Take Off That Ugly Mask: The Problem of Barristers’ Hirsute Appendages, 1866-1896

From the Irish Times, 12 and 17 November 1863:

“SIR – The press has ever been the resort of those who have a grievance to complain of.  I trust therefore, you will give me an opportunity of saying a few words against the custom which has compelled so many members of the bar, at the approach of Term, to use the devastating razor and to remove that ornament of the manly countenance which they have cultivated with such care during the long vacation.  Truly, sir, the consternation which manifested itself among the bearded members of the legal profession as the fatal 2nd of November drew near, might have moved a heart of stone.  For months they had, as they fondly hoped, commanded the admiration of their fair friends by the display of that hirsute appendage which is said to find favour in female eyes; and now it was all over.  Those moustaches which they had so often and so fondly stroked must disappear before the irresistible force of custom.  To the uninitiated it certainly does seem strange that a lawyer should be obliged to remove his own hair, while he encumbers his head and heats his brain by a wig of horsehair.  It might, perhaps, be thought by those whose only guide is common sense that it would be more natural to allow him to retain his own hair… and dispense with all other.  Yours etc., A ‘Barefaced Barrister’. 

SiR – Having read the letter of ‘A Barefaced Barrister in your impression a few days since, I wish to endorse his remarks in sober earnest, for really the matter is not a mere trifle.  I have two objections to shaving, one, that nature gave man hair on his face and accordingly man ought to keep it there, the other the loss of time and inconvenience attending the process of shaving.  If we estimate the time spent in shaving at a quarter of an hour, which is not, I think too much, we shall find that at the end of the year we have thus devoted 91 1/4 hours or almost four days of 2 1/2 hours each.  Could this not have been spent more profitably?  Hoping that this important subjects may be taken up by others and that we, poor ‘barefaced barristers’ may soon see the day when no longer barefaced we may defy the winds in the Hall of the Four courts, which, like Admiral Fitzroy’s, may be expected from almost opposite quarters successively.  Your Obedient Servant, Imberbis.”

As anyone who reads Dickens knows, 19th century barristers were known for their full whiskers or ‘mutton chops,’ often a little snarly if trimmed by inexpert hand prior to the introduction of the safety razor.   

Things got a little hairier after the return of hirsute, tanned soldiers from the Crimea brought the beard and moustache back into fashion among the younger set, much to the distaste of a number of English judges.  Lord Justice Knight Bruce refused to hear, or, more precisely, completely ignored, a young barrister who appeared before him bearded, and Vice-Chancellor Bacon, in particular, took no pleasure in arguments proceeding from hirsute lips. ‘Go back to your chambers, take off that ugly mask; Return here and conduct your case decently,’ was his fierce injunction to a bearded barrister. By the end of the century, some progress had been made, with the Newcastle Evening Chronicle remarking that bearded barristers are as highly thought of now and enjoy as good a practice as those who stick to the old fashion, with even highly-regarded members of the bench now displaying impressive chin appendages.  

Such change came too late for the likes of early barrister beard-wearer Mr TE Brierley, of Gray’s Inn, once possessor of ‘an extraordinary profusion of hair extending from his upper lip to his chest,’ self-described as an essential protective against bronchitis. The English senior bar did not agree and passed a vote of censure against him in the 1850s for bringing the profession into disrepute. Brierley, of a sensitive disposition, subsequently found minor fame as a litigant, alternately suing and hitting with a large stick anyone who teased him about his appearance, including Michael Donovan, a labourer, who was fined 20d in 1855 for encouraging Irish immigrant children to ask Brierley how much he would sell his beard for.

And that brings us on to a very interesting question for lawyers – how much in damages for lost facial hair?   No less a luminary than Chief Baron Christopher Palles got to decide this question when hearing a County Court Appeal, Clancy v O’Connell, at the Limerick Assizes of 1896.  The defendant, a butcher, had taken three cuts out of the plaintiff’s flowing whiskers with a scissors, and then called on people to see what he done to the ‘Barrister of Park’ and sang the comic song ‘Still his Whiskers Grew’.  Mr Clancy was not in fact a barrister, but clearly the association of barristers and whiskers remained in popular memory! The County Court judge only awarded Mr Clancy 6d but Chief Baron Palles said this decision could not be upheld for a moment and was only adding insult to injury. He gave a decree for five guineas.  

Palles, of course, was possessor of an impressive Herod beard (below). Would a clean-shaven judge have been so sympathetic? 

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

Irish barrister sharing the history of the Four Courts, Dublin, Ireland, and other Irish courts.

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