In the Beehive
During the summer of 1826, Parliament being up, I obtained leave of absence from my duties as a Parliamentary Reporter and went for a time into Dorsetshire. At Poole I met an old friend, a newspaper proprietor of the name of Sydenham who availed himself of my visit to solicit my services at the Petty Sessions of Wimbourne on the occasion of a charge against some poor fellows for poaching. A dire offence in those parts, in the opinion of the Magistracy; but with respect to which a very contrary opinion was generally entertained by all other individuals. At the appointed hour on Friday 1st September, I was at my post, note book in hand. The great Tory Magnate Mr. Henry Bankes M.P. was presiding. He was supported by a clerical Magistrate, Rev. James Hanham, Bart., J. O. P. Ogden Esq., and Sir R C. Glyn, Bart.
The first witness was under examination when the proceedings were coarsely interrupted by the Chairman enquiring who I was and what I was doing? I replied that I was one of the public and my name is James Acland; that as this was an open Court, I was writing down the ensuing events in the belief that I had the right so long as I did not interrupt the proceedings. Mr. Bankes observed that they allowed no reporters in his Court and desired I should leave the room. I declined to obey his mandate; when he ordered the Court to be cleared. It was literally crammed, and as I filed passed the worthy gentlemen on the Bench, one asked the question “Why I did not go?” I informed his worship that I intend to obey the order, but that I will follow the other portion of the public, which I did; remaining just outside the door until we were recalled.
When we returned, I was the first to resume my position in the exercise of an undoubted right. Mr. Bankes asked me if I was still determined to oppose his decision. I contended that in a Court of final adjudication, the accused had no other protection against possible tyranny and injustice, but the publicity of the proceedings; and that, as one of the public I decline to waive my right to be present.
“But,” said the Magistrate, “Mr. Acland, you were writing! what were you writing, Sir? We do not allow anything of the kind here.”
With the clear intention to intimidate, Mr. Bankes asked that I step forward to hear what I had to say against his decision. I admitted that I was writing, and urged that even if I were writing to my grand-mother, it would be no offence, so long that I did not disturb the order of the proceedings by the scratching of my pen. I added that if I did not make notes of the events set before me, it is to my regret that I shall thus be compelled to depend on memory, and liable to become open to the charge of inaccuracy. I reiterated my regret, that by the decision of the Chairman, I should be compelled to fulfil my duty on so vague a responsibility as that of an indifferent memory.
Mr. Bankes affirmed that he had expressed his determination on the subject. I replied that only on compulsion, I would submit. Nevertheless, I would suggest to the Bench, that on no one occasion of police reporting in the Metropolis had I been so compelled to abstain from taking notes. I am held responsible for the accuracy of my reports, and yet am prevented from avoiding the errors which a dependence on memory so often induces. On these remarks the worthy Magistrates consulted together, when Mr. Bankes again observed that a reporter had no right to be in his Court, and he was certainly determined not to permit it.
Mr. R. C. Glyn interjected, “As a minority on this question, I think I should state my opinion. In all cases which I have hitherto witnessed, reporters from the press have been permitted to take minutes of the proceedings. As an accurate, is undoubtedly preferable to, an inaccurate report, I conceive that such privilege, should be permitted now, in courtesy, if not in right.”
“Oh! of course there is no right;” interrupted Mr. Ogden, “the only consideration is whether we should permit Mr. Acland to take notes, by courtesy?”
My bravery was enhanced by Mr. Glyn’s statement, to which I added; “I am only an agent, and cannot, therefore name my privilege as a right. Although unprepared so to claim it, as far as I am concerned, I shall be ready to avail myself of it on whatever terms I may be permitted to do so. It should be understood and I am desirous of stating, that I do not personally solicit that as a courtesy which my employers might be disposed to claim as a right.”
No doubt feeling that my remarks were directed at him, Mr. Ogden replied, “If you claim it as a right, we should refuse the privilege; as a courtesy, it may be worthy of consideration whether you shall have it.” After a short pause, he added, “A recent instance has occurred in this Court, in which a reporter’ who was permitted to take notes, had put forth a most inaccurate statement of the observations of the Magistrates. I am therefore of the opinion that this extension of courtesy towards Mr. Acland, should now be refused.”
“This argument is nonsense,” I replied. “May I be permitted to state, that the inaccuracy of one reporter could scarcely justify a course of procedure calculated to prevent the accuracy of another!”
The Reverend gentleman added his weight in support of the general opinion, to which Mr. Bankes firmly stated once again that I was not allowed to take notes in his Court.
I conceive then that I was bound to submit to the decision, and for that day endeavoured faithfully to report from memory the remaining cases.
Pursuant of my right of reporting, I presented myself at the next session a fortnight later on the 15th September. Again Mr. Henry Bankes was the Chairman and either side was Rev. Sir James Hanham and the sportsman William Pitt, Esq.”
Before any business had begun, I moved to the Magistrates’ table to request permission to make an application to the Bench, anterior to the usual routine of sessional business. As I considered the subject matter of such an application had a remote reference to any police transaction of the day.
Mr. Bankes then asked for. the details of my application.
I formally stated that on this day a fortnight ago, as may be within the recollection of the Bench, I was refused the courtesy of making such memoranda as suited my convenience. I am now desirous of claiming such privilege as a right and intend showing the authority on which I do so”
“If you advance the claim of right,” said Mr. Bankes, “I at once refuse it; nor will I hear your argument.”
Politely asking if he would permit me to show by what means I consider myself so entitled, before he gave his final decision on the point; Mr. Bankes replied, “I will not, Sir. You may apply to a superior Court, if you think it proper; but this is no new question. You cannot tell me anything about it which I have not already heard or read. I therefore say, that no individual shall be permitted to take notes of proceedings in this Court whilst I occupy the Chair. I tell you, Sir, no reports shall be taken.”
Argumentatively, I said, “May I ask what law makes the act of writing a letter in an open Court a public wrong? And, if it may be permitted that an individual can use pencil and paper, surely, Sir, the act of taking notes or memoranda, in assistance of memory, cannot be justly deemed offensive.” To this I was told again, that no notes would be allowed and that I have not the right to make them”
“Mr. Bankes,” I replied, “Conceiving that I have the right; I respectfully, yet firmly, intimate my determination to avail myself of the privilege I claim by its immediate exercise.”
Mr. Bankes, rising from his chair with considerable agitation, replied; ” Am I to sit here, and see an individual in front of me taking down notes of the proceedings, in spite of my prohibition? Mr. Acland, why don’t you stand back Sir?”
“Because I prefer the open exercise of the right which I have claimed to the disingenuous conduct of its surreptitious use behind the audience with which the room is thronged.” I replied.
“Then,” said this precious specimen of Magisterial wisdom and judicial dignity, “Adjourn the Court for a fortnight.”
I returned to Poole, and in The Times of the ensuing morning, there was a column report of the entire emeute; for the excitement was such as had not been witnessed at Wimbourne Minster within the memory of the oldest inhabitant….
to be contiued…