I was watching some old episodes of Who Do You Think You Are the other day and I was particularly taken by the one featuring Ian McKellen; as engaging, enthusiastic and warm a subject as you could possibly hope to have for the programme.
I found myself feeling quite moved by Sir Ian’s reaction to learning that an ancestor of his (Robert Lowes) had been instrumental in establishing the UK’s first regular workers’ half-holiday – although the claim that he had thereby invented the British weekend may have been a bit far-fetched!
This, I would argue, is the sort of ancestor that all serious family historians yearn to possess. Someone who left a mark, even if that mark is quite small; someone whose story tells us something about the person behind the name.
I have such a relative in my tree: a distant one, admittedly – a second cousin, four times removed – who was thrust into the limelight on a number of occasions in the 1830s and ‘40s and whose voice can be heard nearly 200 years later, thanks to some detailed contemporary accounts.
John Joseph Lawson was the second son, and third child of James Lawson and his wife Mary Ann Truman, born on 26 March 1802 at the family home in Fleet Street, London.
Fleet Street is, of course, well known as the home of the English printing industry so it’s perhaps not too surprising to hear that John Joseph’s father was involved in the trade. In fact, he was involved in a particularly significant role: that of printer of The Times.
I need to find out more about James Lawson’s time as printer of The Times. Most importantly, I need to find out when he first took on the role and I need to solve a particular mystery. A number of sources suggest that John Joseph took over as the newspaper’s printer following his father’s death in 1817. This clearly can’t be the case as John Joseph would only have been 15 at the time!
In fact, the earliest reference I’ve found to John Joseph working for The Times comes from a short piece in the Evening Mail, dated 24 April 1826. It’s also the first of many references to John Joseph being sued for libel. As the printer of the newspaper, it was he, and not the owner or the editor, who was legally liable for the content.
I’m planning to look at each of the cases in detail but there are two which are of particular interest.
The first of these stems from a debate in the House of Lords on 15 April 1831, concerning a petition which had been presented by the Earl of Roseberry, proposing the introduction of “a compulsory rate or tax upon land in Ireland, for the relief of the poor of that country”.
The Earl of Limerick, one of Ireland’s most prominent ‘absentee landlords’, was quick to offer his opposition to the “ludicrous petition” stating that he “would not be deterred … by the popular odium that might be cast upon him” as a result.
The ‘odium’ didn’t take long to appear. The following day The Times published a piece which we might call a ‘leader comment’ today, which began by suggesting that there were encouraging signs that “the resident gentry in some parts of Ireland” seemed to be moving in the right direction towards “bettering … the condition of the now unsettled poor.”
However, it was clear that the resistance to the idea of introducing a “rate or tax” was strong, particularly amongst Ireland’s absentee landlords. The piece went on to suggest that “the Irish gentleman shall not contribute a shilling to save the lives of those miserable beings whom his systematically selfish and rapacious policy has reduced to the lowest stage of destitution.”
Although the tone of the article was getting quite heated, there was nothing too controversial so far. But a particular phrase in the next paragraph appears to have lit the touch paper.
Yet mean, cruel and atrocious as every civilized mind must consider the doctrine, that Ireland has no need of poor laws, or some equivalent for them, – hateful and abominable as is such a screen for inhumanity, – there are men, or things with human pretensions, nay with lofty privileges, who do not blush to treat the mere proposal of establishing a fund for the relief of the diseased or helpless Irish with brutal ridicule and almost imperial scorn.
The phrase, ‘men, or things with human pretensions’, was evidently too much for Lord Limerick, for, although the piece in The Times didn’t specifically name him, Limerick himself said that it “described him so that it was impossible for any person to doubt to whom the writer intended to apply his attack.”
After a short debate on 18 April, the House agreed “That the Printer of The Times be ordered to attend at the Bar of this House to-morrow”.
On Tuesday 19 April 1831, John Joseph Lawson, printer of The Times – and my distant cousin – was brought before the Bar of the House of Lords. He was asked to give his name and to confirm that he was the printer of The Times newspaper, and was then asked to withdraw from the Bar while the clerk read the offending paragraph to the House. Their Lordships then quickly “determined that the paragraph was a false and scandalous libel” after which Lawson was ordered to return to the Bar in order to face the charge. He was given the opportunity to speak in his own in defence and, while we don’t have a verbatim report of what he said, the following is a transcript of the report recorded in Hansard:
Mr. Lawson expressed his regret, that there should have appeared in The Times newspaper, of which he was the printer, any paragraph calculated to give offence either to their Lordships in general, or to any noble Earl in particular. Their Lordships must be aware, that owing to the rapidity with which a journal like The Times must be printed, and the multiplicity of articles which necessarily found their way into it, it was almost impossible for him, using every diligence in his power, to peruse every separate paragraph which appeared in the paper. The paragraph of which their Lordships complained, had found its way inadvertently into the paper, and he had only to repeat his deep regret that it had done so.Hansard: House of Lords Sitting of 19 April 1831, Series 3 Vol. 3, cc1584-8
Lawson was asked if he had “supreme control of the paper of which he was the printer” to which he replied that he had not. He was then asked if he could name the person who was in “supreme control” but said that to do so would be a breach of trust to his employers. The Lord Chancellor told Lawson that he wasn’t obliged to answer any questions but that if he declined to do so, their Lordships would “form their own opinions as to his reasons for not answering such questions as might be put to him”. Lawson confirmed that he understood this at which point a “noble Lord” asked whether a gentleman “whose name he mentioned” was not the editor of The Times.
In Lawson’s reply to this we get a brief glimpse of his character:
Mr. Lawson replied, that this was only another mode of putting to him the last question; and therefore, with all respect to their Lordships, he must decline giving any answer to it.
He was not about to name names and, after refusing to answer further questions about the proprietors of the paper, he was once more ordered to withdraw. It was then moved that Lawson “having admitted himself to be the printer of a false and scandalous libel, which had appeared in The Times newspaper of the 16th instant, be fined £100 and committed to Newgate till the fine be paid.”
But before the motion could be voted on – the Lord Chancellor (Lord Brougham), the Duke of Wellington, the Marquis of Lansdown, and Earl Grey (the then-Prime Minister) had spoken out against it – an amendment was proposed and carried “that Mr. Lawson should be committed to the custody of the Usher of the Black Rod, and that he do attend their Lordships to-morrow morning at ten of the clock.”
John Joseph appears to have spent his night of incarceration in the House of Lords in composing a petition. This was presented to Lord King and read to the House the following day:
To the Right Honourable the Lords Spiritual and Temporal.Hansard: House of Lords Sitting of 20 April 1831, Series 3 Vol. 3, cc1701-19
That your petitioner feels the sincerest regret at having given offence to your right honourable House, and to the Earl of Limerick in particular, and craves pardon for the same; and humbly begs, in consequence of this acknowledgment of his error and regret, he may be set at liberty by your right honourable House.
And your Petitioner will ever pray…
John Joseph Lawson.
There followed a lengthy, and somewhat heated, debate, largely relating to the question of whether the House of Lords did in fact have the powers to fine and/or imprison “offenders” and it was agreed that “the matter contained in this petition be taken into further consideration to-morrow.”
After spending another night in the cells, Lawson was once again brought before the Bar and was addressed directly by the Lord Chancellor.
John Joseph Lawson—the paragraph of which you have acknowledged yourself to be the printer and publisher, has been pronounced by the unanimous voice of this House to be a gross and scandalous libel upon Edmund Henry, Earl of Limerick, a Member of this House, and it has also been pronounced to be a high breach of the privileges of this House.
You have freely and at once acknowledged, that you are guilty of the offence: you have acknowledged that you are guilty in fact, by admitting that you are the publisher of the libel; and you have acknowledged that you are guilty in law and in substance, because you have expressed your contrition for that publication. You have also most amply, by petition, and in your own person at that bar, made submission to the House, and to the noble Earl who was the object of the slander. Moreover, you have suffered, not a long, but a close confinement, by the authority of this House, and in the custody of the officers of this House. For these reasons, and because the House is anxious to temper justice with mercy, their Lordships have thought proper to impose on me the painful duty—which I have now performed—of reprimanding you; and having thus reprimanded you, I have to tell you, that you will be forthwith discharged out of custody, upon payment of your fees.”Hansard: House of Lords Sitting of 21 April 1831, Series 3 Vol. 3, cc1748-54
John Joseph’s short “close confinement” had lasted less than 48 hours but it must nevertheless have been an uncomfortable few nights for him.
Seven years later, Lawson was to become embroiled in another, more contentious libel case: a case which resulted in his spending a month in prison and one which I’ll look at in detail in my next blog post…
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 28 December 2021