Ulysses and the detention of libellous mail

by Richard Wade, Archives Assistant

One of the more unusual items we have in the archive collection here at BPMA is a first edition copy of Ulysses by James Joyce. Joyce wrote this between 1919-1920 and when it was published in 1922 it was soon banned for obscene content. It was illegal to send these sorts of publications through the post, and this became one of many publications that the Post Office was instructed to intercept if they came across them.

There was a censorship department that was allowed to open and detain items sent through the mail if a warrant to do so was given by the Secretary of State. In all other cases, the mail was actually considered to be the property of The King or Queen and could not be tampered with under any circumstances. If a warrant was made, the decision was usually taken through correspondence with the Home Office, and in the case of a publication called The Herald of Revolt there is actually a letter within Royal Mail’s archives from the Home Office endorsing the warrant to detain the publication.

The reasons for detaining packages were generally because they were libellous in nature and it was not wished to spread around the country the type of sentiment they expressed, such as in The Indian Sociologist. This was an Indian nationalist publication produced in the early twentieth century that was fairly obviously anti-British in sentiment. In the case of this, it was also requested that the addresses it was being sent to be noted down, so this was also a way of finding out who was receiving such publications. There was another publication, The Liberator, which contained bad words and criticisms of the Royal Family and of British institutions, and it was obviously not considered wise to have lots of people reading and being influenced by these thoughts as it may have led to popular unrest. In the case of this, there had actually been complaints from the Bishops of Winchester and Wakefield to the public prosecutions about it. Another factor was that the Post Office itself did not want to seem responsible for having spread libel around the country. It was not just particular publications that were requested to be intercepted though. There was a request on 17th January 1911 to detain letters received for delivery at a particular address, this being 100 Sydney St. There were even very specific demands, such as for a letter posted at Charring Cross Post Office at 2:15pm, addressed to Donald Murrey of 61 Stanton Rd, Wimbledon, to be stopped.

To go back to Ulysses, there was a warrant issued to detain and open packages containing this, which was in force from 27th March 1933 to 13th November 1936, over which time a fair few copies were intercepted. In particular, efforts were being made to stop the importation of Ulysses into the country from publishers abroad. There was one such example sent from The Odyssey Press that had outlets in Hamburg, Paris and Bologna to a Mr E. Percy of Forest Gate, which was confiscated. The example of the book in the archive was being sent from a David Byrne in Dublin to the London bookseller Jacob Schwarz, which despite the ban being lifted, was never forwarded on to Mr Schwarz or sent back to Mr Byrne, but remained with the Post Office until eventually it was transferred across to the archive.

The copy of Ulysses sent by David Byrne to Jacob Schwarz, accompanied by a receipt and Byrnes business card.

The copy of Ulysses sent by David Byrne to Jacob Schwarz, accompanied by a receipt and Byrne’s business card.

Amusingly too, after one copy was sent from Miss Browning of Ipswich to Miss Hobman in London, Miss Browning actually wrote to the Post Office and complained that the recipient had not received it and that it had not been sent back, and asked what had happened to it. This meant that she knowingly tried to have a banned publication sent through the post and then expressed great surprise when it did not reach its destination and risked writing in to complain, resulting in a letter back informing her that she could be prosecuted for her actions. Either that, or despite the raging debate going on in the country about Ulysses, she failed to realise that it was in fact banned. The letter she sent to the Post Office and the reply they sent back are both also in the archive here.

Interestingly, there were some copies that slipped though the net. There was one sent to Bodley Head Publishing House, which apparently was clearly marked as containing a copy of Ulysses. Maybe instructions were not passed down to all sorting or postal staff or maybe they just used their own discretion about whether they followed the orders or not or decided that opening packages was just too risky.

I hope therefore that it can be seen how important the postal service was and how diverse its role could be. It had a large influence on the spread of opinion and libel around the country.

All the information for this blog was gained by looking through document POST 23/9 in our collection.

4 responses to “Ulysses and the detention of libellous mail

  1. Richard Graham

    James Joyce wrote ‘Ulysses’, one of the great works of twentieth century literature, earlier than stated. At the very end of the book are the words ‘Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921′ and it was first published in Paris in February 1922, in time for the author’s fortieth birthday. Whether the place of publication caused alarm bells to ring in the Home Office, I know not, but it was not until October 1936, shortly before the warrant referred to was withdrawn, that the novel was published in England: readers in his native Ireland had to wait many years longer.

  2. Richard Graham

    The reference to ’100 Sydney Street’ is intriguing. Sydney Street is in South Kensington, but, bearing in mind the date in January 1911, I wonder if 100 Sidney St, E in Stepney was meant.

    Following the murder of three policemen in Hounsditch on 16 December 1910, suspected anarchists (they would be called militants today) were traced to 100 Sidney Street and on 3 January 1911 a seven hour siege took place, involving armed police and even the army. There is a well-known photograph of Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, observing proceedings.

    If my suggestion is right, one asks why the request to detain mail was made a full fortnight after the siege had ended with the house on fire and the two suspects dead? Was it merely bureaucratic inertia , or could the authorities have been expecting some material that had been dispatched before the siege was known about, by sea from foreign parts?

  3. Richard Graham

    Sorry for the typo. For ‘Hounsditch’ please read ‘Houndsditch’.

  4. Pingback: All-Party Group visit the BPMA | The British Postal Museum & Archive

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