Read CHAPTER X of The History of "Punch" , free online book, by M. H. Spielmann, on


Above the head of every editor the law of libel hangs like the sword of Damocles. It is at all times difficult for a newspaper of any sort to avoid the infringement of its provisions, vigilant though the editor may be. But in the case of a confessedly “satirical” journal the danger is enormously increased, for the margin between “fair comment” and flat libel shrinks strangely when the raison d’etre of the criticism is pungency, and the object laughter.

That Punch has steered clear of giving serious offence, save on occasions extremely few, must be counted to him for righteousness. It is true that, as a Lord Chancellor once declared, “Punch is a chartered libertine.” But for him to have won his “charter” at all proves him at least to have been worthy of it, the tolerance and indulgence of the nation having been in themselves a temptation. It is not so much that he has not hit hard; it is rather that he has hit straight. Indeed, as we have seen, he has struck hastily in many directions; but, save in his years of indiscretion, he has scarcely ever been guilty of anything approaching scurrility. At a time when the “Satirist” was flinging its darts at the peculiarly vulnerable Duke of Brunswick, goading him into the writing of his pamphlets, and into that crushing retaliation whereby the paper was condemned in five thousand pounds damages, Punch was perhaps the most moderate public censor and arbiter elegantiarum amongst all those who used ridicule and irony as instruments of castigation; and indulgence has been the reward that he has reaped.

That Mr. George Jones and Mr. S. C. Hall dared not face the ultimate ordeal of a court of law must be held to justify Punch’s persistently caustic denunciations; while the case of Mr. Gent-Davis, then M.P. for Kennington, served chiefly to confirm the fact that “abstractions” and “imaginary personages” find their counterparts, in the opinions of some, in real life. In this case one of the Staff, who lived in the member’s constituency, and had taken some interest in local politics, contributed a humorous paper to a series on which he was engaged, and it was published in Punch(November 13, 1886). In this essay a type of suburban lady-politician a “study from Mr. Punch’s Studio” was satirised under the name of “Mrs. Gore-Jenkins.” Forthwith a summons against the Editor at the Mansion House police court was the result, for the Member accepted the description as directed against his wife; but the explanation that the article was intended as a mere political satire on an “imaginary person” was held to be satisfactory, and the incident was finally closed.

On another occasion an unflattering poem on a “popular singer” was illustrated, quite innocently by the artist, who probably never saw the verses, with what appeared to be a portrait of Mr. Isidore de Lara; but no sooner was the matter pointed out than any intention to offend the musician was immediately disclaimed by the paper. At another time one of Punch’s artists showed the little band of Socialists (Messrs. Champion, Hyndman, and others), who were then before the law on a political charge, as subjects of Punch’s traditional “summary justice.” But although Punch was quickly brought to book, his victims did not take the matter very seriously. Mr. John Burns, indeed, confesses as much in a communication upon the subject. “On one occasion,” he tells me, “Punch suspended me, pictorially of course, from a gallows tree. This I, of course, regarded as Mr. Punch’s humorous desire to see me in an elevated position. On other occasions he has been equally kind but less appropriate in his method of praise or censure.”

Punch has altogether had some two-score actions commenced, or threatened, against it, by business firms or aggrieved persons or, more often still, by newspapers on the ground of libel and kindred wrongdoing. But then, consider how many there are in the world, and in England especially, who will not see a joke!

A subject upon which Punch has for some years been persistently twitted is the personality of “Mrs. Ramsbotham” Thackeray’s Mrs. Julia Dorothea Ramsbottom of “The Snob” (N, May, 1829) a homely sort of Mrs. Malaprop, whose constant misquotations and misapplication of words of somewhat similar sound to those she intends to use give constant amusement to one section of Punch’s readers, and irritation quite as constant to the other. She is the lady who suffers from a “torpedo liver;” who complains of being “a mere siphon in her own house;” who discharges her gardener because his answers to her questions are so “amphibious;” and who does not understand how there can be “illegal distress” in a free country where people may be as unhappy as they like. There have, of course, been many originals to this unconscious humorist and are still. One lady, it has been declared, is not unknown in society, who has held forth to a surprised circle of her acquaintances on the operation of “trigonometry” (tracheotomy) who, when she imparted a bit of scandal would add, “but that, you know, as the lawyers say, is inter alias” and who wished that people would always say what they meant, and not talk paregorically (metaphorically).

“Mrs. Ramsbotham” is obviously descended, through Mrs. Malaprop, from Dogberry, and has many a time been “condemned to everlasting redemption,” at least by the genus irritabile. One critic cast his protest in the form of a poetic appeal to Punch, and published it in an Oxford journal:

“Of Mrs. Ram I wish to speak,
You dear old London Charivari;
Don’t ram her down our throats each week.
Of sameness do be chary. Vary.”

A broader and severer hint was offered by the lively Poet of the London “Globe":

To Mrs. Ramsbotham.

A few there be who still delight,
O Mrs. R., in Punch’s page,
Who like a joke to wear the blight
Of age.

Who, if they find a grain of wheat,
Are well content to pass the chaff,
And, every week, at least complete
One laugh.

But even they who swallow pun
Unmurm’ring, now and then declare,
Henceforward they must seek their fun

It is when you have multiplied
Your misconceptions, Mrs. Ram.,
That patience, sorely thus o’er-tried,
Says “ .”

My task is therefore plain: to hint
That you, true woman to the core,
Are, when you interfere with print,
A bore.

I would not venture to suggest
The line of conduct to pursue;
I state a fact ... and leave the rest
To you.

But, in spite of this bitter cry, the next week’s number of Punch contained a quarter of a page of the lady’s reminiscences and three misapprehensions. “O,” exclaimed the tormented Poet, “that some Abraham would arise to do sacrifice!” Later on Mr. Furniss arose to the call, as the murderous Barons responded to Henry’s ejaculation. In “Lika Joko” (November 3, 1894) there was printed an obituary notice of Mrs. Ramsbotham (as nothing in her name had appeared in the previous week’s Punch), and a very comic death-bed scene was presented reminding one of a similar incident in “Joe Miller the Younger,” when that paper, like many of the public, grew tired of Mrs. Caudle, and, reporting her “sudden death,” published an engraving by Hine, wherein Punch in weepers is seen laying a wreath upon her monument, while Toby and his baton are both decorated with crape. In “Lika Joko’s” presentation of her “momentum mori,” she babbles of things in general; she is nervous as to the physic handed to her, and remarks that these medicine bottles are as like to one another as the two Dominoes in the “Comedy of Horrors;” she declares, as her mind wanders to the Chino-Japanese war, that “the best remedy for political disorders is antimony, but things may be different in horizontal nations;” and, finally, as she sinks back in death, she fancies she sees a hand a’Becketting to her. But Punch ignored the attack; and the report of the death of his lady-correspondent was duly recognised as a canard.

But “Lika Joko” is by no means the only comic paper that has attacked Punch, smiting him hip and thigh. The violent charges of plagiarism which for many years it was the fashion to bring against him have already been referred to. From the beginning the principal as it is the easiest charge that has been made is the alleged heaviness of Punch’s fun or his deficiency of wit; less often, it has been a legitimate complaint of blunder or of journalistic wrongdoing. Some of the most violent of these attacks came from the aforesaid “Joe Miller,” and from “The Great Gun” the short-lived journal of distinct ability. In “The Man in the Moon” the pens of Shirley Brooks, James Hannay, and other wits made it distinctly uncomfortable for Punch but nothing more. Thus to a portrait of Mr. Punch, who is shown in the last degree of misery, is appended the legend, “A CASE OF REAL DISTRESS. ’I haven’t made a joke for many weeks!’” (November, 1847). In the next number appeared the brilliant verses, “Our Flight with Punch,” from Shirley Brooks’s pen, as well as a sketch of a man speechless with amazement, described as the “Portrait of a Gentleman finding a Joke in Punch.” Then there is the riddle, “Why is a volume of Punch like a pot of bad tea? Because it is full of slow leaves;” and in the same number, a biting satire in anticipation of a play written by some of the Punch Staff and produced at Covent Garden in aid of the family of Leigh Hunt, ends with the words, “Every resorter to the stalls and boxes will be expected to purchase a copy of either ‘Dombey,’ Punch, or ’Jerrold’s Weekly Newspaper,’ as, next to benevolence, it is in aid of those works that the chief actors appear. N.B. Strong coffee will be provided to keep the audience awake throughout the performance. Vivant Bradbury et Evans!

“The Puppet-Show” followed on the same lines, but its attacks were more personal. Under the heading of “A Trio of Punchites” (April, 1848), Thackeray, Douglas Jerrold, and Gilbert a Beckett were torn limb from limb, and later on Mark Lemon and the rest were added to the holocaust; yet, like the Cardinal of Rheims’ congregation, nobody seemed a penny the worse. The paper began its fusillade in the first number, and soon came out with a large picture, well drawn and engraved in the manner of the day, of Mr. Punch, much humiliated, receiving a lecture from Mr. Bull:


MR. BULL (a commercial gentleman) “Hallo, Mr. Punch, threepence!
What do you mean by threepence? Why, the Puppet-Showman supplies a
better paper for a penny! You must mind what you are about!”

MR. PUNCH “Well, sir, you may think it too much, but really the
article is so very heavy I cannot sell it for less.”

On another occasion the same idea is carried a step further, in the form of an advertisement: “NOTICE. If the heavy joke, which was sent to the ‘Puppet-Show’ office last Monday, and for which two-and-ninepence was charged, be not forthwith removed, it will be sold to Punch to pay expenses;” and later on it hints that the Parisians will do well to import a few of Punch’s jokes as the best of all possible material for the barricades they were then erecting (1848). A graver charge was contained under the heading, “On Sale or Hire,” and it ran: “We perceive, by an advertisement in Punch, that the entire work can be purchased for L4 10s. Judging from its ridiculous puffs of Her Majesty’s Theatre, we should say that it could always be bought by a box at the Opera.” This amiable paragraph appeared in a lively column which was a weekly feature of the paper, and was headed “Pins and Needles.” “Pasquin,” a rival “comic” edited by Mr. Sutherland Edwards, was always “bandying epithets” with the Showman, and no sooner was the column introduced than he drew pleasing attention to the fact in the following paragraph: “The ‘Puppet-Show’ has started ‘Pins and Needles.’ We don’t wonder at it. ‘Pins and Needles’ are always a sign of a defective circulation.”

From time to time, too, pamphlets have been directed against Punch, such as the “Anti-Punch," published by the men who naturally fall under the lash of a satirist, and resent its application. Of such was the widely circulated “Phrenological Manipulation of the Head of Punch,” written by George Combe about 1845, in the form of an open letter. It began, “Sir, you are not an honest man.... Practically your benevolence is merely professional, it is only for the readers of Punch. Why do you act like Toby in the manger?” But there is little wit and less reason in these booklets to recommend, or to justify aught but oblivion.

A more able and important foe than these was Harry S. Leigh, who in 1864 was editor of “The Arrow,” with Mortimer Collins as verse-writer and Matt Morgan as cartoonist. Leigh opened his attack with rhymes that were greatly enjoyed at the time. They ran thus:


No. I.

“Sad stuff of Lemon’s,”
Think the bells of St. Clement’s;
“Not worth five farthings,”
Sneer the bells of St. Martin’s;
“Going down daily,”
Grunt the bells of Old Bailey;
Once it was rich,”
Hint the bells of Shoreditch:
“When could that be?”
Ask the bells of Step-ney;
“Hanged if I know,”
Growls the big bell at Bow.

No. II.

Sing a song of threepence,
A paper full of trash;
Four-and-twenty “funny men”
Have made a pretty hash;
For when the paper’s opened,
One soon begins to sing
“Oh! threepence is a dainty price
To pay for such a thing.”

And he returns to the charge later on in a set of verses in which he pretends to pay tribute to Punch’s bygone force “honest if delicate” and to Judy’s and Toby’s straightforward roughness. After making charges of corruption, he proceeds:

“Alas! how times and manners pass!
When no one fears a panic
When Scotland tolerates the Mass
And Spain is puritanic;
When Yankee ‘anacondas’ scrunch
The South’s heroic leader
Then may we find a pleasant Punch,
And Punch a happy reader.”

Nowadays the commoner form of humorous attack upon Punch is the assumption that it is a serious journal: a cold-blooded analysis of its contents will be made, or the quotation of its best bits under the ungrateful title of “Alleged Humour from Punch;” or a joke will be printed and savagely “quoted” as “From next week’s PUNCH.” When the three “New Humorists,” Messrs. Barry Pain, Jerome, and Zangwill, were driven to despair (so says one of them) by the sneers of the Press, they met in solemn conclave and swore never to make another joke. So Mr. Zangwill set to work at a serious novel. Mr. Jerome took to editing a weekly paper, and Mr. Pain began writing for Punch! Even when Mr. Pincott, for thirty years the “reader” on the paper, committed suicide the day after his wife was buried, a number of papers could not resist the temptation that was offered. “Fancy having to read through all Punch’s jokes week after week for years!” exclaimed one. “No wonder we are a hardy race. No wonder the poor man shot himself.” Mr. Pincott was a man of great ability, of remarkable erudition, and extreme conscientiousness. Although his bereavement was preying on his mind, he saw the paper out, and did not commit the fatal act until he had sent his usual letter to the Editor, wherewith he would relieve himself of his week’s responsibility. “I never met a man with so much information and of so varied a character,” writes one of his fellow-workers. “He never passed a quotation without verifying it, and could give you chapter and verse for everything. He knew his Shakespeare by heart, and all the modern poets, and he was never at fault in his classics.” He was not, however, allowed to leave the world without a farewell gibe and a laugh, for Wit knows no mercy.

Another main charge laid at Punch’s door is that he is too little like Hogarth in the past, too little like French satirists in the present. Thackeray’s proud boast that the paper had never said aught that could cause a girl’s cheek to mantle with a blush, is acknowledged by the naturalist and realist of the day as the severest condemnation that could be brought against it. “We do not want in Punch a moral paper virginibus puerisque,” says M. Arsène Alexandre, in effect, in his important work “L’Art du Rire;” “Punch is un peu trop gentleman. What we want is to be enlightened.” But Punch has not chosen to cast the beams of his search-light on to that side of “life” which is turned towards vice; and if he determines that the liaisons and all the attendant world of humour that afford inspiration to the talent of the Grevins, the Forains, the Guillaumes, and the Willettes of France, are outside his field of treatment, who shall blame him? If there is any moral at all to be gleaned from the work of the Punch caricaturists, it is argued, it is the never-ending sermon, though the sermon is a humorous one, of the non-existence of immorality. Perhaps; but Punch does not aspire to reflect the savagery we call civilisation by painting a Hogarthian “Progress,” nor to preach virtue by depicting vice. It is no doubt very appalling and amusing to hear a young girl-cynic say, as she points to a hideous monkey in a zoological gardens “He only wants a little money to be just like a man!” Ca donne a penser; but Punch prefers wholesome jests to irony and repellent cynicism, and is content to leave his impeachment in the hands of his spice-loving detractors, even at the risk of being reminded year by year that “Gentle Dulness ever loves a joke.”

Another fruitful source of adverse criticism is an occasional slip on Punch’s part in respect to some point of fact. Then at once half a dozen papers are on his track with an eagerness that suggests the idea that they were lying in wait. First come the matters of detail, as when the “Athenaeum” (January, 1877) justifiably complained that the popular conception of the imperial crown of the Empress of India as a four-arched structure, like that of Germany, is due to the mistake of Punch, “whose artists are always falling into this error in their cartoons of the Empress of India.” In 1879 Sir John Tenniel was challenged by Mr. Sala on the correctness of the balloon in his frontispiece to the seventy-sixth volume, and in March, 1893, Mr. du Maurier was soundly rated for showing a group of Oxford undergraduates, in the rooms of one of them, wearing cap and gown with perfect docility. Yachtsmen fell foul of Mr. Sambourne for introducing an ensign on a staff in his famous drawing of “The Times Tacking;” for such a staff, stuck on the taffrail with the boom touching it, was “an impossible object,” and would have been instantly snapped off, while, moreover, the ensign should have been at the peak. In another admirable drawing Punch once showed a ship on the starboard tack while the helmsman is steering on the port tack, and the ship, by what appears a miracle, is lying over to the wind; and, again, Toby is actually shown in the Almanac for 1895 drawing a cork from a champagne bottle with a cork-screw! Then photographers are as resentful of inaccuracy as bicyclists; and the fact that Mr. Hodgson in the second of his two drawings, “To be well shaken before taken” (August, 1894), representing an “’Arry on ’orseback” first whipping up his horse before being photographed, and then posing before the “seaside tintype man,” placed the equestrian between the sun and the lens, was warmly taken up; for would not the result, forsooth, be “the loss of the picture in a flare spot?”

The literary error, too, is held to be inexcusable, and Punch is pointed at with scorn for a misquotation from Horace; or an incorrect rendering in one of his drawings of an antiquarian inscription; or a slip in a Shakespearean line; or an inaccuracy in slang or dialect. Scottish, Irish, Suffolk, or Yorkshire must all be perfectly rendered, or the natives will know the reason why. In August, 1894, Mr. Hodgson sent from the Yorkshire moors a story of a keeper who, dissatisfied with the calendar, replies to a sportsman’s inquiries: “Well, sir, middlin’, pretty middlin’. But, oh dear, it’s awk’ard this ‘ere Twelfth bein’ fixed of a Sunday! Now might Mr. Gladstone ha’ had hanything to do wi’ that arrangement, sir?” An outraged correspondent a fluent Yorkshire conversationalist, of course at once corrected the original version and translated it into the true vernacular: “Nobbut middlin’, sir, nobbut middlin’. But, ah lad, it’s a fond business this puttin’ t’ Twelfth o’ a Sunday. Div ye think ’at owd Gladstone ‘ad owt to do wi’ it?” And again Punch rarely introduces “mon” (as an equivalent for “man”) into his Scotch jokes without producing a disclaimer against this alleged “peculiarly British error.”

A third form of mistake commonly gloated over is that which touches some general fact of economics or social matters. An example of this was Mr. Linley Sambourne’s drawing, entitled “An Embarras de Richesses,” graphically illustrating the glut of money in “the City” in the summer of 1894. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street is shown standing on a pile of bags of bullion impatiently waving back the City men who are pressing forward with more bags of gold, which bags are labelled “Deposits.” But the Bank of England allows no interest on deposits, as suggested by the drawing and its accompanying verses; and the draughtsman, explained one of the financial papers which gleefully called attention to the misconception, “thought it was the Old Lady who had reduced her deposit rates to one-half per cent.”

But what are considered the most heinous, as well as the rarest, of all blunders are those of policy or important movements, which, of course, concern large bodies of men, whether they constitute a party, a constituency, or a strike. A case in point was the cartoon dedicated (August, 1893) to the miners on strike in Northumberland and Durham: but at that particular moment it was the miners of other districts who were so involved. Another instance was the substitution of Mr. Logan, M.P., for Mr. Leon, M.P. (December, 1893), in a Parliamentary picture that illustrated an incident mentioned in the “Essence of Parliament.” But it may be taken that the error was rather a slip than a blunder that represented “Toby barking up the wrong tree.”

It is natural, of course, that the “faddists” should be among Mr. Punch’s most impatient critics, because “fad” and “cant” have always been Punch’s pet ground-game that he loves to run to earth. It is perhaps from the Temperance party that he has had most sport, for he has always taken delight in the pictures they dislike the most the incomparable drawings of Leech and Keene, which show the humorous, instead of only the hateful, side of inebriety; and he chuckles as he reads, now their protests against Mr. Bernard Partridge’s excruciating pictures of a drunken man’s “progress,” now the plaintive paragraph that “in a recent issue of Punch more than twenty-five per cent. of the advertisements concerned hotels, wines, spirits, and mineral waters!”

And, lastly, there is the critic who is always bewailing Punch’s deterioration an impending dissolution which has been announced from the second number!

People in Society seem curiously fond of expressing this opinion to the members of the Staff themselves, if all the stories current are to be believed. “Well, you know, Mr. Milliken,” once remarked a lady, “I do not think Punch is as good as it used to be.” “No,” assented the creator of ’Arry; “it never was!

For such as these there is and can be no comfort; for them there is no excellence save in the past; no inferiority save in the present. The perusal of humorous papers is of course but a poor occupation for pessimists such as they, and it is hardly likely that it could ever awaken in them sentiments other than those so tersely put by the “Gentlewoman’s” poet:

“In vain I search for humour each
And every ‘comic’ ’neath the sky.
Alas! I fear the busy Leech
Has sucked the vein of humour dry!”