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Making History
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Listen to the latest editionTuesday 3.00-3.30 p.m
Vanessa Collingridge and the team answer listener’s historical queries and celebrate the way in which we all ‘make’ history.
Programme 12
18 December 2007

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Lieutenant Colonel L’Etsrange Malone MP

How did a distinguished First World War officer become Britain’s first Communist MP and serve a prison sentence for sedition in 1920?

Making History consulted Professor Kevin Morgan at the University of Manchester.

Malone was born in Yorkshire, the son of a vicar and served with distinction during the First World War. In the 1918 election he was elected as a Coalition Liberal for East Leyton. But these were politically troubled times. At home troops were mutinous and abroad there had been the Russian revolutions of 1917 and civil war in Finland in early 1918. Malone’s family had Irish roots and it was most probably events there and a trip he made to Russia in 1919 that pushed him onto joining the Communist party. During the trip to Russia he stopped off in Finland and became friendly with two Bolshevik agitators who were later to come to London. However, even members of the far left were taken aback by comments he made at a public meeting at the Albert Hall in 1920:

“We are out to change the present Constitution, and if it is necessary to save bloodshed and to save atrocities we shall have the lampposts or the walls. What, my friends, are a few Churchills or a few Curzons on lampposts compared to the massacre of thousands of human beings? ... What should we lose by the disappearance of a few of these archangels of capitalism compared with the imperialist war?”

Firearms were found at his flat together with a copy of a guide for teaching a ‘Red officer’s course’. He served six months for sedition.

A report on the case can be found in the online archives of the New York Times

Where did the law of sedition that Malone was charged with originate? Making History consulted Professor Bernard Capp at the University of Warwick. He told the programme that Sedition was always about undermining the king (or the state); dangerous religious ideas were covered by heresy and later blasphemy laws.

The first acts of Parliament on seditious talk go back to Edward I in the 1270s, making it a crime to spread false and damaging stories about the king. This filled a gap in legislation - treason meant rising up in arms against the king, and something was needed to cover dangerous words which might incite such actions, even though the speaker himself had not taken any physical action at all. It becomes a far more pressing issue with Henry VIII and the Reformation: the nation was deeply divided over the break with Rome, so for several generations there were large numbers of people who thought the reigning king or queen was on the wrong side (whichever that was), and was therefore an evil person, tyrant, no fit monarch and so on. Henry VIII and Mary brought in new laws to cover seditious words or writings that fell short of treason, which the courts could now punish with fines, imprisonment, cutting off ears, or even death in certain circumstances.

Elizabeth approved, and her first Parliament confirmed all this in 1559. In both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there are cases of ordinary people being charged with sedition. This is not only evidence of ordinary people holding strong political views but, presumably, also people who opposed them and felt equally strongly. The civil wars brought another highly sensitive period, but the existing laws served king and parliament equally well. The law was interpreted during the interregnum to say that 'king' could stand for 'sovereign power', which covered Parliament and then Cromwell as Lord Protector. So in the 1650s it was seditious to abuse Parliament and praise the king; in the 1660s seditious to attack him.
Harry Bensley, the man in the iron mask.

On January 1st 1908, Harry Bensley set out from Trafalgar square pushing a pram and wearing an iron mask. He was taking part in a wager that he couldn’t travel around Britain and Europe and take a wife without being identified. Making History reported on this story in 2002 and since that programme members of Bensley’s family have contacted the programme with more information. It now appears that Bensley took part in the wager after losing in a game of cards and being unable to pay his debts. He had to send postcards back from the places he visited, so there is evidence for his travels around the UK. But how far he got in Europe is pure conjecture. Furthermore, he was already married!

Useful links

Bensley’s family have their own website with further information
Whittlesea Straw Bear

This Plough Monday custom in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire was revived in the early nineteen eighties, but what are its origins?

Making History consulted Brian Kell and historian Steve Roud.

Useful links

Whittlesea Straw Bear

BBC Cambridgeshire

Further Reading

The English Year by Steve Roud Published by Penguin (January 2008) ISBN-10: 0141021063 ISBN-13: 978-0141021065

Contact  Making History
Use this link to email Vanessa Collingridge and the team : Email Making History

Write to: Making History
BBC Radio 4
PO Box 3096

Telephone: 08700 100400

Making History is produced by Nick Patrick and is a Pier Production
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Making History

Vanessa Collingridge
Vanessa CollingridgeVanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald. 

Contact Making History

Send your comments and questions for future programmes to:
Making History
BBC Radio 4
PO Box 3096 Brighton

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Or telephone the Audience Line 08700 100 400

Making History is a Pier Production for BBC Radio 4 and is produced by Nick Patrick.

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