John McDonnell has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web his website with the electronic text, including scanned images, of the anonymous London Characters and the Humourous Side of London Life. With Upwards of 70 Illustrations apparently by a "Mr. Jones," which the London firm Stanley Rivers & Co. published in 1871. Brackets indicate explanatory material, such as interpretations of contemporary slang, by Mr. McDonnell. — George P. Landow.]
have always had an affection for Westminster Hall. My earliest recollections are bound up with it, and I cannot bring my memory to tell me of a time when it was not to me an object of reverence and love.
I think of it as an old friend, and love it so much that I glory in the knowledge that it is almost certain to survive me. The carved angels who adorn the supports to the roof are all my intimates. They have been my participes curarum "even from boyish days." They knew when I was in trouble with my "construe," entangled in Greek roots, or posed in Euclid. They smiled on me when my spirit failed me because of bullies. They were my confidents when I, aged 13, was so deeply enamoured of the pretty daughter, aged 25, of the porter of our school. I used to discuss to them, with a confidence unbounded, the propriety of declaring my affection, and the probabilities of my lady's acceptance of me. They never told me the plain rude things I have been told and have myself told since. My weekly shilling, with its threepence mortgage for eaten tarts, was not pointed at us as insufficient for the maintenance of us both. They knew---and why therefore tell them?---that Bessie ------- had nothing to bring, save a good appetite, towards our mutual support. I told them I should work all day for her: I should write books, invent engines, paint pictures, make great discoveries in chemistry, and fifty other things which were quite easy to be done. There would be no doubt about a living. They never sneered nor said unkind things, but always smiled and beamed with kindness as I poured forth to them the whole secrets of my heart. This begat a close friendship which has not waned by increasing. I still hold them as fast friends. When I became old enough to understand what they said, they told me long stories of the things they had seen in their time. They interested me with accounts of trials at which they had been witnesses, and filled me with admiration by their descriptions of my historical favourites.
They bore testimony to the correctness of Vandyke's portrait of the unfortunate Earl of Strafford, and brought the favour of the man so vividly to my mind, that I fancied I could see the clear-cut face and dark complexion of him, and hear his ringing, bell-like voice appealing to the peers for mercy on his fault, on account of the innocent "pledges which a saint, now in heaven, had left him."
They seemed not to have known of the earl's execution; for they said the trial broke down, and they concluded the prisoner was acquitted. When I told them of the Bill of Attainder, and of the king's consent to his friend's death, they wept whole heaps of dust and cobweb, and gave solemn ratification to Strafford's endorsement of the Psalmist's warning about putting one's trust in princes [Psalm 146:3].
This did not prevent them from speaking sorrowfully about the trial of the king, and of his octogenarian archbishop.
They had seen the man who is portrayed in undying colours, in the noble picture now in Middle Temple Hall, enter the place as a prisoner; and they had listened throughout the trial with mingled awe and indignation, almost laughing outright, however, when they heard Lady Fairfax say aloud, in answer to the call for her husband, that he knew better than to be present, since his wife was. They heard the whole thing, including the sentence; and somehow or other they were already acquainted with the fact of the execution.
Then they had stories to tell of the Seven Bishops, and Warren Hastings; they had overheard Burke's bon mot [witty saying] about "the (vo)luminous pages of Gibbon." They had seen and heard much more than I can remember or write down; and they pleased me immensely by the ready confidence they gave me. We passed many happy hours together, and then came an interval of separation, during which I listened to the stories of other roof-supporting cherubim, and gathered scraps of information from many an ancient place. Time, however, brought me back again to my old friends, if it did not to my first love. The latter made an excellent wife to the baker who was patronized by the school; but the former remained as before, unchanged---unless, perhaps, a trifle dirtier. They had often inquired of me what went on inside those doors which faced one half of them on the floor beneath; and when I came back again after the separation before named, it became my business to instruct myself so that I might answer their questions.
On the right of the Great Hall, as you enter it, is a flight of stone steps, on the top of which a vestibule---guarded by a she Cerberus [three-headed dog], who has acquired a prescriptive right to war upon the digestion of her Majesty's lieges, by means of strangely-compounded edibles which she sells to them---leads to the two courts where the judges of the Queen's Bench dispense justice. More of both of them presently. Running between the two, or rather at the back of one and by the side of the other, is a darksome passage, dimly lighted, conducting, as a stranger might legitimately think, to the dungeons and torture chambers whither are consigned the delinquents condemned by the Court to purge their offences, but leading, in fact, to chambers destined to far other uses. The genial light of day is excluded from this passage, and the insufficient lamps which are supposed to illumine it, serve but to cast a grim shade upon the asembled clerks and clients who haunt the hard seats along its sides as though they found in them a nature akin to their own. Out of it a side door opens into the great Court of Queen's Bench; and through the door come and go counsellors and senators, gowns, silk, and stuff---the elite of the law, with the rank and file thereof. There is not any inscription over the door, as there is over the door in another place, bidding those who enter leave hope behind them;---yet there is something in the ordinary, unprofessional creature's breast which makes him read in the faces of those he finds in this grim abode, a certain indication that hope has small place there. But the passage, whither does it lead? To subterranean regions certainly---perhaps to the very cellar in which Guido Fawkes laid the train which was to have carried King James and his Parliament, express, to heaven or to hell. But a visit to the first chamber at the end of the stone staircase, on which wigged and robed men ascend and descend, as unlike as possible to the angels whom the Patriarch Jacob saw from his stony pillow [Genesis 28:11-12], reveals no more formidable a person than Mr. -------, the robing-master, and no more suspicious-looking a being than the ancient man who is his servitor. The room, however, in which they live, and move, and get their fees, is more open to cavil than are its tenants. I incline to the opinion that it is Guy's original cellar; and so firmly, that I decline to listen to any statement which shall try to convince me to the contrary, by showing that it is many yards away from where the old Parliament House stood. Small, gloomy, with no daylight, really underground, and damp and misty as cellars are wont---the eyes require time to get accustomed to the gloom which the garish gaslights create but are powerless to dispel. Rows of hooks round a stout framework on one side of the room suggest the neighbourhood of Sachenteges, racks, bilboes [iron bar with sliding shackles for prisoner], and other "hateful and grim things" to which they must be appurtenant; the framework itself, with many mysterious joints and holes in it, looks in the semi-darkness not unlike some foul instrument of torture; and at first it is difficult to divest one's self of the notion that he has got into a veritable chamber of horrors, of which the prepossessing-looking Mr. ------- is perhaps the attendant surgeon, and of which his curiously-featured assistant is the sworn tormentor. Instinctively one looks about for barrels of gunpowder, the coals which conceal them, and a figure like that the boys drag about on the 5th of November; and I am far from being convinced they are not actually there, though I have not been able to discover them. That small mirror in the wall, surely it must be used for ascertaining whether breath is left in a tortured victim; the wavy character of its surface precludes the idea of its being employed as a means to personal adornment, and the former use would be in keeping with the character of the room. Those ominous-looking boxes of wood and tin, in shape not unlike the human head, and labelled with names---what is their office? Is this the hangman's morgue, and is he allowed to keep the heads of decapitated felons to scare the living from crime, or to allow of phrenologists studying their science on the original busts? Or is this a sort of parliamentary terror akin to that which Domitian contrived for the Roman senators when he showed them into a dimly-lighted funereal chamber, wherein they found their coffins, "ready for immediate use,"---as the advertisements have it---and inscribed with their own names? Are wordy and hated members brought into this hall of English Vehmgericht and frightened into agreements to vote differently, and to shorten their speeches, by the sight of their own head cases, labelled with their names---and of Greenacreish sort of bags yawning to receive their skulless trunks? I scrutinize the names on the cases, sniffing the while---for I am not without a presentiment that the Calcraft museum theory is the right one,---and I look curiously for the names of certain hon. members who would be sure to be represented if the second supposition were correct. My eyes do not deceive me when I actually read the names of some of them. I saw them alive and well but a few days since;---have all their glories shrunk to this little space, so soon? "Alas, poor -------!" I exclaim, and turn away from the cases, convinced that the British public cannot be aware of the secrets of these secret places, and resolved that I will lose no time in making it acquainted with the discoveries I have made. Even judges under Charles I refused to say that Felton might lawfully be tortured; and shall my Lord Westbury be suffered to tweak the noses of his opponents with red-hot pincers, like another Dunstan, and to consign their "proud tops" to these infernal preserved meat canisters? No. The smart young men connected with an "Independent Press" shall hear of it; and the decree of the second Lateran Council of Pompeii shall assuredly be quoted against it.
I find I have been wrong. Though the question as to the powder and coal and Guy Fawkes remains an open one, there is, I fear, no ground for the anxiety which I had intended to exhibit through the medium of the press. Further inquiries have satisfied me that Mr. ------- is not the chirurgeon I had imagined him; though it required the exhibition on his part of his power as a "leech," to bleed me to the extent of L1 5s. before I could be convinced. His assistant---a silent and sad man---evidently affected by long acquaintance with the place---is no sworn tormentor. Mr. ------- is "master of the robes," committed to his care; and the silent man helps him to put them on the backs of counsellors who patronize him. The tin canisters, in shape not unlike the human head, are wig-boxes, labelled with the names of those who own them; the butcher-like hooks, of which mention was made, support the gowns which are fellows with the wigs; and the Greenacreish bags are the vehicles in which the gowns travel when going from one court to another. The mirror is really meant to help in adorning the person, and the framework alluded to is intended to hold the property of those who frequent the room. In point of fact, this is no other than a robing-room. The plain deal [fir or pine wood] table is not used for dissecting purposes, but as a place for hats. This knowledge came only with the lapse of time. The first occasion on which I entered the room, I almost held my breath till I had got out of it again, and felt, as I ascended the stone steps to the Court above, something of the feeling which Dante had, when he left the last circle of the Inferno, and came where he could see the stars again.
On this same first occasion I distinctly remember how shame and confusion were made to cover my face in this passage, of which I spoke just now, though the "glooming," or "gloaming," which prevailed within it hid the fact from the sight of all beholders. I had noticed two men whispering together, looking at me the while, as if they were speaking of me, and a cold shudder ran through me as the thought flashed across my mind that they might be there in the interests of Messrs. C------- and D-------, whose forbearance, in respect of sundry "small claims," had been taxed somewhat fully; and the horrible idea occurred to me, that these men had been sent to beard [defy] me in the very precincts of the Court, in the hope of driving me to that which was next to impossible---a settlement. I was questioning to myself how far the privilege of counsel attending the Courts of Justice would cover me, and was doubting anxiously whether that privilege was enjoyed only by those who actually had business to transact, or whether it extended over the whole class generally. I was doubting how far it would be wise to allow of this plea, which savoured of adding insult to injury, being debated, and then roused myself at the thought, what an occasion this would be for showing the world the astonishing powers of speech and reasoning which I took it for granted reposed within me, and almost hoped myself right in the surmise which conscience, rather than judgment, had thrown out as to the character of the men, when one of them advanced towards me, holding a brief [solicitor's summary for guidance of barrister] in his hand, and inquired in a tone which relieved me greatly, notwithstanding my recent wishes for a contest, whether I were not Mr. Jones.
I readily acknowledged that ancient name to be mine [so the author's name is Mr. Jones], and then bubbled up in my mind the thought that my good genius had been playing me a good turn, and had sent this man to give me my first Court brief. How kind of D-------, my attorney friend, who had promised me so often, while yet I was but a student, how great things he would do for me. There could be no doubt I had done D------- much wrong when I had mistrusted the lavish promises he showered upon me. Yes; my name was Jones!
"Consultation at nine to-morrow morning, sir, in the robing-room. Mr. D------- will feel much obliged if you will attend particularly to this case, as Mr. --------- (the leader and Q.C. [Queen's Counsel]) will be very much engaged, and may not read his brief."
Mr. D-------! I did not know him. Had never heard his name before. My friend's London agent, no doubt.
"Very well," I answered, looking at the brief, whereon were inscribed those cabalistic signs which so much gladden the hearts of all counsel, whether leader or junior, and which informed all whom it might concern that Mr. Jones was concerned for the plaintiff, in an action against the Great Western Railway, and that Mr. Jones was to have ten guineas [ten pounds and ten shillings] for his advocacy therein.
Holding the brief in my hand as though it were a marshal's baton, I entered the Court of Queen's Bench with the idea of making an impression upon my brethren who should see me enter there, though for the first time, with a brief in my hand. Upon L------- and B------- especially I desired to let fall the full weight of my importance, because they had so many times hinted at the absurdity of my ever expecting to hold a brief, unless, as they were pleased to add, it might be one in my own behalf as defendent in an action upon sundry accounts delivered. I walked in and sideway'd to a place in the middle of the second row, where I saw L------- sitting behind his morning paper, his wig pushed back and disclosing a quantity of his brown curly hair, his gown just clinging to his shoulders, and a look of nothing particular to do showing itself upon his face.
"Hullo! Jones, got a brief! Your own, old chap? Deuced glad of it; special jury of course. Want reporting?" for D-------- is reporter-in-chief of cases tried before her Majesty's judges at Westminster and Guildhall, to the "Law Reformer's Gazette."
"Good firm, that!" said L-------, looking at the name of my clients. "How did you get taken in tow? I thought your namesake on the Southern Circuit did their junior work. Want new blood, I suppose; but like to keep the old name."
A cold shudder passed through me as L------- uttered these words, for they conveyed to my mind the idea of there having possibly been a mistake. I strove to cast it off, but could not; the suspicion was enough to unsteady my eyesight as I endeavored to run cursorily through the brief. The interesting nature of the action, and the many points of argument which it opened up, gradually absorbed me so much, that I did not notice the entrance of the attorney's clerk who had given me the brief, and who was now signalling to me by many signs and gestures.
"There's another brief for you, Jones," said L-------, nudging me so as to draw my attention to the man, who, unable to reach me, evidently desired to have speech with me, and who seemed to be in a very excited state of mind.
Sidling out as I had come in, earning the curses which all win who tread on tender feet, I arrived at the spot where the man stood, and then---the horrid truth which L-------'s words had caused me to suspect, dawned in its fulness upon my mind, and desolation swept across me.
The man had made a mistake. He had confounded my name---confound him!---with that of my learned friend of the same name on the Southern Circuit, the very man of whom L------- had spoken. Not knowing the gentleman he was told to instruct, he had asked a colleague if each fresh comer from the robing hall bore the style, in which I rejoice, and unluckily for me it happened that I came up before my namesake, and the colleague who made it his business to acquaint himself with the name and abode of each member of the bar, old or young, had told the wretch that my name was Jones. Acting upon this meagre information, Messrs. D-------'s clerk put the brief into my hands---and now, the real Simon Pure having been discovered, it behoved me to surrender my supposed gain---all the apologies of my misleader, humble though they were even to abjectness, not serving to compensate me for the loss of ten guineas, the dignity of the thing, and the prospect which had been before me of seeing my name in the newspapers in connection with one of the most important cases that was tried that term. After such an event I could not go back to the Queen's Bench, but turned a sadder and a poorer man into the adjoining Court of Exchequer.
An old judge---I might say a very old judge---was sitting on the bench, looking like the impersonation of law, and of all that was dignified and venerable in man. He was one who had been easily chief as a student at college, and no less easily chief as a junior counsel at the bar. His name was associated with many a famous case, of which the memory even of the bills of costs had perished; he had survived the clients of his early days, and, while yet a young man, had "gone lightly o'er low steps" in the road to advancement; now his name was considered to be a synonym for justice, and those who sometimes questioned the manner in which he laid down the law, did not venture to question his law itself; and they readily pardoned the privileges which old age assumed, for sake of the time when these were not needed; and because of the comprehensive grasp of the old man's mind, which enabled him to apprehend a thing in its entirety, without bestowing upon it his whole attention.
A special jury case was on, and the jurymen's names were being called over by the associate of the court. The name of a most intimate friend, from whom I had parted only that morning, was called out from the box, and though surprised, for he had not told me of his having been summoned, I quite expected to see him step forward and answer. Imagine my dismay when a shabbily-dressed man who had been standing near the "well" of the Court, made the melancholy announcement that my friend had been dead three months. A momentary regret passed through my midriff as I thought of R-------'s amiable wife and three young children; but it was momentary only, for I knew quite well that R------- was alive this very morning, and had left me not two hours ago for his office in Jute Street. There was some mistake, but in the interests of R-------, who I knew hated jury summons, I did not think it incumbant on me to right it. Several names were called to which no answers were given, and there seemed to be but a poor chance of making up the jury. Nine were in the box---three more were wanted, and two of those who remained to be called over, the shabbily-dressed man announced the same doleful tidings that he had announced about my friend. Who was this that took such an interest in special jurors that he knew to a nicety the dates of their decease, and came there to volunteer the information which he had himself acquired? For he spoke evidently as amicus curiae [friend of the court]---he was not an official person, yet because perhaps that his statements were made voluntarily, no one questioned the correctness of his speech. The judge made some remarks about the carelessness of the sheriffs in keeping dead men's names upon the panel, the counsel for the plaintiff prayed a "tales," and the jury was completed by common jurors. The case went on, but the shabby man interested me. He was evidently a frequenter of the Courts, and appeared to be known to the ushers and people in attendance; and I thought he was perhaps some retired attorney or barrister who made it his hobby to get up the histories of jurors, and was believed therefore, as a matter of course. It was not until afterwards I learned from R-------, to whom I announced his own death, that he paid this man so much a year to kill him when inconvenient summonses came, on which occasions he sent them to the shabbily-dressed man, who instantly committed such homicide as would be sufficient to excuse the victim from attendance at Westminster.
The case was one for a special jury---a compensation case for damages done through negligence of a servant---and a great fight for the verdict was expected. The counsel engaged for the defence were an eminent Queen's Counsel and a junior---aetatis suae 45 [aged 45]---who was reckoned one of the best of stuff gownsmen. Their battery was a strong one, and they wore upon their faces an expression of quiet satisfaction which betokened the comfortable assurance they felt of being able to silence whatever artillery might be brought against them.
"Who are for the plaintiffs?" I inquired of the man next me.
"Serjeant [member of highest class (abolished 1880) of barristers] ------- and P-------, a new junior, I believe."
"P------- of the Home Circuit?"
"He'll have hard work against little S-------," I remarked, "unless the serjeant helps him more than he is wont to do. Is the serjeant here?"
"I have not seen him," answered my friend, "and some one said just now he would not come."
"Poor fellow!" I exclaimed, for I knew P------- to be the very quintessense of nervousness. "Surely he is given over to the hands of the Philistines:" and so indeed it seemed. P-------'s leader was not in Court, P------- could not learn anything about him, and it seemed to be pretty certain that if the case went on, P------- would have to conduct it himself.
Poor P-------! there he sat, looking unusually pale, and suffering evidently from the suppressed excitement which was born of the strange position in which he found himself. He sat there in his place behind the leader's bench, with books and papers before him, in formidable array: his brief, which he bound and loosed from its tape bonds at least ten times in as many minutes, was in his left hand, and the fingers of his right hand unconsciously played the devil's tattoo [drum beat] with a quill pen on the red baize desk: his eyes looked wistfully at the side door, as he watched for the coming of him who came not. Little S-------, his opponent, whispered words of soothing into his leader's ear. The pair smiled benignly on each other, and looked across at my poor nervous friend, who was unknown to them as well as to fame, with a glance in which pity mingled with some professional scorn.
The jury were sworn, and had settled themselves to their duty with that expression of resigned unwillingness on their faces which jurymen of all sorts are wont to wear. The counsel for the defence untied their briefs and opened them out leisurely on the slope. The Court was all attention, reposing its chin on its hands; there remained nothing to be done but to open the case for the plaintiff.
I looked across at P-------, no longer watching the side door, but gazing curiously at the judge, who stared down at him. The nervous, restless look was intensified to the utmost, but to my surprise and relief there was no appearance of confusion. I knew P------- to have a strong will and a stronger sense of duty, and rejoiced as I saw, or fancied I saw, these two coming to his assistance against his own nervous system and the two skilled verdict-getters who now threatened him.
A dead silence for about a minute was broken by the judge uttering with some significance, as he still looked hard at P-------, the monosyllables, "Well, sir!"
P------- rose and said in a voice tremulous as that of him who hears his own notes alone, for the first time in a public place---
"I hope your lordship will forgive me for keeping the Court waiting. My leader is absent in the other Court, and will be here directly. I have sent for him."
"Oh, sir," said the judge---grinning a grim grin as he said it---"your leader intends to give you an opportunity of distinguishing yourself. You'd better begin."
The jury laughed, the "learned friends" on the other side laughed, and all the "learned men" in Court chuckled at the facetious judge, who was unable to resist the temptation of saying a smart thing even to a man so evidently nervous as poor P-------. I trembled for P-------, but he was no way dismayed. On the contrary, the judge's joke stood him in excellent stead; it lent him that slight touch of indignation, gave him that sufficient wounding of his amour propre [self-esteem] which enabled him to send his adversaries to the right about, and not only so, but to his own and his friend's surprise, to take part in the amusement of which he himself was the occasion.
"Your lordship is aware that there are two ways of distinguishing one's self," said P-------, anxious now to gain time, and glad to use the means the Court had unexpectedly provided for him. "And I cannot but feel that I shall be as distinguished as poor Denmark beside the allies, if I am to be deprived of the assistance of my learned leader."
"My brother will no doubt be here," said the leader of the other side, "meantime you can go on." And then followed some "chaff," as mild as that which had gone before, about the absent "brother" being the learned counsel's big brother (Serjeant ------- was a very little one), and the probable consequences to him of pushing on the case in the absence of the same, a disclaimer on the part of the "other side" against being taken for the representatives of those "distinguished foreigners," the allies against Denmark, cum multis aliis [with many others], which wasted a good ten minutes, allowing Serjeant ------- time to come up, and would have lasted ten minutes more had not Mr. Baron ------- [the judge] somewhat testily remarked that Mr. P------- could at all events open the pleadings, which Mr. P------- said "of course, he could do," and proceeded to do, with a boldness which was the inspiration of the moment.
Last modified 24 November 2012