Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Night Side of London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1858 - Judge and Jury Clubs

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JUDGE AND JURY CLUBS.

THIS is a comic age in which we live. We are overdone with funny writers. The ghastliest attempts at liveliness surround us on every side. I would not bring back the grave deportment and stately etiquette of days gone by, nor could 1 if I would. But are we not running to another extreme? Is there not a lack of reverence and dignity? If we train up our youth to comic Blackstones, and teach them to extract fun out of the grandest history done in modern Europe - the history of the Anglo-Saxon race - of the race that has founded civil and religious liberty, and still nurses it in the face of a frowning continent, what can we expect? Men are what we make them. "Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined." A feeble and contemptible father is succeeded by a feeble and contemptible son. Have no grand creed of your own to make your daily path Lustrous with the light of heaven. Crack your weak jest and pun at all [-86-] men have reverenced. Learn from Punch to titter, no matter the theme. And can you wonder that your son believes not in man's honour or woman's love - in God or the devil, but solely in the Holborn Casino and Cremorne? For instance, is not law one of the most wonderful achievements of civilisation? I do not go so far as "the judicious Hooker." I do not say with him that her seat is the throne of God, her voice the harmony of the universe, but is it not wonderful to think of the complex arrangements of which the judge seated in his robes on the bench, administering law, is the outward sign. In the first place, man must have learnt to give up a primary instinct of his nature-that of self- revenge. Then the central power in the darkest parts of the land must have become dominant. What ages must have past before law dared meddle with privilege, or before its administrators could realize the fact of the sanctity of the individual man, whether he starved in a garret or feasted in a palace. And when the judges went on circuit, with the gorgeous cavalcade of the olden time, what terror was struck into the hearts of the rustics, and how patent became to them the strength and dignity of law. Now [-87-] why burlesque this? The idea is good and true, yet the burlesque is permitted and exists, aye, even to this day.
    It is years since I was at a Judge and Jury Club, but I believe their character is in no degree changed. The one I speak of met in an hotel not far from Covent-garden, and was pro- sided over by a man famous in his day for his power of double entendre. About nine o'clock in the evening, if you went up-stairs you would find a large room with benches capable of accommodating, I should think, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty persons. This room was generally well filled, and by their appearance the audience was one you would call respectable. The entrance fee entitled you to refreshment, and that refreshment, in the shape of intoxicating liquor, was by that time before each visitant. After waiting a few minutes, a rustle at the entrance would cause you to turn your eyes in that direction, when, heralded by a crier with a gown and a staff of office, exclaiming, "Make way for my Lord Chief Baron," that illustrious individual would be seen wending his way to his appointed seat. The man I write of was then about thirty-five, but he appeared much older, [-88-] and in his robes of office and with his judicial wig had almost a venerable appearance. Having seated himself and bowed to the bar-one of them they called the double of Brougham had been a dissenting minister (he is dead now - he died "game," they told me) - the Lord Chief Baron called for a cigar and glass of brandy and water, and, having observed that the waiter was in the room and that he hoped gentlemen would give their orders, the proceedings of the evening commenced. A jury was selected; the prosecutor opened his case, which, to suit the depraved taste of his patrons, was invariably one of seduction or crim. con. Witnesses were examined and cross-examined, the females being men dressed up in women's clothes, and everything was done that could be to pander to the lowest propensities of depraved humanity. I do not believe the audience could have stood this if it had not been for the drink. As it was, I believe many a youth fresh from home felt a little ashamed of himself that he should be in such company listening to such unmitigated ribaldry, but these reflections were soon drowned in the flowing bowl, and the lad, if he blushed at first, soon learned to laugh. I write of the time [-89-] when the railway mania had filled London with overpaid engineers, and attorneys, and parliamentary witnesses, only too anxious to see life, as they called it, and by whom this beastly entertainment was frequented night after night. I dare not even attempt to give a faint outline of the proceedings. After the defence, came the summing up, which men about town told you was a model of wit, but in which the wit bore but a small proportion to the obscenity. The jury were complimented on their intelligent and lascivious appearance, all the filthy particulars which had been noticed were referred to Dog Latin, and poetical quotations were plentifully thrown in; and by twelve, amidst the plaudits of the audience, the affair, so far as the Judge and Jury Club was concerned, was over. Then there was supper for such as wished it, and an entertainment to follow, either in the shape of a concert or of an exhibition of Poses Plastiques. To these subsequent entertainments ladies were generally admitted - and perhaps the less I say about them or their proceedings the better. If I refer to them at all, it is but as an illustration of the drinking customs of society. These Judge and Jury Clubs after all are but an excuse for [-90-] drinking. They are held at public-houses - there is drinking going on all the time the trial lasts, - nor could sober men listen unless they had the drink. I believe an attempt has been made to introduce this kind of thing to the provinces, but it has not answered. In all our provincial towns there exists a public opinion which guarantees decency to a certain extent. In the metropolis this public opinion does not exist. No one knows that I frequent Judge and Jury Clubs, and I lose no social status if I do; and some of the men who patronise them have no social status to lose. In one of the lowest beershops in the New Cut the other day I saw it announced that on Sunday night a Judge and Jury Club was held. It is too true that we are, as Tennyson says,
        "Fish that love the mud,
        Rising to no fancy flies."
But man does not naturally revel in obscenity; the modesty of nature will stick to him for years. But the Judge and Jury Clubs make you familiar with the manners of the stews; and I solemnly believe that in Sodom and Gomorrah nothing more filthy could have been talked about, and. that this side Pandemonium there is nothing [-91-] more debasing or debased. If you wish to see your son thoroughly depraved, send him to a Judge and Jury Club. In a little while he will come back to you with every noble principle blotted out, with a mind stored with pollution, and with a fitting phraseology, ready to run a mad career of debauchery and vice. Some fifteen years back the writer was at college, and one of his fellow-students was a fine young fellow, the heir to a decent fortune, and said to be connected with a noble family. The last time I was at the Judge and Jury he was employed as one of the mock counsel; but he became too intemperate even for that, and enlisted, and miserably died. They have tragic ends, many of these frequenters of Judge and Jury Clubs, and it is sad to think that, when the merriment is the loudest, and the drink is most stimulating, and the fellowship most jovial, there is burlesque even then.