Tag Archives: judges

Got to laugh (no, not really)

A quick historical legal ‘joke’, or passage of what was seen as witty dialogue, anyway, from a 1915 edition of Y Dinesydd Cymraeg: my mental warm-up translation this morning …


A hard-headed judge

Judge: Was the stone you threw bigger than my head?

The prisoner: Yes, your honour, but not quite as hard!


How those Welsh citizens must have laughed! Possibly proving that humour does not really translate, across the language/time continuum. I do find myself fascinated, though, by the wise-cracking judicial persona that comes out in these things, and can’t help but see connections with some of the ‘humour’ I found some years ago, when researching an article on jokes and wordplay in medieval common law reports.



Keeping them laughing … or possibly not

And here is another piece of proof that legal humour does not really travel, from an issue of Tarian y Gweithiwr from 1887.

The judge and the constable

Judge: What sort of man did you see committing the assault?

Constable: For certain, your lordship, he was some foolish little creature – about your size, your lordship’.

This time, I suppose that the humour is working on an assumption that lawyers are weedy and policemen burly and not very diplomatic …which makes more sense when we reflect that ‘Tarian y Gweithiwr’ was explicitly targeting ‘gweithwyr’, i.e. labourers.


You want more court-room humour from Welsh newspapers? Oh, very well.

Here we are, loosely translated from a Tarian y Gweithiwr from 1886: a side-splitting dialogue between a judge and a witness …

The judge asked the witness if he understood the meaning of the oath he had taken. “Yes, sir”, answered the witness, “I am sworn to tell the truth”. “What would happen”, asked the judge then, “if you did not tell the truth?”. “Well, I suppose”, said the witness, “our side would win the case”.

Ho ho!


And, since everybody loves an amusing, animal-related, incident in court, what about this, from an 1897 Gwalia?

In the quarter sessions in New Ross, presided over by Judge Kane, there was an exciting and very peculiar incident. A tom cat of dignified appearance made an appearance in the court, and, chased from one place to another by some people, he jumped onto the [witness box].[i] Whilst gliding lightly over the papers and black bags of the solicitors, one of the men of law threw a thick volume on the Land Acts at the animal, but the cat was too quick for the lawyer, and, like a flash, jumped onto the bench beside the judge.  With fire in his eyes, he jumped for the wig on the judge’s head. His Honour, somehow, managed to dodge him, and the cat fell down. The judge took the matter in the best possible humour, while the lawyers and the public laughed heartily.

[i] Or ‘table’.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Written on the bodice: judicial scorn for, and salivation over, the secrets of women

The Western Mail, 14th August 1899 carried a story which says much about the press and the legal profession of the period. The account of a relatively small-value case in the county court at Cardiff bears the headline ‘Judge Owen and the ill-fitting bodice’. This manages, by juxtaposing a (male) judge and clothing assigned feminine, and fairly intimately feminine at that, to provide a certain amount of transgressive titillation. There is more excitement at the sub-heading, ‘Cardiff high bailiff called in as expert’ – another man, of course, and why, we are supposed to wonder, is he an expert: a certain fondness for ‘the ladies’, or further suggestion of gender transgression?

We are left in no doubt at the reporter’s view of the whole thing as a joke by the opening of the report itself: ‘Nothing in the county-court is productive of so much fun as a case in which the parties are a lady dressmaker and customer, and the subject of litigation an alleged ill-fitting dress.’ Ho ho: ‘the ladies’ – what are they like? Squabbling about dresses, indeed! The reporter certainly seems to enjoy himself, reporting the banter of the judge – Judge Owen, a favourite of the Welsh press of the time – and other men in court especially the high bailiff, whose view of the work on the dress in question is requested, the judge claiming ignorance of such things. While a modern reader would not (I would hope) be as impressed with the clubby misogyny and trivialisation of women which the case reportedly embodied (or embodiced?), one aspect of the banter is of some legal historical relevance: when the case requires him to decide on the quality of the dress, the judge drew laughter from those present in court by saying that he ‘considered that they should have a jury of matrons for these cases’.

Now, the jury of matrons was a group of women tasked with ascertaining whether or not a female convict  who had been found guilty of a capital felony was pregnant enough for her foetus to have quickened, this being a reason to defer the execution, or, latterly, to commute the sentence.[i]  It was still in use, though criticised as inappropriate in a world which put ever greater trust in professionalised, mostly male, medical practitioners. This report of the case, in its joking suggestion that there should be a jury of matrons for issues regarding womanly attire, reflects both knowledge of the institution, and also perhaps an idea that the proper sphere for the expertise of women was located in a less important area than the presence or absence of life: frothy superficiality, rather than deep and hidden truths.

In fact, this jokey script of a judge throwing his hands up in the air at the mysteries of women’s clothing,[ii] and suggesting that a jury of matrons would be a good idea in such cases, can be seen in other reports. I cannot claim to have made an exhaustive search, but there are certainly earlier examples of it, not infrequently stitched together (yes, I was pleased with that imagery!) with rather creepy judicial comment or behaviour which, in fact, suggests that women, and their secrets, are, in fact in the male domain.

An 1864 edition of The Illustrated Usk Observer and Raglan Herald carried a report of a London Sheriff Court case involving a disputed millinery bill (were the hat prices ‘reasonable’ or ‘exorbitant’? Only ‘the ladies’ could say … thus we have a humorous call for a jury of matrons). A slightly different story was the South Wales Echo report in 1887 of an English case involving bridesmaids’ dresses. In this case, the ‘humorous’ wish by Judge Turner, in Ripon, for a jury of matrons was to sort out the custom with regard to whether or not bridesmaids were expected to pay for their own dresses to be made up.[iii] Tame enough, if trivialising.

We get into more leering territory with the Weekly Mail of 9th July 1887 which reported a similar remark from Kekewich J, when faced with a case involving ‘dress improvers’ (that’s bustles to us) but also features some icky banter about garters. The South Wales Echo elaborated, noting  ‘the Attorney General’s eloquent description of “the human frame divine”, and the appearance of the bench covered with bustles and dress improvers of every conceivable shape and size’.[iv]  Similar need-for-a-jury-of-matrons things were said by Hawkins J in 1893, according to a report in the South Wales Echo (which enjoys telling us -or not quite telling us – that the case involved some sort of women’s underwear). Then there is a report in a 1902 edition of the Cheshire Observer, relating to a Birmingham case on the quality of work on women’s clothes. This trotted out the ‘we need a jury of matrons here’ line, but also showed the judge (Judge Whitehorne) airing a few judgey views on women’s fashion – the front of the coat in question (a plush sac-coat … no, me neither) was ‘vulgar’ because of its hooks (No idea – too revealing? Too shoddy-looking? Certainly suggests a questionable fixation with women’s … fronts … on the part of the judge).

In 1905, Judge Owen was, reportedly, at it again. The Cardiff Times reported another of his cases, involving allegedly defectively made women’s clothes, under the evocative/emetic headline ‘A Patchwork Skirt: Judge Owen sighs for a jury of matrons’. As well as making the matrons comment, we are ‘treated’ to the judge’s banter about just how long or short the skirt is, with rather excited questioning about whether it covered her knees, whether she wanted to show her ankles etc.

Possibly most creepy of all is the combination of ‘we need a jury of matrons’ plea plus judicial over-involvement of an actual gropey nature, seen in a report of a case of 1907, appearing, for example, in the Evening Express. This was a case involving a woman, Marion Draughn, who was something of a celebrity, due to her involvement in an earlier breach of promise case. It was, again, about whether or not somebody had to pay, if clothing was supplied, and was not what the customer wanted. We are informed that Deputy Judge Bevan, in the Westminster County Court, had Miss Draughn go off and change into the ‘costume’ in question, and proceeded to run his hands over her to determine the fit or lack of it. Eurgh.

So what? Well, it is not very surprising that women were treated with scorn, with regard to their capacity as jurors or the clothing they wore. Assuming that the reports are not completely inaccurate, however, they do seem to me to give some interesting glimpses of judges flashing to posterity rather more of their innermost thoughts about women, their bodies and their fascinating garments than they might have meant to expose.



[i] There is a lot of good work on this area. A very good place to start on the institution in its later years – covering this period – is K. Crosby, ‘Abolishing juries of matrons’, OJLS 39 (2019), 259–284.

[ii] (resonating, to the medievalist, with the ‘secrets of women’ idea)

[iii] Added hilarity was provided by the fact that the bridegroom was 73 years old (no mention of the age of the bride, but the word ‘elderly’ did appear to apply to her too).

[iv] It is worth noting that this intellectual property case was not all that trivial in financial terms: the owners had sold £1,500 worth of the items in a year. There was some joking about ‘prior publication’ involving ridiculing of bustles too. It is, of course, quite hard not to see them as preposterous, but, equally of course, ridiculing women’s fashions can have a profoundly misogynist tone. See also the reference to this case in another relating to ‘trouser-stretchers’ in the same year, which reported that one of the lawyers, Mr Aston KC, had suggested that a ‘jury of mashers’ might be used here. I had remembered this (from, I believe Tipping the Velvet), as a male-impersonating-female, but the OED suggests that we should translate it as a jury of leering, creepy men, or at least dandified men.


Image – phwoar, eh? Get a load of this – it’s a bodice, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Judges, character and credibility

We legal historians have occasion to look at an array of different sorts of reports and records of cases, from the terse medieval plea rolls, via Year Books with their play-like format, through the slightly anarchic years of printed reports of varying standard and reliability, to the fuller, somewhat more easily understandable, reports of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There have been developments in recent years, however, which will one day need to be considered as part of a full history of the communication of legal decisions, via ‘official record’ and report. I am thinking of the huge expansion of material relating to cases which is now recorded and published in an easily accessible way. I think that it is arguable that the advent of the prepared essay style judgment, published online, has brought with it legal historically important changes,

One development which has impacted upon my professional world is the practice of publishing fuller and fuller judgments. This expansion is very noticeable in my main ‘day job’ legal subject, Land Law. I presume that, in the case of judges at lower levels in the hierarchy, the trend to longer judgments is prompted, at least in part, by a wish to ensure that, should a case be appealed, the lower-level judge would not be accused of having dealt with some point inadequately. Clearly, we are not the main consideration of judges, in their decisions to be more or less verbose, but it is something of a pain for those of us who want to encourage students to read cases (good luck with some of the massive proprietary estoppel ones in particular!).

It is not just length and the problems that presents for law professors and law students which is worthy of note, though: it is what is included. An issue I have mentioned before is that of judicial comment on witnesses, and the practice of judges including in written judgments and putting out into the public domain their views on the witnesses who appear before them. While judges in cases in which they sit alone, and in which there is a need to decide between different versions of the facts, must clearly make a decision as to which witnesses to believe, and should, in order to give a reasoned judgment, state which witnesses they regarded as more accurate, I am not convinced that it is necessary to go further into character assessment, publishing to the world comments on parties and non-party witnesses which might be hurtful, offensive or damaging to the individuals who have given evidence, and may well (I imagine) not have been expecting this sort of material to be disseminated.

Yesterday, I was reading a particularly interesting example of the genre: Gilpin v Legg [2017] EWHC 3220 (Ch). In this case, which concerned leases, licences and beach huts, the judge (HHJ Paul Matthews, sitting as a Judge of the High Court, in Bristol) commented in the following way, on various witnesses:

The father of a claimant was a ‘careful witness, who gave clear evidence. He accepted on occasion that his memory was at fault and accepted correction when it was shown that he was mistaken. He was doing his best to assist the court.’ (7)

A male claimant (a doctor) was ‘a slightly nervous but clear and straightforward witness. His memory appeared to be good. Once he got into his evidence he became more relaxed and comfortable. He was obviously truthful in the evidence he was giving.’ (8)

A female claimant was ‘a quiet and nervous witness, but rather prickly and apt to put up a barrage of words, often putting matters obliquely, and shying away from confrontation. Whilst I do not think that she told me any deliberate untruths, indeed was trying to help the court, I think she has convinced herself that she has been hard done by, that she is in the right, and so she interprets everything in that light.’ (9)

Another male claimant ‘gave clear and straightforward evidence, and was obviously trying to assist the court.’ (10)

A male defendant was ‘an intelligent and quick, even feisty, witness who saw the point of the question immediately, and gave clear evidence in response. Although he too believes strongly that he is in the right, and that does colour his evidence to some extent, he sometimes gave evidence against his own interest. On one occasion his tone became rather aggressive, perhaps through exasperation. I accept that he was otherwise trying to help the court and that his evidence was truthful.’ (11)

A male solicitor (the defendant’s litigation solicitor) ‘was a professional but slightly excitable, even enthusiastic witness.’ (12).

Another witness was ‘an elderly lady’. (13)

Though there was a need to express a view on the parties’ evidence, I am not sure that anyone needed the comments about a defendant’s ‘feistiness’ or why he might have adopted an ‘aggressive tone’ at some point’ or a claimant’s ‘prickliness’. I have to say that I would be fairly nervous – and quite possibly ‘prickly’ – if I had to speak in court, and knew that comments about me were going to be published in this way. And I am not sure that the ‘elderly’ or ‘excitable’ comments, in particular, were at all useful.

It does not seem to me that this sort of material helps anyone involved in modern legal practice, or that proper transparency and reasoning requires it. Of course, I am not just thinking about the present, and whether this is a good way of handling the assessment of credibility. There are legal history angles! The inclusion of this sort of material makes for an interesting comparison/contrast with some of the early reports of medieval common law cases, in which there are personal comments, but these relate to serjeants pleading before the Common Pleas or King’s Bench, rather than witnesses or parties. I do wonder what legal historians of the future will make of this sort of commentary. It does strike me that they might find it interesting to survey this sort of comment, cross-matching with characteristics of the commenting judge, and such matters as gender, age and professional status of the witnesses being subjected to these published assessments. They might well conclude that early 21st century judges were – in the formulaic incantation – ‘doing their best to assist’ legal historical scholarship.



Image – I am going with ‘prickly’ …. Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Pulling our Leggatt?

Judicial humour – what do we think? Ever appropriate? I am slightly torn: On the one hand, it can be the cause of horrid sycophantic laughter in court. On the other, I do like a pun, in general, so I suppose there’s no reason why a judge should be barred from the fun. But on the third hand, when these things appear in meticulously-prepared Supreme Court decisions, there is a bit of a feeling that the judge in question must have been rather too pleased with himself (or herself, in theory).

Anyway, I noticed this little pun in Lord Leggatt’s judgement in the recent big nuisance case (about the posh London flats, the owners of which were annoyed at people looking in from a viewing platform at an art gallery), Fearn and others v Board of Trustees of
the Tate Gallery [2023] UKSC 4.

Overlooking in two senses! Ho ho! Groansome or great? You be the judge!



Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Judges and kisses

Continuing with love-themed stuff, in honour (or, more probably, dishonour) of the season of pink hearts, and making it vaguely law-themed, here are a couple of bits on two things you wouldn’t think to put in the same title – judges and (remembered or imagined) kisses.

The first snippet comes from a breach of promise case.  I give you the reported sentiments of Lawrance J in the Suffolk assizes, in a breach of promise case in 1906. The case was brought by a certain Ethel Wheelhouse against ‘a veterinary surgeon’ (note, her name is publicised, his is not). Ethel did actually win the case, albeit recovering only a relatively small amount (£5) in damages). Nevertheless, there was some comment from the judge as to the quality of the love letters between the two: they never ‘got to burning point’, and, in particular ‘there were no crosses for kisses’. All in all, things had been ‘hotter in his day’. Was any of that really necessary? Rather condescending, and not a little narcissistic. And I am not sure anyone wants to think about judges salivating over hot kisses.

Then, also from 1906, we have an extra-judicial opinion on the subject, also related to love letters, from the Master of the Rolls (Sir Richard Henn Collins). This one, which combines condescension (again) and a bit of an obsession with kisses. He was giving out prizes to some ‘girl typists’, and felt moved to ‘speak of the lady typists’ love letters’,  asking (a bit creepily, let’s be honest, though no doubt thinking he was charming) about the idea of writing a love letter on a typewriter, and whether any of them had ever received a type-written love letter. In particular whether there was ‘in the region of type production anything that of itself could depict a kiss’. I am imagining that being followed by nervous laughter. And why would a type-written x not be obviously the same as a written one?

The very dreamy Richard Henn Collins. Relax ladies, he was married (and is now extremely dead).

Finally, getting much more modern, there is a report from 1907 of a judge rebuking a defendant for saying in court that a woman used to give him whisky and kisses, on the grounds that ‘when ladies kiss me, I generally hold my tongue’. Did he have to? Pass the heart-shaped sick bucket.



Photo by Marek Studzinski on Unsplash

Law and low literature

It is a wet morning and I am stuck indoors, an arm stiff from a Covid jab: not up to doing anything terribly energetic, but in need of some distraction. Naturally enough, I have turned to reading about some favourite topics – law, humour and poetry (loosely so-called). All of them come together in this report of goings-on in a county court in Cardiff, in 1907: Lloyd Meyrick, ‘Limericks and Law’. It alludes to the occasion, on 8th May 1907, when a judge, William Stevenson Owen, at Cardiff County Court, brightened up a dullish case by breaking out into a limerick.

This tale contributes to the image of this particular judge as something of a funny fellow. Newspapers of the period could not get enough of his ‘humorous’ remarks and caustic quips. Meyrick noted that, in court, Owen elicited laughter, ‘weak cackles and short hysterical yelps’, that he was known as one for ‘polished periods and sparkling epigrams’, but it was only at that point that he had revealed an ‘unsuspected vein of poetry’.

Mentioned in passing in this report were limericks about ‘A young lady from Chichester’ and another young lady, this time from Exeter, but Meyrick did not give the verses themselves. I had a bit of a search for possibles and found some rather rude ones.[i] (At least there was no hint of people hailing from Nantucket. If you don’t know, use your imagination). But, perhaps not surprisingly, there was no serious rudeness in Judge Owen’s court.

Luckily, the judge’s own limerick was reproduced in other, anonymous, reports, from 8th May 1907. Here it is in all its glory:

There was a young woman of Chichester

who went to see a solicitor.

He asked for his fee,

she said “Fiddle-de-dee:

I simply called as a visitor”.

Have to say the rhymes are a bit dodgy, but, according to the ‘stage directions’ in the newspaper report, the response in court was loud laughter. The newspaper report does not really explain what the nature of the case was, but it does seem likely to have involved an issue of whether somebody was consulting a solicitor professionally or not. Did he make it up there and then (in which case some struggling rhymes would be forgiven), or did he sit up for hours the night before, composing and polishing it (in which case, they would not)? In any case, it all adds to the picture of power-dynamics in court at this point, and, so it seems to me at least, the self-regard of judges.

I have quite a collection of judicial ‘humour in court’ reports now, and also a fair bit of material on Owen, who does seem worth investigating further.

Working from the newspaper archive (the easiest place to start!), the Welsh newspaper obituaries[ii] give us these apparent facts about his life:

1834       Born (1st February). Son of William Owen, of Withybush, Pembrokeshire (deceased), from a ‘well-known and highly-respected family in the county’.

?date    Married to Miss Ray, Kent family, had three daughters and a son.

1856      Called to the Bar 1856. Became a Chancery barrister. Travelled the South Wales Circuit. ‘An accurate  lawyer and a skilled equity draftsman’.[iii]

1883      Appointed County Court Judge in Mid-Wales

1884      Transferred to ‘Circuit No. 58’ (County courts at Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Chepstow, Abergavenny, Tredegar, Pontypool, Monmouth, Ross, Crickhowell and Usk.

1895      Chair of Pembrokeshire Quarter Sessions. Chair of Haverfordwest Quarter Sessions. Retired 1907.

1909      Died (4.30 a.m., 20th October) , at home in Abergavenny, Ty Gwyn, after an operation on ‘an internal complaint’.

1909       23rd October. Funeral, parish church, Llantilio Pertholey, nr Abergavenny. Grave on south side of church.

At the time of his death, he sat on the County Court Bench.


His legal views

Obituaries[iv] emphasise some detailed, technical views:

  • opposition to the judgment summons system (on the grounds that it encouraged credit)
  • support for a reduction in the time allowed for the collection of debt under Statute of Limitations, from 6 to 2 years.


His character or characterisation: ‘dry humour’ and ‘caustic and scathing observations’

In death, he was called a man ‘of strong character and striking individuality’,[v] and, in private life, ‘a charming host and a man of warm-hearted disposition’. [vi]

it was commented that he was ‘noted for the dry humour which he introduced into the prosaic proceedings of the county court’, and that ‘his smart, laconic commentaries frequently provoked laughter’. On the other hand, his ‘caustic and scathing observations … were things to be dreaded, as many a solicitor [would] admit’.[vii] There is a lot to interrogate there – both in terms of the apparent nature of his ‘dry humour’, and also the slightly sniffy suggestion that the proceedings of the county court were ‘prosaic’. My initial reading suggests that he was very keen to play up the importance of this, apparently scorned, jurisdiction. More on that in due course!

Obituaries noted the speed with which he picked up common law, that his judgments were rarely upset on appeal, that he was very fair to prisoners, in Quarter Sessions, and, in the County Court, ‘very much alive to the processes of the court being used to oppress the poor’, with particular attention to claims made by tallymen and moneylenders, and not to ask too much of poor defendants in terms of paying debts. Much, much more to say, I am sure, once I can delve further into his cases and the reports.

I note that the obituaries do not mention his poetical efforts. They do say that he had a ‘distinguished career’.[viii] That was clearly in law rather than literature, though.





Image from The Evening Express, 20th October, 1909.






[i] Chichester:


A pious young lady of Chichester

made all of the saints in their niches stir

and each morning at matin

her breast in pink satin

made the bishop of Chichester’s britches stir

(shame about the double use of stir, to my mind, but Chichester/britches stir is rather skilful).



There was a young lady from Exeter,
So pretty that men craned their necks at her.
One was even so brave
As to take out and wave
The distinguishing mark of his sex at her.

(grim and creepy, obviously).

No refs to author, nor date,  given.

Just how the Exeter verse mentioned by Meyrick was thought to end, we can’t be sure, but the first two lines were not quite the same as the rude version above – it began ‘There was a young woman from Exeter/ and a happy young man sat next to her’ [needs another syllable, doesn’t it ‘Sat down next to her’?]

[ii] See, e.g., ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)  JUDGE OWEN DEAD|1909-10-20|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales) DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iii] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[iv] ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[v] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[vi] DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-29|The Welshman – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[vii] ,. DEATH OF JUDGE OWEN.|1909-10-22|The Cambrian – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

[viii] JUDGE OWEN DEAD|1909-10-20|Evening Express – Welsh Newspapers (library.wales)

A poem by a judge … about slate …

A short post, this one, just inviting the world to marvel at the forgotten literary greatness of the nineteenth century legal profession. Here we have a creation in rhyming couplets, from a report in 1850, in which a deceased judge of the North Wales circuit, shared with the world, and with posterity, his amusing thoughts on slate. Yes, slate. Now, I suppose that is not quite as random as it might seem, given that the slate quarrying industry was very big and important in North Wales at this point. (It is still a very big deal in North Wales, got a UNESCO heritage site and everything). Still, a whole poem about slate? And not only that, but about the supposed humour of the fact that slates are classified on a system using female social ranks (Queen, Duchess, Countess, Lady …).

We are told that this is a ‘witty turn’, just in case it would not otherwise have been obvious … And we could certainly ask questions about some of the imagery about peasants getting their grubby paws on various degrees of noble ladies, but still, here it is, enjoy it and ponder on the mirth and literary skills of judges.





Suitably slatey image: Blaenau Ffestiniog, Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

‘Convulsing the court’: laughter and litigation?

A few years ago, I wrote a paper about reports, in the medieval Year Books, of humour, jokes, laughter and levity in court.[i] Although I have never had ambitions to ‘do comedy’ myself (probably a good thing, as those who have been subjected to my attempts to liven up Land Law teaching will attest) I do find humour fascinating as well as enjoyable. Maybe it began when, as an impressionable and angsty teenager learning French, I came across a line in a Georges Brassens song, Le Vieux Léon, about people masking their sadness with jokes and laughter – some old friends, broken-heartedly (le coeur serré)  following a coffin, laughing and joking around so as to pretend not to be crying ( en rigolant, pour faire semblant de ne pas pleurer). It has stayed with me all these years, along with the idea of the use of humour and laughter for various purposes other than pure enjoyment. Additional layers were added to this interest, once I got involved with research in law and history, and saw the references to laughter and smiles and jokes and so on in the Year Books, and suggestions in various translations that certain passages were intended to be humorous. Out of that came the humour paper, which allowed me to work through various ideas about the use of humour in court – real or imagined. There are examples of ‘clubby’ humour (strengthening bonds between the members of the common law legal profession, perhaps by picking on outsiders of some sort), and of slightly bullying humour (judges being rude about those pleading before them) as well as occasional obvious and rather charming delight in words and word-play, and perhaps genuine smiles and laughter.

Perhaps that paper should have got it out of my system, but I do still find myself looking out for, and noting examples of humour in court, wherever they come up.  Recently, I have found myself drawn to reports of humour in court from a very different time and source: journalistic reports of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Those of us lucky enough to have a university affiliation can often get access to extensive databases of newspapers, but everyone with a computer and internet connection can look at the fabulous Welsh Newspaper Archive to get a flavour of these reports.

The headline (see how on-theme I am …) is that it is not at all uncommon to see reports which note laughter or ‘humorous’ exchanges or remarks in court, occasionally also the court being ‘convulsed’ at the hilarity of it all.[ii] Very few of them would strike a modern reader as being particularly funny, and some certainly make me annoyed or uncomfortable on behalf of the butt of the jokes. Still, there is some interest here, both in terms of what might have been going on in court (we cannot, surely, assume that the reports are complete nonsense) and also in terms of the ideas and attitudes which are reflected in the reports, and the reporting, of such instances.

Some such reports might be categorised as the humour of sycophancy – with both the conversation in court (assuming it happened) and the fact of reporting giving a judge a chance to display his marvellous wit. We might see this in a report from the Evening Express of 29th November 1906 in which we are told of the humorous remarks of Darling J, in an aside  about the letters sent to him by ‘lunatics’.[iii] The stage direction ‘Laughter’ is included six times in a short report in playscript form (shades of the Year Books …). It was just as well that a story from 1898 was headed ‘A Funny Judge’, because the reported exchanges between judge (here, Kekewich J) and lawyers, about getting married, were … not obviously amusing.[iv]

At other times, the apparently humorous exchanges recorded involve interactions with non-lawyers, very often people of a lower social status than lawyers. Sometimes, there is an attempt to show judges getting on with their inferiors, as in some judge-cabby banter in a case of 1897,[v] and the ‘banter with recidivist’ reports, which makes the whole process  seem a bit cosy, and the judge a good sort.[vi] More often, we are generally being encouraged to laugh at these lowly laypersons. There was the ‘big rough man’ who dropped himself right in it by saying he had stolen a broom, innocently. Ho ho – working class people are stupid![vii] And they lack taste – like the silly woman who thought Brighton, Broadstairs and Southend were ‘fashionable resorts’ – how we laughed![viii] There was the man who couldn’t say ‘sciatica’ Hahaha!; and another exasperated at being unable to find a tenancy.[ix] Women, surprise, surprise, are another group of ‘others’ regularly mocked. There is gender-based humour in a situation in which a judge has to deal with allegedly defective corsets, in a civil case. The very idea! Cue much blushing from the ladies, and laughter.[x] Poking fun and ‘tittering’ at a defendant’s incongruous name (a Newport man, William John Heaven, who had been convicted of being D & D and assaulting a constable) certainly seems very unprofessional and inappropriate.[xi]

The most protracted account of ‘banter’ is in an earlier report of a low level land case in Ireland, with much literary and other pontificating, between lawyers and a witness, with the judge laughing too, during the discussion of wigs and phrenology and all sorts. I am not sure how much of it to believe.[xii] Possibly the weakest joke I have seen is from a QC sitting in judgment in 1898, in Clerkenwell County Court – examining a party who said he was a journeyman, HHJ Edge QC asked where the man was going [Groan!]

Particularly jarring across the years is the inclusion of ‘humorous’ reports when the subject matter of the case would seem to the modern reader to be anything but funny. Mental illness or alcoholism,[xiii] deafness,[xiv] domestic cruelty,[xv] child support,[xvi] the death of a child,[xvii] The one which seems hardest to understand (both in terms of goings-on in the case, and in reporting) is the report concerning an inquest in Southwark in 1899.[xviii] The newspaper report sets the scene of a mother attending the inquest, and being examined by the coroner about ‘her deceased child’. The coroner mocked her for the length of the girl’s name, and a juror joined in, causing laughter. Men teasing and laughing at the mother of a recently deceased daughter. Certainly challenges my abilities to understand the people of the past.

Those, then are a few thoughts on this fascinating (if not entertaining as such) subject. I expect I will be back to it from time to time, as I find further examples. At the moment I am wondering when this sort of reporting came to an end – because, dreadful as they are at times, modern British tabloids do not have such reports. When did the new solemnity start? Not even something like the Wagatha Christie trial generated reports of hilarity in court. It would be very interesting to pinpoint that change.

I would like to end with what seems to be a much more pleasant account of the matter of laughter, from a case in 1904. The Weekly Mail of 17th December 1904 reported a case in a London police court, before a magistrate, Plowden. An unnamed ‘young man’ was up before the magistrate for ‘disorderly conduct’ – a vague category of offence, but apparently not one that Plowden considered sufficiently wide to embrace loud laughter and ‘larking’ with a young woman in Ladbroke Grove. The constable who had arrested the defendant thought that this amounted to disorder because it took place at 1.30 and in a ‘respectable neighbourhood’. Plowden asked the fairly deep question of whether a neighbourhood could be altered by laughter, and proceeded to tease the constable about whether or not he ever laughed (OK, I expect there is some pleb-bashing going on there … the constable is likely to have been at a lower social position than the magistrate). It did end rather nicely, with the magistrate saying to the prisoner, as he discharged him …

‘Laugh as long as you can in this world!’




[i] ‘Et Subridet etc.’: smiles, laughter and levity in the medieval Year Books — University of Bristol

[ii] See this from 1915.

[iii]Lunatics’ Letters to Judges

[iv] Evening Express 17th November 1898

For more of Kekewich J’s humorous adventures, see this from 1897.

[v] This.

[vi] See, e.g. this one from 1910.

[vii] 1898.

[viii] 1908 – and I do wonder how this played with a Welsh readership. Did they like to hear about London lawyers being snotty about British resorts?

[ix] 1900.

[x] 1899.

[xi] See this from 1910.

[xii] 1852.

[xiii] 1903.

[xiv] 1909.

[xv] See, e.g. ‘A Collier’s Appetite’, Evening Express, 8th September 1900 and this from 1909. An assault allegation from 1900. And this, in which laughter is directed against married women in an especially pointed way.

[xvi] 1908.

[xvii] Evening Express, 13th September, 1899.

[xviii] ‘A Study in Nomenclature’, Evening Express, 13th September, 1899.


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