In 1916 Noel Pemberton Billing, the Independent MP for East Hertfordshire founded a journal called The Imperialist that was part-funded by Lord Beaverbrook. His biographer, Geoffrey Russell Searle, has pointed out that "Billing campaigned for a unified air service, helped force the government to establish an air inquiry, and advocated reprisal raids against German cities. He also became adept at exploiting a variety of popular discontents."
The journal also claimed the existence of a secret society called the Unseen Hand. As Ernest Sackville Turner, the author of Dear Old Blighty (1980) has pointed out: "One of the great delusions of the war was that there existed an Unseen (or Hidden, or Invisible) Hand, a pro-German influence which perennially strove to paralyse the nation's will and to set its most heroic efforts at naught... As defeat seemed to loom, as French military morale broke and Russia made her separate peace, more and more were ready to believe that the Unseen Hand stood for a confederacy of evil men, taking their orders from Berlin, dedicated to the downfall of Britain by subversion of the military, the Cabinet, the Civil Service and the City; and working not only through spiritualists, whores and homosexuals."
Billing now joined forces with Lord Northcliffe (the owner of The Times and The Daily Mail), Leo Maxse (the editor of The National Review), the journalist, Arnold Henry White (the author of The Hidden Hand), Ellis Powell (the editor of the Financial News), Horatio Bottomley (the editor of John Bull) and the former soldier, Harold S. Spencer, to claim that the Unseen Hand were working behind the scenes to obtain a peace agreement with Germany.
Noel Pemberton Billing was a strong opponent of the Russian Revolution and feared that the Bolsheviks would try to persuade influential people in Britain to seek a peace deal. He argued that money from Germany and Russia was being used to fund the peace movement. These people were part of what became known as Boloism (Paul Marie Bolo was a German spy who was executed by the French during the First World War). According to Billing and other supporters of the Hidden Hand theory, Boloism was the distribution or receipt of funds calculated to assist the act of treason.
In December 1917, Billing published an article in The Imperialist by Arnold Henry White that argued that Germany was under the control of homosexuals (White called them urnings): "Espionage is punished by death at the Tower of London, but there is a form of invasion which is as deadly as espionage: the systematic seduction of young British soldiers by the German urnings and their agents... Failure to intern all Germans is due to the invisible hand that protects urnings of enemy race... When the blond beast is an urning, he commands the urnings in other lands. They are moles. They burrow. They plot. They are hardest at work when they are most silent." It was true that there was a great increase in cases of sodomy coming before the British courts but the main reason for this was the large numbers of young men being herded together under wartime conditions.
Relying on information supplied by Harold S. Spencer, Billing published an article in The Imperialist on 26th January, 1918, revealing the existence of a Black Book: "There exists in the Cabinet Noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the Secret Service from reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading such debauchery and such lasciviousness as only German minds can conceive and only German bodies execute."
Billing claimed the book listed the names of 47,000 British sexual perverts, mostly in high places, being blackmailed by the German Secret Service. He added: "It is a most catholic miscellany. The names of Privy Councillors, youths of the chorus, wives of Cabinet Ministers, dancing girls, even Cabinet Ministers themselves, while diplomats, poets, bankers, editors, newspaper proprietors, members of His Majesty's Household follow each other with no order of precedence." Billing went onto argue that "the thought that 47,000 English men and women are held in enemy bondage through fear calls all clean spirits to mortal combat".
In February, 1918, Noel Pemberton Billing changed the name of The Imperialist to The Vigilante. Soon afterwards it published an article that argued that the Unseen Hand was involved in a plot to spread venereal disease: "The German, through his efficient and clever agent, the Ashkenazim, has complete control of the White Slave Traffic. Germany has found that diseased women cause more casualties than bullets. Controlled by their Jew-agents, Germany maintains in Britain a self-supporting - even profit-making - army of prostitutes which put more men out of action than does their army of soldiers."
Later that month it was announced by theatrical producer, Jack Grein, that Maud Allan would give two private performances of Oscar Wildes's Salomé in April. It had to be a private showing because the play had long been banned by the Lord Chancellor as being blasphemous. Billing had heard rumours Allan was a lesbian and was having an affair with Margot Asquith, the wife of Herbert Asquith, the former prime minister. He also believed that Allan and the Asquiths were all members of the Unseen Hand.
On 16th February, 1918, the front page of The Vigilante had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000."
As soon as Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. During this period Billing was approached by Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times. He was concerned about the decision by David Lloyd George to begin peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Talk of peace outraged the Generals, who found allies in the British far right. Repington suggested that Billing get his trial postponed and use the mythical Black Book to smear senior politicians and inflame anti-alien feeling in the Commons. By this logic, the current peace talks would be ruined and Lloyd George's authority undermined."
Toni Bentley has argued in her book, Sisters of Salome (2002) that the government hired Eileen Villiers-Stewart to compromise Billing: "Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stewart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals' conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case."
The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. Noel Pemberton Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling.
Billing's first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stewart. She explained that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians since killed in action in the First World War. As Christopher Andrew has pointed out in Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers Stewart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception." During the cross-examination Villiers-Stewart claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane were in the Black Book. Judge Charles Darling now ordered her to leave the witness-box. She retaliated by saying that Darling's name was also in the book.
The next witness was Harold S. Spencer. He claimed that he had seen the Black Book while looking through the private papers of Prince William of Wied of Albania in 1914. Spencer claimed that Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, was a member of the Unseen Hand and has visited Holland as a go-between in supposed peace talks with Germany.
On 4th June, 1918, Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."
Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stewart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."
Although membership of Vigilante Society grew dramatically after the trial, victory proved short-lived. The sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle on 28th June, 1918, with the loss of 234 lives, brought an end to peace negotiations. By September it became clear that Germany was beaten and Billing's claims about the Unseen Hand created little fear in the population.
After a bickering match with the judge, Billing sprang his first mine by shouting at Mrs Villiers-Stuart, "Is Mr Justice Darling's name in the book?" and the witness replied, "It is." Three similar questions elicited that the names of Asquith, his wife and Haldane were in its pages. Captain Spencer also named a famous name; referring to supposed peace talks with Germany, he said that Mrs George Keppel, one-time mistress of Edward VII, had visited Holland as a go-between. The allegation was flatly denied by Mrs Keppel, but she was not allowed to make her rebuttal in court. Billing's defiance of the judge was flagitious; after evidence about a homosexual brothel in London he shouted, "It will take more than you to protect these people, my Lord." Among witnesses who made fools of themselves was the fashionable priest, Father Bernard Vaughan, who knew not the first thing about the laws of evidence and shook Billing by the hand as he left the box; and Dr John Clarke, who said the play Salome should be stored in a museum of sexual pathology and "even then it might corrupt medical students". Throughout the hearing the gallery were on Billing's side, accepting him on his own valuation as the only man who dared to bring the country's secret enemies into the open. They also enjoyed the way he made the law look silly and spoiled the judge's jokes. (These were, in any event, lamentable. When a witness spoke of someone "talking the language of sodomy", the judge said, "I suppose you found it interesting, as the language of Sodom was a dead language, to find it being talked.")
If Billing was a tool in a generals' plot to unseat Lloyd George and to foul any chances of peace (as Michael Kettle argues), the secret was well kept. For six days the court was in a state of hysteria, with more neurotic balderdash talked to the reported inch than seems conceivable. During those six days a ferocious drive by the Germans on Paris was held and blunted by the British Army; what nobody knew then was that this German failure presaged the end of the war. On the sixth day the judge, having allowed any number of questions about the Black Book, said in his summing up that it had nothing to do with the case. The jury returned a verdict for Billing, sparking off chaotic jubilation in court.
The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stuart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers. Even had Billing been convicted he would have still succeeded in his political object. In the event, although some editors berated Billing for his methods, the ends were generally seen to justify the means, and to represent a famous victory for patriotism, morality and the common man.
One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points. The fantastic foulness of the insinuations that Neil Primrose and Evelyn de Rothschild were murdered from the rear makes one sick. How miserably conducted a case, both by that contemptible Darling and Hume Williams! Darling insisted on having the case out of rotation.