'Making Decent!!' (1822) George Cruikshank takes a jab at the evangelical William Wilberforce and the prudish Society for the Suppression of Vice

‘Making Decent!!’ (1822) George Cruikshank takes a jab at the prudish William Wilberforce and his allies in the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

On 2nd August 1802, an itinerant Italian printseller named Baptista Bertazzi was walking through Camden when he was stopped in the street by a man named Robert Gray [1]. Gray had noticed the large portfolio of prints that Bertazzi was carrying under his arm and invited the pedlar to step into the nearby Adam & Eve Tea-gardens so that he could see if it contained any items that he might like to buy. The two men entered the gardens and Gray looked through the prints, remarking that while there were none that took his fancy, he would be interesting in seeing any others that Bertazzi may have in his stock. The printseller said that he kept a great many prints in his lodgings and suggested that Gray may wish to call on him there the next time he was in town. A suitable date was agreed and the men parted company.

Gray paid his visit to Bertazzi a few days later, calling on him in the single room he rented above a public-house on the corner of Little Turnstile. The exact contents of the conversation which followed was later to become a matter of some disagreement, but it ended with Bertazzi offering Gray at set of six highly indecent prints. Gray confirmed that these were precisely the sort of prints he was looking for and began to ask Bertazzi how he came to deal in such items. The printseller explained that he primarily sold his prints to people who lived in the towns and villages surrounding London, where prints of all kinds were harder to come by and prices could be inflated accordingly. When asked how he managed the delicate business of offering an indecent print to someone he hadn’t met before, Bertazzi said that he would typically start by holding out an innocuous engraving of a landscape or a bird, before moving onto lewd caricatures and more sexually-explicit erotica. Grey then remarked on the fact that the title of one of the books he had been offered implied that it was to be read by a lady, Bertazzi confirmed that he sold salacious books and prints to a great many ladies. He was also in the habit of sneaking into schools to sell prints there, and one occasion had even been forced to flee the grounds of Eton College in order to avoid being captured by the school-masters. Bertazzi told Gray that he was tired of spending his days trudging through the countryside around London and that he was keen to try and cultivate more customers within the city. He then made a proposal: Gray could have one of the books at half-price, if he agreed to introduce Bertazzi to any other gentlemen he knew who may be interested in buying such materials. Gray agreed, paid for six prints and the book, and arranged to meet the printseller again on 4th September at the Mermaid public-house in Hackney.

When Bertazzi arrived arrived at the Mermaid he found Gray waiting for him with another gentleman who said that he was an officer on an East India merchant vessel. The officers of merchant ships frequently sought to supplement their salaries by dabbling in some small-scale importing and exporting of their own. Small, portable, goods that could be easily stowed away in a sailor’s luggage were usually favoured, and large quantities of prints appear to have been exported from Britain in this way. Indeed, by the start of the 1800s, some printsellers had even begun offering special wholesale discounts to sea-captains who were purchasing for export [2]. Bertazzi laid out his portfolio on the table and began passing round a number of erotic prints, including one which he claimed to have sold another copy of to a lady who had given him a whole guinea for it. After looking over the prints for several minutes, Gray’s friend said that his captain has asked him to place an order for as many of these prints as Bertazzi could supply and that they would return to the Mermaid in three days time to collect the goods and make payment.

When the group reconvened for the final time, they were joined by a fourth man whom Gray introduced to Bertazzi as the captain of the merchant vessel who had placed the order for prints. The printseller told the group that he had been able to get hold of about two dozen indecent prints and begin passing them around the room, pointing out the fine quality of the colouring and boasting that he could get 8 or 9s apiece if he were to take them up to Cambridge to sell to the students there. The captain was impressed and promised to pay Bertazzi 2s for each of the prints if he would come back to his lodgings where the money was kept. The printseller agreed and all four men duly set off through the streets. However, when they reached the door of the local magistrate’s office, Gray and his two associates suddenly seized hold of the startled printseller, announced his was under arrest and bundled him inside.

Baptista Bertazzi had been the victim of an elaborate sting orchestrated by Robert Gray and two police constables. Gray was an agent of the newly formed Society for the Suppression of Vice, a voluntary organisation which had formed in March 1802 and committed itself to the eradication of indecent publications. Its membership was drawn from the foremost ranks of British society and it was able to use the considerable resources at its disposal to construct a network of spies and informers. These agents were paid to collect evidence of wrongdoing which could then be used as the basis for a civil court action against anyone found to publishing or distributing material deemed damaging to the moral or political health of the nation. Gray submitted the prints and books he had purchased from Bertazzi to the magistrate and the Society for the Suppression of Vice brought a charge of obscene libel against the unfortunate pedlar [3].

The case was heard before Lord Ellenborough at the Court of King’s Bench in February 1803. Ellenborough was a thoroughgoing reactionary and made little effort to mask his sympathy for the prosecution. He began by allowing the Society’s lawyers to launch into a long speech in which the accused was described as nothing less than “a demon in human shape… intent on the destruction of the human species…”. When the council for the defence was eventually allowed to speak up on behalf of his client, Ellenborough bruskly dismissed the suggestion that Bertazzi had been the victim of illegal entrapment and stated that: If a person induced another, who was innocent, to commit a crime, in order to be his accuser, that was a crime of the highest enormity… But if a man had been in the habitual course of committing crimes, and there was a difficulty of proving it… there was no impropriety in laying before him an inducement… in order to prevent the future commission of such enormities: it was only innocent but doing a beneficial service to society”. Unsurprisingly, the jury found Bertazzi guilty and he was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment and to stand in the pillory.

The story doesn’t quite end there though. During the course of the trial it had become apparent that the Society for the Suppression of Vice was using a number of decidedly immoral methods in order to gather evidence and secure prosecutions. Robert Gray had admitted under cross-examination that he was a paid agent who received a salary of £105 a year for submitting reports to the Society’s senior committee. Not only that but he had form as a professional informer, having previously spied on radical elements among the Manchester cotton workers and nationalists in Ireland. The legality of his methods was also called into question – after all, Bertazzi had only purchased supplies of indecent prints because Gray and the two police constables had ordered them. It was also noted that in another recent case the Society’s agents had gone even further, and had actually sold a bookseller some obscene pamphlets and then had him arrested for possessing them.

The Society for the Suppression of Vice initially attempted to rebuff any such criticism. It published an address to its members which stated bluntly that: “If the rat is only to be hunted to his hole by the ferret, and iniquity can only be tracked to its burrows, by beings like itself, there is an end of the all objection against the use of informers” [4]. However the leadership had badly misjudged the mood of many rank-and-file members, particularly those with evangelical christian leanings. A small but outspoken and well-connected clique of evangelicals were particularly outraged by the thought that acts of fraud were being committed in their name and began a campaign of letter-writing, pamphleteering and lobbying among supportive MPs. This eventually resulted in evangelical heavyweights like Wilberforce and Macaulay entering the fray, throwing their weight behind the evangelical faction and forcing the High Church elements within the Society to agree “not to practice falsehood” [5].

The controversy left its mark and support for the Society began to ebb away in the years that followed. Critics began to challenge the whole notion of using the law as a weapon of moral reform, arguing that it risked opening the door to arbitrary forms of government. The moralists, declared William Cobbett, were engaged in nothing less than “a standing conspiracy against the quiet and tranquility of society [by giving]…the laws… an extension and a force which it never was intended that they should have” [6]. Others attacked the rank hypocrisy of an organisation which focused its efforts on closing down gambling dens, bawdy houses and printshops in the poorer parts of London, while seemingly turning a blind-eye to establishments which provided exactly the same services to wealthy Londoners in the fashionable West End. A more accurate name for the Society, suggested the Reverend Sydney Smith in a sardonic article for the Edinburgh Review, would be “the society for suppressing the vices of persons whose income does not exceed £500 per annum” [7].

The Bertazzi case is worthy of note among historians of print for a number of reasons: Firstly, because it reveals something of the otherwise obscure world of the itinerant printseller. They clearly played a significant role in creating an informal distribution network for all manner of graphic prints and were willing to cover significant geographic distances in pursuit of their sales. Secondly, it demonstrates the growing breadth of the market for graphic images, which by the early 1800s had clearly begun to encompass women, young adults and older children. Finally, it marks a turning point in the history of attempts at censoring graphic images. The furor that erupted among the Society for the Suppression of Vice following the revelations about the manner of Bertazzi’s arrest, effectively put a stop to its efforts to impose moral rectitude on the publishing trade by force. The mantle of repression was therefore passed back to the state, which typically proved to be far more hesitant in initiating prosecutions against those who made and sold prints.

We end this account with a note taken from the 25th August 1803 edition of the Times. A small notice on legal proceedings states that one “B. Bertazzi [was] brought under a strong escort of constables from his prison cell in Newgate to the public pillory between Temple Bar and St Clements Church. The crowd was very great, but for want of paper or public notice of his name and offence, very few of them understood his particulars: he was removed again to Newgate”. Fate may not have intervened to prevent Bertazzi straying into the clutches of Robert Gray and losing his liberty, but it did at least spare him the pain and humiliation of a turn in the pillory.

 

 


Notes

1. This account is a composite of the events reported in the Times 21st February 1803 and The New Annual Register, Or, General Repository of History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1803, pp. 74 – 75.

2. T. Clayton, ‘The London Printsellers and the Export of England Graphic Prints’ in Anorthe Kremers and Elizabeth Reich eds, Loyal Subversion: Caricatures from the Personal Union between England and Hanover (1714-1837), Göttingen, 2014. p.157.

3. The exact content of the prints Bertazzi was selling is not clear. The Society’s lawyers requested that this information should not be recorded in the published transcript of the trail as it “increased the mischief which they meant to have avoided… because [it] answered the purpose of an advertisement”. The description of one of the items that was laid before the court as being “remarkably obscene and filthy” suggests that they were probably some form of sexually explicit erotica, similar in manner to that which Thomas Rowlandson was so frequently associated with in this period.

4. Quoted in M. J. D. Roberts ‘The Society for the Suppression of Vice and Its Early Critics, 1802-1812’, The Historical Journal Vol. 26, No. 1 (Mar., 1983), p. 169.

5. Ibid. p. 170.

6. Cobbett’s Political Register, IV (1803) pp. 228 – 231.

7. Quoted in M. J. D. Roberts Making English Morals: Voluntary Association and Moral Reform in England , 1787–1886, Cambridge 2004. p. 87.

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