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The World in 1913 – Part IV: Regulation

What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, III, V & VI.

Drugs. When I was preparing this piece I was under the illusion that drugs were legal. That’s not quite the case. Since as long ago as 1868, only pharmacists could sell opium. In 1908 cocaine was put onto a similar footing. As far as I am aware there are no restrictions on cannabis. At the 1912 International Opium Convention most European states agreed to end the trade although Germany, Austria and Turkey dissented. The Convention was eventually incorporated into the Versailles Treaty.

When I started delving into the pages of the Times my assumption was that there was very little regulation. The more I read the more I realise this isn’t really true. Every train crash prompts a government-led investigation. Companies must submit returns on how many accidents there have been on their premises. Back-to-back housing has been banned. In 2000, the Telegraph reprinted and edition from 1 January 1900. Sure enough, there was a little article reminding readers that a regulation had come into force on the availability of stools for female shop workers. Having said that a few years ago I was reading up on the Regulation of the Railways Act from the 1880s. This made various demands on companies but it turned out that most companies had put these measures into place well before the law was even thought of. In other words regulation was following existing practice. It would be interesting to know if this was still a common feature in the 1910s.

In an editorial in part on the topic of drug regulation the Times of March 18 1913 had this to say. Some of the sentiments may seem familiar:

There is an increasing body of nursery legislation which treats us all as if we were little boys to whom the contents of the cupboard must be doled out by the governess. However deplorable it may be, we are driven to confess from time to time that a strong case has been made out for some additional restriction. The thing has gone so far that there is a section of the public in love with restriction for its own sake. They are always looking for an excuse to forbid something or other, and naturally take the most sensational view of any evil that can be discovered. They would be unhappy in the perfect world which they think they desire, because they would have nothing to forbid. They would rather leave a man with a depraved appetite and forbid him to indulge it, than educate the man out of the appetite altogether. That is diametrically opposed to all that makes for true freedom and progressive citizenship. But, if men and women will not master and obey the laws of life, no political arrangements can make them free, and there is nothing for it but the locked cupboard and the policeman.

Mind you they’re not always banning things. In 1910, an explosion at the Pretoria Pit near Bolton killed over 300 miners. While there was a great deal of sympathy expressed there was very little suggestion that this was a problem to which the solution was more state regulation.

There is an organisation called the Liberty and Property Defence League – incidentally, based just around the corner from the current-day Adam Smith Institute – which occasionally gets letters into the papers and another called the Cobden Club which mainly aims at preserving peace.

It is legal to own a gun so long as you have a licence to do so. The licences themselves cost 10 shillings. And guns get used. Ex-lovers, ex-wives, scab labourers and people hanging around having a quiet drink in a hotel bar have all become victims of 1910s gun crime. In another incident, an actor managed to get himself killed while on stage when a fellow actor, as part of the play, fired on him with blanks. Incidents like this would be shocking today and yet the murder rate was about half what it is now.

In December 1910, the police were called to a burglary in progress in Houndsditch. The burglars opened fire killing three policemen and sparking a manhunt. In what became known as the Siege of Sidney Street some of the perpetrators, believed to be East European anarchists, were tracked down. The army were called in and in an exchange of fire a bullet narrowly missed the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill.

What, exactly, the policemen think they are going to achieve with those shotguns is anyone's guess. From here.

What, exactly, the policemen think they are going to achieve with those shotguns is anyone’s guess. From here.

He’s not the only person to have had shots aimed at him. Edward Henry, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, was shot by a man he’d turned down for a taxi licence. Leopold de Rothschild had shots fired at him. But the real fun is abroad. In the years leading up to the First World War, the King of Serbia, the King of Greece, the Russian Prime Minister, the Grand Vizier of Turkey, a French President, an American President and (famously) the heir presumptive to the Austrian throne will all be assassinated. On the eve of the First World War the wife of an ex-French Prime Minister will be on trial for the shooting of a newspaper editor.

In the years following the 1905 Russian Revolution something like 2000 Tsarist officials were assassinated.

Mind you, the great and the good were just as susceptible to natural causes. In the years leading up to the First World War a US ambassador to London, a German Foreign Minister and an Austrian Foreign Minister will all die in office. The Russian ambassador to Serbia will die during the July Crisis and a British general, Grierson, will die on his way to the front. A Fortnum’s hamper was found by his side.

Court cases of all kinds tend to be over quickly and juries usually make up their minds within the hour. I suspect the fact that they aren’t paid for their time plays a large part in this. Punishments include hanging and flogging. Flogging takes two forms: the cat if they’re up to it and the birch if they are not.

One thing that still surprises me is access to these courts. Ordinary people, for instance, can and do bring libel cases.

Homosexuality is illegal but it appears to be rarely prosecuted. The word “homosexual” appears once in ten years and that is in relation to a libel case in Germany. I recently read about a blackmail case. A mother accused a merchant of “ruining” her son. I assume this is a euphemism for buggery. The merchant paid her £150 which in those days would buy you 40 ounces of gold – about £35,000 at today’s prices. A few months later the mother made further demands at which point the merchant went to the police and the mother and son were prosecuted for blackmail. At no point is there any question of the merchant being prosecuted for a criminal offence despite the fact that by his actions he’s effectively admitted to it. Could it be, that so long as you were discreet the state wasn’t that bothered?

17 comments to The World in 1913 – Part IV: Regulation

  • […] What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts II., III & IV […]

  • […] What follows is based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, III and IV. […]

  • Andrew Duffin

    “They would be unhappy in the perfect world which they think they desire, because they would have nothing to forbid.”

    I nominate this as SQOTD.

  • Paul Marks

    The idea that whenever something is really bad the government should “do something” really takes hold in the Victorian period (perhaps helped by the undermining of the idea that “law” is something fundamentally different from “the will of the state” by legal thinkers such as Maitland, who are really Hobbesians PRETENDING to be students of the Common Law of England).

    Parliament in the Victorian period had moved away from the practice of the 1700s – when Parliament really was (to a great extent) various landowners having a holiday in London.

    However, at first the interventions are fairly small, indeed the early Victorian period witnessed DEREGULATION of various things (after about 1874 little good happens – and a lot of bad stuff does).

    For example the railway regulations that Gladstone put through Parliament in the 19th century did not make it impossible to run a railway company at profit (far from it).

    The “Liberal” regulation of the 1900s (not just the 1906 union Act but the general regulations) really did undermine private railways.

    As for local government stuff – two stages.

    The follies of the 1830s (and 1848 – plus 1871 Local Government Board and 1872 Public Health Act) – although the national Public Health Board did fall in 1858 (perhaps the last real roll back of domestic statism), and then the terrible Acts of 1875.

    What the history books call Diraeli’s “Social Reforms”.

    For example, forcing local government to do X,Y, Z (indeed some 40 things) even if local ratepayers voted AGAINST such things.

    After 1875 it is all down hill I am afraid.

    And if you want a Parliament that does not sound like Dick Dastardly (“do something Muttley do something!”) one has to go back to the 1820s.

    In the 1820s a lot of things were done (for example the dramatic reduction of taxation – and the ending of the death penality for some 200 offences), but there is not this assumption that if there is a serious problem the government must “do something”.

    The “long 18th century” really ends in 1832.

  • NickM

    Patrick,
    Interesting final point on the old buggery.

    Of course the most famous case from around then was Wilde’s. If he hadn’t sued Queensbury for libel the whole thing would have been next weeks chip-wrappings when some new salacious event hit the presses.

    So I guess your suggestion is correct. Much later something not entirely dissimilar happened with Alan Turing.

  • Tedd

    In other words regulation was following existing practice.

    Seatbelts, motorcycle helmets, elevator safety brakes, aircraft fatigue testing… plus ca change. One of the most frustrating aspects of regulation is the utter uselessness of so much of it.

  • RogerC

    According the the Wikipedia entry (I know, I know…), firearms legislation was even less strict than the article above appears to imply. Licences were only required to purchase pistols, and then only from a dealer. Other types of firearm were exempt. Maybe someone will correct me, but licences seem to have been available to anyone capable of stumping up ten bob. I haven’t been able to find any suggestion of a background check or any grounds for refusal except the inability to afford the fee.

  • John K

    The ten shilling “gun licence” only related to shotguns, and was required if you took your gun out shooting; if you kept it at home to deter gypsies breaking into your isolated farmhouse, no licence was required. A gun licence was bought from the post office, just like a fishing licence, and remained in force until replaced by the shotgun certificate in 1967. All other firearms were legal to own, from pistols to machine guns. The Pistols Act of 1903 made it an offence to sell a pistol to a child, a drunk or a lunatic, apart from that, British citizens were free to own and carry guns for any lawful reason, including self defence.

  • […] reminds me of a quote at Samizdata about how idiots aren't any new thing.  From an editorial a hundred years […]

  • Regional

    Google cocaine production in Java at the time NEI and the production of cocaine from Javanese leaf in Holland during the twenties and thirties.

  • RogerC

    Can you point me to a source for that, John K?

  • The Times 11 January 1913 page 7

    “Under [the Pistols Act] any one can buy a pistol if he chooses first to buy a gun licence for ten shillings – a most illogical provision, just because of the marked difference between a gun and a pistol which MR CHURCHILL mentioned.”

    The marked difference that Churchill was referring to was the ease of concealment.

  • RogerC

    I’m starting to go off this “Churchill” guy. First this, then the Prevention of Crime Act (1953).

    Incidentally, and utterly OT, I’ve always wondered about the history of the 1953 act. Did it originate with the PM or the cabinet, or come from elsewhere? What was Churchill’s position on it? This seems to be the one act that does the most to curtail the liberty to keep and bear arms for self defence, and it was passed smack in the middle of Churchill’s last term as PM. I’ve not had any luck finding commentary on the circumstances surrounding its passage though.

  • Paul Marks

    Being able to conceal a weapon is a good thing, it means that an attacker (or attackers) are never sure which men (and women) might be armed.

    At least before the First World War there was still a Constitutional Club network, and a large National Rifle Association (larger than the American one of the period).

    After the First World War the pro liberty movement in Britain was essentially broken.

    The universities had become dependent on the state, and the pro liberty movement had become a handful of people around Sir Ernest Benn.

  • John K

    Roger C:

    There isn’t that much in the way of literature about the history of British firearms prohibition. One good text is “Firearms Control” by Colin Greenwood, but that was written before the great gun bans of the 80s and 90s. Actually, the Wikipedia entry seems pretty good on a quick read, though I would query its assertion that a right to bear arms has been abolished in Britain. The Bill of Rights is a constitutional document, the Firearms Acts of 1920 et al are not, and do not repeal the Bill of Rights by implication. I’m not saying it would be easy to convince a British judge of this, mind you.

    Your point about the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 is a good one. The completely erroneous classification of all defensive weapons as “offensive” did indeed de facto end the right of British people to carry weapons for their protection. My understanding was that it was brought about as part of a moral panic over razor gangs in that era (as in the film of “Brighton Rock”, made in 1947). The sheer futility of the 1953 Act is clear from its title. However, I would point out that the 1953 and subsequent Acts allow the defence of lawful reason or reasonable excuse against a charge of carrying an offensive weapon in public. The reasonable excuse might be a carpet fitter on his way to a job carrying a Stanley knife, whereas the lawful reason is the protection of the Queen’s peace. This is the lawful reason for the police to waddle around in their stab vests with side handled batons and tasers, not to mention Glocks. However, it does not apply only to the police, and it would be quite open for a British person to discreetly carry a truncheon or some similar weapon with the justification that in so doing he is ready to uphold the Queen’s peace. Again, whether a British judge and jury would agree is a moot point. Eighty years of mental conditioning against guns and self defence might be hard to shift.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Homosexuality is illegal but it appears to be rarely prosecuted. The word “homosexual” appears once in ten years and that is in relation to a libel case in Germany.

    I think that is an artifact of the reluctance of the respectable press even to mention such things explicitly. That libel case in Germany would be the Eulenburg scandal, which engulfed numerous aristocratic military figures, and a statesman who was a close friend of the Kaiser; the leading socialist editor in Germany was involved.

    As to concealed weapons: there were extensive laws against concealed carry in early America, especially in the South and on the Western frontier (California from the Gold Rush to about 1880, for instance). This seems to have been in response to the frequent use of concealed weapons in ambush killings and impulse killings.

  • […] based on a talk I gave at the end of August at one of Brian’s Fridays. See also Parts I, II, IV & […]