This is the second part of the story of John Joseph Lawson, printer of The Times. In the first part, A Gross And Scandalous Libel, I covered his ‘trial’ in the House of Lords in 1831. In Part 2, I’m looking at a later trial in which John Joseph was once more thrust unwillingly into the limelight.
Throughout the 1830s a number of civil cases were brought against John Joseph Lawson, the printer of The Times, with Lawson sometimes being found guilty and fined, and sometimes being acquitted. Then towards the end of 1838 John Joseph found himself in court again for publishing libellous material. And this time it was a criminal trial – apparently the first time for 40 years that a criminal trial against The Times for libel had been brought before a jury.
The offending article had been published on 9 March 1838 but it wasn’t until 19 December that the case came to trial at the Court of Queen’s Bench. The article in question related to some recent financial dealings of “a certain newly-created Baronet”, and while naming no names, it left little room for doubt that ‘the Baronet’ was Sir John Conroy. Conroy felt that the article “conveyed a most serious imputation” on his “honour and integrity” and accused The Times (or rather, its printer, John Joseph Lawson) of publishing a “false, scandalous, and malicious libel”.
Frederic Thesiger, acting for the prosecution, began by addressing the jury and the crowded courtroom, informing them that Conroy had served as a military officer “for many years with fidelity and integrity” before being appointed to a trusted role within the Royal Household and that it was “quite in the nature of things that from the position that [he] was placed in … he should excite a great number of enemies”. Foremost among those enemies was what Thesiger described as “one of the most formidable engines of annoyance” – i.e., the Press. Thesiger claimed that Conroy had “for many years … found himself the object of severe censure and malicious inuendos” which were “of so vague and general a character, as to be perfectly harmless”. The piece published in The Times in March 1838, however, was of a different nature, and Conroy, it was argued, was now “compelled either to come into a Court of Justice or submit to the serious imputation cast upon him.”
The Attorney General (Lord Campbell), defending Lawson, began by asking why, if Sir John Conroy was so keen to clear his name, had he failed to turn up at court in person: he was apparently somewhere “in the neighbourhood of the Court”. Lord Campbell then attempted to demonstrate that the article didn’t actually constitute libel, claiming that it was “not at all charged or insinuated that Sir John Conroy abstracted the money, or that he made any improper use of it, or that he was guilty of any fraud or dishonesty”. He then finished by advising the jury to:
… hesitate long … before you will come to a verdict of guilty. What will be the consequence of such a verdict to my client, Mr Lawson, the respectable publisher of [The Times]? He would be subjected to a fine; but, much worse than that, he would be liable to be imprisoned by the sentence of the Court of Queen’s Bench, and sent to Newgate amongst common malefactors…The Sun (London), 19 December 1838, page 3, column b
The judge (Lord Denman), told the jury that “the only question is as to the construction to be put upon this article – whether you think it carries against Sir John Conroy that imputation which he himself attributes to it, and which is now the foundation of the complaint he brings before you.”
John Joseph Lawson had pleaded “not guilty” to the charge. There’s no evidence in the various reports published at the time that he personally took the stand but my distant cousin would clearly have been present in court throughout the trial. He must have sat with an increasing feeling of impending doom as the judge completed his summing up.
… the only observation with which I have to conclude … is, that juries in these cases are the sole judges on whose judgment alone must depend in every instance the question, aye or no, is the party guilty of the libel which the prosecution charges against him? If that be so in this case, you will return a verdict of guilty; if you think it otherwise, you will acquit the defendant.
His worst fears were quickly realised as the jury returned a guilty verdict “without quitting the box…”
John Joseph Lawson then had a lengthy wait before sentencing. It wasn’t until 30 January 1839 that he was back at the Court of Queen’s Bench, before Lord Denman.
The Attorney General, acting again as chief counsel for the defence, said that Lawson “felt to a certain degree what he considered the hardship of the law as regarded himself”. Mr Platt, also speaking for the defence, commented that Lawson was “as innocent of the composition of this matter as the persons who had laid the types for printing the paragraph.”
The prosecution however, demanded a “severe punishment”. Mr Thesiger said that he had “listened in vain for even one slight expression of regret” on the part of the defendant.
The Judges then consulted, and Mr Justice Littledale made the final statement, pointing out that as the printer of the paper, Lawson had:
… had the opportunity of seeing all that it was proposed to put into it. It was his duty, if he saw anything improper, to go to the editor, and if he persisted in inserting it, it was the defendant’s duty to resign.The Sun (London), 30 January 1839, page 3, column 3
John Joseph Lawson wasn’t about to receive any sympathy from the judicial system. As far as the law was concerned, the buck stopped firmly at his door and sentence was duly passed: a fine of £200 and one month’s confinement in the Prison of the Queen’s Bench.
The fear that Lawson might end up in Newgate amongst the ‘common malefactors’ wasn’t realised, yet, initially, there was some confusion about where he had been imprisoned. Several newspapers reported, incorrectly, that he was in the custody of the Marshall of the Marshalsea Prison. An intriguing letter was published in The Times on Saturday 2 February (3 days after the date of John Joseph’s imprisonment):
Sir, – Several of my friends, and, I need scarcely add, friends
of Mr. Lawson, supposing from the wording of the sentence
that he was committed to the Marshalsea Court Prison, near
St. George’s Church, in the Borough, I take the liberty of
throwing out a hint, that a paragraph in The Times, defining
more clearly the prison to which Mr. Lawson is really com-
mitted, would remove the anxiety of his friends residing in
the country; and would prevent great inconvenience, as it is
a fact that numerous inquirers, desirous of visiting him, went
yesterday and to-day to the prison referred to, instead of that
of the Queen’s Bench. I am, Sir, your obedient servant,
Feb. 1. S. T.
Apart from shedding some fascinating light on the story, my particular interest in this letter is in the identity of the semi-anonymous author. I feel quite sure that it was a man called Samuel Truman. Samuel was the first cousin of my great, great, great grandmother, Mary Ann Port and, more significantly, John Joseph Lawson’s maternal uncle. Following the death of John Joseph’s father in 1817, Samuel Truman appears to have taken on a parental role in the lives of his sisters’ children. He was a witness at John Joseph’s wedding in 1829 and as a senior official in the Stamp Office, he would have been well placed to offer the young family the appropriate support and advice. I certainly can’t think of anyone more likely to have written the letter.
On the Sunday before Lawson’s release, a large crowd gathered at the Queen’s Bench chapel. A short piece in The Times described the chapel as “literally thronged with his friends, anxious to pay him a mark of respect … it must have been truly gratifying to him to receive so handsome, so free, and so spontaneous a compliment from so many excellent friends.”
John Joseph Lawson was released from prison on Thursday 28 February. The libel cases continued to come thick and fast – another charge was brought while he was still in the custody of the Queen’s Bench! – but there were no more criminal trials, and, as far as I know my second cousin, four times removed, was never incarcerated again.
The reports of the trials give us fleeting glimpses of the man behind the name – John Joseph was, in some respects, a bit-part player in his own story – but we can begin to get the sense of a man of principle; a man who was prepared to do what had to be done to protect his colleagues and to defend the freedom and integrity of the Press.
One thing I can say for certain about John Joseph Lawson is that he’s the only relative (that I’m aware of!) to have a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.
What survives is a mezzotint print, published in 1840 by Sir Francis Graham Moon, printseller of 20 Threadneedle Street, London. It was engraved by David Lucas from an original 1839 painting by James Sant.
I was delighted to find a contemporary ‘review’ of the print in the Literary Gazette:
A grated window and the interior of a prison, for the background of a picture, convey no very pleasant idea either of comfort or of tranquillity. Yet the features of the individual so situated suggest nothing like prison thoughts. On the contrary, the expression appears that of self-possession, perhaps that of self-gratulation; but our views of the print as a work of art are favourable, as a brilliant example of mezzotinto engraving, and a fair specimen of portraiture.The Literary Gazette and Journal of the Belle Lettres, Saturday, 31 October 1840, p.709, column a
A facsimile of John Joseph Lawson’s signature together with the date February 1839 complete the print. The barred window, the prison interior and the date leave little room for doubt that the sitting for the original painting took place while James was incarcerated at the Queen’s Bench Prison.
And if I’m not greatly mistaken, the look on my cousin’s face is one of defiance. If it was a meme John Joseph might be saying, ‘Go on. What else have you got…?’
© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 30 December 2021