Victorian London - Legal System - Courts - Queen's Bench

Queen's Bench, Court of The ... is only accessible in Term time, and during the sittings after Term.

The Court of Queen's Bench is the supreme court of Common Law, to determine pleas between the Crown and the subject, and the rights of property; it also corrects the errors of the Judges and Justices of England in their judgment and proceedings, not only in pleas of the Crown, but in all pleas, real, personal and mixed, save only pleas in the Exchequer. This court holds its sittings for the trial of causes out of term, occasionally in Guildhall Yard.

Mogg's New Picture of London and Visitor's Guide to it Sights, 1844

As we enter Palace Yard, a few of the white wigged gownsmen are straggling into the huge hall, followed here and there by an inky satellite or an anxious client; others, bag-laden and busy, are coming forth and driving hastily off to town. We find Westminster Hall quiet, and comparatively deserted, save by a band of policemen drawn up in a double rank. The House of Commons is prorogued, and the customary crowd of constituents and expectants has disappeared. Almost every person who comes in, disappears also at one of the doors on the right. We follow the general example, and mounting a few steps, and pushing open a couple of doors, one within the other, and which are made to move noiselessly on their hinges, find ourselves in the presence of an old woman sitting at an apple-stall, supplemented with a collection of stale gingerbread and sweet-stuff, and close by the side of a roaring fire large enough to roast it baron of beef. This is the lobby of the Queen's Bench Court, and the huge fire, it is plain, is for the purpose of warming the court itself, which, by a proper disposition of the doors and drapery, can be made to receive as much of the heat as is desirable. The apple and bun-stall, which is probably welcome enough to the exhausted litigants and listeners, is at the present day all that is left of the famous array of shops which at a former period formed one of the chef attractions of Westminster Hall, and made it a fashionable promenade.
    Passing through the ventilating lobby, which is just now at a temperature of about eighty degrees, and feeling our way through the screening drapery, we are in the Court of Queen's Bench, so called from the ancient custom of holding courts before the monarch in person. The court is a single chamber, some forty feet square, and about as many in height. On this gloomy wintry day, it appears but dimly lighted from a domed circular lantern in the roof. It is crowded with people to an inconvenient extent, and it is no easy matter to obtain even a glimpse ; but, after a little waiting, a sudden vacancy elevates us to a high seat in the rear, which is the best point of view. Notwithstanding the crowd, the nearest possible approach to silence prevails; and if at any time there be heard a hum of voices or a shuffling of feet, it is quelled in a moment by an admonitory " hush --sh--sh," which, :passing rapidly round, subsides into stillness. It would seem that when annoyances of this hind do occur, they originate much more frequently among the professionals in wigs and gowns than among the spectators.
    Under a carved canopy, and in front of the royal arms, raised upon, a kind of dais, sit four judges. Their costume differs materially from that of the legal brotherhood already described ; and though a foreigner might fairly stigmatie it as barbarous, it is yet imposing, striking, and . in a degree dignified. It consists of the white wig aforementioned, but considerably amplified by two side appendages that rest upon the shoulders—and of a scarlet gown most redundant in material, and disposed in ample folds, the whole being bounteously broidered with ermine. The judge who speaks most frequently, and with a deliberate kind of hesitation which seems about to falter, but never does, is Lord Campbell; the one at his right is Chief Justice Coleridge, and the two at his left are Chief Justices Wightman and Erie. Each of the judges has a small separate writing-desk before him. Below them are seated a number of professionals, in official costume, taking notes at a long table. Again below them, in a kind of pit, are a rank of non-professionals on a bench, whom we take to be clients, witnesses, or persons interested in the causes expected to come on. In front of these is another long table, well supplied with writing materials, over which a round number of large white heads are stooping and peering on the documents which grow into existence beneath their fingers. In front of them, and facing the judges, are several consecutive rows of seats filled with the lawyers, advocates, barristers, and so on, who are concerned, or supposed to be concerned, in the several questions which have to be adjudicated. Behind these, in rows rising one above another, are the seats allotted to the public ; and these, as well as those set apart for the legal gentlemen, are all crammed to overflowing.
    The spectators manifest, by the attention they bestow, the interest they really take in the case which is going forward. It is a libel case, and the counsel for the plaintiff, who interlards every period with "mylud," and " yerludship," is zealously endeavouring to impress the bench with a sense of the profound injury his client has received at the hands, or rather the lips, of the libeller. But his lordship is not very penetrable to the counsel's arguments. He interrupts him in the middle of a rather windy piece of rhetoric, and questions him as to certain admissions which the plaintiff had made to a witness who is present on his own side. These cannot be denied, and they constitute, in his lordship's opinion, a justification of the terms complained of as libellous; and in two or three words, which we fail to catch, the case is dismissed; the counsel bags his papers and vanishes, while the next case is called on.
    Whatever takes place, there is not the slightest demonstration on the part of the spectators. Their singular gravity strikes us, and we cannot help speculating on the somewhat peculiar expression which characterises the majority of the faces present. Were we disposed to theorise on the matter, we should set down the greater part of the audience as old litigants, who in days past had won or lost some cause whose decision has determined the course of their destiny, and who, from having at a former period lived so long in an atmosphere of excitement, cannot now live without it. How else is the fact explainable that there are men, in no way interested in the causes tried, whose punctuality in attendance exceeds that of the judge himself, and who are never known to be absent during a single day or a single hour while the court is open?
    It is not difficult to discriminate those persons interested in the question at issue from these old stagers. The latter form a class who, for the most part, have never in their lives before been in a court of justice at all. They cannot settle down comfortably in a seat ; or, if they do so for a moment, they are up and off at a tangent, as some sudden thought strikes them, either to cool their fever with a bout at the apple-stall, or to write a note at one of the desks in the rear, of which there is always one or more available, and thus to inform their counsel as to some vital point forgotten till that very moment, or perhaps then for the first time imagined. Then they are seen tiptoeing out under some sudden and secret impetus, and bustling in again in a breathless state ; and not unfrequently will they be found pale, exhausted, and resigned as martyrs in some retired corner, ready to accept either fate - to rejoice in success, or to submit to defeat, so that they be only released from the pangs of suspense.

The Leisure Hour, 1858

see also George Sala in Twice Round the Clock - click here