of military and naval command. I heard from a high authority in London that when our opposition was first made known the excitement was great. “It is as if the depths of hell were stirred,” he wrote, “so fierce is the passion of young men — and of some who are not young — at the thought of being turned back from a career of vice which they had promised to themselves would have been made safe and easy.” A friend of mine at an evening party overheard two gentlemen conversing in a low voice about the probable extension of this Act. One said to the other with evident delight — “We shall now have the same facilities in London as we have in Paris”. Without any lack of charity it may be said that, however excellent the intention of the promoters of these Acts, there is no doubt at all about the side on which the profligates of London society rank themselves in the conflict. And without uncharitableness we may add that the extraordinary secrecy with which the whole thing was brought about is an indication that the leaders of the movement had some doubts about the nature of the business they had undertaken. It is not truth and purity that dread the light. . .

A report has got abroad respecting some parts of an address I made to working men at Birmingham, which has unhappily given a very false impression of what I said, and of the tone of that meeting, which was most solemn and earnest. I alluded in that address to Wat Tyler and his insurrection. I have been asked why I made any allusion to that rebel, and if I did not think there was danger, in doing so, of exciting too much the public feeling against wrong. Now, the allusion to Wat Tyler did not originate with me at all. The first time I saw his name mentioned in connection with the question before us was in a letter from a person in high position and well known to the public, who drew attention to the fact that the working men throughout England were beginning to remind each other of the story of Wat Tyler. This well-known public person of whom I speak said that the very mention of Wat Tyler’s name was gravely significant of what Parliament might expect if personal rights of a certain kind continued to be grossly violated after the people had expressed calmly and legitimately their opinion on the subject. It is many weeks ago that I read this letter. I had been pondering it in my heart, and wishing that the best and wisest of the working men should lead this movement, so as to secure only legal and honourable action in the matter, when several letters reached me from working men, with whom I am in correspondence, in various parts of the country. In these letters I saw indications of an increasing bitterness against a system which threatens the peace and security of the poor man’s home. I do not think that this feeling is to be rebuked; on the contrary, I cannot conceive it possible that such indignation should not fill the breasts of virtuous fathers and husbands of the working classes when once the facts regarding this recent legislation have become known to them. When I saw myself confronted with 700 working men at Birmingham — picked men for character and intelligence — I determined to speak to them my whole mind on this matter, as I shall do to you now; and certain I am that I shall have no reason to regret doing so. What I said to them, 1 say again to you now. I told them that we have reason to thank God from the depths of our hearts that we live in an age and country in which the mass of the people have a voice in the making of the laws which govern them — that we have at least to some extent the privilege of self government. Grattan once said, “Self-legislation is life, and has been fought for as for being.” How true that is; and it is moreover true that we have to fight for it again and again. In former days, wrongs and outrages perpetrated by the executive of government could only, too frequently, be avenged by the violent act of one strong arm; by sounding the war-note of insurrection. We dare not judge those too harshly for whom this was the only hope of redress. But in our days he would be a blind and foolish man, and an enemy to a good cause, who should take vengeance into his own hands, or work upon the violent feelings of his fellows to win a victory which may be won by combined lawful and righteous endeavour undertaken in the strength of God. Nevertheless, I will say that whatever was righteous and noble in Wat Tyler’s anger I desire to see aroused in the men of England now. For what was the outrage which called forth Tyler’s wrath, compared with the outrages which 18,000 Englishwomen have been subjected to, and to which hundreds are at this very day being subjected? I will tell you the story of Tyler. — The speaker, after briefly relating the incidents of that insurrection, and the violent death of the author, said — Thus it is ever that blood calls for blood.

Nevertheless, I should think that manliness had become extinct in the breasts of Englishmen if they can see such outrages perpetrated on helpless women as those which moved Wat Tyler’s wrath, and not use the power which men represented in Parliament possess to cause these outrages to cease for ever from our land. This power is yours. The cause I advocate before you is too righteous, too holy a one, to need the help of an arm of flesh in the literal sense. “Not by might nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord.”

[After suggesting at some length various moral and social reforms which should replace these Acts, and which would strike at the causes of the social evil from many sides at once, instead of dealing solely with the physical penalties attached to sin, Mrs. Butler said our hope is that this terrible conflict will so open the eyes, and rouse the hearts of the good, and the resolute, and the true, among us, that the social conditions out of which such abominations grow will be doomed to revision, and that this great anti-slavery movement in which we have embarked may not end in England, but may spread to other countries, and aid in breaking the bonds of the unhappy populations there.]

To standing armies, enormous war debts, insatiate drinking, selfish and uncontrolled luxury, and unequal laws, we owe the agonizing poverty, the widely extended crime, and the vice which fill our land. Mendicity Societies, Habitual Criminals Acts, Contagious Diseases Acts, &c., will only intensify, not remove or even alleviate, these mournful evils. Working men! my brothers — fathers I may call some of you, — if those among you who fear God will do what you can, as electors, as private citizens, as husbands, and as fathers, to help to break these accursed yokes, to undo these heavy burdens and let the oppressed go free, what blessing from God may not rest on you, on your own souls, your persons, your families, and your daily work?



Source: Shield, March 28, 1817, pp. 30-32.