Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

Humour in the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial

Humour in the Stopes v. Sutherland libel trial. That’s it!

As the deadline for this month’s post approached, the appeal of this title was that it would have to be the shortest post ever, given that Stopes v. Sutherland was an acrimonious case. That’s why I chose it.

The first joke in the trial was Mr. Ernst Charles, KC’s school-masterly effort along the lines of “What’s your name, boy?” “Mark Sutherland, sir” “Go to your desk, Mark Sutherland-Sir”.

Well, no doubt you fell off your chair and had to pick yourself off the floor after that one! The moment arrived when Charles began his cross-examination of the plaintiff, Dr. Marie Stopes:

Charles: “I do not know whether you would like me to call you Dr. Stopes, or Mrs. Stopes, or Mrs. Roe, I will do which you please.”

Stopes: “I am Dr. Stopes if you please.”

Charles: “Dr. Stopes if you please.”

Exterminating Poverty (2020) by Mark H. Sutherland (in conjunction with Neil Sutherland)

June Rose, author of Marie Stopes and the Sexual Revolution (Faber & Faber, 1992) said it showed that Charles had “baited [Stopes] for her feminism.” In my opinion, Rose over-egged the point for her readers. Stopes’ Statement of Claim recorded her name as “Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes (married woman) wife of Humphrey Verdon Roe”, so a clarification was not unreasonable. In addition, Charles was keen to show that while Stopes used the title “doctor” (to which she was entitled), she was not a medical doctor. This was pertinent to the Defence’s argument (1) that Stopes’ doctorate of science did not give her a valid claim to have expertise in the area of birth control and contraception and (2) that people attending her Mothers’ Clinic would be misled by the title and (3) to rebut her assertion that part of the defamation had been that, in the libellous words in his book Birth Control, Sutherland had cited her doctorate only and had omitted her other qualifications.

The next occurrence of humour was not so much a joke but repartee. As I wrote on page 108 of Exterminating Poverty:

The tension between Sullivan and Stopes continued to build until she lost her temper. That she did so was understandable, given she had been in the witness box for several hours. She was provoked by an indecipherable question: “And do you permit that other people, at all events, might hold the opinion that the doctrine that any child is a curse if it is demoralising to the race?”

Stopes asked for the question to be repeated and Sullivan repeated a version of it: “Do you deny the right of other people to hold the opinion that teaching any woman that any child, or any married couple that any child is a curse, is demoralising the whole institution of matrimony? Do you permit that opinion to other people?”

“I try not to be stupid, but it is difficult to understand the meaning of that question,” said Stopes.

“If you do not succeed, I will sit down,” Sullivan replied, and for once there was no mistaking his meaning.

Exterminating Poverty, the true story of the eugenic plan to get rid of the poor, and the Scottish doctor who fought against it by Mark H. Sutherland (in conjunction with Neil Sutherland)

The testimony of Dr. George Jones was the next incidence of humour. Not jokes per se, but an extraordinary to and fro between barristers for the defence and a witness whose aim was not to answer questions so much as to give make ex-tempore speeches. To prove the point, I will challenge you to recreate the question (put by Mr. Charles) that that led to this reply from Dr. Jones:

Jones: Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto.

Charles: You must not talk French here. —

Jones: It is Latin; it is the motto of my own hospital, and it is in Terrence’s Heautonimoroumenos, Act I, Scene 2; you ought to have read it.

The Trial of Marie Stopes [sic] (1967) Muriel Box, editor.

Had you attended the trial, you would have had to wait until Mr. Charles’ opening speech for the next joke. It is recorded on page 143 of Exterminating Poverty:

Charles then placed Stopes’ qualifications into context in relation to her books about sex and contraception: “Mrs. Stopes — who is as well qualified but I do assert not better qualified than I myself or any of you. What is the good of saying that she knows more about coal and fossil botany and all sorts of things, as she undoubtedly does, with her brilliant mind? What is the good of saying all that? What is the good of occupying your minds by saying that she has been five times to America or fifty times to America? What is the good of occupying your minds to say she had been to Japan to study coals?”

He made another of his weak jokes: “I thought my friend said ‘colds’ to begin with, and that would be something, but he says ‘coals’”.

Exterminating Poverty, page 145.

If you missed the joke… well, if I had to explain it, it wouldn’t be funny anyway.

And that’s it, as far as humour in the trial was concerned.

Eight years after the High Court trial, this article appeared on page 8 of The Newcastle Sun on Friday, 19th June 1931:

Brisbane’s The Daily Standard on June 20th 1931 reassured it readers that Mussolini wouldn’t be scared, but leaking into the article was the assertion that the invitation might have been a hoax.

I may be biased, but I don’t believe Stopes when she “said she was keeping it quiet”. Not only was her vanity “so colossal, so uninhibited, and so unashamed, as to be positively endearing to those who knew her,” [1] but she was also an accomplished self-publicist. This report appeared on Page 4 of The Canberra Times the same day:

Adelaide’s The News reported on Wednesday, 9th September 1931 that Dr. Stopes:

That resolved the question as to whether she was going to be at the International Congress on Population, but not whether the invitation was genuine. If it was a hoax, a practical joke, who were the culprits?

Unfortunately, I don’t know.

Dr. Halliday Sutherland visited Rome at Christmas 1930.

Coincidence? As I said, I don’t know, but I do wonder about it from time to time.

[1] these words were written by Mary Stocks in her preface to The Trial of Marie Stopes [sic].

Photo by Amir Ghoorchiani on Pexels/

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This entry was posted on 1 September 2022 by in "Exterminating Poverty" Book.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

Centenary of the House of Lords judgment21 November 2024
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