Copy Book Archive

Brigands and Imbeciles John Bright dismissed fears that digging a tunnel under the English Channel would encourage a French invasion.

In two parts

Queen Victoria 1837-1901
Music: Erik Satie

By Friedrich Graetz, via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public domain. Source

“The Lion can not face the crowing of the Cock”, by Friedrich Graetz, drawn in 1885.

About this picture …

‘The Lion can not face the crowing of the Cock’, by Austrian cartoonist Friedrich Graetz (1842-1912). The cartoon appeared in 1885, two years after Bright gave his speech to constituents in Birmingham. It shows one of the noisiest of the alarmists, General Garnet Wolseley (1833-1913), Adjutant-General to the Forces, riding helter-skelter from the proposed Channel Tunnel to escape a fierce French cockerel. Lord Palmerston, Bright reminds us, had started the panic when he claimed that the advent of steamships had ceded control of the seas to Britain’s enemies. A rather more insightful assessment was given by Sir Charles Prestwood Lucas, who argued that the advent of steamships and the telegraph had been delayed just long enough to prevent London using them to impose her will too firmly on the Empire. See Timely Progress.

Brigands and Imbeciles

Part 1 of 2

In the 1880s, when the idea of a Channel Tunnel was being seriously considered in Parliament, senior ministers warned anxiously and apparently seriously of the dangers of encouraging a French invasion. John Bright, who as President of the Board of Trade had been strongly in favour of the project, made no attempt to conceal his scorn when he spoke to constituents in Birmingham on June 15th, 1883.

NOW, recollect what this Tunnel is. I do not know what is the width of this room, but I suppose it would not be much more than half its width; it might be something over twenty feet wide. It is at least twenty miles long. A Tunnel a mile long of that size looks a long Tunnel if you look at one end of it, or pass through it in a railway train. But twenty miles! You can form no idea what it is, and yet there is a superstition — I should have supposed it was necessary to have gone to Bedlam* to discover any man who could have entertained it (loud laughter) — there is a superstition that with 35,000,000 of persons in Great Britain and Ireland, of whom 8,000,000 are grown men, they could not defend a hole in the earth (loud laughter) not much more than about twenty feet wide. Now, I don’t know what number of trains would pass in a day through that Tunnel, but I should say — I thought, ten or twelve, but I saw in some of the evidence given before the House of Lords and Commons Committee the other day that — I think the calculation was that passenger trains and luggage trains, probably twenty, would pass through the Tunnel in the course of the day.*

Jump to Part 2

* The popular name for the Bethlehem Royal Hospital, a priory in Bishopsgate, London, that was converted into a mental asylum in 1547. The hospital completed a move to Moorfields in 1676, and another to St George’s Fields in Lambeth in 1815; in 1930 it relocated to Monks Orchard in Beckenham, Kent, and was absorbed into Maudsley Hospital, where it remains part of the NHS to this day. Until 1770, it operated also as a profitable if profoundly distasteful tourist attraction.

* The figure in November 2023 was nearing 500 freight and passenger trains daily.


In 1883, John Bright MP told his Birmingham constituents that some in Government feared a tunnel beneath the English Channel might hand the French an opportunity to invade England. To him, it was little short of madness to imagine that a fully-equipped army could pass through a long, narrow hole in the ground, busy with speeding trains, and not be detected. (60 / 60 words)

Part Two

Now the people against whom I am contending go upon two assumptions which I take the liberty absolutely to object to. The one is, that the French nation is composed nationally, and in regard to the action of their Government, composed of brigands (laughter) — not of honest men, not of men according to the average of our political acquaintance and historical acquaintance, but men brigands of the worst and the most desperate character (laughter). And at the same time they assume that the great English nation, which has its arm stretched all over the globe, at home is a nation of imbeciles (laughter). There is an idea in the minds of some men that by some sudden, secret, undiscovered method until the catastrophe is developed, like a great explosion — that the French Grovernment could arrange a succession of great trains, an army of soldiers, a vast collection of artillery — that all these could be put into this Tunnel (a laugh) from the French end of it, and although English people were passing every hour (a laugh) — they say that all this could be done, and nobody in England or at Dover would know anything about it, and thus there might be an invasion of this country through the Tunnel.

Copy Book


Bright wondered how opponents of the tunnel could suppose that the French, known across Europe for their civilisation, were fixated on violent invasion, and also that the British, masters of a global empire, were incapable of organising basic self-defence. Long before any army could thread its way through the tunnel, the alarm would be raised and the invasion cut short. (60 / 60 words)

Suggested Music

1 2

Je te Veux

Erik Satie (1866-1925)

Performed by Pascal Rogé.

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Le Piccadilly

Erik Satie (1866-1925)

Performed by Pascal Rogé.

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