This week in radical history: British govt forced to resign over its attacks on refugees, 1858. Really.

The UK state unable to deport or imprison asylum seekers because of political pressure from all levels of society? A British government forced from office over the issue? Seems unlikely in 2017… But 159 years ago today the prime minster had just resigned after resistance to minor changes to conspiracy law made his position untenable.

As related in earlier posts (on Italian anarchist exiles, the Communist Club…) nineteenth century London was home to thousands of exiles, mainly from other European countries, and often forced to leave their home countries for their political activities or beliefs.

Bizarrely as it may seem in the current climate, political refugees flocked to Victorian Britain as it tolerated their presence, if often uneasily, and almost never deported them back where they had come from. This was pretty much unique at the time, (and wasn’t to last.)

Interestingly, this was not because there was a recognisable right in the law at the time to appeal for political asylum – in fact it was the absence of law that was significant. The government was unable to extradite political exiles, or imprison them for simply being here, because there was no law that allowed them to do so. At the time there was a consensus that ‘everything is lawful that the law does not prohibit’. Whereas in other nations it seemed to work the other way around – ‘nothing is lawful but what law permits.’ ‘Politicals’ were also generally seen as a different category from say murderers of other crims on the lam. On top of this, ironically, British xenophobia also worked backhandedly in the exiles’ favour: British courts were unwilling to even consider sending them to face what was seen as unfair and arbitrary ‘foreign’ justice. In reality, a weird contradictory mingling of liberal sentiment and suspicion of all foreign institutions at grassroots level in British society made it very difficult for the authorities to make large-scale change to this situation.

Other European countries observed this with disbelief. At first they responded to Britain’s failure to surrender refugees incredulously, concluding that it amounted to a refusal. Surely Britain was sheltering these rebels and radicals to allow them to plot against and undermine other countries, particularly her rivals. Gradually it dawned on them that Britain was in fact incapable of deporting or locking up these undesirables; this resulted in a rash of dire predictions that Britain would soon be destroyed because of this tolerance.

When a government did attempt to make some moves towards altering this legal loophole, they were often not put into practice. In 1848, the government passed an Alien Act, which allowed it to expel any (importantly, only newly arrived) ‘foreigners’, if they threatened the peace and tranquility of the realm. A short-lived panic about a wave of exiled Frenchmen arriving in London as a result of the 1848 French Revolution sparked this major legal change. However, it was never used, and it was not renewed in 1850.

Mainstream British society generally viewed many of the ‘foreigners’ taking shelter on their shores with contempt and disdain, avoiding them if at all possible, but did not call for them to be expelled. However this did not mean they were not under surveillance. In 1850 or thereabouts, Scotland Yard set up a small department to keep tabs on the international political networks holed up here. But the department’s main work seems to have been to re-assure the political establishment that the exiles posed no threat to the realm at all (in weird contrast to later secret police policy, eg Special Branch’s bold mission to inflate the threat posed by radicals and provoke them into arrestable offences, which has continued into our own time.

Later attempts to even tinker with the legal situation were to backfire on them. In 1858, the government attempted to prosecute in Simon Francois Bernard, a political refugee who had been implicated in the plot by Italian nationalist Orsini to assassinate French Emperor Napoleon III. Orsini planted a bomb which exploded under the emperor’s carriage. The attack killed eight people and a horse, the Emperor’s military escort taking the brunt. Estimates of the wounded ran to 150.

Orsini had spent periods in England, and had made numerous contacts with radicals and liberals. Orsini had been a known associate of Italian nationalist leader Mazzini (if latterly estranged); the plot was generally aimed at furthering the campaign for Italian unification – in the hope that the result would be a republican government in France which would help kick the Austrian Empire out of Italy (Ironically, in this the plot was partly successful, in some measure due to Orsini’s last testament, published after his death, which swayed many on France to support the ‘Risorgimento’, and strengthened Napoleon’s already broadly pro-Unification stance).

(Interestingly Orsini’s plot did involve English radicals. He learned about the chemistry of explosives from William Mattieu Williams, whom he met in 1857. More centrally involved were Thomas Allsop and veteran Owenite co-operator George Jacob Holyoake. J. D. P. Hodge, a disciple of Orsini to whom he entrusted the care of one of his children, was also involved, as was Simon François Bernard, an expatriate French surgeon and socialist.)

Allsop arranged for the manufacture of “Orsini bombs” with a firm in Birmingham, and others tested them out in the countryside. Furthermore Allsop provided Orsini with an old British passport under which to travel to France.)

The British government did feel the heat that arose after this failed ‘attentat’ – pressure from France to act against exiled anti-empire plotters became extreme, and British politicians looked for a way to do something without bringing in new laws. The Attorney General suggested extending the Treason law so it covered treason against foreign monarchs, but this was impractical. A new extradition treaty with France was also discussed but dropped, and a new Alien Act was even drafted, but the cabinet was reluctant to approve it, either because it would be very unpopular, or hard to implement, some even disagreeing out of principle.

The only concession to French diplomatic outrage Palmerston’s government felt able to introduce was the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, an alteration of existing criminal legislation, making conspiracy to commit murder abroad a felony, rather than a misdemeanor (which would increase the maximum sentence from two years to life imprisonment). It was clearly a fudge intended to appease continental pressure over exiles, while not pissing off liberal sentiment – who could object to harsher punishments for plots to kill someone, which didn’t even mention foreigners specifically. However, as often happens with attempts to please everyone while doing nothing, even this small gesture was wildly unpopular, both with Liberals and radicals throughout the country. Part of the problem was that the government had to pretend to foreign governments that the bill was a bigger deal than it was, but to domestic opinion that it was no real change. In practice the french were persuaded that it was a real action against ‘incendiaries’; but so were radicals and liberals in Britain, and they were incensed. There is also no doubt that an unhealthy dose of anti-french sentiment (always a card on the table on British politics) played a part too…

A mammoth demonstration was planned for 21st February 1858, to protest the planned bill as it was going through Parliament. and Liberal, and even some Conservative, MPs protested, and introduced wrecking amendments; the reaction left Palmerston’s government no option but to resign, on the 19th.

The incoming administration of Lord Derby did however continue the prosecutions Palmerston had set in motion. Allsop had escaped after the event to America, as Hodge did to Piedmont; Holyoake however escaped suspicion (though shamefully appears to have offered to grass up his mate Allsop for a government reward).

Simon Bernard was an expatriate French follower of Utopian socialist Charles Fourier. It was alleged against him that he had introduced two of the plotters, Pierri and de Rudio. He was arrested, on a charge of conspiracy; but with the change of government he was put on trial for involvement in one of the murders in Paris. Because the death had been abroad, a Special Commission was required. In addition, a publisher, Edward Truelove, and a bookseller, Stanislaus Tchorzewski, were prosecuted for producing and selling pamphlets advocating tyrannicide generally and justifying Orsini’s attack, respectively.

The state trials turned the Orsini affair into a cause célèbre supported by British radicals outside the courtroom. Radical physician John Epps stood bail for Bernard. Secularist leader Charles Bradlaugh started a fund for the defence of Truelove, and subscribers included Liberal heavyweights Harriet Martineau, John Stuart Mill, and Francis William Newman.

Bernard was prosecuted by Sir Fitzroy Kelly in a jury trial before Lord Campbell. Edwin James spoke in Bernard’s defence, emphasising the theme that the trial was a result of pressure from ‘foreign governments’. The jury acquitted Bernard, rejecting the tenor of the judge’s summing-up. The evidence was fairly strong that Bernard had played a part in preparing Orsini’s bomb, though he may not have known of the specific target; the acquittal was blatantly a political choice.

In the light of this reverse the government decided prosecuting Truelove and Tchorzewski would be unwise, and the cases were dropped.

The whole business was of mixed parentage, really, part Liberal-Radical defence of the liberty of the exiles, but part snook-cocking at the ‘frogs’ across the channel. It would be inaccurate to trumpet any kind of ‘British values’ as being at the heart of the affair. However, in the 1850s, there was a widespread suspicion of policing in general, and political repression, and a healthy disrespect for the law when it came to resisting both – whether on the streets in this country, or (for a fair proportion, if not the majority) by somewhat more forceful methods as regards other countries.

In these Brexity times, this seems long way off… The legal frameworks which did not exist in 1858 are many and complex now, and the social context very different. Movements of solidarity with political refugees exist, though, and active resistance to deportations, detention and oppression of asylum seekers are growing… Twould be fun if in a couple of years we could reverse things as far as to see Theresa may forced out after some gross xenophobic violation… Let’s get on it…


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.


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