Bridewell Court Papers Online?

I had heard that, like the superb Old Bailey Proceedings On-line, the Bridewell court papers were now being made available in digital form via a similar free to access database. However, I can only find this site, where the link to the catalogue doesn’t work. Anyone know anything else? It would be a fantastic resource.

Published in: on March 29, 2008 at 10:53 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Library of Congress European Reading Room to Close

News over here  that the Library of Congress’ European Reading Room is faced with imminent closure. Further links on the blog as to how you can help stop the reading room from being shut down.

Published in: on March 28, 2008 at 3:51 am  Leave a Comment  
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Government promises tough action on cyber bullying

Ed Balls promises the NASUWT that he is going to get tough with the cyber-bullies.

Over here professors are already fighting back, (well, in an exploitation-tv sort of way.)

Marsden Grotto’s re-opening, and the Italian Connection

According to the South Shields Gazette, the Grotto re-opened this weekend. I hope everything went smoothly.

A bit more digging reveals that Peter Allan’s successor was Sidney Hawkes, brother-in-law of social reformer, advocate of Italian independence and supporter of women’s rights, Sir James Stansfeld:

(That’s the ODNB link for those with a subscription. Wikipedia here for those without)

For more on Hawkes see Memoirs of a social atom by the radical journalist, William Edwin Adams, another English supporter of Mazzini, Garibaldi and Italian nationalist republicanism.

Hawkes appears to have kept a good table at the Grotto, offering ‘devilled kidneys for breakfast, champagne for luncheon, fowls and roast beef for dinner, and cigars and soda water on a limestone balcony for the rest of the evening.’

Ref. ‘Marsden Rocks’,  The Graphic, London, Oct 7 1882.

Ariel Hessayon, Gold Tried in the Fire: TheaurauJohn Tany and the English Revolution

Currently reading the above. The author’s approach is unusual to say the least. I’d be interested to know what other readers made of it.

Peterloo, Straw and the Law

It was announced yesterday that as part of the Statute Laws Repeal Bill, the 1819 Unlawful Drilling Act (one of the repressive Six Acts imposed after the Peterloo Massacre) would be ‘removed or amended.’

Jack Straw said: “Laws on turnpikes, workhouses and the Peterloo Massacre are rightly of interest to historians but there is no need to retain them on the statute book. This is a necessary and overdue parliamentary spring clean.”

This is part of the on-going process of removing obsolete legislation which was started in 1965 with the setting up of the Law Commission and Scottish Law Commission.

But the Ministry of Justice  have got their facts wrong. As Michael Bush’s excellent The Casualties of Peterloo demonstrates, the figure of 11 fatalities usually quoted is a serious underestimate.  Bush has used the surviving casualty lists to demonstrate that fourteen people died directly as a result of the cavalry assault with a further four dying away from St. Peter’s Field later in the day. He also finds 654 casualties of Peterloo, not the usual 400-500 quoted. As Bush points out, both of these figures are almost certainly too low. There are a number of districts which sent delegations to Peterloo for which no casualty lists survive. Moreover, the types of injuries that the lists catalogue are overwhelmingly severe: slashes to and through the bone from sabres, arms, hands cut off, limbs crushed and mangled, brain damage caused by frenzied police beatings. Many of those who survived Peterloo must have lived foreshortened lives.

I hope Straw’s comments aren’t meant to imply that Peterloo is an irrelevancy, only of interest to dusty academics – this is a minister who at least likes present himself as giving a monkey’s about the history of radicalism after all. In Manchester itself, the Peterloo Memorial Campaign has done a great service to history by getting rid of the travesty that was the original plaque commemorating the event (which merely spoke of the crowd as being dispersed by the military.) By all means, let’s get rid of bad, old laws, (and while the law commission is at it why not get rid of some of the more ridiculous pieces of legislation our own government has created, SOCPA for instance) but let’s not pretend they were just ‘absurd.’ The repression that followed Peterloo was conscious, calculating and cruel, and it should never be forgotten.

Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 2:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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Oaths of Allegiance – update

It seems that nobody asked Liz if she actually wanted school-leavers to offer her their undying loyalty. And if the picture is anything to go by, she is not amused.

Published in: on March 16, 2008 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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Lord Goldsmith and the Return of De Facto Theory

Aside from indulging in typical NL wonk-speak (‘we have a rich suite of national symbols in this country’ ‘enhancing our national narrative’ ‘community stakeholders’), Goldsmith’s full report backs up the Hobbesian arguments he made on the Today programme

Citizenship, Goldsmith tells us, ‘is the statement of a reciprocal relationship under which the individual offers loyalty in exchange for protection.’

 Again, William Godwin had some sensible things to say about this:

‘ “We live’, it will be said, “under the protection of this constitution; and protection, being a benefit conferred, obliges us to a reciprocation of support in return’

            To this it may be answered, first, that this protection is a very equivocal thing, and, till it can be shown that the vices, from the effects of which it protects us, are not for the most part the produce of that constitution, we shall never sufficiently understand the quality of benefit it includes.

            Secondly, gratitude, as has already been proved, is a vice and not a virtue. Every man and every collection of me ought to be treated by us in a manner founded upon their intrinsic qualities and capacities, and not according to a rule whcih has existence only in relation to ourselves.’

Early Modern Virtual Research Group Seminars

Fellow early modernists might not be aware of this, but it looks an exciting and worthy project: a series of virtual seminars conducted via video conferencing software on the broad theme of ‘Different constructions of the polity and commonwealth.’

If nothing else, the link above features pictures of some of Britain’s finest early modern historians looking a bit confused by all this new technology.

Lord Goldsmith, Oaths and Thomas Hobbes

Was my preferred title for this article in the New Statesman

Full text, complete with typos taken out, below too (thanks to Chris for Catch 22 quote):

“To anyone who questioned the effectiveness of the loyalty oaths, he replied
that people who really did owe allegiance to their country would be proud to
pledge it as often as he forced them to.”

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

News that Lord Goldsmith’s review of British citizenship will include a suggestion that school-leavers should take an oath of allegiance to the crown has met with a chorus of disapproval.

Many of the critics of the proposal have complained that it represents a hasty and ill-though out transplanting of American practice to Britain. Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary of the ATL told the BBC:

‘We are not the USA, we are British, and we have a healthy scepticism of authority.’

The Labour peer, Baronness Kennedy described the plan to make British school children pledge allegiance ‘like Americans’ as ‘risible.’

Yet, contrary to the claims of Goldsmith’s critics, oaths of allegiance are actually very British devices. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, British people (occasionally women as well as men) were subjected to repeated demands to swear allegiance to the crown and even briefly to the short-lived English republic.

However, these oaths were not designed to foster ‘active citizenship,’ (at least as New Labour might understand it as a kind of fluffy, civic-minded good-neighbourliness.) The main aim of these Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian tests was to assure loyalty to the crown (oaths were imposed in the wake of assassination plots in 1584, 1605, 1696 and 1722) and/or to mobilise the male populace for military service (as during the civil wars.)

The historical records left behind by these exercises in mass public oath-taking are vast. Oath rolls (lists of signatures and marks of those swearing) run to tens of thousands of names for some counties. Yet, as with Lord Goldsmith’s proposals, it is hard to find much evidence of popular enthusiasm for these exercises.

Instead, the public reaction seems to have been a mixture of grudging resentment and fear (there were stiff penalties for refusing to swear). Reflecting on the response to the 1723 oath of allegiance in defence of George II, Dr. Stratford of Little Shelford in Buckinghamshire wrote:

‘Many women as well as men, …who never heard of a state oath in their lives, and scarce knew who was King in Israel, are told they must leave their harvest work and trot a foot fifteen or sixteen miles, to take oaths… The poor creatures are frightened out of their wits, and think their copyholds are to be taken from them…’

Some subscribers publicly registered their lack of appetite for the task. One signatory to the 1723 oath in Worcester simply wrote ‘tell no lies’ in place of their name. In some cases these perfunctory expressions of loyalty were clearly not worth the vellum they were written on: a number of leading Jacobites (supporters of the exiled Stuarts) are known to have sworn allegiance to the Hanoverian dynasty in 1723.

The practice of state-sponsored mass public oath-taking petered out in the eighteenth century, as the threat of Jacobite insurrection diminished and other, more effective means of surveying the military capacity of the state, via national censuses, came to the fore. However, declarations of loyalty, if not centrally directed, remain a feature of public life. Whether in the ‘breaking of the flag’ performed by Scouts and Guides or in the loyal toasts drunk at formal dinners, pledges of loyalty remain an integral part of traditional, British culture.

What Lord Goldsmith is proposing is not, then, an alien importation but is it, as this government likes to put it, ‘fit for purpose?’ In the first place, it is not absolutely clear what the point of these proposed pledges is. There remains a lingering suspicion that under all the talk of citizenship and Britishness lurks the older concern with national security. (See the revision of the treason laws also mooted as part of this review of citizenship.) Yet, if the government is hoping that oaths of allegiance might help weed out potential terrorists, history suggests that such tests are at best a very imprecise means of sorting the goats from the sheep. Not only can we find Jacobites taking oaths to defend the Hanoverian succession but even Catholics taking oaths to defend Protestantism.

But let’s take Goldsmith’s word for it (admittedly, something it may be hard to do, given that this is the man who made the legal case for the invasion of Iraq) and assume the purpose of these pledges is to develop a sense of active citizenship amongst school-leavers. It is very hard to see how this would work without such a pledge being accompanied by a clear and legally binding statement of the rights of British citizens. For all the derogatory comparisons made with American practice, at least schoolchildren in the USA have a constitution to pledge allegiance to.

We should remember here that the government is talking about oaths, or at least solemn pledges. This is not a mere form of words. Oaths, as a very highly paid lawyer like Goldsmith should know, have a vital function to play in courts of law, as guarantees of the truthfulness of the statements being made. One of the long established rules observed by jurists is that those taking oaths have to fully understand what it is they are swearing to. Having a good guess at what the oath might be about is not adequate. On these grounds, a simple pledge of loyalty to the Queen makes more sense than an oath to a woolly, ersatz New Labour ‘citizenship.’

That sort of oath would, of course, be inimical to anyone with republican sympathies. And here is where it becomes clear that the proposed pledges, as currently envisaged, really won’t work to encourage a sense of active citizenship. When pressed by John Humphries on the Today programme, Goldsmith admitted that his personal preference would be for a pledge which included an expression of allegiance to the Queen.

What about republicans, Humphries asked? Goldsmith’s response drew an audible, and justifiable, gasp of incredulity from the interviewer. It wouldn’t matter, the former attorney general argued, if some people wanted Britain to be a republic. They could still pledge to the simple fact that Britain’s present head of state was a hereditary monarch.

Radio 4 at eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning is an unexpected place to find the reiteration of the de facto theory of political obedience, most forcefully articulated by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan of 1651. But this seems to be what Lord Goldsmith is saying: submit to the government and constitution you have, for better or ill, even if it is not the government that you want.

Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, wrote that ‘oaths are but words, and words but wind.’ Goldsmith’s remarks show that, despite his legal training, he too places no value on oaths. We can either swear to love the Queen from the bottom of our hearts or we can pledge to obey her merely as our overlord until the revolution comes. It matters not a jot to him. How can active citizenship be inspired by such equivocal testimony as this?

Ted Vallance is Lecturer in Early Modern British History at the University of Liverpool. He is currently writing a history of English radicalism from Magna Carta to the present day.