Annotations by William Harral Johnson on a copy of 'Life of Charles Bradlaugh, M.P.'

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Annotations by William Harral Johnson on a copy of 'Life of Charles Bradlaugh, M.P.'  (1888) 
by William Harral Johnson
In February 1888, there was published a book with the title 'The Life of Charles Bradlaugh, M.P., purported to be written by Charles R. MacKay and published by D.J. Gunn & Co. The book was in fact a libellous attack on Bradlaugh, and was written principally by William Harral Johnson (b. 1832, who wrote under the pseudonym Anthony Collins) and William Stewart Ross (1844 – 1906, who wrote under the pseudonym 'Saladin'). The real Charles R. MacKay, a follower of Ross, agreed to put his name to the work, which was a virulent attack on Bradlaugh. The publishers found paper in Dumfriesshire and had the book printed in Edinburgh, which they hoped would be far away enough that the litigious Bradlaugh would not trace them.

The ruse did not work as Bradlaugh did trace the origins of the book, and a complicated series of libel trials ensued in which MacKay apologised and settled. Bradlaugh, and after his death, his daughters, sought to destroy all copies of the book and to have libraries remove it from their shelves. The British Library agreed, but it much later acquired a copy from Johnson on which he had made annotations on pages 356-359 which explain more of the background. This copy is shelfmark Cup.504.a.5.

Annotations by William Harral Johnson on pages 356-359[edit]

Pages 356-9 inclusive were inserted by Charles R MacKay after the 'proofs' were passed by William H. Johnson and upon publication was publicly repudiated as unauthorised interpolations in the (London) 'Evening News' and the Press Association which was the cause of the subsequent litigation between MacKay, 'Lara' and 'Saladin'. Incidentally it was the cause of the law suit between Mr Bradlaugh and 'Saladin' which ultimately ended in Mr Stewart Ross (Saladin) paying £50 in settlement (repudiating liability) and MacKay consenting to a Judge's Order to end the action which was brought by Mr Bradlaugh against MacKay, his publishers Gunn & Co, and Saladin.

No action was ever brought against William H Johnson who announced his intention to 'justify' the contents of the 'Life' with the exception of the present pages. Once 40 notices of action for libel were given to persons exposing the work for sale or having it in their premises, who forwarded the letters of process to Johnson who had the management of a legal firm and in no case was any action brought to the person he represented.

W. Johnson defended MacKay in the action up to 'Defence' when a change of solicitors took place and he then refused to assist unless he had control of the action. When Moody published a scurrilous pamphlet against him for which I obtained Verdict and 'damages'. 'Saladin' was alleged by Bradlaugh to have received two pages which he denied and would not 'justify'. He was prosecuted by author's Solicitor. His 'defence' never came to trial.

In the action 'Bradlaugh v MacKay & Ross' after Defence had been pleaded, Particulars of 'justification' were required by Plaintiff. Johnson alone could give them. MacKay had no knowledge of any of the antecedent facts as he was only 24 years of age, and was a Scotchman who was actuated by an enthusiastic admiration of 'Saladin' as Author and Poet. The agreement between MacKay and Johnson was that the latter should write the book anticipating an action for libel and in such event Johnson should have the entire conduct of the legal defence. It was then the belief of many Politicians & Freethinkers that Bradlaugh had used his party as a means of attaining a Parliamentary position and was kicking away the ladder by which he had gained power and conciliating the Tories so as to obtain a 'place' as Under Secretary for India in Mr Gladstone's government. In fact he was going to betray his party. On publication of this book he was bound to bring an action or prosecute for libel.

Johnson refused to give 'particulars' without he was made a defendant so that he could be a 'party' to as well as a 'witness' in the action. Then also opposed by Bradlaugh when I made an affidavit of his willingness to defend the action except pages 355 to 359.

W.H. Johnson

Appendix: Letter from Edytha Marson[edit]

(A letter from Edytha Marson, daughter of William Harral Johnson, was published in 'The Agnostic Journal' for 16 June 1906, pages 381-2, gave more information)

SIR,–An unknown correspondent has forwarded me a copy of the Agnostic Journal for May 26th, which, under "Literary Notes," page 234, contains a review of a new edition of Mrs. Bradlaugh Bonner's Life of her Father, and has reference to the authorship of the biography of the late Mr. Bradlaugh, which appeared under the name of "Charles Robert Mackay," a young medico who wrote the title page and interpolated sundry sentences after the "fair copy" was approved by the real author, "Anthony Collins," (my father), whom Mr. Bradlaugh succeeded in the editorship of the Investigator, prior to the issue of the National Reformer, and who, about the year 1861, was his partner at 50, Church Street, Blackburn, as described in the "Recollections of an Old Freethinker" which appeared in the Agnostic Journal about ten years ago.

I have not seen the work written by Mrs. Bradlaugh Bonner; nor am I interested in the subject on which she has written; but as Mrs. Bonner, in her pious duty towards her father's memory, appears to be ignorant of the facts of the authorship of the "Life," which was the cause of so much litigation, permit me to place on record my testimony on the subject, as every page, as written by "Anthony Collins," passed through my hands, and was examined by me as the sheets were written, during (I think) the autumn of 1887, and were personally handed by me to Charles R. Mackay, who copying out took them away, and after copying out each chapter in a series of quarto MS. books, which he brought the following morning, to see if he had transcribed them correctly. I first perused them, and during the day handed them to my father, who explained to Mr. Mackay allusions to Freethought records, of which he appeared to have no personal knowledge.

The facts were as follows: At that time I had the charge of a Press Agency, and typed all my father's legal documents. One day he informed me that he had a commission to write a biography of Mr. Bradlaugh for a young Scotsman–a Mr. Mackay. At that time my father was an extensive contributor to the press, and, having a Consulting Legal practice, he found it difficult to spare the time to commence the work. Mr. Mackay was very impatient. My father promised to devote two hours three evenings a week to each chapter. He did so. As it was never his practice to revise what he had written, he deputed the duty of correcting the MSS. to me. As he wrote, the "copy" was handed to me, examined every line almost before the ink was dry, and Mr. Mackay waited patiently while I went through every sheet. He took them away, and returned the next morning with the fair copy, asked for explanations of the text, and the various references and allusions he was unable to make out.

Some weeks afterwards he would attend at my father's office, and, in his absence, I read the 'proof' sheets which he brought from the printers. On one occasion I noticed that several paragraphs had been interpolated, which were not in the original copy. I at once called his attention to them, and told him that under no circumstances whatever would my father countenance an attack upon the two ladies of Mr. Bradlaugh's family who were cruelly libelled. He smiled. I felt indignant and told him that if those remarks were not struck out, he deserved to be horse-whipped, and that my father would publicly repudiate such libels. He did so. When the book appeared he took full responsibility for all except the interpolated passages. These were considerably more than what appeared in the "Life." My father positively refused to pass the proofs of the remaining chapters unless Mackay promised to expunge certain paragraphs. A fresh "proof" was shewn with these paragraphs deleted, and afterwards some were re-inserted which neither my father nor myself ever saw until the book was published.

In every copy (over one hundred) of the "Life," which passed through my hands, those pasages as interpolated by Mr. Mackay, were ruled out, with ink. I need not say that no proceedings for libel were ever commenced against my father, who was prepared to justify what he had written; and, further, when Mr. Bradlaugh's solicitor forwarded a stereotyped letter, threatening action to all who exhibited or sold the "Life," between thirty and forty persons forwarded those missives to "Anthony Collins," who wrote accepting responsibility and in no instance were any proceedings actually instituted.

It is within my own personal knowledge that, before the publication of the "Life," the "proof" of the first two chapters were forwarded to Mr. Bradlaugh through the medium of Mr. William Hardaker, now of Gray's Inn Road, E.C. A few days before publication, Mr. Hardaker shewed my father a letter written by Mr. Bradlaugh to him, in which he professed to believe that Mr. Stewart Ross was the author of the work. Mr. Bradlaugh was kind enough to say that he did not intend to take any proceedings against my father, but he wished to get evidence to prove that Mr. Stewart Ross was the author.

I was present when Mr. Hardaker placed Mr. Bradlaugh's letter in the hands of my father, who felt indignant at being approached in the attempt to involve Mr. Stewart Ross in the authorship or publication of a book when he well knew who was the author; and he also had been assured, through the same channel, that occurrences which would have caused pain to Mr. Bradlaugh and his family, would under no circumstances be publicly mentioned.

In conclusion, I say, that owing to the course adopted by Mr. Mackay, and the legal difficulties which were placed in the way of my father's name being joined as co-defendant in the action brought against Mr. Mackay and Saladin, he prepared a new edition of the "Life," which was ready for publication shortly before the death of Mr. Bradlaugh. This would have been published under his own name, but was destroyed upon Mr. Bradlaugh's lamented death. I can say in the most positive manner that I had charge of all the documents used in the work, which was actually written in my presence, and that during the inception of the "Life," and until after its publication, my father was never in communication with Mr. Stewart Ross, either upon this or any other subject.

The events related in the "Life" mostly happened before Saladin entered the Freethought movement, and the only connection with "Iconoclast" was anterior to the disputes which arose upon a physiological question which divided the Freethought party from the time of Robert Dale Owen to the agitation of Mrs. Besant upon subjects where Mr. Holyoake and Saladin and Harriett Law and Mr. Charles Watts took contrary views to hers.–Yours truly,

EDYTHA H. MARSON.

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