Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advice Gratis

One of the lively writers—we believe it was Jules Janin – sent over by the French newspapers to describe London at the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, concluded a wonderfully flattering portrait by saying that in England the policeman was “the Providence of the street.” We do not know whether it has ever occurred to our readers to remark how faithfully some such phrase as this would describe the functions of our stipendiary magistrates. Hardly a day passes in which the columns of police intelligence in the morning papers do not afford some illustration of the curiously multifarious duties which these gentlemen discharge—with very rare exceptions indeed— in the kindest, most efficient, and most unpretending manner. The criminal jurisdiction of the police courts is, of course, by far their most important function; but besides their statutable authority, they have been, in practice, invested with a sort of anomalous function, which consists principally in giving advice to any one who may choose to apply for it, upon any kind of subject which affects, however remotely, the public safety or convenience. The first resource of an indignant Englishman is to write to the Times; but if his grief is too deep and too substantial even for that comfort, he goes a step further, and we read in the police reports the next day the stereotyped phrase:—“A person of highly respectable appearance applied for advice to the worthy magistrate under the following circumstances.”

Almost always, the worthy magistrate listens attentively, and advises with singular temper and judgment. We believe that a very small part of the applications, so made ever reaches the public eye. We have been informed, on unquestionable authority, that some of those who sit in Fielding's seat at the present day are consulted, in this semi-official capacity, on questions of the most singular and sometimes of the most private nature. If they chose to imitate the example of their great predecessor, they could describe more of the domestic life, and especially of the domestic troubles, of their fellow-citizens, than even the clergyman or the physician. Occasionally, some illustrations of this quasi magisterial function are made public. Not long since, a curious case was half described in the police reports, in which an accusation brought against a gentleman of having libelled a lady, terminated in an explanation and apology. We believe that the arrangement of matters of this kind at an earlier stage, and in a still more private manner, is far from uncommon.

The commonest form of application for advice is that which consists in putting the public upon their guard against frauds which it would be difficult or impracticable to reach by direct legal punishment. Thus, a few days ago, the chief clerk of the Mendicity Society exposed before Mr. Norton the career of a gentleman who was said to have raised upwards of £200 on behalf of “a blind seamstress,” whose existence was purely subjective, and had been evolved entirely from the depths of his own consciousness. It is a curious proof of the superficial character of much of the education even of people who are well off in the world, that this ingenious philosopher is stated to have owed his success mainly to a paper which, though it certainly showed an acquaintance with the names of half the aristocracy, was almost entirely free from either logical or grammatical sequence. The objection to applications of this kind is, that they are made ex parte, and therefore at times create a prejudice against innocent persons. Mr. Somerville, the author of the Autobiography of a Working Man, complains in the bitterest manner of the injury which he sustained from applications which were made, he says, behind his back; and it is obvious that the practice is one which requires the greatest tact and caution. A case in which, in our opinion, the magistrate failed in the exercise of this discretion, occurred a day or two ago at the Guildhall. An applicant states that a certain charitable Society was in fact not a charitable Society at all, but a mere job, for the benefit of the officers who conducted, or professed to conduct, its business. Hereupon the persons attacked appeared in court to deny the imputation, and a long discussion ensued between the accused and accusers, which started from no premises and arrived at no conclusions, except that one gentleman expressed his intention of bringing an action against another, and that, as the presiding alderman mildly remarked, “a good deal of the time of the Court was wasted.”

Some of the applications throw the most singular light on the strange power of tormenting their neighbours which the various appliances of civilized life give to ill-disposed people. There is a sort of grotesqueness in some of these which invests them with an independent interest. Some time back, Mr. Selfe, the magistrate of the Thames Police Court, received a great number of charitable contributions on behalf of a poor woman whose case, decided before him, showed the most terrible distress. He acknowledged the receipt of the various sums in the usual manner, and announced at the same time his intention of applying them in the manner suggested by the donors. Shortly afterwards he received a most brutal and violent epistle, charging him with misappropriating the money; and threatening to make a representation of the fact to the Secretary of State. This letter was signed “Felix Clewett.” Mr. Selfe replied by a singularly kind and gentle remonstrance, pointing out to his correspondent the absurdity of the charge, and reproving him in the quietest way for the violence of his language. Next day a very respectable tradesman came into court, in a state of the greatest surprise and distress, to say that he was Mr. Felix Clewett—that he never wrote to Mr. Selfe in his life—and that the letter signed with his name was the forgery of some scoundrel who had been trying to ruin him by writing letters calculated to destroy his credit as a tradesman, and who now wished to fix him with the disgrace of doing a most improper and unhandsome action. There is a strange mixture of ingenuity and folly about this which strikes us as being a very curious combination. But for the certainty that the matter would come to Mr. Clewett's knowledge, and that he would disavow the forgery, the scheme was singularly well laid; yet it seems strange that a man should take so much trouble, and commit such a dirty action, simply in order that, if he happened to be successful, his enemy might pass for a rough, ill-conditioned person.

A still more grotesque case lately occurred at the Marylebone Court. A foreign gentleman of fortune, named Franklinski, came to know what he was to do. “All comfort and privacy were at an end" for him. Day by day, and many times a day, the postman left at his door letters innumerable for himself and his wife from ladies and gentlemen anxious to be married, who had read in the newspapers an advertisement setting forth that, in consideration of a certain number of postage-stamps," Professor and Madame Franklinski” would communicate to their correspondents a “proposal, simple but captivating and enthralling,” which would enable them to marry whom they pleased. An address was given in the advertisement, where the letters were taken in—and the postage stamps, we suppose, taken out—and thence they were forwarded to Mr. Frankinski.  It is strange that fools enough should be found in the world to write a sufficient quantity of letters to be a serious nuisance to the person to whom they were addressed, paying half-a-crown each for his opinion and advice upon their matrimonial schemes; and it is not a little curious that the only efficient remedy within the reach of their victim should be the circuitous process of asking for a magistrate's advice on the subject, not in order to obtain any real assistance, but simply for the sake of the publicity which the newspapers would give to the fact of his having made the application.

Every now and then, the strangest illustrations of national characteristics are afforded by these applications. Would any human being but an Englishman have come into a police court—as an old gentleman not long ago actually did—to announce his intention of devoting the whole of his abundant leisure to putting down perambulators? He had brought up six children himself in days gone by, and they had always been kept in the parlour, or exercised in the back garden. Why should not the customs of 1826 be good enough for 1856? How could an old man better occupy the calm of declining years than in vindicating the natural right of a Briton to walk the public streets in peace? Hardly less national was the patriotic gentleman whose indignation was so roused by the correspondence in the papers about garotte robberies, that, being overtaken with liquor, nothing would serve him but going before the Lord Mayor to complain of a perfectly imaginary assault, in which he had lost some £25 and odd silver, and to ask whether he might not carry a revolver to shoot his next assailant. One would like to have seen the face with which he awoke from his dreams next day, to sign a recantation of his charge against the garotters, and to ascribe his having made it to the true cause.

We have only mentioned a few samples of the immense variety of curious and interesting functions of various kinds which a police magistrate is incidentally called upon to perform. They prove, in the most striking manner, the confidence which the public at large feel in the body taken as a whole; and the furnish a strong argument in favour of enforcing upon all who exercise analogous functions in country districts, the acquisition of some tincture of the legal tact and experience which conciliate to such a singular extent the confidence of the inhabitants of the capital.

Saturday Review, December 13, 1856.

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