Seven Bagfuls of Stolen Briefs, 1875

Barristers’ brief-bags, as depicted above, were primarily designed for carrying the traditional rolled up briefs tied with a ribbon. They work less well for bound A4 booklets. Today, the bags tend to be used to carry only wigs and gowns, and various miscellaneous but personally essential items varying from barrister to barrister. Image via Ebay.

From the Belfast Telegraph, 28 January 1875, a story which gives a unique insight into everyday life in the Four Courts, and Dublin, in the mid-to-late 19th century. All of human life is here: the barristers with their bagfuls of briefs transitioning back and forth from court, to the Law Library, to their homes, as the need takes them; the transportation service (staffed by women!) available to assist them; the lucrative trade in old waste paper; and the unfailing ingenuity of the Dublin criminal network:


Everyone who is in the habit of frequenting the hall of the Four Courts, Dublin, is familiar with the custom of barristers, when their day’s business is finished, of handing their brief bags to women who are waiting to carry them to the gentlemen’s residences.  Each woman has her “clients,” and on receiving the last bag she bundles them all into a sack, shoulders it, and starts off to deliver them at their several destinations.  It was in this way that, on the 15th inst, Jane McCarthy left the hall with seven bags in a sack.  At the corner of Cuffe Street she took one bag out, and left the remainder in charge of a strange woman, who promised to take care of it until her return.  When she came back the sack and strange woman were gone.  The police of the detective division were put on the scent, and it was soon discovered that a provision dealer, named James Whelan, of Pill Lane, had purchased of a marine storekeeper named Bridget O’Grady, of 2 Temple Street, a quantity of waste paper – namely, the missing documents – at 1d per lb.  Mrs O’Grady was promptly put under arrest, and admitted that she bought the papers from a woman whom she did not know.  She gave up other documents, pertaining to the stolen property, which consisted of briefs, cases stated, drafts, original deeds etc.  She was brought up before Mr O’Donnell, at the Northern Divisional Police Court, charged with receiving the papers with guilty knowledge, and Mr Ritchie QC, Mr Wm French, Mr Trench, Mr Campion and Mr French identified the papers as belonging to them.  The prisoner was remanded.”

Characters from the Land League Trials at the Four Courts of 1881, via Ebay. A bagwoman crossing the Round Hall is depicted top right.

The informal Four Courts bagwomen system operated throughout the 19th century until replaced by a company by the name of the Legal Express. The job had its hazards apart from the risk of theft of the bags – one bagwoman, Mrs Bridget O’Shaughnessy of Sandwith Lane, no doubt overladen with briefs, collapsed and died on the floor of the Round Hall of the Four Courts in 1885, just outside where Court 3 is today.

One has to admire the strength and determination of these women. Brief bags were not light, to the extent that an Irish barrister’s arm was gleefully reported to have been dislocated as a result of carrying one. The physical toll on Four Courts bagwomen- not to mention the emotional stress of dealing with barristers getting ready for court – must have been enormous.

The busy Round Hall of the Four Courts, where bagwomen once travelled back and forth with barristers’ briefs. Travel back in time via a description of it in 1853 here.

Thefts of waste paper from the courts were commonplace, and all too often the paper ended up for sale in shops in nearby, increasingly disreputable, Pill Lane. In an era in which solicitors tended to send the fee attached to the brief (often causing subsequent problems if Counsel did not later turn up to the case), there could be other lucrative rewards from a brief-bag haul.

Interested in knowing more about the barristers whose brief bags were taken? One of them, Serjeant William Bennett Campion, had already enjoyed an early brush with the Dublin criminal scene after being abducted as a boy. Read some extracts from his Memoirs, including his abduction story straight out of ‘Oliver Twist’ here.

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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