I'm reading 'My Maiden Brief' by W. S. Gilbert, a short shory about a Victorian British court case, and some parts puzzle me a bit. The story's full of details of British justice and many are easy to look up yet not all. First, it's literally the first line:

Late on a certain May morning, as I was sitting at a modest breakfast in my "residence chambers," Pump Court, Temple, my attention was claimed by a single knock at an outer door, common to the chambers of Felix Polter, and of myself, Horace Penditton, both barristers-at-law of the Inner Temple.

It's the "residence chambers" that bothers me. There exist barristers' chambers, but what's with the 'residence' part of it and why is it in quotes? Does the protagonist also live there? as it may seem from the next paragraph:

The outer door was not the only article common to Polter and myself. We also shared what Polter (who wrote farces) was pleased to term a "property" clerk, who did nothing at all, and a "practicable" laundress, who did everything. There existed also a communion of interest in tea-cups, razors, gridirons, candlesticks, &c.; for although neither of us was particularly well supplied with the necessaries of domestic life, each happened to possess the very articles in which the other was deficient.'

Later, the protagonist recieves his first brief paper which says:

"Central Criminal Court, May Sessions, 1860.—The Queen on the prosecution of Ann Black v. Elizabeth Briggs. Brief for the prisoner. Mr. Penditton, one guinea.—Poddle and Shaddery, Brompton Square."

Wiki says, counsel's fee is often marked in a brief. Is 'one guinea' related to it? And how in fact these brief papers were drew up? Who would prepare them and send to the defense and to the prosecution?

In some places 'a court' is capitalized:

Everything went satisfactorily; Wilkinson broke down in his speech for the prosecution; his witness prevaricated and contradicted himself in a preposterous manner; and my speech for the defence was voted to be one of the most masterly specimens of forensic ingenuity that had ever come before the notice of the Court

At ten o'clock Polter and I drove up in wigs and gowns to the Old Bailey; as well because we kept those imposing garments at our chambers, not having any use for them elsewhere, as to impress passers-by and the loungers below the Court with a conviction that we were not only Old Bailey counsel, but had come down from our usual sphere of action at Westminster, to conduct a case of more than ordinary complication.

Is there a pun in 'loungers below the Court' meaning anyone outside the world of Law is worthless? I'm not a native speaker and don't quite get it.

In other places "court" lacks the capital letter:

I am the junior counsel in court.

he opened the papers, glanced at them, and rose to address the court.

The cry was repeated three or four times outside the court; but there was no response.

Does the presence of a capital letter mean British justice at general and the absence, just a court building / courtroom?

1 Answer 1


“Residence chambers”

“Residence chambers” were chambers (rooms) let out as a residence. The relevant senses are:

chambers, n., 6.a. Rooms forming part of a large house or other building and let out as a suite or apartment; lodgings; (also) sets of rooms in a block of buildings let out for professional purposes. Now archaic.

b. British. Law. Rooms at one of the Inns of Court used by a barrister or barristers, (originally) as a residence and office, or (later usually) as an office only. Later also: the premises of a barrister or barristers situated elsewhere.

Oxford English Dictionary.

It seems that “residence chambers” were usually let out to bachelors:

Is there any reason why chambers should be so very severe and boudoirs so very gay? why lodgings should be so very dismal and taverns so very garish in sense-appealing garniture? When will those who take in lodgers (in every sense) cease to look entirely to their own pockets, and more closely examine what constitutes comfort, what engenders cheerfulness, what gladdeneth the heart of those they house? It is not because a man cannot afford to marry, or because, when married, he cannot afford a large house, that he should be condemned to the blues for life. I do not wish to load houses with false ornament, but to make the most of the space and money at command, by establishing such allurements as will make the man of residence-chambers cease to grumble (if bachelors ever cease to grumble), and lodgers not so glad to rush to Cremorne† or the silver-paper-wrapped evils of spurious singing (and boozing) “halls.”

Horace B. (1861). ‘Chambers and lodgings’. In The Builder, July 27, 1861, p. 517.

Cremorne Gardens, former pleasure gardens in Chelsea, London.

So Penditton and Polter are single men sharing a suite of rooms: presumably each has a bedroom and they share a common room. Their toilet is outside, shared with the occupants of other chambers on the same staircase, or they use a chamber pot.

“Brief for the prisoner”

In England and Wales, the profession of legal representation is divided into solicitors and barristers. At the time of ‘My Maiden Brief’, solicitors prepared cases and dealt with the public, while barristers argued cases in court and dealt with solicitors. (The distinction between these roles is no longer as strict as it was in 1863, when W. S. Gilbert presented his first brief.) So the “brief” (a summary of the facts of the case) was prepared by the prisoner’s solicitors (named in the story as “Poddle and Shaddery, Brompton Square”) and offered to Mr. Penditton (a barrister) for presentation in court, for the fee of one guinea.

A guinea was formerly a gold coin, originally worth one pound (20 shillings) but later one pound and one shilling. At the time of ‘My Maiden Brief’, guinea coins were no longer in circulation, but the term remained in use meaning “21 shillings”. A guinea in 1863 was the rough equivalent of £105 today, according to the Bank of England inflation calculator.

Capitalization of “court”

In the first part of the story, “the Court” refers to the group of colleagues present at the rehearsal. By referring to them as “the Court” with a capital letter, Gilbert facetiously draws attention to the way that these colleagues are role-playing as judge, prosecution, witnesses, and so on. In the second part of the story, Gilbert uses “Court” for the institution (that is, the Central Criminal Court) and “court” for other senses (the particular chamber in which the case was heard, or the particular barristers, judge and jury present on that occasion).

“Loungers below the Court”

This phrase should be understood literally. The Old Bailey is near the top of Ludgate Hill, so that the “loungers” (people passing the time without any definite occupation) in the neighbourhood are downhill from the Court, thus “below” it.

  • Wow. Thanks a lot for such an informative reply. Commented Dec 28, 2022 at 18:58

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