In Westminster Hall I Danced A Dance

Two entries in a year – shameful. I’m going to do this daily now, I swear it, if it should kill me.

So – verse 2 of the Judge’s song in Trial By Jury contains a number of interesting allusions.

The struggling young barrister isn’t getting any briefs, so ‘In Westminster Hall I danced a dance/Like a semi-despondent Fury/For I thought I never should hit on a chance of addressing a British jury’.

This references ages the Judge considerably, for in 1875, it had been some 55 years since the oldest building in the Palace of Westminster had been used as a law court. Instead, this venerable building – the site of the trial of Charles I – had miscellaneous uses, including exhibitions, drill practices and a meeting hall for volunteers. A devastating fire in 1834 had put paid to its Parliamentary function too, and resulted in the construction of the iconic Pugin building on the banks of the Thames that now houses our legislative bodies. So, by the time of Trial, the Hall would not have seen many semi-despondent legal Furies dancing around its precincts.

If you want to find out more about its history, there’s an excellent virtual tour here.


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When I, Good Friends, Was Called To The Bar

The Judge’s song in Trial is a rich source of information on the legal profession and social scene in Gilbert’s day. Gilbert, of course, practised (unsuccessfully) at the bar himself in the 1860s, so he must have felt that line “I was, as many young barristers are, an impecunious party”. Unlike the Judge, though, he never rose any higher and turned to the thankfully more profitable line of play writing.

I have often wondered if Gilbert himself ever possessed ‘a swallow tail coat of a beautiful blue’ and the other accoutrements he mentions. I didn’t know at the time what a swallow tail coat was. Here’s an example of one.





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All Hail, Great Judge!

The entrance of the Learned Judge tells us, by way of the music, that Handel’s vast popularity with choral societies and amateur orchestras had lasted through the century and showed no signs of abating. Messiah in particular fuelled a sort of competition to see who could perform it bigger and louder and more epically than anybody else. One performance at the Crystal Palace used 2000 singers and an orchestra of 500.

George Bernard Shaw was not impressed by the ever-increasing scale of these renditions. “The stale wonderment which the great chorus never fails to elicit has already been exhausted,” he wrote. “Why, instead of wasting huge sums on the multitudinous dullness of a Handel Festival does not somebody set up a thoroughly rehearsed and exhaustively studied performance of the Messiah in St James’s Hall with a chorus of twenty capable artists? Most of us would be glad to hear the work seriously performed once before we die.”

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When First My Old, Old Love I Knew

The Defendant’s song of introduction and mitigation taught me only the vacillating character of the man, but the little chorus by the jury that follows it hits squarely on one of the great themes of Victorian life (especially from a post-Victorian perspective) – hypocrisy!

“Oh, I was like that when a lad

A shocking young scamp of a rover

I behaved like a regular cad

But that sort of thing is all over

I am now a respectable chap

And shine with a virtue resplendent

And therefore I haven’t a scrap

Of sympathy with the Defendant.”


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Be Firm, Be Firm, My Pecker

Ah, the line that is the favourite of all adolescent (and older, let’s be fair) members of operatic groups performing Trial.

How rude!!!

Except it wasn’t, not in Victorian times. The expression ‘Keep your pecker up’ was a common colloquialism and nothing to do with anything bedroom-related. Pecker referred to the lip – perhaps a stiff upper one – and meant roughly ‘don’t let your lip droop’ or ‘keep your spirits/courage up’. First recorded usage, according to was 1853, so it was relatively current slang when Trial By Jury was written.

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Is This The Court Of The Exchequer?

Uh oh. With the entrance of the Defendant in Trial By Jury comes my first misapprehension of the Victorian era – that trials for Breach of Promise would be tried in the Court of the Exchequer. As mentioned below, it would have been a King’s Bench matter.

The Court of the Exchequer of Pleas, to give it its full name, was abolished in 1880, five years after the premiere of TBJ. Its stock in trade was dealing with dodgy tax collectors and debtors to the crown. As these cases became fewer in number, the argument for merging the Exchequer and its Court of Common Pleas with King’s Bench became more persuasive (it was recommended by the 1873 Act of Judicature) and, when both Lord Chief Justice’s died in 1880, it was finally practicable. So, there was some cross-pollenation between King’s Bench and Exchequer, but I’m not sure it was enough to bring Edwin and Angelina into its court.

A hierarchical chart of the English common law courts before judicature acts.  The lowest portion of the chart is the Common Pleas and Assizes at Nisi Prius with arrows pointing toward each other.  Common Pleas parent is King's Bench which is also the parent of equal level Local courts.  The Exchequer is the parent of the Assizies at Nisi Prius.  The parent of both the King's Bench and Exchequer is the Exchequer Chamber and top of the chart is the House of Lords.

English common law courts before the 1873 Act.


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From Bias Free Of Every Kind

Back to Trial by Jury, once I’ve dusted the cobwebs off the witness box.

The usher’s song, ‘Now, jurymen, hear my advice’ didn’t teach me much, except that this particular usher has a decided partiality for the plaintiff. I wonder if Gilbert, in his years of sporadic legal practice, saw much evidence of this?

‘Now, jurymen, hear my advice

All kinds of vulgar prejudice

I pray you set aside

With firm, judicial frame of mind

From bias free of every kind

This trial must be tried.


O, listen to the Plaintiff’s case

Observe the features of her face

The broken-hearted bride

Condole with her distress of mind

From bias free of every kind

This trial must be tried.


And when, amid the Plaintiff’s shrieks,

The ruffianly Defendant speaks

Upon the other side

What he may say you needn’t mind.

From bias free of every kind

This trial must be tried.’

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