Thursday 27 October 2016

Fifty Years of Belfast Life (1866-1916) part 17



I will now pass for a time from the realm of journalism to the realm of justice, so far as a police court represents it – and heaven forbid that I should cast either reproach or suspicion upon its manner of representing it. My change from the “News-letter” to the police court was recorded in the character of a lapse, if not a collapse. It came about in this way. The control of the telegraphs passed to the Government in 1870, when greater and cheaper facilities were offered to newspapers than before. I cannot remember whether the newspaper had any advantage over the general public previously. By one swoop the Government gave them the benefit of sending one hundred words for a shilling, provided the matter was for newspaper publication. This led to the formation of news, agencies and other means of obtaining extensive supplies for the newspapers, with the result that the quantity of news to telegraph exceeded the supply of trained clerks to do the work. One consequence of this was that the “copy” was not always good, full points or periods were almost disregarded, and if a sub-editor got a faint flimsy it was a strain on the eyes to read it, and a strain on the brain to make it intelligible. I assisted the sub-editor at the time o' nights, and the strain after some months was too great for my eyes. I imagined, however, that, the painful effects I discovered were the result of weakness of the eyes rather than mere strain, and I concluded with regret that I would have to abandon newspaper and night work.

It was while I was in this state of mind I discovered that an extra Police Court clerk would be wanting at the new Police Courts that were just opening at the time. I secured the appointment, much, to the disgust of newspaper friends, who regarded it as a great lapse from the glorious independence of newspaper life to the drudgery — and dirt — of the Police Court. Well, I did not find it exactly drudgery, but my then chief, Mr. George Kennedy, made it rather humiliating. His chief end and aim seemed to be to show as much servility to the magistrates as possible, and because nearly all the magistrates had known me beforehand, and talked to me on friendly and familiar terms, he took every opportunity to make me feel that I was not of the same clay as them, and that instead of talking up to them as a free youth, I should have crawled before them as a slave? On my first day in the courts I was sent out for some blotting-paper for the magistrates — the last three words were always appended and emphasised with the suggestion that I should first salute and then fly. I did not salute, and did not even run; I walked out and I walked back at a much more rapid rate than I walk now, but yet not with the feeling or the fear that a magisterial mastiff was at my heels.

This was on the first day the court opened, and it was crowded. My chief no sooner saw me than he rushed — almost flew — at me, seized the sheet of blotting-paper, rushed back and obsequiously spread it before the magistrates as I returned to my humble seat as an humbled individual. This and other incidents of the kind were not calculated to reconcile me, even to the possession of a Government office and salary, with a right to a pension — though when I think or read of pensions to which had I remained and lived I would now have been entitled, my teeth water. My other superiors were Mr. Robert M'Master and Mr. Robert M'Henry, like Mr. Kennedy all gone, and they did so much by kindness, sympathy, and consideration to make amends for the roughness and rudeness of my superior that I was quite reconciled. I do not say I made a good Petty Sessions Clerk, I am afraid I made a very bad one, and I do not think there is anyone now alive to contradict me. I could at any rate take “informations” — my reporting experience stood me there, though my unlawyerlike handwriting was often a worry to my chief and to Crown Solicitors.

But, truth to tell, I did not take kindly to the work, which, though not heavy, was monotonous and mechanical, which I hated; to the atmosphere, which on a crowded day was not the purest; or to many of the dishevelled and troublesome clients of not the most cleanly habits or tastes, with whom I was thrown in contact. No one could judge from the courts of the present what they were in those days, or the magistrates or practitioners as they were in those days. I seldom hear of a field day in the court now, or hours of wrangling now. But in those days there was hardly a week or month without one. Everyone that had a grievance seemed somehow or other to get it ventilated in the Police Court — and at times that was the only kind of ventilation in the court — and the solicitors were all armed cap-a-pie, mind and tongue for the work. So far as I have been able to observe from my visits to the Police Courts in recent times, which are almost angelic in their rarity, the solicitors talk to the magistrates and do not orate to the gallery as many of them did in my day. Then scarcely a week or even a day passed in which rival ladies, often with dishevelled head-dresses, would not appear against each other for assault. First one party would get a summons, and then the other would get a cross-summons. Then each would employ a lawyer, and the principal satisfaction each got for her fee was to hear how the one solicitor would emphasise in classic language the abuse that she had heaped in street language. There were giants in the profession in those days for that sort of thing, and the three who remain in my memory as outclassing all others were Mr. Wm. Harper, Mr. Patrick Sheals, and Mr. Andrew M'Erlean. Mind you, they were all good advocates in serious cases or in any cases, but for professional purposes they reached their greatest heights, and I will add their greatest gains, in cultivating and developing the classic side of Billingsgate to meet the tastes of their clients. I hope to say more of the professional side and the magisterial side later on, but I mention these features of the court in my time because they left an indelible mark on my memory. And there was another indelible mark left, and that was the mark of respect which I and all who knew them entertained for them all the days of their lives.

It was not these men or the magistrates of the time that wearied me of Police Court life. It was the monotony and routine, the formality and, if I may say so, regularity of the work — for the great part of the work had to he done before the court opened in preparing for the magistrates, and, after it was open in preparing the documents for ensuring the prisoners' safe conduct in Black Maria to the jail, and providing them with passes for their careful looking after while there. I had each morning to write up in fearsome numbers and with varying monotony the book which informs the magistrates of the names and charges for the day; how that Constable Crooks or Sub-Constable Snooks charged Patrick This and Mary That with one or other of the many offences known to Police Court law — as far as I can remember the 13 and 14 Vic., Cap. 92, seemed to be the line out of which most of them came — such as drunk, drunk and disorderly, drunk and disorderly and assaulting the police — sometimes each of these would be separate charges, and often all three would be one — with not giving up possession of a house, with neglecting this duty or that, with selling drink without a licence, with keeping public-houses open during prohibited hours, and so on. Then we had to make out order and committals, order or committals, and collect the fines and costs — my chief, however, was a perfect master in that part of the business, and did not require any assistance. He did look after the sixpences with a vengeance — I am sure there were no bad debts in sixpences in his day. Many a time and oft have I heard him, with one eye on a witness and another on a woman with a shawl over her head, going over the formula all in one tone of voice and with the same solemnity or the want of it — “The - evidence - you - shall - give - to - the - court - shall - be - the truth - the - whole - truth - and - nothing - but - the - truth - so help - you  - God. — Six — pence — here,” and the woman and the sixpence would be seized before the witness had sealed her oath. It was weariness of all this routine which was to me uninteresting and unattractive, that led to my recovery from my lapse, my return to tea “News-Letter” and the journalistic fold, in which I have remained a simple — very simple — sheep to this day.

Despite the deprivation of a pension I must say I do not regret having returned to my first love. Better half a year of Europe than a cycle of Cathay. Better a life in the world in change and variety, in movement and action, than a life in a dull court, with sombre and often sordid surroundings and associations; better the life on the streets than a life in a court; better a life among politicians and magistrates out of law courts rather than in it, among Corporators and Water Commissioners and Harbour Commissioners, and even the Poor-law Guardians, than among the denizens of the dock and the police cells; among the crimeless rather than the criminal; even among the people who ought to be in the dock rather than the people who are. In these courts there is so much seen and heard of squalor and misery, of drink and debauchery, of total indifference to meum and tuum, so much to inspire pity as weH as disgust, sorrow rather than joy, that I can well understand the feelings of many of those who have to live their lives in them, and realise that they well merit any salaries or pensions they receive. While there is much that would arouse sympathy and stir a heart of flint, there is much that would be calculated to turn the softest hearted into flint. And certainly there is much to move the moralist and the reformer. In these courts at first hand one can realise the terrible effects of over-drinking, which, horrible as it is in man, is more horrible in women; and from my recollection of those months in these courts women were the greatest sinners. I have seen women and men hurry up almost with, clock-like regularity. “Anything known of this prisoner?” the magistrate would ask the head-constable in charge, and then, that officer would read out the record. I could not say in all cases, or even of the majority, that the convictions were many, but in many cases five, ten, twenty, and thirty records would be turned up, and I think in my time there was one unfortunate woman who had approached, if not topped, a century of convictions.

I often wondered how so many of these wretches got the money to enable them to get drink so deeply and so frequently, but it often seemed as if the less clothing the people were able to wear the more drink they were able to consume. No doubt the lack of sufficient food made their overcoming by drink more easy, and the pawnbroker and the spirit grocer, to say nothing of the publican, had their share of the work and responsibility. I had a theory on this subject that I remember ventilating at the time among some temperance reformers. That was that if they would secure from the Legislature that no alcohol should be sold unless it had reached maturity — those were the days of only the pot-still — these people would not be able to buy as much whisky as would make them drunk — and I must say of much of the whisky sold at the time very little whisky was sufficient to make a muckle of trouble for the police. I smelt some of it at the time, and the smell was enough for me. But my friends would not hear of any move in that direction. They seemed to think that the cure would be worse than the disease, and tempt many to drink on the strength of its quality. At any rate one would not need to be more than a casual visitor to the Police Court, to say nothing of being in its very heart for days and months and years, without understanding from personal observation the truth of the temperance and moral reformer theory that drink is at the root of the great part of the crime. This may be a truism based on published facts and theories. But at an early age the truth was impressed on me by my Police Court experiences.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 27th October 1916.

The "Man in the Street" was the pen name of Alexander McMonagle editor and manager of The Witness and Ulster Echo.

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