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 Fair — George P. Landow.]
eople talk about the World Of London. London has a dozen worlds at least. For all that some of these know or care of others they might as well be shining in different planets. But there is one world with which most other worlds cannot avoid making occasional acquaintance -- that is the world of Westminster Hall. Apart from the legislative chambers, in whose proceedings everybody is concerned, it must be strange indeed for any member of the general community not to be interested, directly or indirectly, at one time or another, in a transaction connected with a Parliamentary Committee or a Court of Law. Certain it is that you will meet on most days down at Westminster -- and more especially in the height of the season and the session, during the last two terms before the long vacation -- representative men and women of all classes, drawn together by business or curiosity as the case may be.
The way down to Westminster -- that is to say, the way of those who go from the Temple -- has been made more easy than it was by the Thames Embankment, which will be a right royal road some of these days when it has intelligible approaches, and the trees have grown, and the small boys have been driven away, and carriages can be driven along it -- when, in fact, it has dropped its present dissipated character of a show and a playground, and has settled down into a respectable thoroughfare. At present the swiftest mode of making the journey is by a penny steamer. But penny steamers are of course available only if you do not happen to be proud. The penny public whom you see on board are not pretty to look at, and seem principally possessed by a keen sense of economy, extended not only to travelling expenses, but to the article of soap. Some philosophic barristers patronise the boats; indeed there is a plentiful sprinkling of these early in the morning; but being residents in chambers they are principally juniors, and do not include the great dignitaries of the profession. The latter are represented, however, by their clerks -- barristers' clerks are wonderfully partial to penny steamers -- who may be seen at all hours of the day going backwards and forwards with briefs and bags; and among them, with Melancholy marking him for her own and remaining in undisputed possession, you may surely note the clerk of some unhappy Mr. Briefless, who "brings his master's grey wig down in sorrow to the court," with a constancy worthy of a more successful cause. They are horrible means of progression -- those penny steamers -- but there is no reason why they should be so. With a supply of boats such as should be employed, the river might be as crowded as the streets, for the mode of travelling might be made far pleasanter than the mode of travelling by land, and in point of speed a steamer has an advantage over any carriage except a railway carriage. There are thousands upon thousands of the public who would be glad to make use of a better class of boats, say such as the Saloon Steamers that now ply above bridge, only of suitable size. With conveyances of this kind the journey between London and Westminster might be made a festive progress, and passengers would cheerfully pay, say, the prices charged on the Metropolitan Railway, first, second, and third class. I throw out the hint to speculators, who, I am certain, would never repent a little enterprise in this direction.
The way down to Westminster by road is broad and pleasant enough after you get out of the Strand; and scarcely have you passed Charing Cross than you come upon Westminster Hall, as represented by the people about you. It is, say, between eleven and twelve o'clock in the day. A few barristers, solicitors, and witnesses are still going down to the courts; also "parties" in actions, their witnesses, and their friends. But a great many more of all these classes are bound for the committees, which sit for the most part at twelve. Headlong Hansoms are dashing along, conveying gentlemen with that kind of cheerfulness in their faces which comes of being engaged, under profitable conditions, upon other people's business rather than their own. A large number of the same class are on foot, walking three or four abreast, and engaged in pleasant discussion. The happiest of all are the witnesses, for they have not the same cares upon them as the parliamenary agents and solicitors. All they have to do is to stay in London and wait day after day until they are wanted, receive their liberal diurnal allowances for their trouble, and in the end permit the counsel on their own side to extract from them such information as they may have to supply, and prevent, if possible, the counsel on the other side from demolishing their assertions. There are some members of Parliament among the crowd, riding, driving, or walking, as the case may be. They are the members of the committees, and, if the day be a Wednesday, their number is increased by those going down to attend the morning sitting, or rather the afternoon sitting of the House.
As you get lower down, into Parliament Street proper, Westminster is still more largely represented; for here, on the left, is the Whitehall Club, a handsome stone building of a few years' standing, which accomodates a large number of persons whose avocations call them to the neighbourhood. The members include M.P.s [members of Parliament], parliamentary agents, barristers, solicitors, engineers, contractors, and business men of many kinds; and the institution, I believe, is found to be a useful success. For the public generally the popular resort appears to be a restaurant, still lower down, where even now, to judge by appearances as you pass the window, lunch seems to be going on. The lunches, however, at this hour, are not very numerous, and are confined, it may be presumed, to people who have risen late and gone out in a hurry, and have not had time for breakfast. A couple of hours hence, besides the occupants of the tables, you will see a luncher on every high stool before the counter, forming together a serried [shoulder to shoulder] line of determined refreshers, escaped for a brief but pleasant period from their serious duties on the other side of Palace Yard.
Palace Yard, which you now approach, has become a noble expanse, and it will be nobler when certain old houses are removed. But turning your back upon these, there is no such fine spectacle in London as that presented by the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Hall, with the adjacent objects, including the handsomest bridge in the metropolis. If you are not a person of importance, which you probably are, you will at least fancy are; for the policeman at the crossing, struck, no doubt, by your imposing presence, rushes forward and behaves with despotic tyranny towards a waggon, a light cart, and a four-wheeled "grinder," which he compels to draw up in order not to interfere with your progress. He would certainly exercise the same arbitrary authority towards a Hansom which is also amongst the vehicles emerging from the bridge; but the Hansom cabby is too much for the minion of the law, and nearly drives over you while you are availing yourself of the facility afforded by judicious regulations.
Inside the Hall of Rufus there are a great number of the same kind of persons as those who have accompanied you down Parliament Street, with the difference that the barristers, pacing up and down, or staying to talk in groups, are all wigged and gowned, and produce the inevitable impression which Mr. Dickens has made immortal, having reference to "that variety of nose and whisker for which the bar of England is so justly celebrated." There are a great many idlers among these -- idlers in spite of themselves -- and some of them seem to find it difficult to keep up an appearance of pre-occupation. It would be a very valuable addition to a legal education if its recipient could manage to throw into his face an expression which should inevitably convey the idea to the public mind that he would be particularly wanted in court in a quarter of an hour. But I have never known perfect success attend an attempt of the kind: and the impression usually conveyed by a more or less unknown junior wandering about Westminster Hall is, that it does not particularly matter where he may be. To-day one of this unhappy class has the temerity to take two ladies about, with an evident mission to show them the lions [celebrities] of the locality. You can see at once that they are not "parties" or witnesses. Parties and witnesses may be as young, as blooming, and as fashionably dressed; but they would never be so smiling and so easy, wear that pretty fluttering manner, and talk with such charmingly volatile rapidity as the fair creatures in question. I should mention by the way, for the sake of the proprieties, that, besides the barrister, they are accompanied by a young gentleman who is evidently their brother, from the entire contempt with which he regards them and their proceedings. He gives them entirely up to their friend in the wig, who may be heard to say in the course of conversation --
"I think we might hear some fun in the House of Lords. They are engaged with appeals, and I think Miss -- -- - is still addressing the court. This is her tenth day."
The idea of hearing a lady conducting her own case finds immediate favour, and the party soon make their way to the bar of the House. As we also are idling and looking about us, we may as well follow them.
They are very inhospitable to strangers in the House of Lords, that is to say, when the House is sitting in its legal capacity. The court occupies a very small part of the legislative chamber, and the impression produced is that the members huddle together in order that they may not have to speak too loud. There is no accommodation even for counsel who are not engaged in the proceedings, and very little allowance is made for curiosity on the part of any class of persons; but you are free to push in at the bar and see and hear what you can.
Upon the present occasion there are only two lords besides the Lord Chancellor, and only one of these -- an ex-Lord Chancellor himself -- appears to take any interest in the proceedings. The central object is the suitor. This, as we have already heard, is a lady. She is addressing the Court when we enter, seems to have been addressing it for some time past, and evidently intends to address it for some time in the future. As she stands behind a table, upon which her papers are placed, she is in advance of us, and we can catch a glimpse of her face only at intervals, when she turns aside to place her hand upon a document which she wishes to consult. But we can observe at first glance that she is a little lady rather than otherwise, that she has a neat, slender figure, carefully and compactly clad in black, and that upon her head she wears a little hat, "of the period" as to size, and to some extent in the manner in which it is worn, but by no means exaggerated in any respect. Upon further observation you see that she has what is called a clever face, with an expression indicative of culture and refinement; and the latter conclusion is justified by the voice, which is clear and ringing, and remarkable for its nice intonation. The lady, too, enjoys the advantage of an easy flow of language, which she never halts for a point or an expression, and she has apparently a thorough mastery of her case. If the Lord Chancellor ventures to question a statement or criticise a conclusion, the fair pleader at once puts her little black-gloved hand upon the document containing her authority, and the great legal functionary is at once confuted. The next time he ventures an objection the same process is repeated, until his lordship at last seems to arrive at the belief that it is safest not to open his mouth. The other lords, when equally rash, meet with a similar fate; so, by degrees, the lady has everything her own way, and continues her address unmolested. The composure with which she goes over her ground is something wonderful. There is no flurry, no undue excitement, and only a certain serious emphasis which her arguments receive distinguish her manner from that of an ordinary advocate, and indicate that she is pleading her own cause and has a strong interest in the case. She has near her a legal adviser in the person of a Queen's Counsel, but she seldom consults him, and seems indeed to know her own business remarkably well. This is the tenth day of her address, and it threatens to last for many days more: it would be rash indeed to calculate when it is likely to conclude. The case, it may be here mentioned, is a very complicated one, involving a question of legitimacy; the documents connected with it are of a voluminous character, and the lady has a great tendency to read these at length, to refresh herself, through their agency, in the intervals of original argument. How the case will end I will not venture to surmise, but the reflection certainly strikes one that if ladies get called to the bar and advocate other people's cases with the persistency that they do their own, the proceedings of the courts will be considerably lengthened, and far greater demands than under present conditions will be made upon the endurance of the judges.
Happily we are doing no more than amuse ourselves; so, after half an hour's acquaintance with the great legitimacy case, we are content to follow the example -- set a quarter of an hour before -- of the young barrister and his interesting friends, and betake ourselves elsewhere.
There are several committees sitting up-stairs, and seeing a throng of persons proceeding thither we follow them, as in curiosity bound. The Commons' gallery is crowded with counsel, solicitors, agents, witnesses, and all the rest of the people of whom we have seen so many specimens in Parliament Street; for one of the rooms has just been cleared for the deliberation of the committee. Some are walking up and down; others are standing about in groups; everybody is talking; there is general excitement and some little hilarity on the part of those belonging to the apparently winning side. The witnesses are, as usual, more lively than anybody else. It is all holiday with them, far away as they are from their provincial homes; and their feet not being upon their native heaths, their names are all the more Macgregor. They begin already to take refreshment at the adjacent buffet, to compare notes as to who stayed latest, or did something most remarkable somewhere last night, and to make arrangements for dining together this evening and going to some entertainment afterwards -- the words "Gaiety" and "Alhambra" being not unfrequently heard in such discussions. Mingled with this kind of talk you hear a great deal about corporations, town councils, water supplies, preambles, clauses, traffic, trade, shipping, curves, gradients, and engineering in general to any extent. An Irish Bill which is under investigation in one of the rooms is a frequent subject of conversation. It is connected with the supply of water to a large city, and a certain corporation is more anxious, somehow, to confer that boon than the ratepayers are to receive it. We enter the room in expectation of some amusement, and are not disappointed.
It is a spacious and imposing apartment, conceived when the architect was in a massive mood, but with compensating tendencies towards lightness. The oak panelling and the window-frames are in antique style, but designed with a modern eye to business. The fashion is bold, with no gratuitous ornament. It is mediaevalism made easy; mediaevalism made light and cheerful, and receiving a modern character from green baize, blotting-paper, and wafers. At the upper end of the room, within the bar which excludes the profane public, is a table of horseshoe shape, at the upper end of which, on the convex side, sit the committee. On the right -- looking from the lower end of the room -- is an exclusive table occupied by the clerk of the committee, who makes minutes of the proceedings. In the centre of the horseshoe is another exclusive table, occupied by a shorthand writer, engaged, I suppose, by the promoters, whose business it is to take a full note -- that is to say, take every word -- of what passes. There are reporters for the press also, at another table, in a corner; but their office can scarcely be an arduous one, judging from the little you ever see in the newspapers of proceedings before Parliamentary Committees. At a long table in front are the counsel, agents, attorneys, &c.
One of the counsel -- a silk gown -- is addressing the committee; but the members thereof do not seem to be listening with much attention. Their attitude is one of keen and appreciative indifference; and but for an occasional question in reference to a doubtful point you would think they were not listening at all. The fact is that they are following the statement with much attention -- with more, indeed, than they would bestow upon the speeches of counsel in general; for the committee are for the most part men of business -- in a parliamentary way, but still men of business -- and regard counsel prima facie [at first considering] as imposters. But the counsel in question is a great man. He is one of the leaders of the parliamentary bar. He is allied to noble families, and makes fabulous sums of money. So the committee pay him some kind of deference when they make any sign at all; and when they speak to him it is always with social respect. They address him by his full name -- a double surname -- and always with a certain graciousness, even upon a point of difference. It is always -- "Excuse me, Mr. Verbose Jawkins, but I do not quite understand;" or, "I think, Mr. Verbose Jawkins, that the committee have some difficulty" -- and so forth. Mr. Verbose Jawkins, in the meantime -- (he is a big, bland, handsome man, with a grand society manner) -- is gliding through his brief in the pleasantest possible style, patronizing his facts, and setting forth his conclusions as if they were so many friends of his, who must make their way upon his introduction. He has to refer a great deal to his papers, and is occasionally coached by the keen gentleman at his elbow. But he talks all the time that he is reading; and when he pauses for verbal suggestions, always does so with the air of being unnecessarily interrupted, and, after receiving enlightenment in this manner, corrects previous statements of his own with a severe air, as if they had been made by somebody else. In this manner he goes on for forty minutes; and then, after a peroration [closing speech] which shows that he at least is quite convinced, runs away and leaves the rest of the business to his juniors. He has during the forty minutes been opening the case for the promoters, and his fee for this little attention is five hundred guineas [525 pounds], to say nothing for refreshers and consultations.
Mr. Verbose Jenkins being wanted in another committee, the examination of witnesses is proceeded with under the conduct of juniors, as I have intimated. But all goes well. Never were witnesses more willing; never were counsel more alive to the importance of their communications. One of the witnesses is an elderly gentleman, and the counsel who examines him is a very young gentleman. The former, in fact, is the father of the latter; but the coincidence of names is apparently not noticed, and the examination goes on as glibly as may be.
The counsel looks as if he had never seen the witness before. Referring to his brief, apparently for information, he says --
"Your name, I think, sir, is Mulligan?"
"It is," replies Mr. Mulligan, with an evident desire for frankness and fair play.
"You are an alderman, I think, of the city of -- -- -," rejoins the counsel, determined, in the interests of his clients, that their witnesses shall speak with the authority of the offices they hold.
"I am," says the witness, taking upon himself, with Roman fortitude, the responsibility involved.
"Then, Mr. Mulligan," pursues the counsel, "I shall be obliged if you will tell the honourable committee" -- and so forth. Junior counsel, I notice, are generally particular in referring to the committee as the honourable committee, which is a deferential concession not strictly enjoined by etiquette. I suppose they think that it looks parliamentary; and perhaps it does.
While the examination of the witness is being thus agreeably conducted, lunch-time arrives. There is no adjournment for this refreshment, and, indeed, the committee alone seemed to be influenced by the event. At about two o'clock stealthy waiters creep in and bring to the members small plates of sandwiches and little cruets of what appears to be sherry, the latter being imbibed from tumblers with the addition of water. As a general rule, members take in their lunch with an air of reserve, as if it were statistics which might be outbid, or arguments to be subsequently refuted. But one of the number I notice receives his with relish, as if he believed in it, and intended to give an opinion in its favour. Counsel are evidently not supposed to require extraneous support in common with the other assistants at the proceedings. Some, I suppose, are too busy; others too idle. Among the latter the clerk, I think, must be held to bear the palm. He is a young man -- always a young man -- scrupulously dressed, with an eye to dignity rather than display; and like all officials with too much leisure, he seems to hold work in supreme contempt. He does a great deal in the fresh disposition, from time to time, of his papers, but has little employment for his pen. I suspect that he considers the actors in the scene as so many harmless lunatics, who have a raison d'etre for his especial benefit, which benefit is rather a bore than otherwise. The most occupied person is one who has no formal recognition. He is the shorthand writer at the centre table, close by which is the chair assigned for the accommodation of the witnesses. His pen never ceases so long as anything is being said. He gets a little holiday if the counsel read something already on record, have to wait a minute or two for a document, or pause while refreshing themselves with facts; but these are but brief oases in the desert of his labours. He has one advantage, however, which those otherwise engaged do not enjoy. I suspect that he knows nothing of what is passing, and, while pursuing an almost mechanical task, is able to think about anything he pleases. He certainly never seems to take the smallest interest in the proceedings. The reporters for the press, who are digesting them into narrative form, evince something like an opinion, as you may hear in remarks from time to time, or see in the expression of their faces. But the official stenographer is unmoved as the Sphynx, and takes no account of the meaning of the words -- his business is only with the words themselves. He does not even feel bound to see; and I believe that if the chairman were to take his seat with his head under his arm, this imperturbable functionary would not consider himself called upon to record the fact. I have heard of a gentleman of this class, on the staff of a daily journal, being sent at Easter or Christmas time, when critics are in great request, to write a review of a theatrical performance. He attended with note-book and pencils as soon as the doors opened, was a little puzzled at the overture, but brightened up when the play began, and then proceeded cheerfully to take a full note of "Romeo and Juliet" from beginning to end. He was rather surprised, on arriving afterwards at the office, to find that he would not be required to "write out" the result of his labours. Upon another occasion, it is added, he was deputed to furnish an account of an eclipse of the sun which was exciting unusual attention. He attended with characteristic punctuality, note-book in hand, and waited with great patience during the progress of the event. But as nobody connected with the business in hand was heard to make any remark, he conceived that he had nothing to do, so contented himself with sending in a report that "the proceedings were devoid of interest." Such men as these are fortunate if they have much to do with parliamentary committees; for they escape from a great deal that is boring to other people.
There is nothing remarkable in the cross-examination of the witnesses, as far as the opposing counsel are concerned. But there is a gentleman representing a particular body of ratepayers, whose interests are affected by the Bill in a particular manner, who is not a barrister, but an attorney, and he imports into the proceedings any amount of liveliness that may be missed by his brethren of the law. He is a North-of-Ireland man, and does not care who knows it. His accent, indeed, proclaims the fact in unmistakeable tones. The question involved has nothing to do with politics; but the importance of the Orange element [Irish ultra-protestant party] seems inevitable in this case. Before he begins to speak, you can see "No surrender" visibly depicted on his countenance; and were he to volunteer to sing "Boyne Water," in illustration of his case, you would consider the song as a matter of course. He bullies the witnesses with forty-barrister power, and in the intervals of his questions persists, in defiance of all rule, upon addressing the committee in a similar strain. He is told that he must not do anything of the kind, so he does it more and more; and when he has abused everybody else he takes to abusing the committee itself. Like the gentleman of debating tendencies, who applied for the situation at the Bank, and was asked to state his qualifications, he "combines the most powerful invective with the wildest humour," and he treats his audience to an unlimited supply of both. The committee at first do not exactly know how to meet this kind of attack. They are protected in the House by the Sergeant-at-Arms, but here there is no functionary responsible for the preservation of order. A judge in court can invest an usher with terrible powers upon an occasion of the kind; but the committee have no usher, nor any analogous official. So, after enduring this belligerent advocate considerably beyond the limits of endurance, they order him to sit down and be silent. As well might they order a hurricane to take a calm view of affairs. The belligerent advocate only goes harder to work, and in connection, somehow, with a water supply and the rights of ratepayers, we have again a furious tirade, in which the seige of Derry figures in a prominent manner, and "Boyne Water" becomes imminent. So in this dilemma the committee speak to somebody. I believe the somebody is the clerk, who has a great deal in common with the stenographer, and is sitting patiently during the scene, considering it no business of his, as he cannot see his way to including it in the minutes of the proceedings. This functionary seems, however, aroused at last to the consciousness that something is the matter; and I fancy that it is through his agency that a messenger is found, and a policeman appears upon the scene. But one policeman is nothing to a belligerent advocate, with his head full of 'prentice-boys at Derry. No surrender, the victory of the Boyne, the glorious, pious, and immortal memory of King William, and the rights of wronged ratepayers, all at the same time; and he makes a sturdy resistance to authority. So more policemen are called; and when four of those functionaries have arrived it is found that constitutional rights are controllable, and that even resistance to the water supply may be kept within proper bounds. By this I mean that it is possible to eject the belligerent advocate -- not merely to push him out by the neck and shoulders, but carry him out by the arms and legs -- which extreme process is duly performed, despite protests which, I am sorry to say, besides the action of the tongue, are intimately associated with the hands and feet. The belligerent advocate, in fact, fights like a kangaroo, which is said to stand upon its tail, and use its four extremities at once as aggressive agents. The efforts of the police, however, are in the end successful, and the belligerent advocate is carried to the gallery outside, where he is left to finish his speech as he best may to a crowd of clerks and idlers. The business of the committee is then resumed.
Last modified 24 November 2012