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I’ve come across the following passage in Chapter 1 of Bleak House by Charles Dickens:

On such an afternoon the various solicitors in the cause, some two or three of whom have inherited it from their fathers, who made a fortune by it, ought to be—as are they not?—ranged in a line, in a long matted well (but you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it) between the registrar's red table and the silk gowns, with bills, cross-bills, answers, rejoinders, injunctions, affidavits, issues, references to masters, masters' reports, mountains of costly nonsense, piled before them.

Excerpt From Bleak House Charles Dickens

A couple of questions:

  1. What does a ‘long matted well’ mean here? Was Dickens using an actual well as a metaphor or is ‘well’ used to mean ‘the place in a law court where the clerks and ushers sit?’ (My interpretation is that the solicitors are so numerous and close together as to give an appearance of being ‘matted’ and that the ‘well’ is used metaphorically to highlight the length (depth?) of the line of solicitors.)
  2. Do the ‘silk gowns’ refer to the gowns that the Chancery judges would be wearing?
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  • Looking in the Lexico dictionary, we find two of the definitions of well are: 3 An enclosed space in the middle of a building, giving room for stairs or an elevator, or to allow light or ventilation. 3.1 British The place in a court of law where the clerks and ushers sit. ‘Other copies of which are available in the well of the court for any member of the public who wishes to read it.’
    – Peter Shor
    Jul 6, 2020 at 13:50
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    On the other hand, Dickens is definitely playing on the two meanings of well when he says you might look in vain for truth at the bottom of it.
    – Peter Shor
    Jul 6, 2020 at 16:17
  • @PeterShor I just came across this question on the unanswered list. Your comments together with the fact that QCs (senior lawyers in the UK) are referred to as "silks" should be enough to answer this - would you like to write up an answer?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jan 14, 2022 at 21:58
  • The well probably has rush matting on the floor. Jul 31, 2023 at 16:12

1 Answer 1

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As Peter Shor mentions in a comment, well refers to a specific place in a court of law. The OED furnishes the exact sense:

The space on the floor of a law court between the judge's bench and the places occupied by counsel.

“Well, N. (1), Sense II.10.c.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, December 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/8171435214.

The OED furnishes a quotation from 1879:

In the ‘well’, a seat a step below that of the Queen's counsel, sit the solicitors.

This confirms that Dickens had in mind the place in the court where solicitors sat. The registrar is the official who conducts investigations and records judgments. From the OED again:

Law (originally and chiefly British). In certain courts: an official with both administrative and judicial responsibilities.

Although originally primarily responsible for ensuring the correct recording of judgments and orders (cf. sense I.1a), registrars also had certain investigative and decision-making powers, and gradually their work became more judicial than administrative. In England and Wales, the Courts and Legal Services Act of 1990 renamed High Court and County Court registrars ‘District Judges’ to reflect this change.

“Registrar, N., Sense I.4.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, September 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/6662356764.

Per Rand al'Thor's comment, the silk gowns are the senior lawyers, aka Queen's Counsels (in Victoria's day; under the present monarch, they would be King's Counsels), who wore those garments.

So Dickens is speaking of the space between the judge's bench and the desks of the senior lawyers. In between are the solicitors, occupying a matted well. As Kate Bunting says in her comment, the adjective could refer to rush matting on the floor. OED confirms that the verb mat is used in this sense, typically in the passive:

To cover or protect with mats or matting; to provide with a mat.

“Mat, V. (1), Sense 2.a.” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, July 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/9660955794.

A quotation given by the OED:

A side room..well and neatly built of mud, and matted with pīsh matting.

Initially I took matted to mean dull; we commonly use the term "matte" to distinguish something from "glossy", and OED confirms that matted can carry this sense:

That is or has been matted (matt v. 1); dulled, deprived of lustre or gloss; (of glass) frosted.

“Matted, Adj. (2).” Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford UP, July 2023, https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/1180772326.

Dickens might have intended the implication that the solicitors are dull-witted, but OED does not supply any examples of a space being matted in a way that means dull, alas.

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