Although only half a century separates us from Harold Macmillan’s Britain, the world of 1960 can easily seem like ancient history.
In a Britain when men still wore heavy grey suits, working women were still relatively rare and the Empire was still, just, a going concern, D H Lawrence’s book was merely one of many banned because of its threat to public morality.
Fifty years ago this week, amid extraordinary international publicity, the Old Bailey was the venue for a trial that did more to shape 21st-century Britain than hundreds of politicians put together.
The case of the Crown versus Penguin Books opened on Friday, October 21, 1960, when courtroom officials handed copies of perhaps the most notorious novel of the century, D H Lawrence’s book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to nine men and three women, and asked them to read it.
” Once the words were out of his mouth, the case was lost.
On November 2, after just three hours’ deliberation, the jury acquitted Penguin Books of all charges. In 15 minutes, Foyles sold 300 copies and took orders for 3,000 more.
Hatchards sold out in 40 minutes; Selfridges sold 250 copies in half an hour.
In one Yorkshire town, a canny butcher sold copies of the book beside his lamb chops.
At one point they even considered flying over an American literary critic who had once condemned the book as “a dreary, sad performance with some passages of unintentional, hilarious, low comedy”, although they eventually abandoned the idea.
Instead the prosecution team wasted time before the trial going through the book line by line with a pencil, noting down the obscenities: on page 204, for example, one “bitch goddess of Success”, one “––––ing”, one “s–––”, one “best bit of c––– left on earth” and three mentions of “balls”.
Almost every newspaper in the country agreed that the trial was a waste of time: the Daily Telegraph thought that the police should be hunting down “absolutely filthy” pornography rather than wasting their time with D H Lawrence.