When, a few months since, I ventured to tear out from my diary one of its pleasantest fly-leaves, and to solicit the insertion thereof in “our Mag.," I was not quite so ignorant or so blind as not to be fully aware that the result would be precisely nil. I did my little best to describe what seemed to me a simple and hopeful endeavour to cope with some of the failings and drawbacks of modern society; an endeavour which I knew to be practicable, for the simple reason that it had succeeded. As to the ostentation, the extravagance, the hollowness, and the discomfort which this little social experiment was designed to combat, I suppose I shall find almost as few to defend as to resist them. Unfortunately, the bonds which compress "society" seem incapable of loosening, be they never so irksome. Sometimes the strain becomes unendurable, and then, of course, they snap; but their motto might very justifiably be borrowed from that of a certain noble family, “We break, but never bend." Hence the most sanguine would scarcely feel it strange that (as in my case) the plain record of an accomplished fact in social reform should be supposed to be the outcome of a fertile, but undisciplined imagination. It is useless to remind people that one half the dreams Sir Thomas More painted in his Utopia have come to be waking realities; they have made up their minds that Utopian means “ too good to be true," and are not to be persuaded otherwise. And after all, the disappointment, should one be unreasonable enough to feel it, is not without a certain sweetness; for, whatever difference may separate the ephemeral attempts of a mere amateur from the most earnest labours of the profoundest minds, we are pretty much on a level as regards results when we direct our efforts against the follies of society; and while those who work with such an object in view are tolerably sure to labour in vain, nothing can deprive them of the consolation of knowing that they will fail in uncommonly good company.

Leaving, however, the practical sages of Nevermindwhere to enjoy the fruits of a wisdom in which I fear they will find very few imitators, I take from my diary a leaf which contains a narrative neither more nor less truthful than the former one, but I think, at any rate, less liable to the imputation of being too good to be true. I laboured, in the other case, under the difficulty of being unable, for obvious reasons, to give any enquirers chapter and verse, or suburb and road, for the actual scenes which they so flatteringly ascribed to my fancy. No such difficulty exists in the present instance, and I need feel no delicacy in saying at once tha the locality I have described as “a long way on this side of Utopia" is the Birmingham County Court, at present to be found in Waterloo Street, and (although destined to ultimate removal) likely to remain there long enough to satisfy (or the reverse) the most conservative of those who have to be, to do, or to suffer, within its precincts. Let me hasten, however, to explain that my experience of the Court is entirely that of a plaintiff, a position which is preferable, certainly, to that of a defendant—but to that only. For a long time, although not entirely unacquainted with that too numerous section of humanity whose agility in getting into debt is only equalled by their sluggishness in getting out of it, I had had no personal knowledge of the delights of a suitor; but a change in my business affairs leaving me without a deputy, compelled me in my own person to learn what the collection of small debts by legal process really meant.

I learned, then, in the first place, that no matter how small the amount, or how completely the defendant might admit his indebtedness, short of his taking the trouble to sign a formal acknowledgment-a condescension too great to be reasonably expected—the onus of proof rested entirely with the plaintiff, who must, no matter at what inconvenience, attend on the appointed day, or send someone able from personal knowledge, to swear that the sum in question was actually due. That the burden should thus be laid upon the aggrieved party is, I admit, in strict keeping with the general practice of the English law, which even in criminal cases reads the sufferer a lesson on the duty of a forgiving spirit by leaving him to pay the entire costs, and take the entire responsibility of prosecution. It would seem that in cases where the defendant tacitly admits the debt by refraining from entering any defence, the plaintiff might not unreasonably be supposed to be justified in his action. this view is doubtless Utopian, and the debtor who quietly places his summons in his waste-paper basket, has the satisfaction of knowing that if his creditor should be unable to attend at a certain fixed time, the case will be struck out without expense or trouble to himself; an arrangement on which many debtors doubtless trade.

Not being inclined to let my case, although a very small one, thus go by default, I duly presented myself in Waterloo Street at ten o'clock, and found ample leisure to contemplate my surroundings. The Court nor undefended causes being rather smaller than an average office, was, of course, incapable of accommodating more than those actually engaged in it at the moment, and I had perforce to become one of a motley crowd of Peris in attendance at the door of this dubious Paradise.

The equality of all men in the sight of the law was vindicated by the entire absence of any accommodation whatever, either for plaintiffs or defendants; and from the not very angelic glances of some of my companions in affliction, I surmised that both of these classes were represented; in some cases, indeed, I can suppose that debtor and creditor may have been brought into closer communion than they had known for some little time past—or cared for then--for it was necessary both to keep close and to listen with attention to the usher, or to run the risk of losing one's chance and one's cause at an unguarded moment. The Birmingham Salle des Pas perdus I found to be by no means deficient either in bustle or in ventilation. Two or three offices opened from it, and from the incessant ingress and egress I should imagine the officials therein to be but little liable to the charge of being sinecurists; while the grand entrance from the street gave free passage to a continuous stream of comers and goers, and at the same time to a constant and undiluted blast of genuine east wind. Our own particular corner was divided only by a temporary barrier from the foot of a stone staircase, leading, I was told, to the Court for defended cases; and up and down this staircase were passing perpetually officials, lawyers, creditors, witnesses, and debtors, many of whom from time to time gave vent to their overwrought feelings in terms too forcible to be silenced by the repeated appeals of the usher, and of the genial and handsome representative of the police force who was stationed at the barrier. As for the little crowd of which I formed an unwilling unit, its composition may be imagined from the circumstances of the case. More draggletailed, slipshod-looking women; more smutty, unkempt working men ; and more hopelessly-irritated and unsilenceable babies, I never saw in the same compass before, and trust never to see again. It was a representative collection of that "residuum " to which so much political reference has been made, and I am free to confess that had any epidemic disease been prevalent in the town at the time, no consideration of public duty, or of personal loss, should have tempted me to remain in it. I very willingly admit that every official with whom I came into contact was obliging and courteous under very adverse circumstances; and that the greater part of the inconvenience, not to say misery, was simply the result of the total unfitness of the building for the purpose it was put to. But, although I blame no one, the facts are as I have stated them, and amount to an absolute discouragement to all who seek justice. No efforts could keep so motley a crowd in order under such conditions, and the noise was sometimes so great that it was scarcely possible to hear the names as they were called out, by any stretch of attention. At length, after nearly two hours weary waiting, my turn

I have nothing but praise to give to the manner in which I found the business of the Court conducted when I was so fortunate as to attain its shelter. My debtor was, of course, not present, and I had no more to do than to swear to the amount of my debt, and to depart. The entire formality may have occupied about one minute and a half, and I can conceive absolutely no valid reason why it might not have been performed, under proper restrictions, at any hour of any day convenient to myself.

As I passed down the steps now liberally stair-carpetted with mud, into the open air, I could not help halting a moment for reflection, although


neither the climate nor the surroundings were very favourable to meditation. I had left important work, and had lost a whole morning; I had spent two hours in extreme discomfort ; and, if there be any power to harm in the fitful blasts of a cold, damp wind, or in close fellowship with humanity at its dirtiest, I had been in some personal danger. Why? and to what end? What duty had I performed, or what sin expiated, at this uncomfortable cost? And although, as I stood pondering, conscience brought up a fair average amount of transgressions for which I deserved to suffer, yet, for the life of me, I could not think of any sin in the remotest degree connected with the case, except it were a sin to give credit to the amount of thirty shillings—which I am now inclined to think it is. And while I hope I was thankful that my lot had been cast in a country where justice wields her sword without fear or favour, I could not help the thought crossing my mind that she seemed to use the flat side of her weapon with some vigour, even upon those who only came to sue for her help-perhaps upon the principle much in vogue in my childhood," that they might have something to cry for."

Well, it is all over now, and forms but a leaf in my diary. My friend the debtor has paid his thirty shillings, and with it, I believe, a handsome contribution towards the maintenance of law and order. He had simply played a little game at brag, and he had lost, and had to find the stakes. The Waterloo Street Court will also be all over in a few years, I suppose, and I shall be only too happy to take it for granted that all is perfection in the new quarters, provided I am never called upon to see for myself. My legal friends, indeed, complain that the change will cause them some trouble, and personally I should lament deeply anything that could in the least inconvenience them ; but we live in a very selfish age, and I greatly fear that their pleas will be disregarded. Providence would indeed seem to have been providing against a calamity of this kind, by giving them a larger proportion of carriages than is vouchsafed to the members of most other professions or occupations. After all, it is said that the scheme will enhance the value of corporation property to the tune of £100,000 ; and so far away as we are from the golden age, I am very much afraid that, tempted by such a bribe, any body of men, within or without the Town Council, would prove unequal to the temptation, and cry“ give us the £100,000,” though the term “lawyer” became synonymous with that of “Wandering Jew."

Let me conclude with the earnest expression of a hope in which, I am sure, lawyers and clients will cordially join. It is that, since we are to be favoured with a second government building in Birmingham, built by a government architect, instructions may be given to make it in every respect as little like the General Post Office as it can enter into the heart. of man to conceive. If these conditions are carried out faithfully, there is every reason to trust that the exterior of the building will be a credit to the town; and as regards the interior-I suspect that those whose duty makes them most familiar with the present Court will be the last to doubt that any change whatever must be for the better.



Beneath yon lofty elm's umbrageous shade

That crowns the corner of the village green,
Disused, neglected, battered, and decayed,

The old oak stocks remain yet to be seen-
Of times elapsed a relic quaint, I ween.

Bent are the hinges and the fastenings loose,

The foot planks torn apart and wrenched awry, And, illustrating the profuse abuse

of those dread knives which juveniles employ, Deep graven names o'er all confuse the eye.

The day of their utility has fled,

Except for tethering some horse or cow;
No more dismayed with apprehensive dread,

And registering many a sober vow,
Habitual topers contemplate them now.

In summer, when the sultry sun draws near,

And earth lies sweltered 'neath his gloating gaze. Blithe bands of children bent on play appear

With loitering gossips in the shadowy haze,
Below the boughs through which the sunlight plays.

And tramping vagabonds halt there, content

To lounge upon that bench, where oft of yore
A luckless ancestry in penance spent

Unhappy hours of public shame, before
Assembled yokels whose rude taunts they bore.

No watchmen now accomplish their disgrace,

No Dogberry confounds them in debate;
No skull-capped justice of the Shallow race

Surviveth to adjudicate their fate-
They dread instead the modern magistrate.

« VorigeDoorgaan »