Laughter at Under-the-Table Police Chase in Rolls Court, 1857

From the Wexford People, 17 June 1857:

The Master of the Rolls having taken his seat on the bench on Tuesday last, proceeded with the hearing of motions of course. Before they had concluded, Mr Richard Major Hassard, the well-known litigant, who has been for some years past in the frequent habit of making viva voce appeals in person to the equity judges, made his appearance at the side bar, and addressed his Honor, complaining of an order lately made by him in one of the suits in which Mr Hassard and his wife are parties.

Master of the Rolls – I have made my order, and if you are dissatisfied with it you may appeal. I will not discuss it with you now… you must go to the Court of Appeal, which is now sitting, if you are not satisfied with my order.

Mr Hassard, notwithstanding his lordship’s intimidation, continued to press his complaints, interrupting counsel who were speaking in cases fixed for the sitting of the court.

His Honor – Sir, I will not allow you to disturb the court. If you persevere I must have you removed by the police.

Mr Hassard – Very well, my lord, give me into custody at your peril.

Policemen having come forward to remove Mr Hassard, he made a sudden dive under the table and disappeared to the laughter of all the spectators. The policemen, who were far beyond man’s ordinary stature, vainly endeavoured to squeeze their persons into the small space between the table and the floor which had readily admitted the spare figure of the disappointed litigant. After a time, one of them succeeded in getting on all-fours into his concealment, and gave chase. On Hassard’s sudden disappearance, the business of the court had been resumed, and Mr Hughes, QC, addressing the court, was obliged to throw down his brief convulsed with laughter. The hero of a hundred legal battles flying along, still under the table, from the policeman who was in pursuit of him, had seized the eminent Queen’s Counsel by the legs. On this circumstances becoming known, the bar, the spectators, and even the ordinarily immovable gravity of the learned judge, were overcome.

Nor were the sounds that issued from under the table of a character that tended to diminish the ludicrousness of the occasion. Kicks and plunges might be heard, mingled with such exclamations as these sounding through the wood, like the conversations of Gallagher, the ventriloquist:- ‘Let me go’ – ‘That’s not fair’ – ‘This isn’t justice’ – ‘I’m getting no fair play.’

Mr Hughes at length suggested to his honour the propriety of adjourning the court for a few minutes. To this the learned judge acceded, and left the bench. A few minutes afterwards Mr Hassard emerged from his hiding place at the opposite side from that at which he entered, starting up covered with dust amongst the Queen’s counsel as suddenly as he had disappeared, at the same time that his colossal pursuer came up at the other side, his face red and swollen from exertions in the unusual enterprise in which he had been engaged.

Mr Hassard then walked quietly out with the policeman, and remained for some time perambulating in the hall, an object of interest to all who saw him, and obviously pleased at the ‘sensation’ his antics had occasioned. His Honour immediately afterwards resumed his place on the bench, and the business was proceeded with as usual.”

This exciting chase took place in the Rolls Court behind the Round Hall, just about where Court 5 is today. The Master of the Rolls in Ireland at the time was Thomas Berry Cusack ‘Alphabet’ Smith, himself no stranger to courtroom dramatics, or indeed practical jokes by those wishing to puncture his dignity.

The 19th century Four Courts had a long and proud tradition of scene-stealing lay litigants.

Always an exciting day in the Four Courts when the aptly named Mr Hassard was about!

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