A sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

"A sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic" is the poison metaphor used by John Campbell, 1st Baron Campbell in describing the sale of obscene publications at the time of the introduction of the.

The origins of the Act itself were in a trial for the sale of pornography presided over by Campbell, at the same time as a debate in the House of Lords over a bill aiming to restrict the sale of poisons. Campbell was taken by the analogy between the two situations, famously referring to the London pornography trade as "a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strychnine or arsenic."

Perhaps the earliest known appearance of this ever-popular analogy; compare "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel," describing The Well of Loneliness in 1928.

Campbell proposed a bill to restrict the sale of pornography; giving statutory powers of destruction would allow for a much more effective degree of prosecution. The bill was controversial at the time, receiving strong opposition from both Houses of Parliament, and was passed on the assurance by Campbell in his capacity of Lord Chief Justice that it was "... intended to apply exclusively to works written for the single purpose of corrupting the morals of youth and of a nature calculated to shock the common feelings of decency in any well-regulated mind." The House of Commons successfully amended it so as not to apply to Scotland, on the grounds that Scottish common law was sufficiently stringent. (H. Montgomery Hyde (1964) A History of Pornography. London, Heinemann: 169-71)

The Act provided for the seizure and destruction of any material deemed to be obscene, and held for sale or distribution, following information being laid before a "court of summary jurisdiction" (Magistrates' court). The Act required that following evidence of a common-law offence being committed - for example, on the report of a plain-clothes policeman who had successfully purchased the material - the court could issue a warrant for the premises to be searched and the material seized. The proprietor then would be called upon to attend court and give reason why the material should not be destroyed. Critically, the Act did not define "obscene," leaving this to the will of the courts.

Hansard notes

HL Deb 25 June 1857 vol 146 cc327-38


HL Deb 11 May 1857 vol 145 cc102-4 102

LORD CAMPBELL said, he wished to ask his noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, whether the Government intended to introduce any measure to pre- 103 vent the indiscriminate sale of poisons? The Secretary of State for the Home Department, he believed, had actively employed himself in gaining information on the subject, and had obtained a great deal of valuable information; and he (Lord Campbell) hoped some measure would be founded on it. He was happy to say that he believed the administration of poison by design had received a check. But, from a trial which had taken place before him on Saturday, he had learned with horror and alarm that a sale of poison more deadly than prussic acid, strichnine, or arsenic—the sale of obscene publications and indecent books—was openly going on. It was not alone indecent books of a high price, which was a sort of check, that were sold, but periodical papers of the most licentious and disgusting description were coming out week by week, and sold to any person who asked for them, and in any numbers. This was a matter which required, in his opinion, the immediate consideration of the Government. He had ever been an enemy to ex officio informations for libel, and during the seven years that he had held the office of Attorney General he never advised a single information for libel, except one, that was against Mr. Fergus O'Connor, for exciting the people to sedition; and even in that case, he told the jury not to convict, unless they were satisfied that that was the intention of Mr. O'Connor's publication. He trusted that immediate steps would be taken for stopping the sale of publications of so pestilential a character.

THE LORD CHANCELLOR said, that not having read the newspapers of that day he was not aware of the trial which had taken place, and to which his noble and learned Friend referred. But if his noble and learned Friend was right—and he had no doubt he was—in saying that there were places of that depraved character, which gave vent and circulation to publications of that sort, it was quite fitting that the strong arm of the law should be put in motion, and that Government should take steps for that purpose. But he was sure his noble and learned Friend would agree with him that no legislation was necessary, as the law as it stood was quite sufficient to put down publications of that nature; and it was for the Attorney General to enforce that law as he thought fit. It would not be becoming in him to say more on the matter, which was now brought to his attention for the 104 first time. With regard to the sale of poisons, he could assure his noble and learned Friend that the subject had received not only the most careful investigation from his right hon. Friend (Sir G. Grey), but that a Bill had actually been prepared, and would, he believed, in a few days be introduced in the other House, for the purpose of putting down that offence. His noble and learned Friend must be well aware that the difficulties of that subject were very great. However extensive might be the enumeration of poisons, the ingenuity of chemists would speedily introduce others. Then the line which separated poisons from medicines was extremely difficult to define. The whole subject was one of extreme difficulty. The Bill to be brought in would guard not only against the evil of selling poison to persons who intended to make a bad use of them, but there was also a clause guarding, as far as possible, against the sale of poisons incautiously. If the Bill was not likely to remove altogether, he hoped it would materially mitigate, the evil to which his noble and learned Friend referred.

See also

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