Export block on judge’s Chatterley copy

The government has put a temporary block on the copy of D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover used by the judge at the novel’s obscenity trial in 1960 – perhaps the most famous Old Bailey trial of the 20th century - complete with his wife’s annotations.

The paperback copy, which cost the equivalent of 17.5p to buy, is valued at £56,250 and may be sold abroad if a British public collection doesn’t buy it.

The copy belonged to Sir Laurence Byrne who presided at the notorious trial, at which the prosecuting counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones, famously asked the jury whether Lady Chatterley's Lover was “a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read”.

The judge clearly did since it was annotated by his wife, Dorothy, who even sat beside him on the bench during the trial. She also made a cloth bag for the book so that Sir Laurence could carry it without it being seen, and there is also his own notes written on Old Bailey notepaper.

The trial was the first test of the 1959 Obscene Publications Act which made the publication of sexually explicit material allowable if it was considered of high literary value. Penguin Books were prosecuted and defended by the creator of TV’s Rumpole of the Bailey, John Mortimer. The jury decided in its favour, a result that was seen as a watershed in the judgement of alleged literary obscenity.

The decision to temporarily suspend an export licence on the  book was made on the recommendation of Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest Committee whose chairman,  of the Sir Hayden Phillips, said: “The prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover was one of the most important criminal trials of the 20th century. Judge Byrne’s copy of the novel, annotated by him and his wife, may be the last surviving contemporary ‘witness’ who took part in the proceedings. 

“Picture the scene: the High Court Judge presiding in his red robes, his wife beside him on the Bench (as was allowed in those days) as a succession of singular and distinguished witnesses for the Defence were cross examined day by day. I was 17 at the time and studying a DH Lawrence as a set text for A Levels – it was not Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but at least I could follow the riveting course of the trial in the daily papers. It would be more than sad, it would be a misfortune, if this last surviving ‘witness’ left our shores.”


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