Selling An Indecent Book

Reading the reports of the exchanges that took place in the Victorian police courts can prove both a fascinating and tedious exercise.

Some cases are gripping, and you really do want to learn more about the various protagonists who found themselves embroiled in them; others make you want to move on to another case without any further delay.

The following case, that was heard at Great Marlborough Street Police Court in 1867 is intriguing in that the presiding magistrate had to decide on whether a book, written, so it appears, in Latin, was, in fact, obscene.

A policeman ushers a female prisoner into the court.
A Prisoner in Great Marlborough Street Police Court. From The Graphic, Saturday, 16th July, 1887. Copyright, The British Library Board.


Saunders’s News-Letter published the story on Friday 02 August 1867:-

At Marlborough Street on Wednesday, Mr. Whalley, M.P., instructed by Messrs. Gosling and Girdlestone, came into court, and said that a man named Reach had been before the Court on Monday on a charge of selling an indecent book, and also for obstruction.

He is one the persons employed by the Protestant Electoral Union, for whom Mr. Whalley appeared, and his object in this application was to learn whether the fine of one shilling inflicted was for selling the book or for obstruction.


Application had been made for the depositions, but without effect.

Mr. Tyrwhitt said that no depositions need to be taken except in case of felony.


Mr. Whalley said that the reports in the papers stated that the fine was for obstruction, but he would call attention to the fact that after the man was fined, on going to the station at St. Giles’s, where his books were, he was told by the inspector on duty that if he sold any of them he would be again taken into custody, sent before the magistrate, and imprisoned for three months.

Mr. Tyrwhitt said it must be quite evident to Mr. Whalley, a Member of Parliament and a barrister, that he could have nothing to do with what the police might say.

Mr. Whalley presumed that no man would act without due sanction, and therefore if the inspector told the man he would get three months’ imprisonment if he sold the book,  he would conclude that he had instructions from the magistrate to that effect.

Mr. Tyrwhitt said that he had nothing do with what a constable says; if he says what is wrong the person interfered with must go to his superior, Sir Richard Mayne.


With the other point he had something to do.

He might have thrown out the hint that the book in question turned out to be an indecent book, after the notice he had received, he might make himself liable to punishment.

The policeman was right in saying so, and he might have given the information out of good nature.

Mr. Whalley said that there was no evidence that the footway was obstructed.


Mr. Tyrwhitt said:- As far as recollection serves me, the case placed before me was this.

The man did sell a book. A gentleman who brought him here showed me some indecent passages in it.

The mass of the book appeared to consist of passages said to be translations from the Latin. There was some indecent doggerel, and so far the man brought himself within the Act of Parliament for uttering an indecent book.


The prisoner said, in defence, that he was poor, and that somebody had employed him to sell the book.

It seemed to me, as he had just got the book, that the contents might be unknown to him, and I thought I might fairly discharge him for the offence of selling an indecent book; but as he had large placards with the words “Confessional Unmasked” on them, this brought him within the act, and, thinking that he was but a tool in the hands of others, I commuted him on the minor offence.

As to the depositions, I take stand on the law, and I should be foolish if I did not, as I might otherwise be lending myself to something I do not understand.


Mr. Whalley wished to point out two facts.

There was no obstruction to the footway – the defendant was in the roadway, and, with respect to the book, the magistrate was, perhaps, not aware of the serious injustice in what he had stated.

It is the whole question whether the sale of the book is an offence within the Act of Parliament.


Mr. Tyrwhitt said he might probably have to deal with that matter soon. If so he would go through the book and see if it was indecent.

Mr. Whalley said that there had been a legal decision that it is not an indecent book within the meaning of the act.

Mr. Tyrwhitt said that from what he saw of it he thought it very indecent. There were filthy and dirty passages in it. As to his decision, he intended to abide by it.


Mr. Whalley said that the discussions in the House of Commons and the decision of the courts of law will prove that the book is legally saleable.

The man was employed by a number of gentlemen to sell the book.

Mr. Tyrwhitt said that he thought at the time the man was set on to sell it, and he said that if anyone was to be proceeded against it ought to be those who set him on.


He should not say another word, and begged Mr. Whalley to consider the application ended.

After some further remarks, Mr, Whalley thanked the magistrate and left the court.”