DOWN AT WESTMINSTER.
[explanations in brackets]
People 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
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
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—
lways 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," [tune] 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.
The consideration of the Bill is likely to occupy a great many days. Meanwhile let us look into
another committee-room. Here the scene is very similar to that presented in the adjacent
apartment. At first sight you would say that there were the same walls and windows, the same
horseshoe table, the same committee, the same clerk, and the same shorthand writer. I cannot
say the same counsel, for there are no counsel at all. The subject of investigation is connected
with the registration of voters, amd the witnesses are examined by the members of the
committee themselves. Glancing again at the latter, you observe that they consist of prominent
political men, including several Cabinet Ministers, the latter of whom are remarkably reticent,
and seem bent upon acquiring information for their own purposes, as they doubtless are. The
proceedings are very dull, and do not repay the uninterested listener, who is unlikely to make a
long stay. In another room a railway Bill is undergoing investigation. It is an auxiliary to the
Metropolitan line, and a great map of the route is affixed to the wall. We come next to an
apartment where several little bottles of water are engaging the attention of the committee, and
several scientific gentlemen are explaining the results of their investigation into the quality of
the more or less pure liquid. But there is nothing very interesting in all this, and a proposal to
descend once more into Westminster Hall will probably meet with approbation.
All the Courts are sitting, and the proceedings in each must concern a great number of persons.
But there is one court—the one whose entrance is the farthest from Palace Yard, and the
nearest, therefore, to the steps we are now descending—which seems to have a peculiar
interest for the public. There is a large crowd outside, the members of which are evidently
incredulous of the policeman's assurance that there is no room for them within. But they can
scarcely fail to concede the fact when they see the concourse which pours forth when the doors
are presently opened; for it is now the middle of the day, and the Court has adjourned for
In either body the idlers are predominent. Scores upon scores of these seem to spend their
days down at Westminster, with no apparent object but to obtain gratuitous entertainment of a
dramatic character. In this object, however, they must be frequently disappointed; for, although
many cases in court may be "as good as a play," a great deal depends upon what play they are
as good as. They may be a great deal better than some plays, and yet not be amusing. But I
suspect that many of these mysterious people, who patiently sit out the long hours when
everybody else wishes to get away, have a stronger inducement than mere amusement. Some
are so mouldy in appearance, and so abject in their manners, that they must surely come for
shelter and something like society. It is a distraction, I suppose, for these unhappy men to
concern themselves about other people's business rather than their own. I say men, but there
are some women among them, and their case is still more anomalous. They come in couples,
never alone, as the men always do, and instead of being abject in their manners, take up a
tone of smart cynicism when commenting upon the proceedings to one another. To judge from
their remarks, which I have overheard from time to time, I suspect these ladies to be under the
fixed and unchangeable belief that her Majesty's judges are a set of old villains who have
themselves been guilty of most of the delinquencies upon which they sit in judgment, and that
the counsel—less wicked than the judges only because they are younger—are all habitual liars,
and hate truth as another person, to whom their fair critics frequently compare them, is said to
hate holy water. Further, I believe the said fair critics to entertain the impression that no poor
man or woman can possibly obtain justice in a court of law.
This class of persons—men and women—form, as I have said, the majority of those who
emerge from the court, which court, it may be here mentioned, is no other than the Court for the
trial of Matrimonial Causes, otherwise known as the Divorce Court. But many of those
concerned in the proceedings also come forth, and either go off to lunch or distribute
themselves in groups about the Hall. A case of unusual interest is to be taken presently, and
the parties appear to be all present. That well-built gentleman with the objectionably curled
whiskers and the somewhat simpering smile, who is dressed with such scrupulous care and
regard for conventional authenticity, I take at once to be the co-respondent. What nonsense it
is to judge people by appearances. The only co-respondent present (and he belongs to another
case), I afterwards find to be that ugly, brutal-looking man with a black beard, whose
countenance, sufficient to convict him elsewhere, ought to be his best defence in the Divorce
Court—and would be, probably, were the Court a less experienced tribunal. The gentleman
with the curled whiskers walks off with a lady, and promenades with her up and down the Hall.
The fact I find to be that he is the lady's solicitor [legal adviser], who is giving her some parting
words of advice previous to her appearance in the box; for the lady, it seems, is the petitioner,
not the respondent, and will be the first witness called. She is a charming creature, the
petitioner: gushing to a fault; with fair, fluffy, and fashionable hair, and no bonnet to speak of,
as regards its size, though the accessory is calculated in every other respect to inspire
admiring remark. Her costume—well, it is one of those complete dresses which are especially
called "costumes" by milliners. Altogether her array is admirably calculated to encourage her
natural gifts and graces; and it would be difficult to conceive a more perfect object of sympathy
—except that she shows no sign of having been ill-treated. Her husband, I am informed, is not
to be seen in the Hall. He is probably in court. But some of his witnesses are there; for the
monster, it seems, intends to defend the case. The witnesses pointed out to me are a couple
of women—one said to be a cook, while the face of the other says "charwoman" as plainly as
countenance can speak. These two worthies are sitting together upon the steps of the court
discussing some sandwiches which they had brought with them in a basket, and enlivening
their collation by frequent appeals to a flat bottle containing a white liquid which, other things
being equal, might be mistaken for water. The naked eye, indeed, might make the mistake, but
the naked nose never; besides, they take it in measured doses from a wine-glass, which is a
mark of attention that people seldom pay to liquid in its virgin condition. The fair creatures seem
to be greatly entertained by their conversation, which has partly reference to the particulars of
the case just concluded, and partly to their expectations of the case about to commence. They
are not long in anxiety concerning the latter; for the judge is now found to have taken his seat,
and there is a general rush into the court. We get foremost places—never mind how—and are
able both to hear and see.
The petitioner's counsel, like her solicitor, is a "ladies' lawyer"—a Q.C. [Queen's Counsel], and
a highly successful man in his profession. He tempers firmness with the utmost suavity, and his
appearance generally is greatly in his favour. He is none of your slovenly barristers who wear
slatternly robes, crumpled bands, and wigs that have not been dressed for years. His
appointments are all neat and compact, like himself generally, and he even carries his regard
for the Graces so far as to wear gloves, unlike most men at the bar, who fancy, I suppose, that
clients and attorneys think them unbusiness-like. He states the petitioner's case with all the
eloquence of which he is master; and such a course of insult and injury as he narrates one
could scarcely suppose to be exercised towards so fair a victim except by a monster in human
form. Not, however, that such is the appearance of the respondent, who is now pointed out to
us, sitting at the solicitor's table. He looks a mere boy; a little dissipated, perhaps, in
appearance, but more foolish than anything else. I believe his mental condition to be induced,
not by insanity, as some of his friends have tried to make out, but a strong determination of
blackguardism to the head. Looking at the petitioner, one cannot help hoping that he will prove
the M. in H. F. which he is represented to be.
The petitioner is called upon in due course for her evidence. There are some ladylike delays,
as there always are in such cases. First, the usher tells her that she must remove her right
glove, as preliminary to holding "the book." What a pity that she was not apprised of this
necessity a quarter of an hour before! Gloves that fit like gloves are not got off in a hurry; so
there is a little delay, not made less by the confusion of the wearer, who is evidently conscious
that the eyes of Europe are upon her. Then the judge tells her that she must lift her veil. He has
a notion that the short spotted piece of net which the lady wears stretched across her face can
be thrown over her head on the shortest notice. Nothing of the kind. She has to unpin it, and
take it bodily off. "So very provoking," as she afterwards remarks; "before the whole Court,
too!" I am bound to say that she looks far more injured without her veil than with it; for a pretty
little spotted thing which throws up the delicacy of the complexion is not so well calculated to
inspire pity as it ought to be. The good impression which she has already created is confirmed
by the manner in which she gives her evidence—somewhat reluctantly, and with the
sympathizing assistance of the junior counsel, but consistently and to the purpose. She is not
unagitated, as you may suppose, and at one point in her statement drops the glove which has
been withdrawn. This is picked up at once by the taxing-master of the court, who retains it
during the remainder of her examination, and then hands it back with a chivalrous air, such as
would not have been expected from so prosaic an official.
At last, after having been thoroughly stared out of countenance by everybody in court for twenty
minutes or so, and made the subject of sotto voce [in an undertone] commentary of an
improving kind on every side, the petitioner resumes her place in front of her counsel, her first
care being to reattach the spotted veil, which she does with the aid of a young person of most
exemplary appearance, looking like a governess with a grievance, by whom she is
accompanied. The glove she resumes at her leisure.
Some evidence follows in support of her case, which seems as strong a one as could well
be. But the respondent has a case also, and his, too, is not without support. The cook and
the charwoman, inspired by their lunch, compromise themselves so completely that they are
told one after the other to stand down; but the evidence of a gentleman who follows them is
decidedly damaging to the petitioner. He makes some unexpected statements, indeed,
which the other side shows no signs of meeting. When the time comes, however, when he is
open to cross-examination, the junior counsel for the petitioner, who has never held a brief
before, makes, from the freshness of his inexperience, a suggestion to his senior, to which
the senior, after some hesitation, accedes. The witness, it should be here stated, bears a
name not unknown as a novelist, but the fact has not yet appeared before the Court.
Ignoring loftily the allegations made by the witness, the junior proceeds in this fashion with his
Counsel. "I believe, sir, that among your other avocations you are a writer for the press?"
Witness. "I am."
C. "You are a writer of fiction, I believe?"
W. "Yes, I write novels."
C. "You write from your imagination, I think; you invent what you put into your books?"
W. "I certainly do not take my writings from other people."
C. "And what you write is not true?"
W. "I do not pretend it to be so."
C. "Oh! you do not pretend it to be so. So everything you write is simply lies; there is not
a word of truth in any of your works?"
W. "They are written from the imagination."
C. "Do not prevaricate, sir; remember, you are upon your oath. Have you been writing
truth, or have you been writing lies?"
W. "Well, lies, since you will have it so."
C. "Very well, sir. And for how long have you been writing nothing but lies?"
W. "I must really appeal to his lordship, whether I am to be subjected—"
Judge. "You had better answer the counsel, sir."
C. "I repeat, for how many years have you been writing nothing but lies?"
W. "Well, since you will have it so—about twelve years."
C. "Very well, sir; it would have been much better to have told us so candidly at first. And
you have a mother, I think, who also writes lies?"
W. "I have a mother who used to write novels."
C. "This is very sad—that I cannot induce you to be definite in your terms. For how many
years did your mother write lies?"
W. "She wrote for about twenty years."
C. "And during that time never wrote a word of truth?"
W. "I suppose not, in the sense you mean."
C. "That will do, sir. You have been writing nothing but lies for the last twelve years, and
your mother wrote nothing but lies for twenty years before. I need not question you as to your
statements concerning my clients, as the court and the jury must have formed their own opinion
upon that subject. You may now stand down, sir."
The witness's testimony is thus triumphantly shaken—a fact of which the leader does not fail to
make use in his reply. The judge tells the jury that they need not trouble themselves about the
facts elicited in cross-examination; but the jury are evidently impressed with the lying
propensities of the witness, and return a verdict for the petitioner without leaving the box.
A friend tells me that my memory is misleading me, and that the case to which I refer was not
tried in the Divorce Court. It may be so; but it is nevertheless true that, even in such a
well-conducted tribunal as that of Lord Penzance, a pretty petitioner excites more interest than
an ugly one, and a bold line of cross-examination will sometimes materially assist a case.
We turn next into another court, where nothing less interesting than a breach of promise of
marriage case is being tried.
The experience of most persons, I fancy, would tend to the conclusion that the offences which
lead to actions of this nature are continually being committed in all classes of society, and that
the occasional cases which we hear of in the courts are but a small proportion of the number. It
is seldom, indeed, that we find an instance in which both of the parties belong to the upper
ranks; for it is only under very exceptional circumstances that persons of high social status
would voluntarily submit to the exposure involved. As a general rule, the plaintiff or the
defendant, or, it may be, both the one and the other, are of eccentric character, whose
courtship has been removed from the ordinary conditions which procede matrimony. There
are usually discrepancies as to age, or station, or money, or good sense, or good looks; and
the revelations to which the proceedings lead frequently bring before us the strangest pictures
of life. Here, for instance, is one as developed in evidence to-day. The plaintiff and defendant
stand in the same relation to one another as the plaintiff and defendant in the case of "Bardell v.
Pickwick"—that is to say, Mrs. Brown let lodgings, and Mr. Jones lived in them—otherwise
there is not much resemblance between the two cases. Mrs. Brown was a widow with two
children. She enjoyed a combination of personal characteristics which, as her counsel
reminded the court, might, upon Royal authority, be considered attractions; that is to say, she
was "fair, fat, and forty," though it seems that she did not, in the opinion of those who saw her
in court, look anything like the age which was considered so charming by his late Majesty
George the Fourth. Mr. Jones, described by the plaintiff's counsel to be about fifty-five, but
"guessed" by one of the witnesses to be nearly twenty years older, is evidently, from his
appearance an aged man, is paralysed besides, and has been so for some years, though one
of the witnesses says that "he sometimes got better." He is, however, capable of enjoying life in
his own way, which way seems to be by no means disassociated with amusements out of
doors. Thus it appears that he has been in the habit of accompanying Mrs. [Brown], her two
children, and his particular friend Mr. Robinson, a retired builder, to music-halls and similar
places of recreation; and not only Mr. Robinson, but the cabman who drove them about, is
stated to have been aware of the understanding between him and the fair—not to say fat and
forty—widow. Mr. Robinson's view of the matter was that Mr. [Jones], by proposing such an
alliance, was "going to make an old fool of himself;" but it is to be feared that Mr. Robinson's
opinion was not quite disinterested, for he admitted that he lived not only with, but "upon" the
defendant [Mr. Jones], in whose premises he must have been rather at home than otherwise;
for, according to his own comprehensive account, he slept there, he breakfasted there, he
dined there, he supped there, and he "grogged" [got drunk] there. The force of living with a man,
one would think, could no farther go. In return for this slight accommodation he was in the habit
of giving defendant such little assistance as his infirmities might require; and the idea of being
displaced by such an intrusion as a wife, seems to have been peculiarly distasteful to him. For
the defendant [Mr. Jones], it should be observed, was a rich man for his station in life, and did
not care who knew it, for he had cards announcing that he was "a widower and gentleman,"
and was so "described in the books of the Bank of England," and further, that he had an office
where he lent money. He told his friends that he had nearly five thousand pounds in the Bank,
and that he would settle four thousand of it upon the plaintiff [Mrs. Brown]. The cabman, who, in
consequence of being regularly employed to drive the party about on their pleasures, seems to
have been quite on intimate terms, deposed that the defendant spoke about the lady "in a
jocular way," the jocularity consisting, as he explained, somewhat to the surprise of the judge,
in saying that she was a very nice woman, and that he intended to marry her. The cabman, too,
was able to tell that he had driven Mr. Jones to Doctors' Commons, and saw him get a
marriage-licence, and present it to Mrs. Brown. Nay, more, he certified that the defendant had
given a material guarantee of his honourable intentions in a manner, I fancy, hitherto unknown
to courtship, having ordered a brass plate with his own name to be placed upon her door, and
adorned the portal with a touching mark of his affection in the form of a new knocker. It might
be said that "he who adorned her had left but the name," and that, notwithstanding the knocker,
he did not care a rap about her. But such things are difficult to conceive; and the evidence
discloses every appearance of the fact, that if ever man meant seriously towards a lady, that
man was Mr. Jones.
But he failed in his troth after all. We are proverbially told that one power proposes, and
another disposes; but Mr. Jones did both. He had proposed to Mrs. Brown, and then felt
disposed not to have her. Hence the present action. The defence, as frequently happens in
breach-pf-promise cases, is that the defendant was not worth having; and he certainly presents
a helpless and generally abject appearance in court. But appearances of the kind are not
always implicitly relied upon by judges and experienced juries. A wealthy farmer, under similar
circumstances, has been known to present himself before the tribunal in the guise of a farm
labourer, in a smockfrock, with haybands round his legs, a pitchfork in his hand, and presenting
generally, in his language and deportment, a picture of Cymon before he fell in love with
Iphigenia. Such stooping to conquer is usually appreciated by spectators, and there is evidently
a suspicion in the present case that Mr. Jones's miserable make-up has been overdone. Both
Mr. Robinson and the cabman distinctly state that he was a very different person during his
courtship—looked well fed, was well dressed, wore jewellery, and took care of himself generally.
So his counsel's appeal cannot, evidently, be sustained upon the grounds urged; and the judge
directing that the question is simply one of damages, the jury assess them at a good round sum
—evidently beyond the expectations of the lady's counsel, who, in the absence of any allegation
of damaged affections, had not anticipated that a business-like view of her loss of position
would have produced so much. But the element of hazard enters considerably into the finding
of juries, as we all know.
The next case is of a commonplace character, and there is nothing to note except a couple of
stories then and there told to me, of a similar number of counsel present. One is a tall man, who
looks principally keen, but has a great turn for humour, and will make any case in which he is
engaged amusing. He has a large practice now, but a very few years ago he had none at all,
and was glad to hold any brief with which his more fortunate friends might entrust him. One of
these was a very eminent member of the bar, who happened one day to have a particularly
bad case, which, scandal has it, he felt particularly inclined to shirk. It was a bill case of a very
disgraceful kind, and the client was on the wrong side; so, under the plea of business
elsewhere, he handed over his brief to the faithful junior, and sought refuge in another court. Half
an hour afterwards he was in Westminster Hall, taking his ease in legal meditation fancy free,
when the faithful junior was seen rushing out of court with his gown torn nearly off his shoulders,
his hands rather more behind than before, and his wig scarcely asserting a connection with the
"Well, how have you got on?" asked the great man, smiling, and declining to notice the other's
"Got on!" was the agitated answer; "the bill is impounded, the witnesses are ordered not to
leave the court, the attorney is to be struck off the rolls, and I—I have with difficulty escaped!"
What a charming thing it is to be a great man at the bar—so that you can leave embarrassing
cases of the kind to faithful juniors!
The other member of the bar to whom I have alluded is a very severe-looking person, who
enjoys a great deal of what is said to have been Lord Thurlow's privilege—that of looking a
great deal wiser than any man ever was. Did I say that I heard only one story connected with
him? I should have said two. One is to this effect. When a young man—he has learned a great
deal since then, I have no doubt—he held the office of judge in a small colony. He was the sole
occupant of the bench, so he carried everything his own way. One day a member of the legal
bar disputed his ruling upon a certain point, and appealed to printed authority in support of his
position. The judge's account of the incident, as given by himself, is said to be this: "Would you
believe it—one of my own bar had the impertinence to tell me that he was right and that I was
wrong, and he appealed to a law book to support him—his own book, and the only one in the
"And what did you do?" was the natural question.
"What did I do?" was the indignant answer; "there was only one thing to do; I borrowed the
book from him, and lost it, so that we shall hear no more scandal of that kind."
A prisoner brought before him on a charge of theft pleaded "guilty." The judge explained to him
that he was not obliged to take this course, but might have the benefit of a trial; so the prisoner
pleaded "not guilty." The jury acquitted him; upon which the judge, addressing the accused,
said, in his most severe manner—
"Prisoner at the bar, you have confessed yourself a thief, and the jury have found you a liar—
begone from my sight."
We are now in another court, where an unusual scene is presented to a stranger. He has surely
come into a convent! There are nuns on all sides of him, varied by a few priests! At a second
glance, however, he is assured of the fact. He has not come into a convent, but a convent has
come into court. There is a nun in the witness-box—a mother or a sister, which is it? Some of
the mothers are as young as some of the sisters. She is certainly younger than most of the
nuns present, has a comely face and figure, and the clearest of complexions. She gives her
evidence—which has reference to a late member of the community who has been expelled,
and the legality of whose expulsion is being tried by the court—with an artless innocence which
interests all present. She is the best witness that the defendants have had on their behalf—for
some members of the order were not more engaging in appearance than nuns need be, and
cannot be considered to have given their evidence without a strong feeling against the plaintiff.
This same plaintiff, who sits in front of the counsel, with her face towards the bench, has been
the main object of public attention for a fortnight past, and her case promises to engage the
court for days still to come. She is closely veiled, and the curious public have not been able to
see her face since she gave her evidence in the box. She talks sometimes to an old gentleman
and a young lady who sit on either side of her—the latter understood to be her sister—but
otherwise shows little signs of animation. The sister, by the way, is of the period, periody, and
her elaborate coiffure, bonnet, and robes, contrast strangely with the muffled figure, in deep
black, of the ex-nun. The latter made out a strong case in the beginning, but it has weakened
considerably by the character of the defence; and the revelation of convent life, made on the
one side or the other, have at least not been so alarming as they were expected to be by the
public. Still the impression upon the minds of those who have watched the proceedings is that
the girl has been harshly treated, and it is generally expected that she will get a verdict, with
tolerably substantial damages. And here it may be mentioned—as I am not adhering to unity as
to time, and have not confined myself to any one day "down at Westminster," that the end
justified the anticipations, as far as the court was concerned. How far the case can be
considered concluded remains to be seen.
At four o'clock the committees close their proceedings, the Speaker of the House of Commons
being announced in the different rooms as "at prayers;" and the Hall is once more full of the
moving life from upstairs. Some of the courts, too, have risen, and are pouring forth their quota
to the crowd. There is a large assembly of the public, moreover, in the Hall, waiting to see the
members go into the House; and there is a great deal of cheering and counter-demonstration
as certain statesmen are recognised. For a great question, of a constitutional character, is
before the legislature, and popular feeling runs strongly on both sides. In a short time the last
court will have closed, and all engaged therein will have disappeared, except those of the
lawyers who are members of the House. These have a laborious time of it, and must perhaps
attend in their places for two or three hours before they can get away to dine, either in the House
or elsewhere. So those of the public who choose to remain must transfer their interest to a new