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. [Decorated initial "A" by Thackeray from Vanity FairGeorge P. Landow.]


decorated initial 'I'nd yet he semed besier than he was," wrote Dan Chaucer five centuries ago when describing the Man of Laws in the "Canterbury Tales;" and such was the reflection which crossed my mind as I saw P-------, of whom we know somewhat already, rush in great haste from his lodgings in the High Street to the court-house at Brisk, one fine summer morning, a few circuits back. He was armed for the fight---a fight more in the fashion of Ulysses than of Ajax---and bore, besides the brief with which he had been trusted, two massy books of authority to back up his intended statements. He passed on, and I finished my pipe; for, though the advice of the great Q. C. who had instructed me many times in the way wherein I should walk, had been that, business or no business, it behoved me to show in Court regularly at nine o'clock every morning, when the Court sat---and this advice was, beyond question, wholesome---yet had I found it to be, like many other wholesome things, very unpalatable. I gave the "no business" side of the advice a fair trial, and small was the apparent advantage derived from it; the "business" side would have met with equal justice, had it thought fit ever to present itself. Six circuits were enough for the proof of half the advice; and as, at the tail of the seventh, "business" did not surrender to take its trial, I thought it small harm to do as I liked in the matter; hence it was that, on this particular morning, I stayed to finish my pipe instead of rushing eagerly, as P------- was doing, to the dispensary for justice. I took my own time about bringing into subjection to the brush the hair which stood out after my morning's dip in the river "like quills upon the fretful porcupine;" I donned my robes and wig at my own pace; and, as I thought of P------- with his brief, and his books, and his haste (on my honour there was no hint of envy, though P------- was but on his second circuit), the words of old Chaucer occurred to me as apposite [well put], and---for I liked P------- greatly---by the time my toilette [process of dressing] was over, I had got as far as heartily to wish that Chaucer's preceding line might be equally applicable, "No wher so besy a man as he there n'as." And then I, too, walked over to the court-house, down the narrow street and down the hill.

A heap of folk were about the doorway---attorneys' clerks, barristers' clerks, witnesses, and lookers-on. I passed through; and, all the world being my way, it made no difference whether I went into the Crown Court or the Civil Court, so I turned into the former, and made my way to a place.

The dock was rather thickly tenanted; and, as I entered the court, a miserable-looking lad was standing in front of this pen, awaiting the beginning of the prosecution, which charged him with "feloniously and unlawfully stealing," &c. He had, in truth, been guilty of neglect rather than crime; but had, unfortunately, been brought before some stern moralists of magistrates, who took the uglier view of his case and sent him for trial; he was undefended by counsel, and was called upon to say if he was guilty or not guilty to the charges made against him.

"Not guilty!" said the boy in a low voice; and the counsel for the prosecution began.

In cases where the prisoner is undefended, it is not usual for the prosecution to make any speech, properly so called. The case is stated to the jury; the witnesses are called and examined from the depositions; and then the whole is summed up and laid before the jury, the prisoner being allowed to make his own defence after the case for the prosecution is closed. But on this occassion the counsel for the prosecution was about as new to his work as the prisoner was to crime; and, without intending to injure the poor lad against whom he appeared, but in pure ignorance of what was right, he commenced an oration which was evidently not the inspiration of the moment, but a studied speech, which had had more than one rehearsal.

"The magnitude of the crime with which the prisoner stands charged is such as to demand the promptest attention, and the most summary repression. Our homes, our property---I might add, our lives---are---"

"Really, sir, this course is very unusual," said the judge, interrupting the flow of the advocate's words.

The prosecutor did not see in what way the course was unusual, and, in complete innocence, harked back upon the initial words of the speech---"The magnitude of the crime---"

"Really, sir, I must interrupt you," said his lordship; "you would do better to proceed with a simple statement of facts." And, with much show of unwillingness---for the learned counsel, who was from "the green isle," was, like most of his countrymen, a really "good fist" at a speech, and disliked missing an opportunity of making one---the prosecutor continued on his way, stating the facts simply and calling the witness.

The first witness was a labourer, who had seen the prisoner with the "feloniously stolen" article in his possession (the lad had been told to take a spade to A-------, but had carried it only to his father's house, where he had mislaid and forgotten it).

"Were you on the road leading to A------- on the morning of the 3rd July?"

"Yes."

"Did you meet anyone?"

"Yes; the prisoner."

"Had he anything with him?"

"A spade."

"Was it this spade?" (producing one).

"It was?"

"Did you know whose spade it was?"

"I knew it belonged to Master Turner, up to Wurnley?"

"Did you say anything to the prisoner about the spade?"

"I said, 'You young rascal, you've stolen that spade!'"

"What made you sat that?"

"I knew he must ha' stolen it,"

"No other reason?"

"No."

"Then if you knew he must ha' stolen it, why did you not tell a policeman?"

"Don't know."

"Did you not see any policeman?"

"Yes."

"Why did you not tell him?"

"Don't know."

But the counsel pressed the witness on this point, and at length succeeded in getting an answer.

"Why did you not tell him, sir? Answer the question."

"Well," said the man, "I certainly did see a policeman, but he was only a b------- big fool of an Irishman, and I knew it was no use to tell him."

Poor J------- looked a little discomfited at this reply; and in answer to his lordship's inquiry, said he had no further questions to put to the witness, who was ordered to stand down, and the case went on to an acquittal of the prisoner.

Then came the trial of a man for forgery, a conviction, and the sentence. The man was an old offender in the same direction; and his lordship thought fit to pass upon him "a substantial sentence," as he called it, out of regard to the peculiar hatefulness of the crime, and to the fact that the prisoner had been tried before. I mention this case not merely because it followed that of which I have just written, but because of the peculiarly sad effect which the sentence had upon one quite other than the prisoner.

A nervous movement of the hands and a slight twitching of the mouth, alone had betrayed the keen interest the prisoner took in the proceedings which so intimately concerned him. When the clerk of arraigns asked the jury if they were agreed upon the verdict, a wistful look, which seemed to indicate a desire to anticipate the sentence, was turned upon them; and when the clerk further asked them if they found the prisoner "guilty" or "not guilty," a painful anxiety showed in the forger's face, and communicated itself to the bystanders: and when the word "Guilty" dropped from the foreman's lips, a sense of relief came upon all who heard it.

His lordship---than whom was no judge more ready to make allowance for the infirmities of poor human nature---considered of the sentence he should pronounce, and felt it his duty to give, as he said, a substantial one. Addressing a few remarks to the better feelings of the prisoner, he told him how grieved he was to see him continue in his former evil way; that as he had, however, chosen to do so, it behoveth the law to protect people from his knavery; and the sentence of the Court was that he be kept in penal servitude for four years.

As soon as the words "penal servitude for four years" closed the sentence which the judge pronounced, a shriek was uttered in the far-end of the court, which pierced the ears of everyone. A woman had fainted; some poor creature to whom even the wretched man in the dock was dear, and upon whom the sentence, double-edged, fell with the sharper side upon her. The man was removed by the "dungeon villains" (two eminently mild and kindly-looking men, by the way), and the friends of the poor soul, whose sobs seemed to strain her very heart-strings, gathered her up and bore her out.

Now, it may be womanish, but bother me if "a scene in court" like this is at all to my liking. I hate to be agitated whether I like it or not; to find the apple in my throat swell and get inconvenient, as though it were the "prime" apple which caused our first mother to err; to feel warm and glowing about the eyes, and, will I nill I, to be obliged to smother my emotion by blowing tunefully on my nose. And these things had to be endured on this occasion, in spite of the philosophy of a youthful attorney who stood by, and said, with a desire to be overheard, "that such things must happen, and the police ought to see that these women were kept out of court." To be sure I knew nothing of the people; and, for aught I did know, they might be the wickedest and least deserving of sympathy in the whole world. So far as the trial itself went, there was nothing particular to set the feelings in play: had the mere facts of the crime been proved as stated, the prisoner found guilty, and sentenced in the ordinary way, I do not suppose for an instant that anyone would have been unusually struck by the sentence. But the little something not usual---the extraordinary addition of a woman's cry of sorrow; that woman having nothing visibly to connect her with the case before the Court; and the sign which that cry gave of links and sympathies outraged, of which the Court could take no cognizance---these were the springs of an emotion which none but the assize-hardened do not feel---"the one touch of nature which makes the whole world kin." [note: assize are periodical county sessions held by judges on circuit for administration of civil and criminal justice]

Professing the stoic philosophy, I dislike occasions which make me show my feelings as a man. The "one touch of nature" I admire in the abstract, and in Shakespeare, from whom the expression is stolen, but do not desire to be subject of it in my own person. Lest nature should touch me again, I left the Crown Court, and walked over to the Civil side, where Justice ------- was trying the special jury cases, and where, amidst the lookers-on, I saw my landlord, with eyes in which pity mingled with contempt as he looked on me, robed, but sans [without] brief. A moment's reflection told me that he would charge me no less for the numerous "extras" which were certain to appear in my bill, pitiful though the glance might now be; so I placed my eye-glass (not that I am short-sighted, you know, reader) firmly into my eye-socket, assumed a haughty air, which was intended to hurl back the landlord's pity with scorn, and addressed myself to attending to the speeches that were being made.

It was evident from the experience just narrated, that, though I might have the bad digestion, I did not possess "the hard heart" which is said to be as necessary for a good lawyer, as a gold latch-key has been held to be to an officer in the Horse Guards. I may improve, however, as time goes on.

P-------, of whom mention was made just now, was about to open the pleadings in a case that had been called on, when O-------, breathless and anxious, rushed in from the Crown Court, where he was engaged in a case requiring full attention, having heard that this cause, in which he was also retained for the defendant, had been called. His object was to get the case postponed till he could attend to it; and had he been other than he was, or had he not placed temptation right in his lordship's way, he might have got what he wanted. But he was a great drawer of the longbow; one who was known to all the profession for the entirety in which he adopted M. Talleyrand's saying, that speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts: he was this; and, being this, he tempted the Court beyond its power to bear.

Hurrying up to the counsel's table, he motioned to P------- to refrain from opening, and begged his lordship to put off the case, "for," said he, "I am at this moment speaking in the Crown Court."

His lordship's eye twinkled; the bar noticed the mess poor O------- was in; and O------- himself was aware of his mistake as soon as he had made it. Time was not given him to amend, for his lordship repeating the words, "this moment speaking in the Crown Court," added with an arch smile, which was well understood by all who saw it, "No, no, Mr. O-------, I can't believe that."

O------- knew what fame was his, and the bar knew, and the judge knew; and if the public who looked on knew not, I take this opportunity of hinting at it, for the express purpose of showing them that if their vulgar and calumnious riddle about lawyers being such restless people, because they first lie on this side and then on that, and lie even in their graves---a riddle feloniously stolen, by the way, from a bon mot [witty saying] of Sir Christopher Hatton's, when he was Lord Chancellor---be founded on fact, the professional brethren of these restless men take good care they shall not forget their characteristics. For the riddle I ever thought the properest answer was, that lawyers are restless because they never lie at all; but even if I could make my meaning clear upon this head, as an able writer in a magazine some time ago did his, in an article called "The Morality of Advocacy," there would be no end of people to join issue with me; so I give up the attempt to alter the riddle and its answer, deeming the game not worth the candle.

O-------'s application was granted, as P------- and his learned friends did not object, and O------- went back in peace to his defence of "bigamus." The next cause was called, and at the name of it, a young man of temperament the most nervous in the world, a quality which made the bar an almost insuperable bar to him, rose to his feet, and announced that he appeared for the defendant. Counsel for the plaintiff opened, called his witnesses, and closed his case, which seemed to be a winning one. Counsel for the defendant rose, blushed to the very roots---I had almost written tops---of his wig, looked like the incarnation of confusion, and thus delivered:---

"My lord, and gentlemen of the jury; my client in this case---my client, gentlemen---my client, my lord---my client;" and at this stage the poor man seemed perfectly overcome by the natural enemy with which he was combating. His mouth was as if paralysis had stricken it; his lips were parched, his glance wandered about the court, his tongue stammered, and then wagged no more. The Court waited; some men pitied the poor creature stuck in the slough of words, unable to get free; others enjoyed the joke and grinned unkindly grins. The occasion was too much also for his lordship, who leaned forward a little, and said, in a tone of voice which with other words might have been taken for encouraging, "Pray, sir, proceed; thus far the Court is with you."

The nervous man was stung to the quick, and like a stag pursued to a corner, turned round and stood fiercely at bay. He floundered on in spite of himself, and was getting fairly under way, to the relief of everyone who heard him, when in an unfortunate moment he allowed his eloquence to hurry him into a false quantitiy, and then he was in the toils again. There is a writ called of "quare impedit" the e whereof in "impedit," is short. By pure misfortune---for the nervous man "was a scholar, and a ripe and good one"---by pure misfortune, and the hurry he was in, he gave this word as though the e were long, and called the writ one of "quare impedit [im-paid'-it]."

The sharp ear of the judge detected the false concord, and before the speaker could correct for himself, was down upon him like a Nasmyth's hammer. "Pray shorten your speech, sir. Remember we have a good deal to get through." The blow was a fair one, though it fell heavily upon Mr. T-------, who continued to speak like one grown desperate, reminding one of the bull in a Spanish arena when the red flags and the darts have been plied some time. He plunged on here and there through the case, butting, but not bellowing at his antagonist, who did for him the service of a matador, and gave him the coup de grace, to the poor fellow's utter discomfiture.

The said antagonist rose to reply, and as a boa constrictor licks and fondles his prey before he devours it, so the antagonist bespattered Mr. T------- with praise, and complimented him upon "his thrilling and powerful appeal." "The Lord hath delivered him into my hands," was the profane aside, however, with which the advocate forecast, to those nearest him, the issue of the fight. The speaker went on and proceeded to dissect the speech of his opponent, and, metaphorically speaking, the speech-maker himself. He exposed the fallacies, turned the facts so as to show the reverse side of them, and drew a deduction from his learned friend's own premises, so diametrically opposite to that which had been drawn by him, that Mr. T-------, though he did not interrupt by speaking, could not refrain from showing his dissent by violent shaking of the head.

"My learned friend on the other side shakes his head," said the speaker, raising his voice, and emphasizing the word "head." "I don't know that there's much in that;" and at this neither pity nor decorum could keep the bystanders within bounds; a laugh, general and hearty, was raised at the expense of poor Mr. T-------, who, painfully alive to the wound which had been inflicted, gesticulated in vain endeavor to get a hearing for something which might have hurled his enemy to the ground; but the possibility got thrown away; Mr. T------- remained crushed, though exceedingly angry.

Now it happens that the court-house at the assize town of Brisk is inconveniently near to the market, which is the resort of farmers for miles round. Thither come cattle, sheep, and beasts of burden; and thither are taken grain, and hay, and all kinds of agricultural produce. The place is so near to the courts of law, that the sounds of marketing, the grunts of pigs, and the noise of blatant beasts, have many times been known to pierce the sanctum of justice, and to interfere with the delivery of grave human utterances. On this occasion, when Mr. T------- came so grievously to grief, high market was going on in the street and place outside. Animals of various kinds had given audible proof of their presence, and just as the vanquisher of Mr. T------- resumed his speech, a jackass, desirous of showing his sense of the learned gentleman's sharp wit, set up a bray sufficiently loud to be heard right through the court.

It was his lordship's turn now, and he, thinking perhaps that so keen a tonguesman as he who was speaking could look well enough to himself, to be able to bear a rub down, said, with a good-humoured smile, which was the salve to his blow, "One at a time, brother; one at a time."

The serjeant reddened slightly, and merely nodded assent to his lordship's proposition. The laugh was against the serjeant, but "nothing he reck'd," or seemed to do, and went on to the close of his speech.

His lordship began to sum up the case to the jury, sifting the facts, and laying down the law. He had not proceeded very far, when the animal aforesaid, instigated, no doubt, by a feeling of kindness for the serjeant, took advantage of a slight pause in the summing up, to testify once more to its appreciation of English jurisprudence. The loud hee-haw! resounded through the court, attracting the attention, if not the fears, of the judge. Respect for the bench precluded any such notice by the bar, as the bench had taken of the former bray; but his lordship had flung down his glove to the serjeant, and the serjeant was not the man to refuse the gage [challenge]. He followed his own plan in taking it up. When the judge continued his address to the jury, the impression created by the jackass being yet fresh upon the audience, Serjeant ------- turned him around to the leader who sat next to him, and said in a stage whisper, heard distinctly by every one, "I never noticed till now the remarkable echo in this court."

"Not even with your long ears," said a junior in a whisper as audible as the last remark, whereby the laugh which began to rise at his lordship's expense was shifted back again to the serjeant, who strove between his dignity---which would not let him notice the junior so immeasurably beneath him---and his anger, which made his fingers itch to punch the junior's head. The serjeant was a wrathful man, and had the reputation of even "swearing his prayers." Forth from his mouth flowed a string of muttered curses, like lava from a volcano that cannot burst in open fury; and to judge from appearances a breach of the peace seemed not unlikely to occur at a later hour of the day; though, as far as I know, none actually took place, the serjeant, a thoroughly good fellow, having been observed to select his youthful adversary for special attention at the mess on that very same day; and even after speaking highly of him as a foeman worthy of his own steel. He recognised an equal, as Lord Thurlow did when the usher of the court gave back his lordship's "--- damn you," after enduring meekly and in patience for the space of five minutes a long string of invectives, hurled at him because the Lord Chancellor's inkstand was not filled.

P-------'s case came on in due course, and P------- fleshed his maiden sword right valiantly. He bore up against the excessive respect of his own witness, who insisted on calling him "my lord," drawing upon him a flood of congratulations from his brethren, and a remark from his lordship that "the witness was only anticipating." O------- strove and did mightily; and the jury gave right between them---at least I trust so, for I cannot speak out of my own knowledge. The heat of the weather and the stuffiness of the court combined, with the want of special interest in any one of the causes, to make the assize court of Brisk, in the county of -------, intolerable by four o'clock in the afternoon. The only piece of paper I had touched for the day in the way of business, was the messman's dinner-list, whereon I had inscribed my name. It was useless to wait, I thought, so nudging R-------, my fellow in lodgings, and mine own peculiar friend, I left the court for more refreshing haunts. I strode away, and in company with R-------, who "rowed in the same boat" with myself, sought upon the waters of the Cray an appetite for the dinner we were to eat at half-past six.


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Last modified 24 November 2012