"These Acts have had a bad press"
Charles Arnold Baker
The Six Acts were a series of measures introduced by the home secretary
Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth and which passed into law between the 23rd November and the 30th December 1819. They were introduced as a consequence of the disturbances that took place at St Peter's Field in Manchester on the 16th August, now commonly known as the Peterloo Massacre, which revealed inadequacies in the law in dealing with such mass protests.
These Six Acts were;
Training Prevention Act
(60 Geo III cap. 1)
This act specifically prohibited unauthorised meetings to train men in the use of arms.
Seizure of Arms Act
(60 Geo III cap. 2)
Gave magistrates powers to search for and seize arms and in particular to seize arms from individuals likely to disturb the peace. Such powers being set to expire on the 25th March 1822.
(60 Geo III cap. 8)
Forced defendants charged with misdemeanours to plead within four days of being charged or to have judgement given against them. (This was in order to prevent defendants delaying trials by refusing to plead to the charges laid against them.)
Seditious Meetings Act
(60 Geo III cap. 6)
This prohibited the holding of public meetings of more than fifty people without the consent of a sheriff or magistrate and placed an absolute prohibition on any meeting held to discuss "any public grievance or any matter on Church and State". People who assembled in defiance of the prohibitions and refused to disperse when ordered to do so became liable to seven years transportation. It also prohibited the carrying of arms, the diplay of banners and the use of military formations but only applied to outdoor meetings and expired on the 24th December 1824.
Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act
(60 Geo III cap. 4)
This gave magistrates the power to seize the whole edition of any periodical that contained any blasphemy or sedition, and increased the penalties for publishing. It also increased the penalties for such libels and made sedition a transportable offence on a second conviction.
Newspaper Stamp Duties Act
(60 Geo III cap. 9)
This act made any publication appearing at least once a month, and costing less than six pence subject to newspaper duty of four pence and also required publishers and printers to provide securities for their 'good behaviour'. This was basically an attempt to close the loophole exploited by many radical publishers who had been evading newspaper duty by claiming that their publications were merely providing commentary and not news and were therefore not liable for the duty.
The Six Acts are frequently cited as being 'repressive' measures, although it is hard to reconcile such a judgement with the actual contents of the legislation. It is noteworthy that most of the provisions of the Training Prevention Act remain in force to this day whilst the provisions of the Seizure of Arms Act have been entirely superseded by subsequent gun control legislation far in excess of that passed in 1819. Many of the prohibitions included within the Seditious Meetings Act were subsequently included in the Public Order Act 1936 which remains in force today. It is perhaps only the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act that deserves to be called 'repressive' as it involved an attempt to curb the freedom of the press. In practice however, its actual effects were minimal, as there were few successful prosecutions since juries were generally reluctant to convict people simply for expressing an opinion.
It is also worth noting that although the Six Acts were condemned by the nineteenth century Left as being "an attack upon the very vital principles of the British constitution", it would be hard to find any member of the modern day Left who would argue that people had a right to organise meetings for the purposes of military training or indeed that they had any right whatsoever to possess arms. Indeed the provisions of these acts appear positively mild compared to the rigours of modern anti-terrorist legislation. Even the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act has its counterpart in the current prohibitions against inciting terrorism; the British government currently has a proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill which has provisions that make it an offence to even "glorify and condone terrorist acts".
The Viscount Castlereagh spoke in defence of these Acts by arguing "that unless we could reconcile the exercise of our liberties with the preservation of the public peace, our liberties would inevitably perish". Almost the exact same words have been uttered by every British Home Secretary since that time in justification of whatever public order legislation was fashionable at the time.
- Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
- Paul Johnson The Birth of the Modern (Phoenix, 1996)
- The Six Acts 1819 www.victorianweb.org/history/riots/sixacts.html