Whom the Gods would destroy


 My posts on matter considered obscene, reminded me of the 1930 case when Sir Ethelred Rutt K.C., had the misfortune of appearing before a full Bench of magistrates on behalf of the headmaster (a clergyman) of Eton College. Certain publications had been found at Eton College by a Police Constable Boot in his zealous discharge of a special warrant, whereupon the headmaster was charged under Lord Campbell’s Act, England’s first obscenity statute. The headmaster admitted that the publications kept on the premises were to be ‘sold, distributed, lent, or otherwise published’ – within the meaning of the Act – to the students under his charge, who were from thirteen to nineteen years of age.

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Magistrates’ Court Bench

The magistrates’ Bench which included a baker, a brewer, a farmer, and a distinguished banker, were guided by the The Hicklin Test for obscenity; and thus equipped, were quite capable of deciding what was fit and proper reading for young persons.

The Hicklin Test is whether the tendency of the matter charged as obscenity is to deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences and into whose hands a publication of this sort may fall. Regina v Hicklin

While the 1918 Representation of the People Act had extended democratic suffrage, society was still a meritocracy in which the lower classes knew their place.  Lord Campbell’s Act now gave The Society for the Suppression of Vice¹ legal redress in their efforts to protect society, especially the lower classes, from seductive proclivities found in obscene matter. This was demonstrated by the prosecutions that followed the book ‘Boy’ being found in a public library. Meretricious morality had not yet superseded that of the meritorious.

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Spiritual Values

It was hardly surprising then that the magistrates were disgusted to find the publications in question at Eton College. Especially as they were freely available to be read by young persons drawn exclusively from the aristocracy and the governing classes. Young persons whose duty it was, in future years, to set an example to their less fortunate countrymen, to mould their minds and dictate their actions. The magistrates considered that any conduct tending to corrupt and deprave those young persons must be held especially culpable.

Of all the publications seized it was The Classical Dictionary the magistrates found to be particularly odious, a book largely concerned with pagan gods, their amorous adventures and barbaric standards of behaviour. The more so given Eton College’s location so near to the residence of the Monarch (the Head of the Established Church).

The Bench was repulsed to find that Zeus habitually assumed the shape of swans and bulls, guises used to force his unwelcome attentions upon defenceless females of good character. Had the newspapers published the plight the woman Leda the indignation of every right-thinking Englishman would have been aroused, the leaders of thought would have mobilized the conscience of the nation. Instead, the unfortunate woman became the mother of two eggs, while the celestial profligate, disguised as a bull, then abducted and ravished the woman Europa.

Medea Sarcophagus, 140 – 150 C.E., (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Other passages relating to the moral lapses of mortals were found to be equally abhorrent.  Men like Oedipus, who killed his own father and married his own mother. The woman Medea, who committed or was accessory to a number of atrocious murders. A woman who, by false representations, induced the daughters of Pelias to cut their father in pieces and boil him. She sent a female rival a poisoned garment which burned-the unfortunate woman to death. She murdered her own brother and herself cut him into fragments. She killed and devoured her own children. Far from paying the due penalty of her crimes, she was then transported to safety in a chariot drawn by winged dragons.

The Captain of the Boats

The Captain of the Boats

As the chairman of the Bench said; ‘There was no moral reproof found in these stories, no improving lesson; they were related with a callous indifference which, coupled with the fact that the delinquent was of a divine or pseudo-divine character, tended to suggest to the susceptible imagination of young persons that such behaviour was defensible or even desirable. The boys of Eton must not be encouraged to dress themselves as swans or wild beasts for the purpose of idle and illicit flirtation; but that can be the only effect of these deplorable anecdotes’.

Indeed, the Bench were not surprised to hear that the Captain of the Boats² had been expelled for entering the Matron’s³ bedroom disguised as a brown owl.

The Chairman concluded that all the books were corrupting and ordered that they be destroyed and while they had only considered a fraction of the so-called ‘classics’; they recommended that a thorough survey be made of the whole body of classical literature, in order that schools and colleges be made safe for the aristocracy³.

The defendant was severely censured and ordered to pay the costs of the prosecution.

The troubled legal history of James Hanley’s Boy by Joseph Pridmore –  Courtesy of The Penniless Press On-Line

¹Courtesy of The Victorian Dictionary

²·³Courtesy of The Victorian Web

Rex v The Head Master Of Eton – A P Herbert

One response to “Whom the Gods would destroy

  1. Pingback: Misleading Cases: Reprise | Aasof getting serious!

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