Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - Round London : Down East and Up West, by Montagu Williams Q.C., 1894

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DOWN EAST - CHAPTER VIII 

CLERKENWELL GREEN

“Hicks’s Hall—Celebrated names—My first appearance—~Sir William Bodkin —The granting of licenses —The Argyll Rooms—Cremorne Gardens — A ludicrous incident —Wretched accommodation —The poor juryman! — How service was once evaded —The “Slaughter House “—Lockyer—Mrs. Howe—Changes in the Sessions.

   OLD names cling to old places, or else, why Clerkenwell Green? There is nothing verdant about the spot so designated. It is a small open space surrounded by dingy-looking houses, and situated in one of the most crowded districts in London.
   Clerkenwell itself is peopled by small tradesmen. Several nationalities are represented there, including Germans and French, who for the most part are engaged in the manufacture of watches, clocks, and jewellery.
   Between Clerkenwell and Holborn is to be found a very large Italian colony, consisting of organ-grinders, image-sellers, ice-cream vendors, and the like.
   The principal building of the neighbourhood stands on Clerkenwell Green itself; and is known as the Middlesex Sessions House. It was originally called “Hicks’s Hall,” though who Hicks was I really do not know, nor is it my intention to pause to enquire. It may be that Hicks erected the building; possibly he merely lived in it; or did the name originate by reason of so commanding a structure evoking the exclamation, “Bravo Hicks !“? Again I say I do not know.
   When I was called to the Bar, there were, besides the Central Criminal Court, two buildings used for sessional purposes — the Middlesex Sessions House, on Clerkenwell Green, and the Surrey Sessions House, at Newington.  A [-65-] barrister was not allowed to practise at both Courts. If he were a member of the Home Circuit, he could choose between the two; if not, the Court on the north of the Thames was the only one open to him. As an inevitable consequence, the Bar of the latter tribunal was always an exceedingly large one.
   Many celebrated men have commenced their career at Clerkenwell, notably the late Lord Chancellor. Serjeants Ballantine and Parry, Mr. Poland, Q.C., and Serjeant Sleigh. On special occasions, too, the walls have echoed the eloquence of Lord Chief Justice Holker, Sir Henry James, Sir Charles Russell, and other men of like eminence.
   It was at Clerkenwell that I made my first appearance as a criminal advocate, and here it was that I laboured, day in and day out, during a long series of years. The sessions were Dearly always held twice a month, and they usually lasted from Monday till Friday.
   There were two Courts at Clerkenwell—one presided over by the Assistant-Judge to the bench of magistrates, and the other by the Deputy Assistant-Judge, with whom sat the justices themselves. The Assistant-Judge was appointed by the Home Office, and received a salary of fifteen hundred pounds a year. He enjoyed the privilege of appointing his deputy, who was remunerated at the rate of five guineas per diem while the Sessions lasted. The Assistant-Judge also presided in the Court of Quarter Sessions for hearing appeals ironi the decisions of the magistrates in the Courts below; but the justices who sat with him had equal voting power with himself.
   When I joined the Sessions, a new and very excellent Judge had just been appointed. This was Mr. (afterwards Sir William) Bodkin. His deputy was Mr. Payne, part editor of Carrington and Payne’s Reports.
   The two Judges had nothing to do with granting either public house or music and dancing licenses. This was left to the justices themselves. Within the last few years the power of granting music and dancing licenses has been vested in the London County Council. I scarcely feel justified in criticising a method of which I have had no direct personal experience, but I may say with reference to the old system—and I had a large licensing practice—that I regarded it as very far from satisfactory. It has always struck me that, in default of a system of local option, the best persons in the London district [-66-] to have the power of granting or refusing licenses would be the stipendiary magistrates. Each one knows his own district and its requirements, and—what is of still greater importance —he is familiar with the character of all the licensed premises it contains, having them brought constantly under his notice. If the present number of licenses is to be reduced—and the interests of the community certainly demand that it should be  —surely the best way to effect the reduction would be by cancelling those attached to disreputable houses. If a confirmation committee were found to be desirable, one could be composed of, say, ten of the metropolitan magistrates presided over by the chief. The amount of extra work that would thus be thrown upon them would not be very considerable.
   In times gone by, some of the greatest field days at Clerkenwell were those upon which the applications for music and dancing licenses were heard. I am speaking of the time when the Argyll Rooms and Cremorne were in existence.
   For many years the license for the Argyll Rooms was granted on the application of counsel as a matter of course. The inspector of police was asked the usual question by the chairman: “Any complaints, inspector?” His invariable reply was: “No, sir.” The chairman then put the question to his brother magistrates:  “ Those in favour of renewing the license hold tip the right hand. On the contrary.” There were few, if any, votes in opposition, and the application was duly granted.
   But a change suddenly came over the spirit of these proceedings. Whether the public became better, or the places became worse, or both, I do not know; but one thing is certain, year by year the license of the Argyll Rooms met with determined opposition, and year by year Mr. Bignell, the proprietor, was represented by the most eminent counsel that wealth could procure. There was usually a magisterial “whip,” and the bench was crowded. The attendance of justices was sometimes, indeed, so large that several of them had to be relegated to the jury-box.
   Of course each justice had a vote, and the result was therefore always in doubt until the hands were counted. The license of the Argyll Rooms was ultimately refused, I believe, in consequence of a kind of riot that occurred one night in Windmill Street, just as the Casino was closing.
   For years the license of Crernorne Gardens was held by Mr. [-67-] Simpson, who was also the proprietor of Simpson’s Restaurant in the Strand. Subsequently Cremorne passed into the hands of Mr. E. T. Smith, the lessee of Drury Lane, a most popular and genial man, who had, I should think, seen more of life, with its ups and downs, than any other individual then living. He was a great favourite with everyone, not excluding the Middlesex magistrates, who always granted his license without a murmur. In the course of time this admirable caterer for the entertainment of the public died, and Cremorne Gardens passed into new hands.
   I think I was one of the counsel who appeared on behalf of the applicant on the occasion when the license was refused. Sir John Holker (the Attorney-General) led. The opposition, which was instituted by Canon Cromwell and petitioners in the district, was represented by the late Mr. Bottomley Firth, afterwards Deputy Chairman of the London County Council.
   On the same day a rather ludicrous incident arose out of the application for the renewal of the license of a well-known music hall in the West End. The applicant appeared before the bench in the usual way, and the license was about to be granted without any opposition being raised when up jumped Major ——, a magistrate, who had an unfortunate habit of objecting to everything and everybody on the very smallest provocation.
   The Major said he desired to put some questions to the applicant, who straightway went first white and then red, and began to tremble visibly.
   “Now, sir,” said the Major, “attend to me. Is it true that on one occasion, some few weeks back, two private soldiers of the Guards were refused admission to your ball because they were in uniform?”
   “No, sir,” replied the wretched man, “not because they were in uniform, but because we thought they were a little in— a little in——”
   “In what?” retorted the Major angrily; “a little in what, sir?”
   “Well, sir,” faltered the applicant, “not quite the better for drink.”
   “You thought, did you!” shouted the .Major, growing purple in the face with rage. “You ventured—you actually ventured——! I move that this license be refused.”
   There was an awkward pause, during which the miserable [-68-] applicant murmured something about meaning no ham.. Almost going down on his knees, he proceeded to stammer out this unfortunate observation:
   “I assure you, Major—believe me, Major—I should be the last to cast a slur upon any member of the British army. I’m the son of an officer myself.”
   This was too much for the Major.
   “You, sir!” he shouted, almost jumping out of his seat with indignation. “You! I call upon the chairman to put the question to the vote.”
   The applicant had a narrow escape, for though the bench was extremely full, the license was granted only by a majority of two. I don’t suppose the applicant ever alluded to his military connections in public again.
   In the Clerkenwell Sessions House, as in most criminal courts, there is very poor accommodation for the public. I always felt exceedingly sorry for the witnesses. Day after day they had to be in attendance, and until their services were actually required they had to kill time as best they could by loitering about outside the building or lolling in the neighbouring public-house. When at last their case came on they had to stand outside the door of the Court—huddled together with pickpockets, housebreakers, and other depraved characters who come under the general head of “prisoners’ friends “—waiting until their names were called out.
   Considering what discomforts and hardships had to be endured at the Sessions House, I often marvelled that any persons could be found to come forward as witnesses and prosecutors.
   Then, too, how hard is the lot of that long-suffering individual, the British juryman. I have always had the greatest pity and admiration for him, probably for the same reason as that given by Jo in “Bleak House”: “‘E was wery good to me, ‘e was.”
   There is, I believe, no Court in the world where the juryman has suffered more than at the Clerkenwell Sessions House. He, too, while in waiting, has no place of rest and shelter. He had, and no doubt still has, to attend from ten in the morning till five in the afternoon every day during the Sessions. It is true that, while in waiting, the juryman can sit in Court, that is, if he is able to find a vacant seat; but it is not a very great privilege to be permitted to spend many hours in a vitiated [-69-] atmosphere, with, very likely, some specimens of untubbed humanity as next-door neighbours.
   One hears of a proposal to pay Members of Parliament, but surely jurymen should be first considered. A Member of Parliament has many privileges. He may like to write “M.P.” after his name; he may enjoy belonging to “the best club in the world”; he may even not be averse to seeing his name in the papers; and have there not been known politicians who were not wholly displeased to hear the sound of their own voices? A Member of Parliament has, I admit, anxious and laborious duties to perform, but no one would deny that there is a credit as well as a debit side to the account. What, however, of the poor juryman? Where are his privileges? To be fined by the Judge if he arrives in Court a minute late; to be censured if, worn out by the verbosity of counsel, he allows his eye to rest upon the newspaper he has surreptitiously abstracted from his pocket; and to have withering glances shot at him if he ventures to return a verdict not quite in accordance with the views of the bench—these are his rewards.
   While upon the subject of jurymen, I cannot resist describing a whimsical incident that occurred many years ago. It was a Monday morning, in the middle of July, and I remember, as I journeyed to Clerkenwell, remarking how lovely was the weather. The Judge was a little late, the grand jury was being charged, and we—that is, the Bar—had either robed or were robing, and stood chatting together in our room. While we were thus engaged my clerk ushered in the well-known form of a celebrated journalist, who was an old friend of mine. He was very smart, in his snow-white waistcoat, and looked like a visitor at a garden-party.
   Shaking hands with him, I exclaimed:
   “What on earth brings you here?”
   “I’m on the jury,” he replied; “that is to say, I’ve been. summoned. For goodness’ sake get me off. I never was so busy in my life, and from what they tell me I should be kept here for a week or a fortnight. You go down and say a word for me to the Clerk of the Peace before they begin calling over the names.”
   I need hardly say that I did so at once, but returned in a few minutes only to report a failure in my mission. The clerk had informed me that he dared not erase the name without [-70-] the permission of Sir William Bodkin, who, on being appealed to had turned a deaf ear to our prayer.
   On hearing of the result of my efforts, a blank expression came over my friend’s face. It did not, however, remain there long; and the next minute a smile lit up the features of this most genial of men. It was clear that he had bethought him of an expedient, and I awaited the developement of events with interest.
   The usher came and announced that the grand jury were charged, whereupon we all proceeded into Court. On entering that chamber, my friend, without waiting for his name to be called, made straight for the jury-box, as if only too anxious to discharge the onerous duties his country had imposed upon him. I observed that he took the seat usually allotted to the foreman of the twelve gentlemen who are called upon “to true verdict give,” etc.
   The other eleven in due course entered the box. Whether they recognised the eminent journalist or not, or whether the attraction of the white waistcoat and genial face proved irresistible, I cannot say; but while preliminaries, such as taking the pleas, were engaging the attention of the Court, my friend in the box became the centre around which all his fellow jurymen gathered, like flies about a jam-pot. He appeared to be in excellent form, and as he chatted his, hearers all wore smiling and delighted faces. It was a very happy family.
   In due course the jury were called upon to elect one of their number as foreman, and when my friend rose, apparently with a view to quitting his seat, I was not surprised to see him at once thrust back by his comrades, who appeared to be quite unanimous in their desire to appoint him their spokesman. After a very pretty show of hesitation, he consented to act, and was duly sworn as foreman.
   The first case was called on. It was, if I remember aright, a very simple one of robbery from the person. The evidence, which seemed pretty clear, was given, the prisoner grew more and more dejected, the Judge summed up in a manner not too favourable to that individual, and the jury were directed to consider their verdict.
   The white waistcoat turned round, there was a whispered colloquy, during which my friend seemed to be shaking his head a good deal, and finally the white waistcoat faced about again.
   [-71-] The officer of the Court put the usual question: “How say you, do you find the prisoner at the bar guilty or not guilty?”
   With the blandest of smiles, the foreman replied:
   “Not guilty.”
   The prisoner gave a start, and the Judge looked down as though considerably surprised.
   Another prisoner was given in charge of the jury, the trial was gone through, and the result was the same.
   When the second verdict was returned, the Judge turned very red, and, addressing the foreman, said:
   “Perhaps, gentlemen, in the next case I had better read the whole of the evidence over to you.”
   The sarcasm, I need hardly say, had not the slightest effect.
   A third case was tried, and again, though the evidence seemed at least open to another interpretation, the prisoner was pronounced to be “not guilty.”
   This was too much for the Judge.
   “Rumbelow,” he said, addressing the usher, “call a fresh jury.” Then, turning to the occupants of the box, his lordship added, in a voice not quite under control: “Gentlemen, your attendance will not be required any more during the Session.”
   I shall never forget the face of the foreman as he stepped from the box. As he passed me, on his way to the door, I fancied I detected the faintest contraction about his left eye.
   There were usually from a hundred to a hundred and thirty prisoners tried every fortnight at Clerkenwell. The cases were of all kinds, from prosecutions of sharpers for indulging in the three-card trick, to those raising the question of the legality of baccarat as played at a West End club. Occasionally trials of considerable public interest took place there.
   Criminals had a wholesome dread of the Sessions House, and the magistrates in the Courts below were constantly asked to send cases to the Central Criminal Court rather than to Clerkenwell. In criminal circles the Sessions House was known as the “Slaughter House,” and certain it is that very few malefactors escaped who came before Sir William Bodkin, who had a most successful way of handling a jury.
   Lockyer, the Sessions officer, was a very remarkable man. [-72-] He had been more or less connected with criminals all his life, and knew the history of half the prisoners brought into Court. As the reader is probably aware, unless the accused himself opens up the question of his character, that issue cannot be raised until the verdict has been returned.
   It was very amusing to watch the countenance of a prisoner who had been found guilty, when Lockyer entered the witness-box, book in hand, to give an account of the culprit’s life. He performed the task in the most business-like way, totting up the convictions with as great a rapidity as the waiter reckons up a customer’s score in a City restaurant. His statement was usually something like this:
   “Known him all my life, my lord, ever since he was sent away as a lad to the Reformatory. Twenty-five convictions and two tickets in thirty-seven years.”
   Then there was Mrs. Howe, the female prison officer, who had an extensive knowledge of malefactors of her own sex. She had been, I should say, not a bad-looking woman in her youth; but she always seemed to press the more heavily upon a culprit if that unfortunate creature were of a comely appearance.
   I remember on one occasion unsuccessfully defending a well-known female omnibus thief, with reference to whom Mrs. Howe, after reading a long list of previous convictions, said, addressing me rather than the Judge:
   “She’s as bad in prison, sir, as she is out.”
   Not quite seeing how this could be, I ventured to ask the witness what she meant.
   “Why, sir,” was the reply, “she corrupts everybody she comes across.”
   It immediately struck me that, under certain circumstances, ignorance is bliss; and I asked no further questions.
   With the creation of the London County Council, considerable changes were brought about in reference to the metropolitan criminal courts. The Surrey Sessions and the Middlesex Sessions have, in name, ceased to exist. The two areas have been thrown into one, and their Sessions are known as those of the County of London. They are presided over by one Judge, Sir Peter Edlin, who now has to do the work of both sides of the river; and when one considers the additional duties that this involves, and the number of assessment appeals he has to hear, it is obvious that his must be a very laborious life.
   [-73-] It was at one time suggested that the whole of the criminal work of the metropolis should be transferred to the Old Bailey, that additional Judges should be appointed, and that the Courts there should sit continuously. It would, in my opinion, have been of advantage to the public had this arrangement been adopted.

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