The latest blog for the Georgian Lords considers the topical issue of quarantine. In the 1720s the government was forced to update its quarantine legislation, but as Dr Charles Littleton of our Lords 1715-1790 project shows, it received spirited opposition from members of the House of Lords...
In the face of pressure from opposition parties and its own back-benchers, the Johnson government substantially amended the recently-passed Coronavirus Act (2020) enabling Parliament to scrutinize and renew the bill every six months. This was not the first time Parliament has tried to modify the power of the executive in the face of a national emergency. In earlier centuries the great fear was an even more indiscriminate killer, bubonic plague. London in particular had suffered from outbreaks of ‘the plague’ throughout the 17th century, the most famous being the Great Plague of 1665. The question of quarantine, of enforcing an involuntary 40-day confinement of potentially infected persons and materials, would vex Parliament throughout the 18th century. Legislators sought to find the proper balance between the Crown’s autocratic powers, which could be exercised in an emergency, and the rights of the ‘free-born Englishman’, which Parliament claimed to protect against an over-mighty executive.
An Act passed in 1710, in the face of an outbreak of plague in the Baltic, was the first of many measures which intended to regulate the quarantine of infected merchant ship crews and their cargoes. A decade later, Britain descended into panic again when plague killed about 100,000 people in the port of Marseille between 1720 and 1722. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, published in 1722, was successful because it addressed a topic which was on everybody’s mind at that time.
Consequently the bill repealing the 1710 Quarantine Act and replacing it with stricter regulations went through both houses of Parliament quickly and received the royal assent on 25 January 1721. That same year, another bill, authorizing the king to prohibit commerce for a year with a country infected with the plague, came up to the Lords on 22 November. Debate on this new bill gave the growing number of opponents of the earlier act an opportunity to renew their attack. Their complaints centred around three clauses. One authorized the officials in charge of quarantine to detain infected persons ‘by any kind of violence that the case shall require’ in a separate ‘pest-house’, or lazaret. Attempted escape would be judged a felony and anyone caught ‘shall suffer Death as a Felon without Benefit of Clergy’. Furthermore, any uninfected person who visited a lazaret for any reason would likewise be detained there ‘by any kind of violence’ necessary, and an attempt at escape would likewise be considered a felony, also subject to capital punishment. Finally, a clause provided that trenches would be dug to cut off communication between any infected city or town and the rest of the country. Once again, anybody who tried to breach these lines would be considered a felon.
On 6 December the Corporation of London petitioned the House of Lords requesting that they could present their complaints against these clauses in the 1721 Quarantine Act. The House’s speedy rejection of the petition inspired a formal protest from 18 lords. Following this, ‘very warm’ debates arose in two Committees of the Whole House as these opposition lords attempted to have the clauses repealed. On 13 December the 20 minority lords voting for repeal registered another protest. They stated their conviction that the coercion necessary to enforce such regulations would be ‘unknown to the constitution and repugnant to the lenity of our mild and free government’. They argued such provisions ‘were copied from France’ where the government was ‘conducted by arbitrary power, and supported by standing armies’. For the protesters these measures were a slippery slope to military rule.
These two protests were part of a wider opposition movement, led by the former lord chancellor William Cowper, Earl Cowper, which in this session of 1721-2 registered 27 protests against just about every government measure. The powerful language of these protests were intended for public consumption, as they, along with the texts of the offending clauses and the Corporation of London’s petition, were published shortly afterwards. There was apparently little impulse for all parties in the legislature to come together for a ‘united cause’ against a common enemy. The ministers certainly saw the protests as a naked partisan attack intended to embarrass it. In response Edmund Gibson, the Whig bishop of Lincoln, published The True Causes of the Discontents in Relation to the Provisions against the Plague. In it he proclaimed that
where the disease is desperate, the remedy must be so too and to dwell upon Rights and Liberties, and the Ease and Convenience of Mankind… [with] the Plague hanging over our heads, is a Wild way of Reasoning.
disaffected or designing men, who have taken the advantage of those uneasinesses, some to run us into public confusion, and others to work their own private revenge.
Gibson clearly had Cowper’s group of protesters in his sights as the pamphlet sought to demolish the arguments of the 13 December protest paragraph by paragraph. The Tories, who formed the core of Cowper’s opposition group, were dismissive and one saw Gibson’s work as ‘a little scrub pamphlet… that he submits to for his hopes of London’. [HMC Portland vii. 316] Catty as that remark may seem, it was accurate. After Sir Robert Walpole became the leading minister in 1722 Gibson was quickly rewarded for his polemical efforts and promoted bishop of London, where he served as ‘Walpole’s Pope’, his principal adviser on ecclesiastical appointments.
The government’s plague legislation could serve partisan aims as effectively as any other issue in 1721-3, when Cowper led his opposition group most effectively. One can only speculate if this would have changed had bubonic plague wreaked devastation in Britain in 1720-23. In this regard the situation – legislative, social, and moral – 300 years ago is very different from that which confronts Britain today.
Charles F. Mullett, ‘The English Plague Scare of 1720-23’, Osiris 2 (1936), 484-516
Clyve Jones, ‘The New Opposition in the House of Lords, 1720-23’, Historical Journal 36: 2, 309-29.
John Booker, Maritime Quarantine: The British Experience, c.1650-1900 (Routledge, 2007).