[-321-] CHAPTER X.
COURTS OF REQUESTS.
Their origin and objects—Their number, and for what districts—The Westminster Court of Requests—The Court of Requests for the Borough—The Court of Requests for the City—The Court of Requests for the Tower Hamlets—The County Court of Requests—Mode of proceeding in the Courts of Requests—Number of suits instituted for various sums—Curious cases decided at these courts—Instances given—The Useless Cradle—Board, Lodging, and Love—The Ultra-Radical Patriot—The Cambric Pocket-Handkerchief—- An Affecting Case—Utility of Courts of Requests.
COURTS of Conscience, or Requests, as they are now generally termed, are very
important institutions in the estimation of the lower classes, though known only
by name to those in affluent or easy circumstances. They were first established
about 300 years ago. They are Courts for the recovery of small debts by an
easier, more summary, and cheaper process than exists in the ordinary courts of
law. I shall, in an after part of the chapter, describe the course of proceeding
adopted by the plaintiff when prosecuting his claims in one of these Courts,
which are, in the hands of persons who can properly administer their affairs,
exceedingly excellent institutions; and it is matter of wonder that they are not
much more general throughout the country. The entire number in England and Wales
does not exceed sixty-three or sixty-four. The number in London is five. They
are, beginning at the west-end of the metropolis, the Court of Requests for
Westminster—the Court of Requests for the borough of Southwark—the Court of
Requests for the city of London—the Court of Requests for the Tower
Hamlets—and the Court of Requests for the county of Middlesex. In the
constitution and powers of these courts there is a very considerable
dissimilarity, which I shall afterwards point out.
The WESTMINSTER COURT of REQUESTS is situated in Castle-street, Leicester-square. The administration of its affairs is intrusted to 242 individuals, called commissioners. These must be all respectable rate-payers, residing within the jurisdiction of the Court. That jurisdiction extends over the parishes of St. Margaret, St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, Covent Garden, St. Clement Danes, St. Mary-le-Strand, St. George, Hanover-square; St. James, and St. Anne; and over that part of the [-322-] Duchy of Lancaster which adjoins the liberty of Westminster. It will thus be seen that the jurisdiction of this Court is very extensive. Formerly it was deemed advisable to have two Courts of Requests for Westminster; but two or three years since, one of them was abolished, and its business transferred to the court in Castle-street. The commissioners are chosen by the vestries of the various parishes in the district. The period for which they are elected is only one year; but they can be set aside at any time by the vestries. As the duties of the office are performed gratuitously, many of the commissioners very rarely attend. Others take great pleasure in presiding over the Court, and are very seldom absent. The average number to be seen on the bench is from five to eight. The Court has no power to adjudicate in cases above forty shillings. It is armed with the power of enforcing its decisions, by imprisoning the debtor for any period not exceeding seven days.
The WESTMINSTER COURT of REQUESTS can boast of a very fair antiquity. It was first constituted nearly a century since. There are two principal clerks, chosen, by the commissioners, for assisting in conducting the affairs of the court. Their remuneration is not by fixed salary, but by certain fees on the various cases which are tried. In a parliamentary return moved for in the year 1885, the, following statement on this point is given: “The emoluments of the Westminster Court of Requests consist of what remains therein, after paying the rent, taxes, and repairs of two court-houses; the salaries of the under clerks and officers, and for the printing, stationery, and other expenses incidental thereto; and are divided amongst the High Bailiff of Westminster and the two principal clerks of the said court; and were, for the five preceding years, as follows:
YEARS./ TOTAL AMOUNT OF EMOLUMENTS / HIGH BAILIFF’S PROPORTION / EACH CLERK’S PROPORTION.
1830 / £1642 19s 11d / £446 0s 3½d / £598 9s 9 ¾d
1831 / £1221 8s 9d / £333 18s 11d / £443 14s 11d
1832 / £1095 18s 2d / £315 8s 1d / £390 5s O ½d
1833 / £1078 17s 5d / £313 12s 8d / £388 2s 4 ¼d
1884 / £996 6s 7d / £280 10s 7d / £357 17s 11¼d
This would give an annual average amount of emoluments to each of the two principal clerks of about 4001.; but as one of the Courts—the one, namely, which used to sit in Vine-street, Piccadilly—has been since abolished, the reduction in the expenses must, I should suppose, be sufficiently great to make [-323-] the emoluments of each of the principal clerks of the Westminster Court of Requests worth at least 450l. a year.
The number of cases tried in this court in the course of a year, are, on an average, about 13,000. In 1830, the number tried was 15,439; in 1831, 13,766; in 1832, 14,429; in 1833, 18,567; and in 1834, it was 12,790. I have not access to official information respecting the number of cases tried in either of the intervening years. The average yearly expenses consequent on the hearing of the cases is, as near as may be, 2000l.; making the average expense of each case to be about three shillings and sixpence. An attempt has been made by the clerks to ascertain the average amount of money sued for in the course of a year; but as a great many cases are settled out of court, after the summonses have been issued, and the various amounts in such cases not being entered on the books, the clerks are afraid to hazard even a conjecture on the subject.
The SOUTHWARK COURT of REQUESTS has a more extensive jurisdiction than that of Westminster. It embraces the town and borough of Southwark, Lambeth, and the eastern half of the hundred of Brixton. It possesses the power of imprisoning the person in execution, but not for a longer period than one hundred days. It is competent to hear and decide all cases under five pounds. Five commissioners are necessary to constitute a Court when the debt is above forty shillings; and three, when the debt is under that sum. The number of commissioners is 152. They are chosen in the same way as the commissioners for the Westminster Court of Requests. When the Court was established, I have not been able to ascertain. The average number of suits instituted in this court every year, is rather above 16,000. Perhaps there is no other Court of Requests in the kingdom in which there is so slight a variation in the number of cases tried, as in the Court of Requests for Southwark. This fact will appear from the following statement of the respective numbers for the five consecutive years preceding the year 1835. In 1830, the number was 16,441 ; in 1831, 16,751; in 1832, 16,192; in 1833, it was 16,250; and in 1834, it was 16,450. The total average amount of debts sued for each year is about 22,000l.; and the annual average expenses of prosecuting this amount of debts is close on 4000l., giving, as in the case of the Westminster Court of Requests, the expenses of each case at somewhere about three shillings and sixpence. The Southwark Court usually sits two days each week. It begins its sittings at ten o’clock, and rises at half-past three. It is divided into two branches; an arrangement indispensable for getting through the great quantity of business, the transaction of which devolves on the commissioners. Instead of the chief bailiff for Southwark, [-324-] and the two principal clerks, as in the case of the Westminster Court of Requests, deriving their emoluments from fees on the cases which are tried before the Court, they have severally a fixed yearly salary. That of the chief bailiff is 500l., while one of the two principal clerks, namely, Mr. Meymott, has 750l. The other chief clerk, viz., Mr. George Drew, receives the same amount of yearly salary as the chief bailiff, which I have stated to be 500l. The Court sits in Swan-street.
The COURT of REQUESTS for the CITY of LONDON, as re-constituted under an act passed a few years since, has not the power of imprisoning for debt until after an execution has been issued against the goods, and the officer has made a return in writing under his hand that the party has no goods, or not sufficient goods. The jurisdiction of the Court is confined to the city of London. Formerly it was only competent to adjudicate on sums under five pounds; but two years since an act was passed extending its authority to all sums under ten pounds. This was understood to be only an experiment on the part of the legislature, with the view of seeing whether or not satisfactory decisions were likely to be given by courts constituted like Courts of Requests; and whether there could, if I may use the expression, be a union of “good” with cheap and expeditious justice. The experiment has been completely successful. It is doubtful, indeed, whether, on the whole, more equitable decisions could have been given in the disputed cases, had they, as formerly, been’ tried before the superior courts. The consequence in all probability will be, that the power of Courts of Requests generally will be extended to all sums under ten pounds; a circumstance which will be conferring a great benefit on the community. It is questionable, indeed, whether it might not be advisable to extend the authority of these courts to all sums under twenty pounds. It is certain, that originally they were competent to the adjustment of all disputed sums under the above amount; for it is to be recollected, that three hundred years ago, when Courts of Requests were instituted, two pounds were equal to at least twenty pounds of our present money. This, however, is a point which it would be inconvenient to discuss in this place.
The number of commissioners in the City Court of Requests, varies from time to time. The City being divided into twenty-five wards, commissioners from each ward sit for one calendar month in every two years; the month of October in every other year having two wards. The number of commissioners appointed by each ward varies, according to the size of the respective wards, from 25 to 50. Three commissioners constitute a court in the case of all claims under two pounds; seven are requisite when the amount in dispute exceeds that sum.
[-325-] The clerks of this Court receive no fees whatever: they have fixed permanent salaries. The principal clerk has a salary of 400l. per annum; the first assistant clerk receives 300l. a-year for his services; and the second clerk has 200l.
The Court sits twice a-week: on Wednesdays and Saturdays. It is divided into two branches, as in the case of the Southwark Court of Requests. if the amount of business transacted in this court goes on diminishing as rapidly as it has done for several years past, it will soon become very trifling indeed. For the five years previous to 1835, the extent of the decrease in the business of the court will be ascertained from the subjoined statement :—In 1830, the number of cases decided was 9502; in 1831, it was 8825; in 1832, it fell down to 8161; in 1833, to 6951; and in 1834, it was reduced to 6560; being a diminution to the extent of nearly one-third in the short space of five years. What the cause of this rapid and regular decrease in the business of this court is, I have not the means of knowing; neither have I yet been able to ascertain whether the extension of the powers of the court to all cases under 10l. has as materially contributed to its regaining its former amount of business, as was expected. The total amount of debts sued for in those years is thus given:
In 1830, 15,546l. 14s. 6d.; in 1831, 14,769l. l0s. 2d.; in 1832, 18,429l. 6s. l0d.; in 1833, 11,901l. 7s.; and in 1834, 10,702l.
3s. 4d. The total amount of costs incurred during the same years was 2437l. 1s. 3d. in 1830; 2254l. 17s. 4d. in 1831; 2082l. 4s. 8d in 1832; 1777l. l0s. 6d. in 1883; and 1645l. 15s. 3d. in 1834. The Court sits in a street leading from Basinghall-street to the courts of Guildhall.
The COURT or REQUESTS for the TOWER HAMLETS is of the same antiquity as the Westminster and Southwark courts. It was at first restricted to adjudication on sums under forty shillings; but five or six years since, an act was passed extending its powers to any sum not exceeding five pounds. It still does a great deal more business than any of the other courts. Some years ago, it did half as much as all the others put together. The fact of so immense a number of cases being brought before this Court is easily accounted for. Its jurisdiction not only embraces a great extent of space, and a vast amount of population, but that jurisdiction happens to include by far the poorer neighbourhoods of the metropolis. When I mention that among the districts within its jurisdiction are Whitechapel, Shoreditch, Norton Folgate, Bethnal Green, Mile-end, Bow, Shadwell, Wapping, Ratcliff, Poplar, and Stepney, I am sure the reader, who knows anything of London, can be at no loss to account for the immense number of small debt cases which are brought before the Tower Hamlets’ Court of Requests. Ten years ago, the average num-[-326-]ber of cases decided at this court was nearly 30,000 every year. Since then, the number has been decreasing at a very rapid rate. In 1881 I find the number of cases disposed of was 25,890; in 1832, it was 24,194; in 1833, the latter number had under one a reduction of nearly 7000, the returns for that year only giving 17,318 cases. In the following year, namely, 1834, the diminution seems to have been to about half the extent of the preceding year; for the number given is 13,818; while in the year 1835, the latest period to which the returns have been made to government, the number is still further reduced to 11,760. It will thus be seen that, in the short space of five years, a decrease from 25,890 cases to 11,764, has taken place in the number tried in the Court of Requests for the Tower Hamlets, which is more than one-half. To account for this very singular diminution is more than I can undertake to do. Whether the circumstance, that for some years past the commissioners have not, in point of fact, had the power of imprisoning those who cannot or will not pay, though they possess that power nominally* (*This, perhaps, requires a word of exp1anation. The statute establishing the court, invests the commissioners with the power of imprisoning for forty days; but the magistrates for the city of London and the County of Middlesex having refused to permit debtors from the court to be received into the prisons under their control, the power is nominal only.); whether, I say, this fact has anything to do with the decrease, I cannot tell. It may be, that the knowledge that the commissioners are not in a condition to imprison debtors, and that consequently the chances of recovering the sums sued for are diminished, has had the effect of making the smaller class of tradesmen more cautious in giving credit; and the same consideration may also have indisposed the creditors to prosecute.
The commissioners of this court are 240 in number. They are annually chosen by the parishes embraced in the jurisdiction of the Court. It is supposed that the average number that attends is twenty. The Court days are Tuesday and Friday. Its locality is Osborne-street, Whitechapel.
The Tower Hamlets’ Court of Requests affords an apt illustration of the well-known adage: “Most work, least pay.” The principal clerks, though they are much harder worked than the clerks of any of the other Courts of Requests in London, have the smallest pay of any. They have only 300l. each, without one sixpence in the shape of fees.
I come now to the MIDDLESEX COUNTY COURT of REQUESTS, which is situated in Kingsgate-street, Holborn. Its constitution is altogether different from that of any of the other courts to which I have referred. Mr. Sergeant Heath, or his deputy, Mr. Dubois, with the assistance of three individuals called jurymen, are [-327-] the sole dispensers of justice in it. The trio of jurymen are usually men of the humblest class of tradesmen; a fact which may be at once discovered not only by their wardrobe, but by their general demeanour. With few exceptions, they look as if they were quite unacquainted with the forms and attributes of the trial ‘by jury. It is due, however, both to Mr. Sergeant Heath and Mr. Dubois to say, that they are generally exceedingly clear and always strictly impartial, in submitting the various cases to their consideration; so that their own innate notions of what is right must necessarily, in the majority of cases, conduct them to such a conclusion as the claims of justice require. These jury-men are chosen by the sheriff of the county. There is a new set, or, as an author would say, a new series, every court-day. It is sometimes highly amusing to see them deliberating—if deliberation it can be called, where the verdict is almost invariably ‘returned within half a minute of the conclusion of the judge s address; it is, I say, sometimes highly amusing to see them deliberating as to the conclusion to which they ought to come.
How it happens I know not; but I have always observed that the juryman who is in the middle, sits up in the miserable box allotted to them as erectly, as if it were one of his special duties to do so; and that his co-jurors on either side, just before agreeing on their verdict, stretch out their necks sufficiently far to enable them to look each other in the face, after their heads have been brought within eight or ten inches of each other. The appearance of their craniums on such occasions always reminds me of three stars—thus ***. But let that pass. Unaccustomed as men in their lowly sphere of life must necessarily be to The appellation of gentlemen, it is not to be wondered at if they should manifest extreme gratification when Mr. Sergeant Heath or Mr. Dubois, arrayed in their barrister’s gown and bands, while their heads are ornamented or disfigured — whichever the reader pleases—with a wig of ample dimensions—addresses them with The most entire gravity, as “Gentlemen of the jury.” It has sometimes afforded me a positive pleasure to see the happiness or the jurymen who assist in dispensing justice at the Middlesex Court of Requests, while their ears were being greeted with the appellation of “gentlemen of the jury.” Whether it is merely imagination on my part, or not, I cannot tell; but I have always supposed that Mr. Sergeant Heath lays particular emphasis on the word “gentlemen.”
Mr. Sergeant Heath was appointed to the presidency, or judgeship—call it which you please—of the County Court of Requests in 1819; so that he has been nearly twenty years engaged in the dispensation of justice in Kingsgate-street. He has no fixed salary; but he has what is much better than any ordinary [-328-] salary; for he has all the fees consequent on the administration of the affairs of the court to himself. To be sure, he has, as he himself says, to pay out of these fees the expenses of the premises in Kingsgate-street, the salaries of deputy, clerks, criers, and other officers, if other officers there be; but after he has done all this, there is a very handsome residuum behind. I cannot say—I am told nobody but himself can—what the exact amount of his annual emoluments from the court are; but I am assured they cannot be under 15001.; while the probability is, they are nearer 20001. One day, when I was in the court, about a month since, no fewer than four hundred summonses were issued, which, at one shilling and fourpence each, would give thirty pounds for that day alone. And as the court sits about one hundred days every year, or twice every week; and as further expenses are incurred on a large proportion of the summonses, it may easily be conceived that the learned sergeant has a very lucrative berth of it. As I have not been able to obtain access to any official accounts relative to the average number of cases now tried annually at this court, I will not hazard any conjecture on the subject: some years since, the average number was about 12,000.
The Kingsgate Court of Requests exhibits quite a scene on the morning of every Monday and Thursday. The very place, indeed, may be said to constitute a scene of itself. It is a most. miserable-looking place, whether viewed from the outside or inside. It has a very dilapidated appearance outside: it is an old desolate-looking building. Mr. Heath pronounced it to be in a state of entire disrepair, on his becoming officially connected with it nineteen years ago, and he then intimated to the House of Commons the necessity of erecting a new court altogether. His views on the subject must, however, have soon after undergone a change; for the court still continues in’ precisely the same state as it was then. It is a very commodious place inside; capable, I should think, of easily accommodating, in a standing position, five hundred persons. I have seen as many as three hundred in it at a time, and yet there was ample unoccupied space. A more gloomy, ruinous, miserable-looking place inside is scarcely to be seen. It is in striking keeping with the condition of the great majority of those who have business to transact in it. A more ragged assemblage, or one on whose countenances, as well as exterior generally, the genius of destitution and wretchedness is more visibly impressed, it has never been my lot to witness. The spectacle is painful to behold: the appearance of most of the parties is that of squalor personified. Their countenances are blanched, except, indeed, in those cases in which the application of water to them is of so rare occurrence [-329-] that the actual complexion is concealed from the view. See what numbers of wretched mothers are there, with children in their arms, and children at their feet The miseries of the parents are inherited by the young innocents: the latter are a mass of rags. Poor things! they know not what warmth or comfort is: the cravings of their appetites are but seldom gratified. To have a full meal—I speak, of course, of those of them that are weaned— would, indeed, be an era in their youthful existence. The smile and the laugh, which are so characteristic of their period of life when the stern hand of adversity does not press upon them, are looked for in vain in the countenances of the children who hang about their mothers in the Kingsgate-street Court of Requests. Sickliness, and want, and suffering, are so distinctly marked in their innocent faces, that no one with the slightest pretensions to humanity could look on them without feeling the deepest compassion for them. There they have sometimes to stand, as have also their mothers, for two or three hours; and this, too, in cases without number, without having tasted food that morning. If charitable individuals, on whom Providence has conferred the riches of this world, are anxious to find out, in a metropolis in which there is so much imposition and deception, real objects for their benevolence, let such persons attend the County Court of Requests on a Monday or Thursday morning, and before they are an hour there, they will meet with many miserable creatures, who are as legitimate objects of charity as any wretches on whom the sun ever shone. But this is a point to which I shall have occasion to advert again, before closing the chapter.
And yet, amidst the scenes of destitution and wretchedness which are to be witnessed in this court, you see no proofs of commiseration on the part of any one present. The miserable creatures who are summoned are too much occupied with their own wretchedness to admit of their passing a thought on the woes of others around them; while the hearts of the parties at whose instance they are summoned, are thoroughly steeled against all sympathy or pity for their victims. As regards the officers of the court, again; they are so habituated to spectacles of the deepest wretchedness, that they are scarcely conscious of seeing them at all. You hear them call out the names of the parties who are to appear before the Court, with the most entire carelessness. All is bustle and confusion as well as wretchedness in the place. The one-half, in moving from place to place, tread upon the toes of the other half. Some are constantly advancing to the inner part of the court—which I shall have to describe presently,—while others are as constantly retiring from it. In short, there is a perpetual movement in court: to this movement, the bustling officiousness of the servants’ often contributes [-330-] in no small degree. In the middle of the place there is a wooden erection, having a good deal of the appearance of a pulpit, which one of the officers of the court ascends, and then proclaims aloud the names of the parties whose cases have reached a certain stage in their progress towards adjudication. At the farthest part of the court, and directly fronting the door, is a small apartment— not, I should think, exceeding fifteen feet square—which is specially set apart for the administration of justice. Like the body of the court, it is a miserable dingy-looking place: the windows never—not even by accident—look clean. At the farthest end, after you enter at a side-door, you see an easy antiquated chair, the covering of which is considerably the worse for the wear. Before this chair is placed a small wooden erection, which reminds one of the desks which the parish-schoolmasters in Scotland, have in one of the corners of their school-rooms. Mr. Sergeant Heath, I understand, dignifies this humble wooden affair with the name of “the bench of justice.” In that arm-chair, and with his desk before him, sits the learned sergeant, his ruddy countenance beaming with, good nature, yet indicating all the fancied dignity of a monarch on his throne. His wig and his bands rather awkwardly contrast with his self-complacent manner. The first article is but sparingly powdered, and the second badge of judgeship partakes of the smoky appearance of the place generally. On the learned gentleman’s right hand sits an intelligent pleasant-looking clerk; while three forms, of the most homely description, seven or eight feet long, are tenanted by plaintiffs, defendants, and others, mingling together in perfect confusion. They are all impatient spectators of what is going forward, because they are anxious to know what their own fate is to be. On the left of Mr. Sergeant Heath are the jury; consisting in most cases, as before remarked, of three plain simple-like men, who, regarding the learned gentleman as oracular on all matters pertaining to the court, rarely dissent from his view of the case, as indicated in his summing-up and charge. In a range of seats, or rather forms, adjoining the jury-box, are always to be seen fifteen or twenty persons, who appear in the various capacities of witnesses, friends, or uninterested spectators. At the end of an antiquated table, directly opposite the learned sergeant or his deputy, Mr. Dubois, stand the plaintiff and defendant, and their witnesses, when the last are giving their testimony. Here the opposing parties wrangle with one another, and very often interchange, notwithstanding the repeated interpositions of the Court, some remarkably choice specimens of abuse. Innumerable are the amusing scenes which have been witnessed in this spot. Two or three specimens of these, I will give in an ‘after part of ‘the chapter. On the table lies a large-[-331-] sized New Testament, bound in calf-skin; but the appearance of the binding is all the worse for the wear. In some places, you see the manifest effects of too much kissing. Everybody has heard the story of the Pope’s toe being nearly kissed away by the frequency and energy with which it is kissed by his devotees: what wonder, then-.—if the story about the pontiff’s toe be true— that the binding of the New Testament which belongs to the establishment in Kingsgate-street, should be considerably impaired by the extensive system of kissing which prevails in that court on the Monday and Thursday of every week! How many lips have been impressed on that particular copy of the New Testament! How many false oaths, alas! have been given on it! This is no uncharitable judgment. No man who has ever been in Kingsgate-street court could help being shocked, while he has witnessed the swearing to opposite facts, which is of such frequent occurrence on the part of plaintiff and defendant.
For the information of those who may be unacquainted with the subject, it may be right to describe now, in as few words as possible, the process by which a suit in the County Court of Requests may be prosecuted towards a conclusion. First of all, you go and take out your summons, which will cost you one shilling and fourpence. This is served by one of the officers of the court on the party against whom you have brought the action. Three clear days must be allowed the defendant before he is to appear in the presence of Mr. Sergeant Heath or Mr. Commissioner Dubois. If he appear in answer to the summons, the expenses of the action, which, as in other law courts, always fall on the losing party, are as moderate as the most inveterate Benthamite, or lover of cheap justice, could desire. They will only be three shillings and sixpence; two-and-twopence being charged for the hearing of the case. If the party summoned do not appear, then you get your order against him, which will cost you two shillings. If the order does not insure his appearance that day eight days, then you get it made absolute on the payment of two shillings more, when the case is decided against the party without being heard; and after some other little but necessary forms are gone through, you can attach his person. The expenses in prosecuting a case up to the last stage in this court, cannot exceed eight shillings and tenpence.
The proceedings and expenses in the other Courts of Requests are so very similar, that it is unnecessary to refer to them in detail.
The number of suits instituted for amounts under forty shillings, where the jurisdiction of the courts extends to all sums under five pounds, compared with the number above forty shillings, must have struck ‘every one who has turned his attention [-332-] to the subject. I have not access to very recent official information on this point; but in the Southwark Court of Requests, some time ago, the number of summonses issued out of the court, in one year, for debts under forty shillings, was 10,051; while for debts above that sum, the number was only 3331. The number of attachments on debts under forty shillings was 1623; and for sums above forty shillings, 683. The number of executions on debts not exceeding forty shillings was, in the same year, 2872; for sums above forty shillings, it was 1375. The number of persons sent to prison at the instance of this Court of Requests, in the year in question was 830. So that if we take this as a fair specimen of the proportion of the imprisonments to the number of summonses issued, or the suits instituted, that proportion would be as one to sixteen. In other words, out of every sixteen persons summoned to the Courts of Requests one goes to prison, either because he cannot or will not pay the debt. Of the 13,881 suits instituted in the Southwark Court of Requests, in the year referred to, only 10,389 were heard and determined by the Court; the remaining 2992 were settled by the parties out of doors. There are always a great many debtors who resist payment to the last moment; that is to say, until the executions are on the eve of being enforced. In the year alluded to, the number who did not pay until “executed,” as the technical phrase is, was 1553.* (* Since the above was written, I have got access to the following interesting information respecting the imprisonment of parties sued in the Southwark Court of Requests. It appears that from August 1823 to 1831, a period of eight years, the number of debtors committed to the County Gaol was 6104; and the number to the Borough Compter was 1992; making a total of 8096. Of the 6104 committed to the County Gaol, there were 2047 whose debts did not exceed twenty shillings; 1798 whose debts did not exceed forty shillings 995 whose debts did not exceed sixty shillings; and 1263 whose debts did not exceed one hundred shillings. Of the same number, 4482 were imprisoned for a period not exceeding twenty days; 828 for a period not exceeding forty days; 380 for a period not exceeding sixty days; and 414 for a period not exceeding one hundred days. In the case of those committed to the Borough Compter, the results are similar.)
I have referred, in a former part of the chapter, to the odd and amusing illustrations of human character which are so often afforded at the London Courts of Requests. In attempting to convey some idea of a few of those cases, it is proper to remark, that no description can do justice to them, as so much depends on the looks, tones, gesture, and manner altogether, of the parties. The first case may be entitled
THE USELESS CRADLE.
A little, massy-headed, bushy-haired man, with a bluff face answered to the name of Adam Crofts, the moment the crier of [-333-] the court pronounced it. He appeared before the commissioners with the view of soliciting their aid to enable him to accomplish what he had failed to effect by any means within his own reach, namely, to compel or induce—he did not care which—a Mrs. Mortimer, a plain-looking woman, seemingly about two-score years of age, to pay him the sum of seven shillings and sixpence, which he alleged she owed him; but which position he totally denied.
Commissioner - What are you, Mr. Crofts?
Mr. Crofts—I am Mr. Crofts, Sir, please your honour.
Commissioner—I did not ask your name.
Mr. Crofts—I beg your vorship’s pardon; I thought you did.
Commissioner - What I wish to know is, what are you
Mr. Crofts (with great surprise)—What am I?
Commissioner—Yes; what are you? The question is a very plain one.
Mr. Crofts— Well, Sir; and didn’t I give you a plain answer
Commissioner - You hav’n’t given me any answer at all.
Mr. Crofts (increasingly surprised)—Your vorship’s surely mistaken. Didn’t I say I was Mr. Crofts?
Coinmissioner - But how do you live?
Mr. Crofts (looking quite enlightened)—Oh ! that’s what you mean, Sir, is it?
Cotnmissioner - Thats what I mean. Pray, then, answer the question:
Mr. Crofts—Oh, certainly, please your honour. Why, then, I live by my profession.
Commissioner (looking very much surprised)- You don’t mean to say you’re a professional man?
Mr. Crofts (with a self-complacent smile)—I certainly do, your vorship.
Commissioner— And to which of the professions may you belong?
Mr. Crofts—To the profession of a cradle dealer. (Roars of laughter.)
Commissioner (greatly surprised)—To the what profession?
Mr. Crofts—To the profession of a dealer in cradles. (Renewed laughter.)
The several commissioners on the bench looked at each other, and heartily joined in the general laugh.
Commissioner—Well, this is the first time that I have heard dealing in cradles dignified with the name of a profession. But let that pass; pray what is your claim against this woman?
Mr. Crofts (smoothing his hair with his hand)—I’ll tell you in as few words as I can, Sir.
Commissioner - Well, be as brief as possible.
[-334-] Mr. Crofts—You must know, your vorships, as I makes and sells the best cradles as vas ever made or sold; and this ‘ere voman, who had only been married six months, comes past my shop, where I always keeps a large assortment of cradles of every variety and at all prices, and all warranted town-made, and the best quality as —
Commissioner (interrupting him)—Mr. Crofts, have the goodness to confine yourself to the case before the Court, and don’t wander into an eulogium on the merits of your cradles.
Mr. Crofts—I beg your honour’s pardon for transgressing (digressing) ; I’ll not forget your polite hint, Sir. (Loud laughter.) Well, as I vas a-sayin’, she comes one day past my shop door—and I should tell your honours that her husband was with her—and says she to me, says she, “What is the price of your cradles ?“ Says I to her, “Do you want a cradle, Ma’am ?“ Says she to me, “Of course I do, or I would not ask you the price of the articles.” “We1l, dear, I don’t think you do at present,” suggested Mr. Mortimer, mildly. “I must be the best judge of that myself, I should fancy,” answered Mrs. Mortimer. with a contemptuous toss of the head. “No doubt, you must, Ma’am,”’ said I, anxious, as your vorships will readily believe, to do business. “Very well, love,” said Mr. Mortimer, soothingly “if you think you want a cradle, have one by all means.” “.I may require it by-and-by, and it’s just as well to have it in the house beforehand,” remarked Mrs. Mortimer, in a subdued tone. And says, I, “You’re quite right, Ma’am; by all means, you—”
Commissioner—Pray, Mr. Crofts, be so kind as to come to the debt at once, and don’t waste the time of the Court with extraneous matter of this kind.
Mr. Crofts—Vell, your worship, I’ll tell you the remainder of it in half a minit. Mrs. Mortimer steps into my shop, and pointing to a particular cradle, said, “Vat’s the price of that ‘ere ?“ “Nine shillings, and not a farden more nor less,” says I. “It’s not worth it,” says she. “I tell you vat it is, Ma’am; if you get as good a cradle as that von in this ‘ere town at the money I’ll make a present of it to you gratis for nothing.” (Loud laughter.) “ I’ll only give you—”
The Court— Really this is insufferable trifling with the Court. Don’t tell us anything about what you asked, or what she offered, but, say at once, did the defendant buy the cradle, and what did she give you for it?
Mr. Crofts—Bless your honours’ hearts, she didn’t give me nothin’ at all for it, and that’s the reason vy I have brought’her here to-day. (Renewed laughter.)
Commissioner—Tell us, then, what she engaged to give
Mr. Crofts—She engaged to give me seven-and-sixpence, and to—
[-335-] Mrs. Mortimer—It’s all false, your honours; and so it is; I never bought the cradle at all.
Mr. Mortimer—It’s all false, your vorships; she never bought the cradle at all.
Mr. Crofts (surprised, and with much energy)—There, now; there’s a couple for your vorships! She did buy the cradle,
Mrs. Mortimer (with great vehemence)—I did not, you lying rascal. You sent it to us without being ordered.
Here the Court suggested to the defendant that she must not allow herself to be carried away by any temporary heat, and Mrs. Mortimer nodded to the Court in token of her intention to act on the suggestion.
A Commissioner—Did you, Mr. Crofts send the cradle to the defendant without her having concluded a bargain with you first?
Mr. Crofts—I’ll tell you how it is, Sir. I said the harticle was as vell worth nine shillings as it was worth twopence-half penny. “Seven-and-sixpence is the outside value of it,” says she. “Let me send it to you, and you can pay it at any other time,” says I. “Seven- and-sixpence,” again said she ; “ I vouldn’t give a farthin’ more for it.” And so saying, her husband, who spoke very little, and herself quitted my premises. I sent her the cradle next day, saying I would accept her offer.
Commissioner—When was this
Mr. Crofts—Eighteen months ago.
Mra. Mortimer—Don’t believe him, gentlemen; it was only seventeen months and some odd days. (A laugh.)
Commissioner—Well, Mrs. Mortimer, you appear to have got the cradle at your own price; what are the grounds on which you refuse to pay the money?
Defendant—I never made the bargain; he did not accept the offer when I made it; and therefore I was not bound to take the article next day.
Commissioner—But why then did you let the cradle into the house? Why did you not return it at once?
Mrs. Mortimer—I did not like to be uncivil, your honour; but I sent a message to him next day to come and fetch the cradle away, as I did not vant it. He may have it now.
Mr. Crofts—But I von’t at this ‘ere distance of time. She would now return it, because as how she has no prospect of ever having a little inhabitant to it. (Peals of laughter, during which Mrs. Mortimer looked quite savage at the distinguished vender of cradles.)
Mrs. Mortimer—You’re nothing but an impertinent—
The Court—Mrs. Mortimer, we cannot allow any such expressions; you must restrain yourself while here.
[-336-] Mrs. Mortimer, putting her handkerchief to her eyes, sobbed out—” It’s werry, werry difficult to do, Sir.”
It was eventually decided that as Mr. Crofts had not accepted Mrs. Mortimer’s first offer, but sent the cradle next day when she had changed her mind as to the probability of requiring a cradle at all as a piece of household furniture, and as the cradle had never been used, Mr. Crofts must take back the article, and try to dispose of it to some other customer.
“To some one who will have use for it,” sighed Mrs. Mortimer.
“Vich is more than you ever vill,” growled Mr. Crofts, as he turned about to waddle out of the court, manifestly chop-fallen at the result of his case. As Mrs. Mortimer left the court, she was overheard to say to a female acquaintance, that she would never again bargain for any article merely because she might possibly at some future day want it; and to express her regret that she should have priced the cradle, or bought, as she had done, a quantity of baby’s clothes, before she was justified in believing they should be required.
BOARD, LODGING, AND LOVE.
The next case called on for decision was, perhaps, still more ludicrous. A thin-faced vixen-looking woman, evidently approaching her fiftieth anniversary—if indeed, she had not already celebrated it—with a visage as dark in the complexion, and as shrivelled in the appearance, as an Egyptian mummy,—summoned a rather smart-like personage, of more than the usual altitude, for the sum of 11. 16s. 6d. The plaintiff gloried in the name of Sarah Cleek, while the defendant assumed, or really was baptised in, the fashionable cognomen of Augustus Standish.
Mr. Dubois (to the plaintiff)—Pray, madam, what are you?
Plaintiff—I’m Missis Cleek, my lord ; as honest and wirtuous a hooman as ever lived, though ‘I should not say it myself.
Mr. Dubois—I did not ask your name, nor question your honesty or virtue. What I want to know is, how you get your living?
Mrs. Cleek—I takes in men, your honour.
Mr. Dubois—Do what?
Mrs. Cleek—Takes in men, your wurtship.
Mr. Augustus Standish (sarcastically, and twitching a sharp prominent nasal protuberance which ornamented his face)—She’s spoken the truth, Sir. She does take in men.
Mr. Dubois—Takes in men! For what purpose, pray?
Mrs. Cleek—For the purpose of keeping them, Sir.
Mr. Dubois looked quite amazed, as if the whole affair had been thoroughly unintelligible to him; but a juryman speedily [-337-] enlightened his ignorance, by suggesting that the woman simply meant that she kept lodgers.
“Oh! I see,” said the commissioner, with some emphasis, as the light broke in on his mind. “Oh! I see the thing quite clearly. You’re a lodging-house keeper ?“
Mrs. Cleek—I keeps lodgings, Sir.
Mr. Dubois—And the defendant, I presume, was one of your lodgers?
Mrs. Cleek—That’s just it, my lord; and he was the most worthless one I ever had. “You were not always of that opinion, Mrs. Cleek,” interposed Mr. Augustus Standish, casting an expressive glance at the plaintiff.
Mr. Dubois (addressing the defendant)—You be silent, now, Sir; you shall be heard in your defence presently.
“Very good,” said Mr. Augustus Standish, drily.
“He was so very bad, I presume, that you could not keep him ?“ suggested Mr. Dubois, addressing himself to the plaintiff.
“You’ve just spoken the truth, my lord,” answered Mrs. Cleek, with manifest gratification.
Mr. Augustus Standish delivered himself of a tremendous groan. Mr. Dubois—And you have summoned him for arrears of board and lodging ?
Mrs. Cleek— our Lordship’s right again.
Mr. Dubois—And pray what is the amount!
“Here it is, my lord,” said Mrs. Cleek, handing Mr. Dubois a slip of paper, which looked as dirty as if it had just made the descent of the chimney.
Mr. Dubois - (looking at the account)—One pound sixteen shillings and sixpence.
Mrs. Cleek—That’s the sum.
Mr. Dubois (to the defendant)—Well, Mr. Augustus Standish, how do you propose paying this sum?
Defendant—Paying it, Sir?
Mr. Dubois—Yes, paying it!
Defendant—Don’t owe the woman a farthing, Sir.
“Oh, you good-for-nothing wagabond!” vociferated Mrs. Cleek. “How can you say so?”
Mr. Dubois—Do you mean to say, then, that you have paid the amount?
Defendant—I never owed her a fraction in my life, Sir.
Mr. Dubois—What! do you mean to say that you never slept and boarded in her house?
Defendant—I did certainly stay in her house for fifteen or sixteen days; but that was in the capacity of a friend, not as a lodger. It was on her own invitation.
[-338-] Mr. Dubois (to the plaintiff)—Is this the fact, Mrs. Cleek?
Mrs. Cleek—He’s the mouth of a —
“Stop, stop, madam, if you please,” interrupted Mr. Dubois, anticipating what was coming; “there must be no improper language here. You mean,” he continued, “to say it’s not true?”
Mrs. Cleek—There’s not a morsel of truth in it, my lord. I got acquainted with him some months ago, greatly to my sorrow (here Mrs. Cleek sighed, and attempted to cry); and having told me, about three weeks since, that he was going to quit the house in which he lodged and boarded, because, as he said, the landlady wished him to marry her, which he would not agree to, as he liked another landlady better, I said to him, “Come, and stay in my house.”
Mr. Dubois—I suppose you fancied that you were yourself the other landlady he liked better?
Mrs. Cleek held down her head, and sighed out—” Well, if I did, he gave me abundant reason to think so.”
Mr. Augustus Standish seemed all this time as miserable as if he had been on the rack.
Mr. Dubois—But though he accepted your invitation to reside in your house, he was not so affectionate to you as you had been led to expect?
“He’s a brute, my lord !“ replied Mrs. Cleek, with frightful emphasis; and after a momentary pause she added, bursting into a violent fit of crying, “He is married; he has a wife in the country, my lord. It was fortunate I made the discovery, my lord. We were one day sitting at breakfast together, and he said, says he, ‘Mrs. Cleek, may I trouble you for another slice of toast?’ Here I should state,” continued Mrs. Clock, by way of parenthesis, “that he has an awful stomach, my lord (loud laughter): he devoured the toast much faster than I could make it, and swallowed up everything as vas ever put before him. (Renewed laughter, mingled with sundry groans and inward curses from Mr. Augustus Standish.) Vell, as I vas a saying, says he, ‘Mrs. Cleek, will you oblige me with another slice of that very excellent toast?’ ‘Certainly, my——’ Before I had finished the sentence, the postman knocked at the door; and on my opening it ‘Mr. Augustus Standish—sixpence-halfpenny,’ says he, holding out a letter to me. I took the letter, and carried it to the brute, and——”
“Mrs. Cleek, you must be more guarded in your language,” said Mr. Dubois, interrupting the voluble and violent plaintiff.
“I vill, my lord; and yet I’m so aggrawated that it’s not wery easy to be calm. Yell, I carried the letter to——”
“But pray, madam, what has all this to do with the debt for which you have summoned the defendant ?“ interposed Mr. Dubois, again interrupting Mrs. Cleek.
[-339-] “A great deal, my lord, as you shall presently see. I carried the letter to him, and immediately, on looking at its direction, the fellow exclaimed, wiolently striking his forehead with the palm of his hand—‘A letter from my vife, by —— !—From my sister, I means,’ he immediately hadded, correcting himself, for the purpose of deceiving me; but it vould not do. ‘Oh! you wagabond! you’re married, are you?’ says I. ‘Vell,’ says he, with a terrible groan, ‘I am married, Mrs. Cleek; there’s no good in denying it.’ - ‘You’re vorse than a .— to deceive and injure a helpless female voman like me,’ says I, werry hindignant; and we had a quarrel, my lord, and I turned him out of the house; and that’s the vay in vich he howes me the money.
Mr. Dubois—I don’t yet see very clearly the connexion of all this with the debt of one pound sixteen shillings and sixpence. However (to Mr. Augustus Standish), you hear the woman’s statement!
Defendant—I do, Sir; but I owe her nothing. We had been acquainted for some time, and she implored me to reside in her house as her friend. She thought, Sir, that if I were once there, she would take me in, in the matrimonial way; but I am too old a bird to be caught with chaff. When she found that I had a wife, she kicked up such a rumpus, and behaved so very like a fury, that I would not have staid an hour longer in the house, though she had given me the world to do so.
Mr. Dubois—Pray, Sir, how do you live?
Defendant—In the best way I can.
Mr. Dubois—What is your profession!
Defendant—No profession at all, Sir.
Mr. Dubois—What! have you no means of living at all!
Defendant—Why, Sir, I think I must have the means of living some way or other, otherwise I could not live; but what the means are, is really more than I can tell. (Laughter.)
Mr. Dubois—I suppose you live by your wits?
Defendant (with much archness of manner)—Yes, Sir, when they will keep me.
Mr. Dubois—I presume you delude foolish women like the plaintiff, with the notion that you are attached to them, and then partake of their mistaken hospitality?
Defendant—Always happy, Sir, to quarter on the enemy. (Laughter.)
Mr. Dubois (looking again at the account)—I see that eight-and-sixpence of the sum is for borrowed money: that, Mr. Augustus Standish, you must pay to the plaintiff. I think the one as bad as the other. Mrs. Cleek evidently had a matrimonial design on you, when inviting you to reside in her house; while [-340-] you pretended kindness to her for the purpose of living comfortably at her expense. You are both tarred with the same stick.
AN ULTRA-RADICAL PATRIOT.
The next case forcibly illustrates the folly of neglecting one’s trade or calling, however humble it may be, for the promotion of political objects. The plaintiff; Mr. Robert Smith, was a most industrious journeyman brass-founder; and the defendant, Mr. John Snaggs, pursued the same calling, but was noted for the preference he gave to politics over his business. His employer, like himself; was a Radical of the first water, so that he did not lose his place in consequence of his devotion to the cause, as he always called it, of pure patriotism. The defendant had a wife and five children; but he was ready, like Hannibal of old, to “sacrifice them on the altar of his country.” In so far as they were concerned, he was a patriot of the most disinterested class. If there was to be a meeting at the Crown-and-Anchor, at White Conduit House, or at Mr. Savage’s in Circus-street, there Mr. John Snaggs was sure to be without fail. His wife might be sick at home, or his five children might be within a few removes of death from starvation: no matter; these were things that never moved him. He was in the habit of speaking at those meetings; and come what might at home he must needs parade his patriotism on such occasions. His wife and children were as dust in the balance compared with universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and the vote by ballot. But the character and notions of the man will best appear from what took place in court.
The plaintiff, Mr. Robert Smith, on his name being called, immediately stepped forward to state the case. He had all the appearance of a hard-working, but honest man. e was respectably attired; and while his countenance afforded every indication of a serene and happy mind, it formed quite a contrast with that presented by the defendant, Mr. John Snaggs. His apparel was a mass of rags; it was the surprise of everybody how his clothes hung together. His toes were unmannerly enough to intrude through his shoes; which last exhibited a most marked aversion to Warren’s jet blacking, Hunt’s matchless blacking, or any other blacking, no matter by what name it is called. His hat had once gloried in a crown; but at what period was a problem which none but himself could solve; if, indeed, even he could do it. His elbows imbibing the spirit of liberty which glowed so intensely in his own bosom, disdained to be confined within the limits of his coat-sleeves; but boldly making their way through the cloth, displayed to all around their warm attachment to freedom. In the article of apparel, indeed, he proved himself to be perfectly independent from top to toe. His face looked [-341-] as if it had not been washed for a week; while any one might have sworn that his beard had not been visited by a razor for at least a fortnight. His cheeks were lank and pale, and his hands bony. He had all the appearance of a man to whom the advent of a good dinner must have proved an exceedingly rare occurrence. His wife, with a child in her arms, was equally famished-like in appearance; a circumstance which will not appear surprising when the reader is made acquainted with what follows.
The plaintiff, having been called on to state his case, proceeded to say, that the debt for which he had summoned the defendant had been contracted—if that was the proper word—under very unusual circumstances. He lived in the same house, and on the same floor as the defendant. One day, in the previous week, having expected two of his wife’s friends to take pot-luck with them, his wife had determined on treating them to a little boiled beef; cooked in her own incomparable style. With this view she had purchased ten pounds of the best beef to be had in the neighbourhood, which was duly put into a pot in boiling water. The hour appointed for dinner was two o’clock. At half-past one, Mrs. Smith had occasion to go out for a quarter of an hour, to get some necessary articles for dinner. She left the key in the door, and desired the defendant or any of his family, to answer her bell if any one rung while she was absent. This was at once agreed to, and Mrs. Smith accordingly proceeded to market. “ Fancy,” said the plaintiff, “my wife’s surprise, when she found on her return, that her friends had arrived, but that the sirloin of beef was taken out of the pot.” Her first impression was, that they must have ate it themselves by way of revenge for her being out of the way when they arrived; but she soon discovered that this was an untenable hypothesis. On discovering the felony which had taken place, she held up her hands in amazement and uttered various exclamations, which the plaintiff did not think proper to repeat to the Court, and which I think it were improper to repeat here. She rushed into the room of the defendant, for the purpose of inquiring whether his wife or children had seen any one in her apartment while she was out. The Court would imagine her surprise, when she found that defendant and children were making a hearty repast, or rather had made a hearty repast, for it was nearly all gone, on her identical piece of meat. As soon as her astonishment and indignation would allow her to articulate, she charged the defendant with the theft, but he stoutly and unblushingly denied it. “Where, then,” said she, “did you get that piece of beef on which you have been dining? It is very unusual to see you with a sirloin of beef.” “That may be, Mrs. Smith; but usual or unusual, you see we have had as prime a piece of beef as ever—“ He was inter-[-342-]rupted by one of his own children, a boy about six years of age, who, in the simplicity of his innocent soul, exclaimed, “Oh, yes, father; now you know you did take it, for I saw you.” At this critical juncture, Mrs. Snaggs, who had been out of the house for the last half hour in the hope of obtaining some provender for her famishing children, made her appearance; when the matter being stated to her, she soon extorted a reluctant admission from the defendant that he had stolen plaintiff’s wife’s dinner; for which offence he made a thousand apologies, and pleaded poverty, urgent necessity, and so forth. But though in the first instance he exhibited so much apparent contrition for his transgression of the laws both of good neighbourhood and moral rectitude, he afterwards chose to be insolent, and pretty plainly applied, in this particular case, his Radical notion of a universal equality of the good things of this life. It was under these circumstances that the plaintiff had summoned him to pay the price of the sirloin of beef; amounting to seven shillings and fourpence. He had preferred making the thing a matter of debt, though he had no doubt he could have proceeded criminally against the defendant.
Commissioner (to the defendant)—Well, Mr. Snaggs, you hear the plaintiff’s statement; what do you say to it?
Defendant (putting himself into an oratorical attitude, as if he had meant to speak for an hour)—I have a few words to say, Sir, if you’ll allow me.
Commissioner—Well, let them be as few as possible, and see that they be to the point.
Defendant—I’ll take care they shall, Sir. The facts of this here case, then, are these. (Here Mr. Snaggs assumed a very consequential aspect, stretching his neck, and placing his arms a-kimbo.) The facts of this here case are these: Feeling as every man vot is born an Englishman ought to feel, that we live in wery ewentful times; and that it is every man’s duty to hoppose despotism, and to stand up for liberty, I vent to Savage’s Great Hall in Circus-street, to make a little bit of a speech, the night afore this here haccident ‘appened, in support of Dr. Wade’s motion for uniwersal sufferage; and I had—
“Really, my man,” interrupted the Commissioner, “I don’t see what earthly connexion universal suffrage or Dr. Wade’s motion, or any other body’s motion, has with your appropriating to yourself the dinner of the plaintiff. You must confine yourself to that.”
Defendant—I was a-going your honour, to show that I had patriotism enough in my composition—for you must know, Sir, that I am an Englishman born—to sacrifice all indiwidwal considerations for the sake of the people of this ‘ere country, by [-343-] leaving my employment on that occasion to perform a public duty. And, Sir, ‘I do think, that yen these wagabonds of Tories—
Commissioner (harshly)—There must be no politics here. If you do not, Sir, come to the case before the Court at once, I shall not hear a word from you.
Defendant—I’m sorry, your vorship, that I should say any-think as vould offend you. I never vishes to offend any one, but the enemies of England. I vas jist about to say, that feeling as I do, that until we have uniwersal sufferage, this country can never be prosperous or happy; and Dr. Wade and Mr. Feargus O’Connor having—
Commissioner—Really, I cannot allow this to proceed any longer. I must at once order—
Here Mrs. Snaggs, with tears in her eyes, starvation in her face, and a ragged, half-famished child in her arms, stepped forward, and begged leave to say a few words. Permission having been granted her to speak, she stated that her husband had, for more than twelve months, formed an intimate acquaintance with five or six persons calling themselves patriots (a term of which she did not know the meaning), that they talked about nothing but what they called politics; and that ever since he had formed this acquaintance, he had neglected his business to attend public meetings, leaving her and his five children whole days without a particle of food. Her own tears and entreaties, and the cries of his children, had not produced the slightest effect upon him. On the day in question, as she understood from her eldest daughter, he had been so besieged by the cries of his children while she was out, for something to eat, that, in a fit of desperation, he had gone into their neighbour’s apartment, and abstracted from the pot the beef intended for their dinner. The poor woman added, that unless he gave up his patriot acquaintances and public meetings, and attended to his business, there would be no other resource for her and the children but throwing themselves on the parish.
The plaintiff here stepped forward, and said he believed that the facts of the case were such as Mrs. Snaggs had represented.
Commissioner (to the defendant)—You ought, Sir, to be ashamed of yourself. You have not only brought your wife and family to the brink of starvation, but if you persist in your patriotism,” as you call it, you will speedily ruin yourself for ever. See the difference between the circumstances of the plaintiff and your circumstances; he has every comfort which a person in his station can wish, while you and your family are in the greatest destitution; and all this because he attends to his business, while you neglect yours. You must pay the plaintiff the [-344-] value of his piece of beef; and I hope you will take a lesson from what has passed. If you give another such practical illustration of your theory respecting the equality of the good things of life, you may have to answer for it in a different place.
The defendant, who up to this time took the matter quite coolly, now seemed, all of a sudden, quite impressed with a sense of the folly of his conduct, and solemnly pledged himself to abjure “patriotism” and politics in future, and to attend to his business. His poor wife heard his declaration with unspeakable joy, while the plaintiff said the circumstance afforded him so much pleasure, that he would not only nob exact payment for the beef, but would cheerfully be at the loss of the expenses of the summons.
THE CAMBRIC POCKET HANDKERCHIEF.
The next case afforded infinite amusement to all present. A slovenly-dressed but rather good-looking, portly female, seemingly about her twentieth year, and calling herself Jane Jukes, summoned Peter Straps, a stalwart, half-starved young man with carroty hair, a marked squint in his right eye, and a beard which had evidently been suffered to vegetate without interruption for at least six or seven days,—for the sum of three shillings and sixpence.
Commissioner—What is this for, Miss Jukes?
Plaintiff—Please, Sir, I’m not Miss; I’m Missis Jukes.
Commissioner—Well, no matter, Mrs. Jukes. Pray tell us what the three-and-sixpence is for?
Mrs. Jukes—It’s for a cambric hankercher (a handkerchief), please your vorship.
Commissioner—What! are you a handkerchief merchant, then?
Mrs. Jukes— Oh! nothin’ of the sort, your vorship. The money is for a hankercher lent, not sold.
“Sir, ‘she lies like truth,’ as Shakspeare says,” interrupted the defendant, folding his arms on his breast, and assuming a very theatrical attitude.
Commissioner—Sir, you hold your tongue at present; you shall be heard by-and-by.
“She gave it me, Sir. Did I not, Mrs. Jukes (turning to the plaintiff), on receiving it from your hand, say, in one of the poems of the immortal Bard of Avon.
‘Gifts then seem
Most precious, when the giver we esteem?’
And did I not——”
[-345-] Mr. Straps was evidently about to launch into some long exposition of the circumstances under which the handkerchief had come into his possession when he was again interrupted by the Court, and admonished, in pretty plain terms, that if he did not wait until his turn came, the case would be decided against him.
Commissioner (to the plaintiff) Proceed with your case.
Mrs. Jukes—If I must tell all, Sir, this ‘ere man is a hactor at a small twopenny theatre in Newton-street; and he said to me, one afternoon, says be, “Jane, my love, we are a’goin’ to have a werry affectin’ piece of tragedy to hact to night; and as I am to have the principal character, and will have a good deal of cryin’ to go through, per’aps you would oblige me by the use of your slap-up hankercber for the occasion?’ “My cambric hankercher ?“ says I. “The best hankercher you’ve got,” says he. And so I gave him my cambric hankercher, my lord.— (Laughter.)
Commissioner (to the defendant)—Well, Sir, what have you got to say this!
Mr. Straps (heaving a sigh, and looking very sentimental) The truth is, your worship, there was a sprinkling of the tender passion in the matter. As Shakspeare says in his “Love’s Labour Lost,”
‘As love is full of unbefitting strains;
All wanton as a child, skipping, and vain;
Form’d by the eye, and therefore like the eye,
Full of strange shapes, of habits, and of forms:
Varying in subjects, as the eye doth roll
To every varied object in his glance,
“Pray, Sir, if you please,” interposed the Commissioner, before the hero of the sock and buskin had time to finish his sentence; “pray, Sir, if you please, tell us what you have got to say yourself, and not what Shakspeare says?”
Mr. Straps—Ah, Sir! as Shakspeare says, in his beautiful drama of “Troilus and Cressida,’
“Didst tnou but know the inly touch of love,
Thou would’st as soon go kindle fire with snow,
As seen to –‘“
“Really, Sir,” said the Commissioner, again interrupting Mr. Straps, “this is trifling with the Court. It must not be permitted.”
Mr. Straps “Well, Sir, I should be sorry to act improperly or to say anything disrespectful to this Court; but as I was about to state, I was at the time devotedly attached to Mrs. Jukes, and believed her to be equally so to me in return. We were, Sir, [-346-] in short, pledged to each other; and under those circumstances, I thought the handkerchief was given me as a gift. But, Sir, as Shakspeare says, in his “Julius Caesar,”
“Ah, me! how weak a thing
The heart of woman is I”
I soon had reason to believe that her affections were placed upon another. I remonstrated with her on the subject, which drew from her such a demonstration, as at once brought to my mind the expressive lines of the Bard of Avon, when he says, in his comedy of” Taming the Shrew,”
“A woman mov’d, is like a fountain troubled, Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty; And while it is so, none, so dry or thirsty, Will deign to dip or touch one drop of it.”
The tragedian or comedian—for I do not know whether Mr. Straps considered tragedy or comedy his legitimate walk—delivered this latter quotation with so much rapidity, that he had got to the end of it before the Court could interrupt him. “Yes, Sir,” he resumed, “she resembled a perfect fury. As Shakspeare has it,
‘She was the very
The Court—Don’t give us any more of Shakspeare, but come to the point at once.
Mr. Straps—I will, your worship. I assure –“
“There’s not a word of truth in what he says, your honour,” shouted Mrs. Jukes, interrupting Mr. Straps. “ It’s all false;
I cut the akvantance, because he said to me, one day, that if I did not behave myself to his satisfaction after we was married, he would give me the bag, and summons my father for my board and lodging.” (Roars of laughter, in which the Court joined.)
The laughter having subsided, Mr. Straps adjusted the collar of a dirty shirt, and looking the Court significantly in the face, observed with much emphasis, “As the immortal poet says, in his ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’
‘A fine volley of words, gentlemen, and quickly shot off.”’
The Court (with considerable sharpness) -- There must be no more of this nonsense. Did you, or did you not, receive a handkerchief from the prosecutrix?
Mr. Straps—I did, Sir; I don’t deny it.
The Court-Then why did you not return it!
Mr. Straps—I understood it to be a gift.
Mrs. Jukes—(with great energy)—It was ne’er.a no such thing, you good-for-nothin’ feller, I only lent it you.
[-347-] Commissioner—Will you swear to that, madam?
Mrs. Jukes—Will I swear to it, your vorship? That I will: I’ll give as many oaths to it as your vorship pleases. He only says I made him a present of it, because I married Jem Jukes in preference to him.
Mr. Straps (to the Commissioner)—There, Sir; there she goes with another thundering falsehood. But, Sir, if you will allow me, I’d rather express my sentiments in the words of the great dramatist, than in any humble phraseology of my own.
Commissioner—We’ve had too much of “the great dramatist” already. Madam (addressing Mrs. Jukes), you swear distinctly that the handkerchief was no gift!
Mrs. Jukes—I do, your vorship.
Commissioner (to the officer)—Hand her the book there, and administer the oath.
Officer (to Mrs. Jukes, holding out a New Testament to her) - You swear by—
“It’s perjury, Sir !“ shouted Mr. Straps, addressing himself to the Commissioner.
Commissioner—You hold your tongue, Sir, or the officers must turn you out.
The oath was then administered to Mrs. Jukes, Mr. Straps-all the while making the most wry faces, and assuming every variety of attitude which could most forcibly express his horror of what he either conceived, or pretended to conceive, to be a false oath.
Commissioner (to Mr. Straps)—Now, Sir, she has sworn to the fact of only having lent the handkerchief to you; what has become of it!
Mr. Straps—Well, Sir, I’ll tell you candidly. On the particular evening on which I got it from her, I had a very arduous part of a new piece to perform, in which,
“Albeit, unused to the melting mood,”
I had a great deal to do in the way of crying. As I was the hero of the piece, I thought it right to use the best handkerchief I could procure to dry up my imaginary tears. So far, so well, Sir; but, in the words of the mighty Shakspeare,
A change came o’er the spirit—”
Commissioner—Never mind what came o’er your spirit; but what came o’er, or rather of, the handkerchief? (Laughter.)
Mr. Straps—I was just on the eve of telling you that, Sir. There was one scene in the piece of a peculiarly trying nature, in which no fewer than six of us were required to cry all at once. (Bursts of laughter). And as we had only this one handkerchief amongst us, we were obliged to make it serve us’all. As soon as [-348-] one of the weeping—that is, the persons supposed to be weeping—parties had made a pretence of drying up his tears with it, he placed it in his hands at his back, while his face was to the audience, when another actor, unperceived by the spectators, took the handkerchief, and then openly applied it to his eyes on the front of the stage. His turn done, that of another came, who also placed his hands at his back in the same way as the other, and the next in rotation laid hold of it, unknown to the audience; and so on, till the handkerchief went over the whole six, two or three times, though the spectators fancied that each of the six actors had a handkerchief to himself. (Renewed laughter.) But, Sir, I now come to the gist of my story. While thus making the tour, which it had repeatedly to do, of the half~ dozen sorrowing histrionic personages, it unaccountably disappeared; in other words, some one in the crisis of the touching tragic scene, transferred the handkerchief from his eyes to his pocket; and it has not since been heard of. (Loud laughter.) This, Sir, if you will allow me, in conclusion, to quote the prince of dramatists in one of his happiest plays,
“Is the head and front of my offending,”
in regard to the handkerchief which plaintiff still calls her own; though my impression was, that being given to me, it became mine. If, however, it were in my possession, I would indignantly throw it up to her.
Mrs. Jukes (to the Court)—It’s not the value of the hankercher that I cares for, or makes me summons him; it’s only because he insulted me, your honour, both before and after my marriage. You (turning to Mr. Straps, and shaking her hand in his face); you know you did, you good-for-nothing, worthless baggage that you are. ii have no doubt you’ve got the hankercher yourself.
At the latter sentence, Mr. Straps waxed mighty indignant, looked savagely at the quondam object of his affections, stamped energetically with his foot on the floor, and raising both hi~ hands above his head, exclaimed, in stentorian tones, “Woman, the charge is false! Yes, your worship,” he continued in a subdued tone, “it is, as the mighty genius I adore says in his unrivalled tragedy of’ Hamlet,’
As false as dicers’ oaths
or, as the same great authority has it in his comedy of As You Like It,’ it is
‘Falser than vows made in wine.’
Excuse my indignation, Sir; but I cannot repress my feelings when my character is attacked. I am sure, Sir, you would your-[-349-]self, if placed in my unfortunate situation, feel the full force of the inimitable lines which Shakspeare puts into the mouth of Othello—
‘Good name in man or woman
Is the immediate jewel of their souls;
Who steals my purse steals trash ; ‘tis something, nothing:
‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name,
Robs me of that which not enriches him, But makes me poor indeed.’”
The Commissioner (smiling)— Really, Mr. Straps, I have already allowed too much of this nonsense to go on. You admit you’ve lost the handkerchief, and the prosecutrix has sworn she only lent it to you. There is, therefore, no alternative, but to pay the amount claimed.
Ah, Sir !“ exclaimed Mr. Straps, on hearing the decision of the Court, “this is a hard case. As the Bard of Avon says”—
“No more of the Bard of Avon, or any other bard,” interrupted the Commissioner ; “the case is now decided, and the money must be paid.
At this moment, a young man, having the broken-down dandy appearance of an unfortunate actor, rushed into the court, almost exhausted. He stated that he and Mr. Straps lived in the same room together, and that some time after Mr. Straps had quitted home to attend the Court, a small package containing the handkerchief had been addressed to him, with a request that it might be opened in the event of his absence. Inside, in a disguised hand, was a note to the effect that the writer had only taken a temporary loan of the handkerchief, and that hearing by accident it was to be made the subject of legal proceedings, it had been deemed right to send a special messenger with it to Mr. Straps, in order that no unpleasant results might ensue.
“Give it me,” said Mr. Straps, in exulting tones, stretching out his hand to receive it. “Here, madam,” turning to Mrs. Jukes, “is your handkerchief ;“ and gently striking his hand on his breast, exclaimed—” My character stands forth pure and unsullied as the unsunned snow.
Mrs. Jukes took her handkerchief, evidently disappointed that it had been recovered; and Mr. Straps having paid the expenses of the summons, retired from the court, ejaculating something to himself in an under-tone; most probably a quotation from Shakspeare.
The above cases are all of a laughable character, though in print they appear far less ludicrous than they are when actually before the Court. Numerous, however, as are the cases at all our Courts of Requests, but especially in the court in Kingsgate [-350-] street of a laughter-provoking nature, those of a directly opposite kind are in the proportion of six to one. Disclosures of destitution and distress are there made, at every sitting of the Court, of the most shocking nature. I myself witnessed one such case, so lately as three weeks ago, which one would have thought would have softened the hardest heart that ever formed part of humanity. A poor, emaciated, sickly-looking woman, with nothing but rags on her back, and deep-rooted care and grief in her countenance, was summoned for twenty-one shillings, being seven weeks’ rent of a wretched hovel, in one of the lowest places in St. Giles’s. A little, starved, pale-looking girl, seemingly ten or eleven years of age, stood by the poor woman’s side. “Do you owe the debt?’ inquired the Commissioner.
“I do, your worship,” sighed the broken-hearted woman.
“Then why don’t you pay it ?”
“Because I have no means, my lord.”
“Then the plaintiff (the landlord) will seize your furniture.”
“Ah, Sir !“ groaned the poor creature, “that’s impossible; for he has taken everything that was in the house already.”
“Is that true?’ inquired the Commissioner, turning to the prosecutor.
“It is, Sir,” answered the latter with the greatest indifference.
“And what’s the meaning of bringing this action against the poor woman?”
“It’s with the view of getting her out of the house, Sir; she won’t leave it.”
Here the poor wretched creature asked permission of the Court to say a word or two, which being granted, she stated, as articulately as the fullness of her heart and her physical exhaustion would permit her, that for a considerable time past her husband, who was a day-labourer, had been out of employment, and that one of her children had for months been confined to a sick bed; and that under these circumstances, they had no means of procuring the most necessary articles of food, or of paying their rent. When pressed for their rent she implored a little indulgence until her husband could find some employment; but the landlord (the plaintiff) had lent a deaf ear to all her entreaties, and carried away every article of furniture in the house. The poor creature added, amidst tears and sobs, that herself; her husband, and six young children, including the sick one, had not a bed left them to lie on, nor a blanket to cover them, but were obliged to lie as they best could, all huddled together on two shutters which had been got from some neighbouring windows; and that these shutters were all that was between them and a damp stone floor, during the severe weather a few months ago. They were quite willing to leave the house, [-351-] but they had nowhere to go to; and no chair or stool to sit on, or bed to lie in, even if they could get some humble apartment. The unhappy woman then implored of the plaintiff to give her back one or two of the most necessary articles of her furniture, engaging if he did so, not only to quit the house—whatever should come of herself and family,—but to pay the rent she owed as soon as her husband could find work. But the man—if he should be called a man—was inexorable; he betrayed no more feeling on the occasion than the table at which he stood. How hardened can the human heart become! How unfathomable are the depths of human misery in the very midst of this wealthy and luxurious metropolis!
I will not harrow up the feelings of my readers, by a reference to any of the other cases of distress and destitution so often brought to light in our Courts of Requests. It would answer no useful purpose; it would not lessen the load of misery which the poor creatures groan under from day to day, and from year to year. I might have largely added to the list of laughable cases which are so common in our London Courts of Requests; but the little that remains of the space devoted to each chapter, admonishes me that that cannot be done. Before concluding, I am anxious to bear my decided testimony to the great utility of these courts. Indirectly, or by implication, I have done so already. They are useful to the customer in a limited way; inasmuch as the fear of being summoned to one of them, operates in innumerable cases in which a sense of right would have no effect, and deters him from contracting debts which he does not see any probability of being able to pay. They are useful to the party of whom goods have been purchased; inasmuch as, by a short and simple process, he is enabled to compel payment when, otherwise, the party, even though possessing the means, has not the disposition to discharge his lawful obligations. Then there is the cheapness of the process of suing for the amount due or in dispute. As before remarked, it never exceeds a few shillings; so that neither party, be the result what it may, can be out of pocket to any serious extent. The extensive and populous borough of Marylebone is now applying to the legislature for the establishment of one of these local courts within its boundaries: so, also, is the borough of Finsbury. I should like to see them established in all parts of the country; they would be found exceedingly serviceable to all tradesmen and small shopkeepers. Wherever new Courts of Requests shall be instituted, they ought, as before remarked, to have jurisdiction on all sums not exceeding 10l., which, as before remarked, is not above half as great as forty shillings were three hundred years ago, when these courts were established. Besides, where the powers of the existing Courts [-352-] of Requests have been extended so far as to hear and decide on all sums under ten pounds—as in the case of the City Court,— the thing has been found to answer exceedingly well. Mr. Sergeant Heath has a bill now before Parliament, for the purpose of extending the jurisdiction of the County Court to all sums not exceeding ten pounds. Whether he ought to succeed in his application, constituted as his court is, is a point on which I express no opinion; but whether he ought to succeed or not, all the other Courts of Requests in London ought certainly to have jurisdiction in all cases where the amount does not exceed the sum just mentioned. My conviction is, that the powers of these courts might be even farther extended than this. I can, I repeat, see no reason why their decisions on all amounts under twenty pounds, should not be held binding on the parties. My only objection to the Courts of Requests is, that they have the power of imprisoning the debtor for certain periods. Opposed as I am to the principle of imprisonment for debt in all cases where fraud is not clearly proved, I am doubly opposed to it in the case of Courts of Requests; inasmuch as the sums over which they have jurisdiction, are so trifling. It is surely a monstrous thing, that an honest, industrious man, who may chance to owe twenty or thirty shillings to a small grocer, which, owing to sickness or the want of employment he is unable to pay at the time, should be liable to be torn from his wife and family and sent to White-cross-street, or any other prison, for seven, forty, or sixty days, according to the peculiar powers of the particular court before which his case is tried! And yet such cases not only may, but do occur under the existing order of things. However, there is now, happily, a feeling in the public mind, which is daily acquiring additional strength, so hostile to imprisonment, for debt, that it must of necessity, before a long time has elapsed, compel the legislature to abolish such imprisonment, except in cases of gross and glaring fraud.
[nb. grey numbers in brackets indicate page number, (ie. where new page begins), ed.]