Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Godfrey Blount on Freedom of Expression in 1891

On December 29th, 1891 The Pall Mall Gazette published a letter from Godfrey Blount, under the heading ‘Culture and the Salvation Army’.  He would have been 32 years old at the time.  He was commenting on the Salvation Army riots that had occurred earlier in the year in Eastbourne, otherwise known as the ‘Eastbourne riots’.   

Godfrey Blount
(with peasant tapestry & wood carving)
picture courtesy of the Dartford Warbler

The riots were discussed in the House of Commons on 24th July 1891 “I beg to ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he is aware of the serious disturbances in Eastbourne on Sunday last caused by the Salvationists there acting in defiance of the local Act, which prohibits processions with bands on Sundays; whether he is aware that a considerable number of persons are reported to have been sent from London for the express purpose of assisting them in their determined and wilful violation of the law aforesaid; whether he is aware that nine Salvationists have since Sunday been committed for trial on a charge of "unlawful assembly and conspiracy to infringe the local Act;" whether he has been informed that further serious disturbances are expected on Sunday next, owing to the indignation of the inhabitants of all classes at the serious injury caused to the town, and its interests as a seaside resort, by this unseemly disregard of law; and whether he will so far assist the Local 

from Marching to Music, 
Riot Film Group docudrama, 2011
based on the Eastborne riots

Authorities in maintaining the peace of the town of Eastbourne, comprising over 34,000 inhabitants, as to allow a certain number of detectives from the Metropolitan Police Force to be sent there, with a view to identifying certain prominent parties expected from London—prizefighters and others—in order the more readily to indict them on a charge of "conspiracy to break the law;" and, finally, will he advise generally as to the best course to be pursued by the Mayor and the Magistrates generally in maintaining law and order, whether by the swearing in of special constables or otherwise?”  (Hansard)

On the 2nd December 1891, the Old Bailey found a number of Salvationists to be “guilty of unlawful assembly in a public street”, they were defended by Mr. H. H. Asquith, later to become Prime Minister.  The judge, Mr. Justice Hawkins, refused to accept the verdict, stating that walking carrying musical instruments could in no way be considered unlawful. December 4th saw a proclamation posted in Eastbourne signed by the mayor and town clerk in another attempt to quell the Army's activities. It was withdrawn when local Methodists announced that they too would contest the contents of the proclamation to the bitter end (wikipedia).

Culture and the Salvation Army

To the Editor of the Pall Mall Gazette

Sir – Have you space for a few words on the subject of Culture and the Salvation Army?  While we are still waiting to see the conclusion of the Eastbourne incident in the history of the Salvation Army, and without attempting to discuss the legal or dogmatic aspects of the Army’s methods, will you allow me to criticise the verdict in which even its defenders acquiesce, that those methods are vulgar and out of taste?  

Invariable as this complaint is, I look in vain for any accompanying definition of “good taste” by which we might in this particular condemn or at any rate attempt to improve them.  I have myself no dogmatic proclivities in the matter of religion, but – as an artist, to whom the visible must be the unfailing index of the invisible, who has no surer guide than his impressions, purified as far as possible from prejudice – I protest against this popular supposition that it is vulgar to give any but the most restrained expression to our emotions.  

It may be that the British Philistine has very little power of emotion left to give expression to, or that his emotions are such that he prefers they should remain unadvertised; but, however consistent his own course of action may be, we cannot accept his view of the case as necessarily the final one.  For an action is in good taste, not as it fulfils certain preconceived laws, but in proportion as it is a genuine expression of a genuine feeling, that this expression may seem unusual, extravagant, even uncouth, is no necessary proof of its vulgarity, but only of the degree of its force.  That we call it vulgar is no necessary proof of its being so, unless we can prove its its insincere as well.  If we cannot do this, we only prove ourselves incapable of sympathy with a strong wave of feeling violently affecting a vast number of our fellow-creatures, and show ourselves deficient in artistic culture in not recognizing that this movement is producing phenomena analogous to what great art has always loved to reproduce in works which we pretend to appreciate.  

“The poor require culture as much as the rich,” says Matthew Arnold, meaning thereby that neither possess it.  But now the poor are taking this matter into their own hands, and in affairs religious as well as economic are showing themselves independent o the teaching and conventions of those who are socially above them.  Success to the Salvation Army!  They have many souls to save.  To take us out of ourselves, to teach us that we do possess emotions, and can, nay, may, express them even in our own way, is anoble mission, and, as it seems to me, a first lesson in all art and culture that none of us can afford to despise.

Faithfully yours
Godfrey Blount"

Godfrey Blount
from a magic lantern slide
courtesy of the Dartford Warbler

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