Ernest Belfort Bax

Reminiscences and Reflexions of a mid and late Victorian

Chapter VIII
Club and Temple Life in London at the End of the Nineteenth Century

The decades of the nineties has already receded from us sufficiently to become interesting as a retrospect. Though the change in English thought and ways of looking at life, as regards what had gone before it, was not nearly so profound or far-reaching as that the early eighties had to show, yet the nineties had none the less a character of their own. The ideas and movements which had struck root in the eighties were growing up and sprouting out in various directions, but it is less with the intellectual than with the social life of that period that I propose to deal in this chapter.

In the course of the year 1889 I joined a well-known club [1] in the West End of London, and the following year I took up my residence in the Temple, as already mentioned in an earlier chapter. The club I joined was a large one, with a membership embracing all sorts and conditions of men. Moreover, it was a political club, and included at that time men who have since played prominent part in the public life of the country. Journalists not unnaturally bulked largely among the membership. Men of law, some of them not wanting in eminence, were also among the habitues of the smoking room. Living as I was by myself in chambers at the time [2], as is the wont in such cases, I tended to drift into the club during the latter part of the day. Here I mixed with the other habitual frequenters, among whom there were some noteworthy types which have not failed to impress themselves upon my memory. There was a barrister with a sufficiently good practice who got the credit of being remiss in the matter of standing drinks. This reminds me, by the way, of one notable difference which twenty odd years have made in one at least of the social customs of club-life. In the early nineties, giving and accepting of alcoholic refreshment played a much greater part in the social intercourse of club smoking-rooms, as indeed it did also in life outside clubs, than it does nowadays. No one who remembers the time, even as late as that referred to, can fail to appraise at its true value the cant which declaims against drink as being the special curse of the England of to-day. Even from twenty to twenty-five years ago there was at least twice as much alcohol consumed as there was, let us say, in the summer of 1914, i.e. before the special war restrictions on liquor came into force. If we go farther back, of course, the difference is still more striking. The days depicted by Dickens in Pickwick are astounding to the modern man.

But to return to the club. There was the youngish gentleman, undergraduate of the London University, who did a little journalism and acted on occasion as electoral agent and canvasser for party candidates whom he approved. Having a little means of his own, he did this work for the most part gratuitously. A constant inmate of the club at this time, he was a well-known character. Especially was he famous for the air of blaseness and ennui which he usually assumed. The idea ever present in his mind appeared to be that to seem bored was rather “tony”. Hence the idea of boredom occupied a considerable place in his thought. It was in vain I pointed out to him that excessive sensitiveness to bores and boredom had never been a characteristic of the greatest minds; that, on the contrary, it was usually the mark of a mind without resilience and without formative power of its own. The really great mind, save under great provocation, is, generally speaking, tolerant in this respect, and certainly above being bored by every commonplace man it meets. The idea of boredom still remained an obsession of this gentleman. It was not so much that he was bored as that he thought he ought to appear bored.

Another among the characters of the club was the middle-aged Irish doctor, staunch patriot and ardent Catholic, with somewhat uncouth manners, who was given to laying down the law on all questions. He was generally regarded as somewhat of a crank, and not the least by his own countrymen. There were also among the members those of the House of Israel, the mention of which fact recalls a humorous sally of a well-known member of the present Parliament, recently knighted. The incident was as follows: The gentleman in question was in conversation one day in the smoking-room with a barrister of the Jewish race. Sitting in a group not far off was an elderly club-member, since dead, who in loud tones was heard to express the opinion that there were too many of “these damn’d Jews” in the club. The remark, of course, had no reference to the Jewish gentleman with whom our MP was speaking, whose presence a short distance off had probably not been observed by our anti-Semitic friend. However, it reached the ears of the former, whose indignation was at once aroused to the extent of his getting up and going over to remonstrate with the insulter, as he deemed him, of his racial colleagues in the club, whose remarks he took as a personal affront to himself. In altercation ensued on the merits of the Hebrew, which was threatening to become hot, when our MP interposed with the observation that he thought the whole difference between his friend and the old gentleman was due to a misunderstanding; if he had heard aright, he understood the latter’s objection to refer, not to Jews in general either within or without the club, but only a special class of Jews, to wit, damm’d Jews. “Now,” he said, “we none of us approve of damm’d Jews.” His friend the speaker had expressed the opinion that there were some of this class of Jew in the club. If there were, he would be the last to defend them, but although he had numerous acquaintances among the Jewish members of the club, he could not recall a single “damn’d Jew” among them. Therefore he hoped that the gentleman whose observation had given offence to his Jewish friend might have spoken from hearsay and be mistaken in his opinion. Thus the oil of humorous banter was poured on the troubled waters of anti-Semitism. Another Jewish club-story. A member of unmistakably Hebrew physiognomy, but who objected to be affichéd as a Jew in the smoking-room, was present when one of the chasseurs was calling out as “wanted” the name of Mr. Solomon Isaacs. The member in question was evidently not there, as no response came, but the boy, zealous in the execution of his duty, seeing our friend of the Hebrew countenance sitting with his circle in a corner of the room, went up to him and addressed him, “Are you Mr. Isaacs, sir?” “No, boy; do you take me for a bloody Jew?” retorted the irate son of Israel. This anecdote illustrates the curious objection many members of the Jewish race have to acknowledge their racial origin, which may possibly have something to do with the fact that in all countries the Jew is the most aggressive patriot and jingo for his adopted or acquired nationality which that country can boast. In every nation the Jew is to be found on the side of the most fire-eating section of national chauvinists.

As I have above said, the journalist fraternity bulked largely in the membership of my club. Now, it is very curious to observe the type of mentality which work on the daily Press seems to attract, or develop, or possibly both. The pressman, while seldom a scholar or a man of depth of knowledge or of thought, is yet seldom ignorant or stupid. The intelligence of the average man of Fleet Street is aptly covered by the word “smart.” He is a promiscuous gatherer of knowledge as he goes through life, as distinguished from the systematic student. The conditions of his working career of course lead to this-partly, at least; partly also there is no doubt the profession of journalism attracts to itself men of an alert type of mind, whose interests are easily awakened to almost any subject, but who are yet without either the depth or the range which is the result of intellectual staying Power. Of course, there are exceptions. There are men of scholarly type and scholarly attainments in the ranks of journalism on the one side, as there are men of crass ignorance and dullness on the other. But as a rule the successful journalist, the journalist who gets plenty to do and makes his way in the profession, is neither of the one nor the other, but a man who has the capacity for getting up any subject at command to the extent which is necessary to dilate upon it without making gross blunders, and with ail air of authority suggesting untold reserves of knowledge behind. This is very noticeable when one takes up the books written by journalists. I have known men who have spoken to me on certain departments of general history, or on the histories of special countries, and who showed by their questions that the subject was quite new to them, and that in fact their knowledge concerning it was of the most elementary kind, and yet who a few months afterwards produced a book which professed glibly to instruct the public on the matter as though from the chair of a university. The man who can do this is the type of the successful journalist. Nevertheless, as above remarked, while you have on the one hand the exceptional journalist who is also a scholar and a man of depth as well as width of thought and reading, you have also on the other the exceptional pressman of elementary ignorance. A specimen of the latter, when the Moroccan question was to the fore, some few years ago, seriously asked me whether Morocco was north or south of Spain! This man, bien entendu, did not belong to the much despised tribe of mere reporters, but was an accredited pressman connected with a reputable London “daily”! Now, all these types of the great profession were represented in my club at the time to which this chapter specially refers, and many a pleasant hour have I spent in their Society

Amongst the men who added distinction to the club was a well-known author of books on English economic history, an Oxford professor and member of Parliament, long since dead; also two eminent authorities on Roman Law, one of them is no longer living, and the other is still a member of the club, and not only living, but working hard at intervals on an edition of an early Greek text of the Justinian Institutes, with all the careful industry of a Scottish man of learning. I should not omit to mention also the distinguished-looking member of the clerical profession, the author of a popular but none the less scholarly work on Romano-Jewish history. He is one of the widest-read men on the subject of early Christian antiquities that I know, the other two being a Privy Councillor, the author of numerous works on the origin and early history of Christianity, also a member of the club, and Mr. Joseph McCabe (not a member), whose labours in this direction are equally famous. But it would be impossible to recall all the men of eminence in their several departments who have been members of the club in question. It is a club which, without claiming to be in any way “select” in the ordinary sense of the word, admirably does the work of a clearing-house for a considerable variety of men of political, social, and intellectual aims and interests of diverse character. Its catholicity in the types of its membership has always given, and does still give, occasion to the enemy to blaspheme or at least to speak disrespectfully of it as of a haunt of the philistine. Nevertheless, as I contend, it has from the beginning served, and still serves, a useful and perhaps unique purpose in the life of modern London.

Life in the Temple in the decade of the nineties the time, that is, when I was residing there, had a well-marked character of its own. The Middle Temple which was my Inn, with its old Elizabethan Hall and relics, its Vandyke Charles the First, its silver tankard for loving-cup, its snuff-box made of the wood of the Armada, as alleged, has an unfailing charm for most of its members. When I way there, there was an aged butler, such as might have made a figure for Dickens or Thackeray. Many were the stories told of this worthy and of his ways and means of enriching himself at the expense of the members. Some Middle Templers may recall his celebrated “old beer,” of which by some means or other he had acquired a special cask, and which he used on occasion to dole out to the various “messes” after dinner in Hall. It was certainly the finest English ale that I have ever tasted. This curious human relic, whose object in life seemed to be perquisites, had been connected throughout his career with the legal profession, as servant to judges, as almoner in the Inns of Court, or what not. He regarded himself, as was very evident from his bearing and conversation, as an essential, if humble, limb of the law. He is now long dead, and the memory of him has probably begun to fade among the frequenters of the Middle Temple Hall.

Few of the men who haunted the precincts of the Middle Temple in the nineties are to be found there now. Twenty years have left their mark on the Temple as elsewhere. The jealousies between the briefless and the briefed doubtless continue, though the human material changes. From among the numerous barristers whom I encountered during my residence in the Temple, one or two have impressed themselves upon my memory from their having come to a tragic and untimely end. There was poor Aeneas Macintosh – as the name implies, of Scottish Highland descent - who was originally intended for the Army, but who left the military career on a point of conscience after reading Spielhagen’s novel, Problematische Naturen, and took to the Bar. In him was present the type of the traditional Highland gentleman. He was courageous, of marked courtesy of manner, with a strong touch of old Highland Keltic superstition. I remember that after the death of a girl with whom he had had to do, he was troubled, or at least impressed, with the visits of a black cat to the window-sill of his bedroom on successive mornings, and was evidently disposed to connect the black cat in an occult manner with the deceased girl. He worked hard as a barrister, and at one time had a fair practice, but some years later, for reasons of health, he went to Canada, where he was buried in a snowdrift and never seen or heard of again.

Another Kelt, this time an Irishman and a man of a very different mould from the last mentioned, whom I saw much of during the last years of my residence at the Temple, was Michael Farelly, an amiable, feckless, thriftless person. He was always financially more or less on his beam-ends. Never very successful in his practice at the Bar, Farelly emigrated to South Africa some two or three years before the Boer War broke out. He seems to have played a somewhat doubtful role in the events which preceded the war. After going to Pretoria as an avowed friend and adviser in the Boer cause, and failing to obtain the entire confidence of Paul Krüger and the other leaders, he went off on the other side. The book he published in the course of the war seems to afford documentary illustration of his double-sidedness. In a chapter dealing with the causes of the war, evidently written when he was hoping to be taken into the service of the Transvaal Government, after giving a good and, indeed, unanswerable statement of the Boer case, a final paragraph, apparently written just before going to press, is clumsily tacked on to what it is plain was originally intended to be the end of the chapter. This, while ignoring the whole of the previous argument, crudely sides with the aggressive Imperialist policy of Great Britain against the Dutch Republics. Farelly came over to England for a few weeks after the conclusion of peace, but I never met him again. He returned, after his brief sojourn in this country, to South Africa, where he shortly after died. Farelly was not without his good qualities, notably a certain Irish open-heartedness, but financial embarrassments apparently drove him, as they lave driven many others, into tortuous courses.

Before leaving the subject of my residence in the Temple, it may be interesting to mention that among the visitors to my chambers was the composer Leoncavallo, who one evening, shortly before the first performance of his Pagliacci at Covent Garden, came and played over on the piano for me the score of the new opera.

In 1897 I gave up my chambers in the Temple, having married a second time, after some years of widowerhood. My wife was the daughter of a Thuringian physician. The great political feature at the end of the nineties was the intrigues of the mining magnates of the Transvaal to bring about the conquest of the country by Great Britain in the interests of their financial oligarchy, which culminated in the outbreak of war in the Autumn of 1899. As is well-known, practically the whole of the Radical and Socialist elements in the country were on the side of the Boor Republics. The present writer did his share in the agitation of the ensuing years. We all felt at the time bitterly ashamed of our nationality, and were most of us furiously anti-patriotic, as British patriotism was then understood. I remember a group of us subscribed for a wreath to place on the bust of Kruger at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. The Dutch Consul in Paris, who I believe was a strong Tory and individualist, objecting to the declaration on the red ribbon of the wreath, to the effect that it was a tribute to the righteousness of the Boer cause in its resistance to the crime initiated by a gang of financial capitalists, had it removed. We appealed, however, to Dr. Leyds, who was then in Paris, and got it reinstated. Subsequent events, and notably the great times through which we have been passing lately, have obliterated to a considerable extent the memory of the South African War and the bitterness of feeling it engendered. It is well, however, for our national pride to recall the fact that it is not only the German people who can allow themselves by a little beating of the “jingo” patriotic drum to be made the tools of an infamous gang with influence in high places, in perpetrating or abetting a hideous and abominable crime. The scoundrels of Johannesburg and London who machined the South African War in 1899 are not intrinsically a whit better than the scoundrels in Berlin and Vienna who machined the European War of 1914. The difference is one of the magnitude in the issues of the crime, rather than in the intentions or acts of those guilty in bringing it about. It would be disastrous indeed if the result of the World War should be to increase the pompous self-righteousness of the British race and to blind the better part of the nation to the fact that profit-hungry capitalism, aggression, and militarism are intrinsically the same, and work the same evil results, in all peoples alike.

The end of the nineties and the opening of the twentieth century gave rise to the seemingly inevitable dispute as to the year from which the new century was to be reckoned as starting. The majority of the disputants were, if I remember rightly, in favour of 1901 as being the first year of the century, in spite of the fact of scientific authorities such as the late Lord Kevin opting for 1900. That this latter view is the only possibly correct one, I must confess, is to me so obvious that I can hardly conceive of any person of sense and education taking the opposite one. The century obviously begins with the first hour of the first year and not with the first hour of the second year. The cardinal number of the current year is plainly that of the last completed year. It is the ordinal number which gives you the real position of the yell in question. Thus a man on his fortieth birthday, let us say, is properly deemed to be just entering upon his forty-first year, and this notwithstanding the fact that he will continue to be reckoned forty years of age until his next birthday, i.e. the completion of his forty-first year, when, though “cardinally” forty-one, he will be “ordinally” in his forty-second year until his following birthday, and so on. A child when it is born enters upon the first year of its life. It does not begin its first year after it is one year old. The conclusion is obvious as regards the age of the so-called Christian Era itself. With the 1st of January 1900, by a parity of reasoning, it is clear that the Christian Era as a measure of time entered upon the 1901st year of its existence ; in other words, on the 1st of January 1900 the first year of the new century began, though of course it was not completed until the 1st of January 1901. It is indeed astonishing that this perfectly plain and obvious piece of arithmetic should not have been grasped by large numbers of persons, who were deceived by the cardinal number of the completed year 1 into regarding it as the ordinal or first year of the century. In this, as in so many other cases, the popular mind was deceived by a false analogy. It treated a measure of time having a beginning and ending as a concrete object in space irrespective of time. I have thought it worth while to devote a few remarks to this question, keenly debated as it was at the junction of the two centuries, inasmuch as, comparatively unimportant though it is, it aptly illustrates the stupidity of the average intelligence, and its inability accurately to gauge anything involving a little effort of thought discrimination. At the same time it shows its readiness to be led astray by a false analogy, provided it offers but the most superficial semblance of plausibility. It would scarcely be believed that this absurd controversy engendered so much heat at the time that the matter came once or twice before the police courts in the form of assault cases, one gentleman having tried, or at least threatened, to throw his opponent on this burning question out at the door of the railway carriage in which they were sitting.

Altogether, the decade of the nineties had a character of its own, although not so strongly marked by new departures as that of the eighties. It continued, with certain modifications, the movements of the eighties, while adding little substantially to those movements. In its human element, the types entering upon manhood or womanhood during the nineties show little essential difference from those produced by the previous decade, beyond perhaps that increasing tendency to blaséness which was enshrined in the current phrase of the time – fin de siècle. The “decadence” of the life and point of view of the cultured middle-classes of the nineties was very pronounced, and was not confined, as was the “aestheticism” of the eighties, to a comparatively narrow circle of those who made a special pose of it. A general atmosphere of “decadence” seemed to pervade the intellectual middle-class circles of the decade in question, apart from conscious affectation. This, although it died down, or at least became modified, after the opening of the new century, nevertheless left its general mark upon English society, amid the rise of other movements and interests, until the outbreak of the World War in August 1914, and had a strong repercussion in new fashions in art, especially in painting and music. Bizarrerie and incoherence were the signs-manual of this movement.



1. The National Liberal. Bax never mentions the name. – Note by Ted Crawford

2. Bax’s first wife died in 1893. It appears that they were living apart then. – Note by Ted Crawford


Last updated on 28.3.2004