The opening salvo of the Paper War
On Monday 2 June 1822, the Stokesley tradesman and employer Thomas Mease gave a speech at a Wesleyan Methodist Missionary meeting in which he attacked (without naming him, but quite unmistakably) one of the town's booksellers, Robert Armstrong.
Mease was so pleased with the reception of his speech by his fellow Methodists that in spite of his "secret feelings of considerable reluctance" he gave in to their "earnest and repeated solicitations" and arranged for it to be printed; it appeared as The Substance of a Speech soon afterwards. The "few satyrical remarks" he had made at Armstrong's expense probably appeared to even greater advantage in the published text.
"I was exceedingly amused, Sir, by the way in which the birth-day of Paine was lately kept in this Town,"Mease declared, comparing the usual celebratory banquets of the day with Mr Armstrong's tea party.
"What abstruse and pithy subjects were discussed on the occasion, or what powers of elocution were displayed by the motley speakers, I have not been told, nor have I given myself any trouble to learn. The principal objects embraced by their vain, but anxious wishes, it is probable, were, the subversion of Christianity and Monarchy, and the substitution of a Republican government, together with what they strangely reckon a scientific morality. Now, to think of such a Tea-sipping assembly of pompous literati, so tenacious of the dignity of human nature, and meditating purposes so vast, is almost enough to produce a smile of contempt in pouting melancholy herself before she is aware. And are these pedantic things to be our guides instead of Priests, and our rulers instead of Kings?"The Stokesley Paper War had begun.
Armstrong responded a month later with Letter No. 1, printed for him in Stockton by John Appleton, and followed this with Letter No. 2 or A Slap at the Prophet on 10 October 1822. "The Prophet" is Mease himself, who had begun his Speech with the words, "A Prophet, it is said, is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin", explaining to his audience that his motive for speaking was not a desire for fame on his part.
Mease replied to Armstrong four days later with The Rebound printed by William Pratt of Stokesley, to which Armstrong responded with Letter No. 3: The Real Rebound on 3 November.
Evidently hostilities continued unabated through the winter and spring and in late May 1823 Armstrong began publication of an intended periodical of his own called The Missionary; or Stokesley & Cleveland Illuminator. This first edition was printed by Appleton in Stockton but the next instalment, in January 1824, Armstrong printed himself in Stokesley.
By this point Mease had announced the imminent publication of his own journal, The Extinguisher. This appeared in January 1824 and continued monthly throughout the year, in spite of the fact that Robert Armstrong had left the town after its June edition.
Freethought v. orthodoxy
The war of words between Mease and Armstrong in Stokesley was a small part of the great conflict then raging between the forces of conservatism in religion and politics and an increasingly vocal radical movement calling for political reform and open religious debate.
At this time, more than thirty years before Darwin, those who believed in the literal truth of the words of the Bible were already finding their view of the world increasingly challenged by the work of German scholars of the scriptures, developments in medicine and discoveries in geology.
Ill-feeling between the factions of freethought and religious orthodoxy may have been brewing for some time in Stokesley.
Freethought was not confined to the artisans and small tradesmen, as can be seen from the Will of William Powell, Stokesley's most prominent solicitor. The Will, dated 28 January 1822, left careful instructions for Powell's funeral. This was to be a small private affair, nobody was to wear mourning, old great coats or an old bed quilt were to be put on the coffin in place of a pall, no priest was to be allowed to enter the house and there was to be no
"monument or other matter to enhance the legal and ordinary fees to the priest of the Parish for occupying a portion of the burying ground belonging the Parishioners".Mr Powell's impatience with the Church had a long history – in 1807 he had been one of the vestry members who had strongly protested against improper expenditure in the churchwardens' accounts .
Mease and Armstrong
Thomas Mease was born in 1792, the son of John Mease, a Stokesley grocer. In 1822 Thomas was himself in business as a grocer and draper. He was a married man with a young family and it seems that he had already appeared in print with works for children – "the Celebrated Author of Poems, by Narrator, containing, little Stories about Pigs, Dogs and Geese" according to Robert Armstrong.
Thomas had followed his father into active membership of the Wesleyan Methodist society and we know that by 1832 he was a class leader . His beliefs are summarised in his second pamphlet:
"It is the unwavering persuasion of my mind, that the doctrines of Christianity, as taught by the late Rev. J Wesley, are strictly accordant with the tenor of Holy Writ; and, after investigating the subject to the best of my ability (I think, too, unbiassed by the influence of education) I firmly believe the Bible to be true, because, to my view, it bears the Stamp of Divine Authority …"In the early 1820s Thomas and his younger brother John began making plans for an ambitious expansion of business, including the building of a steam-powered linen mill beside the river Leven.
Thomas's political views reflect the classic position of the Nonconformist businessman; he would later become a vocal supporter of the abolition of the Corn Laws and church tithes . He was however a more interesting and colourful character than these activities would suggest. Family tradition records that he was a gifted artist and inventive with his hands, a carver of objects in jet, whose interests as a speculator and inventor would later oblige his family to live on the Continent for several periods in order to avoid creditors .
About Robert Armstrong little is known. His writings during the Paper War show that he was an anti-clerical deist, democrat and republican, who followed with interest the latest developments in scientific and political thought. He declared himself "a Materialist, who believes Vice to be its own punishment, and Virtue its own Reward". He combined bookselling with his trade as a watch- and clock-maker.
Mease particularly criticised Armstrong for his use of English:
"The grammatical inaccuracies of Mr Armstrong's writing are so exceeding numerous, that its meaning is often, of consequence, very obscure"Armstrong's riposte was spirited:
" 'This Man talks as if he had swallowed a Dictionary' is a saying that is peculiarly applicable to Mr Mease, on a very cursory review of his Pamphlet … Is it not then preposterous that I am to be told by this learned Shop-keeper, this dealer in shreds and patches, that because I am not able to talk like a Parson or a School-master, (using sometimes was for were, and those for these) I am to lie down and be kicked with his pedantic foot … If what I said of him and his disciples be true, will bad Grammar make it false?"In fact, to modern tastes Armstrong's plain style is frequently considerably more readable than Mease's rather florid oratory. There is also an interesting hint of play-acting detectable in Mease's writing, with a strong suggestion of enjoyment. Armstrong, on the other hand, is always in painful earnest.
Stokesley in 1822
It is not known when Armstrong began in business, but he evidently found a ready audience for his books in Stokesley.
The town was then nearing the end of its liveliest and most outward-looking phase. During the Napoleonic Wars, Stokesley boasted nearly twenty inns and its markets were the trading hub of a wide area. Handloom weaving was its height, the many weavers bringing to the town the independent and enquiring minds for which they were well-known. East India Company captains, merchant seamen, whalers and men of the Royal Navy returned to Stokesley to lay up in the winter months, with tales to tell of the world beyond British shores. This was all to be changed by the severe depression in trade that followed the end of the Wars in 1815, so that by 1828 the town carried rather an "air of retirement than business" according to Clarke's Topographical Dictionary.
Armstrong's description of his shop window in his second Letter shows he carried a varied stock, catering to all tastes:
"Is it that I have ventured to expose for sale Paine's "Rights of Man" in the same window with "Burke on the French Revolution"? or is it because your pious eyes have been offended at the sight of those elegant and argumentative compositions Volney's Ruins and Mirabaud's System of Nature, placed on the same shelf with Bishop Watson's Apology for the Bible, Wesley's and Watts's Hymns, and the Hymn Books of the Primitive Methodists? If this be the real grievance, which daily insults the Methodist public, why not place it in a clear light?"Alongside the standard works of piety Armstrong was selling the most contentious books of the age. He was, according to Mease, an "accredited agent" of the radical publisher Richard Carlile – a phrase which suggests that Armstrong had responded to Carlile's plea from prison for volunteers to carry on disseminating his works to the public.
Richard Carlile was originally a tinsmith by trade but had become a prolific writer and a well-known publisher of republican and radical books.
When he published his eyewitness account of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 charges of seditious libel were brought against him. He was sentenced in November 1819 to a term of three years' imprisonment with a very heavy fine for publishing Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, which had been banned in 1797 for its attack on organised Christianity and its advocacy of a deistic religion based on reason and logic.
From gaol Carlile continued to write for his influential working-class journal The Republican, which was published in his absence by his wife Jane. She was in her turn sentenced to two years in Dorchester Gaol with her husband, where she gave birth to a daughter in June 1822. Carlile's sister Mary took Jane's place only to be imprisoned herself six months later.
From July 1821 Carlile called for volunteers to sell his publications and many working men came forward – more than twenty were imprisoned between 1821 and 1824. As the campaign in Carlile's defence spread, "Zetetic Societies" were formed in several towns – the "Zetetic Principle" being the name Carlile had given to the power of popular knowledge . Robert Armstrong seems to have been the leader of a small Zetetic Society. In 1822 and 1823 he was openly selling The Age of Reason in Stokesley.
Mease's view of Armstrong
Mease and his allies loathed Armstrong as "an advocate for Infidelity" – that is, unbelief or unorthodox belief. They longed to expose "his pernicious sentiments and demoralizing proceedings", believing fervently that it was impossible for a man to be moral outside the framework of formal religion and evidently sharing the view that the French Revolution was brought about by the works of writers such as d'Holbach, so much admired by Armstrong. Indeed, from 1798 onwards increasingly repressive legislation had been passed by the government because of a lively fear of bloody revolution on the French model and also from the unhappy memory of our own Civil Wars, when radical political and religious ideas had fermented amongst the rebellious lower orders.
This anxiety was fuelled by the sentiments openly expressed by Armstrong's circle in Stokesley, which included not only "the Naturalist, Materialist, Mr Batty, Two Females, Democritus, and 'a Little Boy who laughs at Ghosts and Devils'" but also 'A Prepared man for the approaching REVOLUTION" .
Mease seems to have been particularly disturbed by the popularity of Armstrong's shop with the young men and women of the town. His fear of Armstrong's influence can be seen in the following comment in his introduction to the collected edition of his pamphlets, in which he makes a gratuitous suggestion of improper behaviour at Armstrong's meetings:
"by the circulation of RADICAL and DEISTICAL Books, [Armstrong] won many of the uninformed and unwary youth of both sexes over to his principles; and at length had regular meetings in his house, for purposes the writer is scarcely at liberty to disclose".Mease's opinion of these young people – presumably only some ten to fifteen years younger than himself – was hardly complimentary:
"The Success, therefore, which has unhappily attended these Books, is not to be attributed to the cogency of the Arguments they contain, but to the suitability of their Sophisms to the taste and inclinations of the uneducated, the vicious, and the young, who have received the Bible upon trust, without caring for its Doctrines, or examining the nature of the Evidences upon which its Divinity rests."It seems likely from the above, and also from Armstrong's comments on the decline in attendance at the Wesleyan chapel, that some of the young people were of Methodist families – certainly one "R.C" had abandoned chapel attendance for radicalism .
For his part, Armstrong not only profoundly disagreed with Mease's principles but also had an additional cause for resentment against the Wesleyan Methodists, and consequently against the Mease family, its most prominent local members – the reason being that nationally the Wesleyans had supported the government after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819.
The confrontation between Armstrong and Mrs Mease
The immediate cause of Mease's attack seems to have been a much more personal and domestic issue. During the spring of 1822 there was a confrontation between Armstrong and the Mease household.
Mrs Mease and another lady had called twice on Armstrong collecting for the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society – unwilling collectors, according to Armstrong, forced to go "a begging from house to house" by their menfolk. Armstrong, according to his own account taking "care not to shew any feeling that could be construed into incivility", told the ladies that he did not intend to give anything to their cause. Upon being pressed to donate, he informed Mrs Mease that
"it was contrary to my principles to subscribe to any thing of the kind, that I did not believe Humanity and Charity to be at all the object in view of their employers, and that in my humble opinion they had much better stay at home and cultivate the Heathen among their own sect."The consequence of this disagreement was Mease's speech to the Missionary Meeting.
Armstrong responds to Mease's attack on the tea party
Armstrong was not unnaturally infuriated by Mease's attack in print and replied with a Letter to Mr Mease printed on 25 July, expressing his outrage at "this infamous assassin like attack on my private Character" and describing Mease as "a Slanderer, and a malicious and revengeful Neighbour".
Unhesitatingly descending himself to personal invective, he spoke of Mease's "Methodistical deformity of conscience ... native blackness of heart ...[and] the dark hypocritical gravity of your Visage". Mease, he claimed, had
"wilfully and publicly slandered, and taken all the means that were within your Pigmy grasp, to INJURE an honest Man; because, forsooth, he is not of the same religion as yourself ... And can you call this Christianity, is this loving your Neighbour as yourself? But in fact I know you are no Christian, and it is known to many, that your profession of Methodism, is a mere Cloak for purposes of Trade ... You are just as much of a Christian, and of just as much benefit to the Community, as it is likely your new Steam Engine will be, which is more than probable will chiefly consist in annoying its Neighbours with Vapour and Noise".Furthermore, he accused Mease of colluding with the printer William Pratt, Armstrong's rival in the print trade, to drive him out of the town. The tea party, he asserted, was
"merely a private party of a few of my own Friends and Acquaintances, who did me the honour to partake of a cup of Tea, at my house on the 29th of January".Was it
"to be tamely allowed, that this canting Methodist should poke his dirty nose into the private concerns of any of his neighbour's houses, and without the least shadow of personal provocation, to make them the subject of his declamation at a public Meeting, merely because that neighbour chooses to do without prayers, before and after supper?"Battle was now fairly joined.
The tea party reported in The Republican
Mease accused Armstrong of being disingenuous. Far from being a private occasion, he pointed out, the tea party was reported in The Republican of Friday 22 February 1822 (as in fact were many such gatherings across the country). As transcribed by Mease, the article began:
"Stokesley, Yorkshire.Among the many other Toasts and Sentiments given were a toast to "the Republicans of Stockton" and a toast proposed by Mr Coates in "pure water":
A few of the lovers of Civil and Religious Freedom, met in this Town, on the Evening of the 29th of January, to celebrate the Anniversary of the Birthday of Mr Paine.
Mr John Appleton (aged 76)
In the Chair,
After partaking of a plain Supper, as most consistent with the plan of Republican economy, the following Toasts and Sentiments were given:
1. The Immortal Memory of Thomas Paine, the Masterpiece of Nature, the most useful man that ever lived. Song:- 'Come, all ye true Republicans,' being the Ranter's Hymn, No.42 parodied for the occasion.
2. Richard Carlile, the most consistent and straight forward Advocate for the Liberty and Happiness of the Human Race.
3. The persecuted Family and Shopmen of Mr Carlile, and may they live to see their injuries redressed.
4. The Sovereignty of the People ... …"
"Perdition to all intoxicating Liquors, the prime cause of all the domestic Mischief, Misery, and Slavery in this Island".The tone of Mease's comments on this teetotal meeting reflects the fact that this was a dozen years before the start of the Temperance Movement, and Methodism had not yet taken up the cause.
Armstrong accuses Mease of hypocrisy
Armstrong's main accusation against Mease was one of hypocrisy. In his speech to the Missionary Meeting, he had spoken of "scenes of Debauchery and Prostitution carried on among the poor Indians". Armstrong countered with "the fact that there are 50,000 common prostitutes in London alone". Closer to home and more damaging was his next accusation:
"Do you not know that in this little town of Stokesley there are members, aye and sanctified members too, of your Methodist Society, who live in open, acknowledged fornication and adultery? Have you not heard of the fornicating sins that have been within these few months carried on, to use your own words, in the 'innermost recesses' of one of your 'polluted Sanctuaries' in this Neighbourhood?"His response to Mease's call to "evangelize the heathen" was to call attention to the "streets of this town of Manchester" and to the drunkards, the prostitutes and the Cotton Factories where
"men, women and children are locked up for fourteen hours a day, there to toil in an unwholesome atmosphere, for a scanty subsistence".His readers will have been intended to include Mease in the references to factory owners, the Mease mill being then still in the planning stage.
Such accusations would always cling to Mease; in his 1832 pamphlet calling for the abolition of tithes and the Corn Laws, he was obliged to declare that he had signed petitions in favour of the Ten Hours' Bill and was not one of those who called for the emancipation of the slaves while ignoring the plight of factory children.
Armstrong declared himself "an advocate for Free Discussion". He had "always acted upon the only principle of Truth and Liberality, that of "Hearing both sides". He believed that
"the Printing Press, with Messrs Carlile and Cobbett at its head, is now working a greater moral Revolution, in the opinions and sentiments of the people of this country, than ever was known to have occurred before in any nation in the world".Indeed, the dissemination of radical ideas to the working people by means of the press had been so successful that Carlile's paper The Republican was at one point outselling The Times. Fear of the cheap press had led the government in 1819 to impose a tax of fourpence on cheap newspapers and to stipulate a minimum price of sevenpence, beyond the means of most of the population.
Armstrong supplied radical publications to "any person who wishes it, and whom I can trust without danger of prosecution", while
"Booksellers in the neighbouring Market Towns do the same, as far as lay in their power, with this difference, that what they do privately and for mercenary purposes, I do publicly and from principle".The identity of these booksellers is not known. It is interesting to note that when Armstrong advertised the sale of The Moralist, a new weekly publication from Richard Carlile, in the autumn of 1823, he named three other booksellers who carried the journal: T. Blakelock, Silver Street, Stockton; M Darnton, Bookseller, Darlington; and T. Bell, Bookseller, Richmond.
It is difficult to decide whether these were men after his own heart, or the hypocritical shopkeepers he castigated in his Letter – he continued the advertisement by noting that The Moralist was also available in Sunderland, Newcastle and Leeds and from "all respectable Booksellers". It is evident from Armstrong's comments and Mease's reactions that radical literature was readily available in the area at this time.
Mease had implied that the books sold by Armstrong encouraged immorality and debauchery – Armstrong challenged Mease
"to produce to the public a single obscene or immoral sentence from two Deistical Publications, which I know you have in your possession, namely Paine's 'Age of Reason' and Carlile's 'Address to Men of Science', and which books I am told, either through prizing them so highly, or else through the bad faith you have in the adherence of your pocket-picked dupes, you are careful not to lend out of your own house, even to intimate friends, so convinced are you of their enlightening effects."Mease attacks Armstrong as an advocate of Infidelity
Mease in return spoke of Armstrong's "egregious folly" and of the "injurious tendency of the pestiferous principles which he assiduously endeavours to propagate". He singled out for particular criticism "among other papers equally offensive" a Renunciation of the Christian Mythology by the Castleton dyer and threadmaker Amariah Batty, which had been posted by Armstrong in his shop window.
Batty had declared that "having arrived at the age of 28 Years, and feeling quite competent to think, judge, and act for myself" he renounced the
"Christian Religion in all its various Creeds, and all further belief of the Jew Books, commonly called the Old and New Testament, being sacred or divine, or any thing more than human Writings. I also protest against the ecclesiastical laws of Great Britain, and all human laws relating to matters of religion, as impure, unjust and oppressive, and hereby declare that I will not yield obedience to any of them".This incensed Mease:
"What could be the intention of such an exhibition as this? Could it possibly be anything else than a premeditated insult to the Patriotic, and Religious Public?"Batty was one of the circle of Stokesley radicals who in 1822 sent a subscription to Carlile and his family in the Dorchester Gaol.
Batty, like Armstrong and John Coates ("Naturalist"), sent five shillings. Further donations were sent from Stockton – "A Bishop" gave five shillings and "A Rector" one shilling, while other Stockton donors included Thomas Webber, Daniel Gibson, Peter Walker, Richard Wright ("a Republican") and John Turnbull. According to Armstrong, upward of fifty people subscribed small sums towards the Carlile cause.
The following year, in May 1823, Armstrong's new periodical The Missionary included an announcement that
"Subscriptions to the amount of £999 2s 6d have been received from various places (including Stokesley £6-18s) towards Mr Carlile and his sisters fines, losses and expences, who are now detained in prison for their fines, amounting to £2000".On 14 October 1822 Mease quoted extensively from the Stokesley subscription as it appeared in The Republican, adding to it additional comments of his own.
Most of the donors remained anonymous, hiding their identity behind such names as "Nicodemus, the Second", "Democritus", "T.T. a young Deist" and R.C, who sent the 5% "on his Savings during last year, by non-attendance at the Methodist Chapel". Five of the eighteen subscribers were women. Two explicitly cited the treatment of Mrs Carlile as a reason for their donation ("A Female who was shocked and disgusted at the savage brutality practised on Mrs Carlile by Christian barbarians"). One, who contributed sixpence, described herself as "A Female Admirer of the Age of Reason, aged 62".
"What must be thought of the Age of Reason now?"enquired Mease,
"Surely its popularity must exceed the utmost anticipations of its vainglorious Author, when John Flounders and an Old Woman have given it their admiration!!"Besides Armstrong, Batty and John Flounders ("an admirer of the Age of Reason and Rights of Man, Say aught against them if you can"), donors who gave their names included John Coates, William Lawn, Michael Hebden, Mr Israel "native of Cracow in Poland", and
"John Appleton, a poor Man, aged 76, who is thankful to Mr Carlile for having opened his eyes on the brink of the Grave; he can now sink calmly to rest without delusive hopes of Heaven or ridiculous fears of Hell"Appleton's donation was sixpence. Mease's comment was
"Poor Jacky! "Ridiculous fears of Hell", I apprehend, are the things from which he wishes to be free, more than "delusive hopes of Heaven". It will be well, however, if he don't mistake Stupidity for Calmness, and unhappily "sink" a little lower than the "Grave" "It should here be remembered that the Christianity of the day differed markedly from the Christianity of Britain now and certain of the doctrines commonly held then are found repugnant today.
An excellent example of this can be seen in Watts' hymns – sold by Armstrong in his bookshop. Watts' Divine Songs Attempted in Easy Language for the Use of Children (1715) was a huge success for over 150 years. The Puritan ideal that inspired them held that children should be kept from sinful activities such as play and taught to read so that they might achieve salvation through Bible study. Terrifying children with hellfire was quite acceptable. There is little of the loving God depicted in Watts' hymns and much of the God of vengeance and judgement:
There's not a sin that we commit,This was the unforgiving creed that Appleton and others found unacceptable.
Nor wicked word we say,
But in the dreadful book 'tis writ
Against the judgement day. (from Song 9)
What heavy guilt upon him lies!
How cursed is his name!
The ravens shall pick out his eyes,
And eagles eat the same. (from Song 23)
John Appleton & Armstrong's bookshop
John Appleton's death in September 1823 caused a great deal of friction in Stokesley. His deathbed became the unseemly battleground of the warring sides.
According to Armstrong's account, Appleton (known to his acquaintance as "Old Chop Logic") was a Stokesley-born flax-dresser who had worked as a journeyman in Stockton. He returned to his native town when he was nearly seventy and found himself unable to work, in order to go on parish relief. He seems to have had little to do with his family and entered the parish workhouse. Brought up as a Calvinist, he became troubled by "the harshness of the religion – the Jealous God, the cruel Being". Talking of religion became his hobby and he read avidly the works sold by Armstrong and so much feared by Mease.
The advertisement on the back page of the first edition of his The Missionary; or Stokesley & Cleveland Illuminator on 24 May 1823 shows some of Armstrong's stock; he also carried "many other New Books, at from one half to two thirds of the retail price".
Armstrong was the agent for the Durham Advertiser and Newcastle's Tyne Mercury and he sold such late 18th classics as Hume's Essays, Mungo Park's Travels in the Interior of Africa and the poetry of William Cowper (a favourite author of Jane Austen).
Magazines, reviews and periodicals arrived in his shop from London by coach "regularly once a fortnight". Amongst these were radical journals such as Cobbett's Register, the Northern Reformer monthly magazine and Carlile's weekly The Republican. The list in the advertisement in The Missionary naturally concentrates on this side of his trade. Alongside the Gospel according to the Jews for sixpence and The Holy Koran for threepence, he carried most of the works prized by freethinkers of the day, including the latest publications.
The enquiring minds of Stokesley would find in Armstrong's shop the works of Richard Carlile and Thomas Paine, including all three parts of The Age of Reason. He stocked Samuel Francis's Watson refuted, an answer to Bishop Watson's own refutation of Thomas Paine's deist arguments in the second part of The Age of Reason. William Benbow's Crimes of the Clergy, or the Pillars of priest-craft shaken, for which the author was imprisoned, appeared in Stokesley soon after its publication. A friend of Cobbett, Benbow supported universal suffrage, annual parliaments and a secret ballot and believed this would only be achieved by revolution. Edward Gibbons' scoffing comments on Christianity could be found on Armstrong's shelves, as could Sir William Lawrence's Lectures on Anatomy (fourteen shillings, with original plates). The lectures had been refused a copyright when Lawrence queried the account in Genesis on medical grounds; this produced a contrary effect to that intended, as it facilitated circulation amongst freethinkers.
Several influential works in translation were very popular with Armstrong's customers. Boulanger's Christianity Unveiled (one shilling and sixpence) was in fact the work of the Baron d'Holbach, contributor to the famous Encyclopédie, of the school of thought known now as French Materialism. Volney's Ruins (Les Ruines; ou, Méditation sur les révolutions des empires 1791) was a contemplation on the rise, progress and decline of ancient civilisations – if man could put aside the dual tyranny of religious superstition and political despotism, he would be able, guided by Nature and Reason, to perfect his nature and establish freedom, equality and justice. This was a favourite book of the radical and scandalous poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, inspiring his Queen Mab, which was also carried by Armstrong – such lines as
"Twin-sister of religion, selfishness!"and
"Commerce! beneath whose poison-breathing shadecannot have been popular with Mease. Armstrong also stocked Byron's Don Juan, Cain and his satirical Age of Bronze and Southey's republican play Wat Tyler.
No solitary virtue dares to spring"
These works inspired the aged John Appleton. He became a Deist, admiring Volney's Ruins and Principles of Nature, the work of the American Deist, Elihu Palmer. He found that d'Holbach's System of Nature (published under the pseudonym Mirabaud in 1770)
"completely cleared his mind of every particle of belief in Spiritual Beings or in any Religion whatever".As he neared his end, the opposing forces gathered to fight for his soul.
John Appleton's deathbed
Stephen Bowes "an old Methodist fanatic … urgently and frequently besought Appleton to repent and be saved from Hell". The newly arrived Revd Leveson Venables Vernon sent wine, fruit and sweetmeats to the old flax-dresser. Three parsons, according to Armstrong, together with a variety of other persons visited Appleton in the workhouse to talk "at" him. Perplexed, Appleton turned to Armstrong, who advised him to take the sacrament as the parsons urged, and to keep the food.
Finally the old man died.
At his funeral on 28 September 1823 the Revd Vernon claimed that Appleton had made an edifying death. Vernon – who had lately published a work called No Man Can Be Moral, without the Aid of Religion – then had his address to the congregation printed as a sixpenny pamphlet entitled A sermon on death: occasioned by the repentance of a dying infidel. Armstrong in response published A True Account of the Death of Mr J Appleton.
The battle over John Appleton was not simply between belief and non-belief. The position of the Stokesley Deists was rather more nuanced and the rift between Church and chapel was growing. According to Armstrong's third letter of 3 November 1822, he himself
"frequently derived both pleasure and improvement from the Sermons of our late Rector, the deservedly lamented Dean of York ; because I considered his Sermons true Deistical and moral compositions".
"I do sometimes go to Church",he declared,
"though not as [Mease] and his friend Kneeshaw notoriously do, for the purpose of laughing at the Parson".The Extinguisher
In January 1824 Mease began publication of The Extinguisher to counter Armstrong's Missionary or Illuminator – "lest the public should be annoyed with its deadly effluvia and Atheistical glare".
Armstrong had been assisted, according to Mease, by "a puny Son of Aesculapius in a neighbouring town" – that is, by one of the local doctors; Mease had the assistance of three friends in writing his periodical during the year in which it appeared.
Armstrong produced three more editions of The Missionary, each of only two pages, in January, March and May 1824. Mease in response expatiated at length on Thomas Paine, Volney and the state of affairs in America. In this last, he excoriated slavery, the "semi-barbarism" of the Americans and the fact that there was no proper distance maintained between man and servant. The American issue appeared in June and by the next issue Armstrong had left the town – according to Mease, "to avoid the mortification of increasing detestation and scorn".
Perhaps Armstrong left Stokesley because of hostile public opinion, but it is also possible that the dwindling importance of the town reduced his prospects for the future.
It may also be that Mease and his friends contrived to drive him out by other means. In November 1822 Robert Kneeshaw, a rival watch- and clock-maker and a friend of Thomas Mease, had informed on Armstrong to the Board of Excise, accusing him of selling silver plate without paying £4-12s for the annual licence – an offence which carried a penalty of £10. It appears from Armstrong's response that this was indeed the case. He had delayed renewing his licence to save money and Kneeshaw had told the authorities.
It is interesting that Armstrong's opponents did not choose to instigate a prosecution against him – a Stockport hatter, for example, served four years in Chester gaol for selling The Republican, while in London in 1824 the authorities attempted a final series of prosecutions, sending several men to gaol for selling The Age of Reason and Palmer's Principles of Nature. Finding however that prosecutions had no effect in reducing the number of offences, the policy was abandoned. In late 1825 Carlile's fines were remitted and he was at last freed.
End of the Paper War
After Armstrong's departure, Mease and his co-writers continued to produce The Extinguisher for several issues, concentrating on "the general question of Infidelity".
In July The Extinguisher addressed "Lawrence's theory of the brain". Sir William Lawrence, whose lectures on anatomy were sold by Armstrong, was one of those pre-Darwinists whose suggestion that the mind and the brain were connected had aroused such hostility – as Mease put it, "Thought is the secretion of the brain, and as truly such, as bile is that of the liver" is a sentiment "directly subversive of Christianity".
In August, The Extinguisher debated "The Defectability of Infidelity", declaring "atheism and morality have no legitimate connexion".
In September the discussion was of "The Absurdities of Infidelity" – announcing, in words that find echoes in controversies raging afresh in our own time, "to whatever quarter of the universe we turn our attention, every part of it discovers unequivocal marks of intelligent and designing operation".
In October the subject was "The Darkness of Infidelity":
"by some it is gravely conjectured, that the human race exists by eternal generation; whilst others as wisely imagine, that man, in his origin, is the creature of undesigning Chance!"The final two instalments consisted of letters to Mease: "The Credulity of Infidels" in November and in December a letter from D. M'Nicoll of Hull on "An Argument for the Bible".
The Stokesley Paper War had come to an end leaving Mease alone on the field of battle claiming the victory. Subsequently, as the years went by, many of the contentious points of the Paper War passed quietly into public acceptance – as T H Huxley remarked in 1894, Sir William Lawrence ("one of the ablest men I knew") "had been well-nigh ostracised for his book On Man, which now might be read in a Sunday-school without surprising anybody".
By the closing decades of the 20th century, the Stokesley Paper War seemed of purely academic interest. In the very recent past, however, events at home and abroad have revealed that the issues that animated Mease and Armstrong – the origins of man, the role of religion in society, censorship, democratic engagement in politics – have arisen again, as potent today as they were nearly two hundred years ago.
27 April 2006
The Paper War is mentioned briefly in Daphne Franks' Printing & Publishing in Stokesley. The pamphlets are now held at Northallerton County Library (as Freethought in Stokesley in the 1820s)
With many thanks to Nigel Prince, librarian at Northallerton County Library
The Substance of a Speech made on 2 June 1822 by Thomas Mease
Letter No. 1 by Robert Armstrong, 25 July 1822
Letter No. 2 by Robert Armstrong ('A Slap at the Prophet') 10 Oct 1822
The Rebound by Thomas Mease, 14 Oct 1822
Letter No. 3 by Robert Armstrong ('The Real Rebound'), 3 Nov 1822
The Missionary No 1, Vol I, 24 May 1823
A True Account of the death of Mr J Appleton'who died 20 Sep 1823
An Advertisement for The Extinguisher announcing publication on 1 Jan 1824
The Extinguisher'January 1824
The Missionary No 2, Vol I, January 1824
The Extinguisher No 2, February 1824
The Missionary No 3, Vol I. March 1824
The Extinguisher'No3, March 1824
The Extinguisher No 4, April 1824
The Missionary, No 4, May 1824
The Extinguisher, No 5, May 1824 – the Exinguisher continued each month until December 1824