William Vamplue (full name William Vamplew Holmes) was a bookseller who worked for the freethinker and radical Richard Carlile. He was imprisoned for selling a libellous pamphlet from Carlile’s shop in 1822.
Little is known of William’s early life, but the Newgate Calendars tell us that he was born in 1796 and worked as a shoemaker. By 1821, if not before, he was living in London and working in the shop of Richard Carlile, the freethinker and radical publisher. Carlile himself was already in prison for libel, but his supporters rallied around to keep his shop on Fleet Street (known as “The Temple of Reason”) running in his absence.
William was charged with libel and committed to prison on 31 December 1821, at the age of 26. He was held with three other men working for Carlile: 17-year-old John Barclay (or Barkley), 38-year-old Joseph Rhodes, a fellow shoemaker (tried under the name William Holmes), and 27-year-old Humphrey Boyle, a flax-dresser (tried without the authorities ever learning his name). The mistakes in their names came about thanks to some blunders by the authorities involved, and by the defendants’ unwillingness to set the record straight (Carlile 1822, p.3).
William was brought to trial in January. He attempted to plead a misnomer because of not being indicted under his full name, "William Vamplew Holmes". However, the court insisted that he was known equally by both names, and that if this was proven they would find him guilty. William agreed to stand trial as "William Vamplue" (or "Vamplew"), but successfully requested that his trial be postponed to the next sessions. Two days later, he reappeared before the court. He had changed his mind, and wished to be tried then. The court refused, however, telling William: "The Court will not allow you to play fast and loose. Go back to the Gaol" (Carlile 1824, p.4).
The trial finally took place on 20 February. The case for the prosecution centred on a pamphlet which William had sold to a witness named Robert Duke, on 29 December. Duke had been instructed to buy the pamphlet by a man named Purton, who, according to evidence in John Barclay’s trial, turned out to be a Bow Street constable.
The pamphlet was read aloud in court, but the Old Bailey Proceedings summarise simply that “it was characterized by the most revolting blasphemy, and certain expressions were contained in it, of the most seditious nature, reflecting in very insulting and degrading terms, on His Majesty and every other branch of the Constitution, and finally attempting to excite the people to acts of rebellion”.
William opted not to have legal counsel, and conducted a spirited defence. However, the official Proceedings give a perfunctory account of the trial. They miss out most of William's cross-examination of Robert Duke, as well as the whole of the Common Serjeant's summing-up, which apparently lasted over two hours. This extra material appeared in Carlile's published version of the trial. The Proceedings also fail to record the words of William's defence speech, stating: “The prisoner read an exceeding long defence; and read the whole of the pamphlet, from which the libellous matter was extracted – declared the whole to be his own sentiments, and attempted to justify every part.” According to Carlile's account, William's defence speech focused on the right to freedom of expression and of opinion, particularly in matters of religion. He was interrupted several times by the judge and prosecuting lawyer (Carlile 1824, pp.3-23).
William was found guilty and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. He was also required to enter into recognizances for 500l. to keep the peace during his lifetime. He was imprisoned in the Giltspur Street Compter.
Official records tell us little about William’s personal life. However, letters sent to him from Richard Carlile reveal that William was married, and that his wife was pregnant around the time he was tried (28 Jan 1822, RC 349, Richard Carlile Papers, The Huntington Library).
William relocated to Sheffield after his release. There, he seems to have abandoned his old trade of shoemaking, working instead as a radical bookseller (Carlile 1824, pp.23-24). He continued in this business quite successfully until about 1826, when he fell into financial need (Aug 4 1826, RC 432, Richard Carlile Papers, The Huntington Library).
William’s prosecution was one of many that were brought against Carlile and his supporters, and his imprisonment was typical of the sentences that the courts passed against them. William should therefore be seen as part of a large network of men and women who supported Carlile, often willing to run considerable personal risk on his behalf. William’s wife and baby must have been in some predicament after his conviction.
William’s defence statement – unprinted in the Old Bailey Proceedings – was characteristic of many contemporary political defences, in two main ways. Firstly, by reading out the allegedly libellous text during his statement, William ensured that it could be reprinted in any accounts of his trial that were published after the event. This allowed an “illegal” text to be smuggled out to the public without risk of incrimination, since trial proceedings could be published quite legally. Secondly, by giving “an exceeding long defence”, William used his trial as a public platform for his ideas.
The discrepancies between the Old Bailey Proceedings and Carlile's published version of the trial are substantial. Partly, they may be due to the more concise nature of the Proceedings, and perhaps a few embellishments from the radical printer. However, there is so much material missing from the official record as to highlight the possible extent of censorship in politically sensitive cases.
Libel, Imprisonment, Seditious Words, Religious Offences
This page was written by Fiona Milne with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.