One of the more interesting characters of the legal profession of the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century was a lawyer from Denbigh, North Wales, T. Artemus Jones. Anyone who has looked into the law of defamation is likely to have come across him as the plaintiff in Hulton v Jones (1909) – the case which made it wise for writers of fiction to start off with a claim that their work is fiction, even if it coincidentally hits upon the name of a real person (and e.g. suggests he might have been up to no good with a woman other than his wife, in Dieppe). He had an interesting pathway to the legal profession, rather admirably pulling himself upwards via journalism and part time study.
Once he became a barrister, he continued to communicate to wider audiences. A newspaper report in an issue of the Denbighshire Free Press in 1907 reported on his lecture – returning to Denbigh Literary and Social Society’s Hall as a ‘local boy made good’.[i] There was ‘very good attendance … notwithstanding the inclemency of the (March) weather’, to hear Jones speak on the theme ‘The Humorous Side of the Law’. Obviously, this appeals to those of us with a passing interest in legal humour and there is also some legal historical content. So what laughs were there in matters legal, and what was the interest in legal history, as far as Artemus was concerned?
In fact, a fair amount of the lecture seems to have been taken up by discussions of legal history of a sort: a comparison of ‘now’ and ‘centuries ago’, ‘days gone past’, or the past as a bit of an undifferentiated lump. He discussed Ashford v Thornton (albeit situating the initial acquittal in the Common Pleas rather than a criminal court), oddly drew a direct link between ‘the blood feud’ and the petty jury (saying that the feud involved 12 men from each side). There was considerable use of the language of ‘barbarism’ to describe the criminal justice system of the past, as if seeing matters as a story of upward ‘progress’ to his present 9like the good Liberal he was), though, we might take a different view of the perfection of the ideas of his time, when we see that there was reported to have been applause when he remarked that ‘the punishment of whipping still existed, and he thought that, for a certain class of offences, it was an excellent remedy’.
A little baffling today but apparently regarded as amusing was a Lord Eldon anecdote: Lord Eldon ‘had said that a wife was like a tin canister tied to one’s tail’ [which does not sound complimentary!] Both baffling and groan-inducing are the great lines in response to Lord Eldon, from the Society Journal which Jones cited:
‘Lord Eldon presuming to rail
Calls a wife a tin canister tied to one’s tail;
And fair lady Ann while the subject he carried on
Seems hurt by his Lordship’s degrading comparison.
But wherefore degrading? Considered aright
A canister’s polished and useful and bright.
And should dirt its original purity bide,
That’s the fault of the puppy to whom it is tied.’
This was funny, right! The newspaper reports laughter.
Partly funny, partly deadly serious was his treatment of a gripe of his own age and country – critical comments by English judges on the veracity of Welsh witness. Here, Jones played to his audience: he could ‘assure them that more lies were told in the courts of London in two days than the whole of Wales in three years’. This, as might have been expected, elicited applause from the good men of Denbigh.
Going back to humour, he gave his listeners a story of a murder trial in which there had been a conviction, but then the man allegedly murdered appeared in court. Although the judge ordered that the jury’s verdict would have to be withdrawn, ‘the foreman of the jury said that the prisoner must be guilty, as he knew him for a rogue, as he had stole his bay mare three years ago’. How they laughed! Likewise, mirth was caused by amusing tales of drunk judges and judges being ‘witty’.
There was a bit of a mixed judgment in the end, by Jones, on the ‘system of justice in England’ [and yes, there is that slipping, characteristic of the period, between portraying England as separate from Wales, and speaking as if Wales was absorbed in England]. On the one hand it was ‘a pattern for the whole world’, on the other ‘there were defects in the system’. Finally, he gave his listeners some homework – to learn about the laws of their country, he recommended:
- Memoirs of Lord Brougham
- Memoirs of the Old Bailey
Damn – will have to revise my reading lists now.
All in all, an interesting little insight into this ‘character’ of the law, and into the ideas of his time, about Wales, law, and humour. Probably somebody who deserves a bit more attention today, for these reasons amongst others.
[i] Intro: in the chair was the Rev. James Charles, who, reading between the lines, may have been hogging the limelight a little. In a bit of a ‘back to me’ moment, he seems to have described his own appearances as a witness, and in what sounds like some very heavy attempted humour, making comparisons between law and theology. There was said to have been laughter and applause at all of that, though, so no accounting for (early 20th C North Welsh) taste.
For more on the libel case, and background on Jones, see in particular Paul Mitchell, Artemus Jones and the Press Club.” Journal of Legal History, vol. 20, no. 1, April 1999, pp. 64-68.