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.
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?