Arthur William À Beckett.

The à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons online

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command, it would have been at an end immedi-
ately. I would have apologised and been thank-
ful to the kind solicitor for giving me the oppor-
tunity. But half a century ago, more or less —
probably a decade less — I was enthusiastic and
conceited. I really believed I was performing a
noteworthy action in defending the independent
will of the Press. We duly went to trial, and the
present editor of Punch was our junior counsel.
I think we should have done better had we not
called the author the late Mr. Palgrave Simpson —
a most delightful man and then the secretary of
the Dramatic Authors' Society in succession to



Sterling Coyne, of early Punch fame. Mr. Pal-
grave Simpson was disappointed and angry. His
Watch Cry was a failure, and its discontinu-
ance had ended a long friendship with Fechter.
But he came as one of our witnesses for the de-
fence. But when he got into the witness-box he
" proved " a great deal too much. He duly
approved of my criticism. The Plaintiff certainly
did not know his words, and it might be fairly
said that his part had been efficiently spoken by
the prompter. So far so good. But when it
came to his cross-examination by Sergeant Parry
the matter took another turn. The Plaintiff did
not know his part. Mr. Somebody Else did not
know his part. Mr. Other Fellow did not know
his part. Mr. Fechter did not know his part.
The only man in the theatre perfect in his words
was the prompter — and he only because he had
the book before him. He proved a great deal too
much. But perhaps the most amusing incident
in the day's doings was the examination of myself,
or rather the proceedings that led to my appear-
ance in the witness-box. Our leader asked his
junior (the present editor of Punch) what was
the case about. The junior gave the necessary
information. " Who was the dramatic critic of
the paper ? " asked Mr. Leader. *' Young a
Beckett," replied Mr. Junior. " Any relation of
the Comic History man ? " " Son." " Must be
a young chap." " Yes, he is a young chap — only
twenty or thereabouts." And at this moment
our leader rose to open the case for the defence.



He began, of course, by describing the service we
had rendered to the pubHc by giving a fair criti-
cism of a play, which had certainly failed to take
the fancy of the public. Then he touched upon
the necessity for a free Press. What would
England have done if the treatment of our Press
had not been a lesson to the world ? That kind
of thing for five minutes or so. Then came the
question about the selection of a dramatic critic
to perform the responsibilities, the heavy re-
sponsibilities, of that most important office. It
appeared that my board of directors had acted with
singular discrimination. They had chosen a gentle-
man for the important post who had an heredit-
ary knowledge of the stage. He was the son of
the late Gilbert Abbott a Beckett ; and then I
had the pleasure of listening to a very eloquent
account of my father's qualities of head and
heart. I was the lineal descendant of those
qualities. But that " his learned friend " should
not say that he had shirked meeting a possible
weak point, he would admit that I was young.
But then the gentlemen of the jury were requested
to be so kind as to recollect that Hercules was
still younger when he slew the two serpents in
his cradle. They would not fail to remember
that Napoleon was a young man when he did
something or other heroic ; that Pitt was still a
younger man when he did something or other
statesmanlike ; that William, the hero of Hastings,
as a yet younger man, gained the well-deserved
title of the Conqueror. Call Mr, Arthur William



a Beckett. And a very small boy with rather a
pale face marched into the witness-box. I was
so entirely unlike the popular conception of Her-
cules in his cradle, Napoleon, Pitt and William of
Normandy, that there was a roar of laughter, in
which I myself joined heartily. Before entering
the box I had spoken to our junior (the present
editor of Punch) to ask him whether I ought to
try to be funny. " Certainly not," was the
prompt reply of our junior, who may have been
(I had no means of judging) more nervous than I
myself. The present editor of Punch took my
evidence very nicely and sat down with a sigh of
relief. I did my best, but the evidence of Pal-
grave Simpson ruined us and we lost our case.
We had lo pay 40s. damages, a sum which carried
with it costs. However, the trial did us no harm.
The entire Press took up our case and supported
us. For many years after the verdict very little
was said about the successful plaintiff ; the
dramatic critic by mentioning him had no wish
to run the chance of an action for libel. But it
was a lesson to me. It was my first and last
action for libel. Stay, let me correct myself.
I should have added that the plaudits of the Press
had a bad effect upon me. I republished all the
kind articles that were written in our favour.
And the result, Mr. Solicitor for the plaintiff
commenced a fresh action and again succeeded.
But the second trial was really my last. Since
that time I have been sufliciently fortunate to
keep out of the libel court. Of course the paper,



through its pubUsher, and not the dramatic critic,
was sued. Since that date I have had a good deal to
do with the law of libel, as I was one of the com-
mittee appointed by the Newspaper Society to
assist Lord Glenesk (then Sir Algernon Borthwick)
in the passing of his Libel Bill. I do not say that
I was prudent to a degree when I was editing the
Glowworm, but I do say that there are many cases
in which the client is a mere dummy and the
speculative solicitor is the moving spirit. I have
a case in my mind that proved to me that there
was a speculative solicitor who saw his v/ay to
making an income out of every paper with which
I was connected. I sent for him, expressed my
admiration at his talent for scenting a libel and
engaged him by paying a small retaining fee to
act for the paper. If I ever had an article that
I thought risky I would send it to him for his
inspection. He should advise me. We struck
the bargain and I never had another action for
libel. I never employed him to give an opinion,
but he was retained in readiness.

It may have occurred to the reader, what had
the editorship of the Glowivorm to do with the
staff of Punch ? Indirectly a great deal, for
through the editorship I first became a worker
with the present editor of Punch. Later on that
comradeship in work was to stand me in good
stead. My recollections of the editorship of the
Glowworm are very pleasant ones. My Board
was perfectly delightful. It was composed of
three or four gentlemen, some of whom are still



living, so I must be careful not to give them away.
But one of the most influential of our body was a
captain of artillery who had given up following
the guns to watch races and card tables. He was
a very kind-hearted fellow, and ultimately became
somehow or other the sole proprietor of the
Glowivorni. When we were struggling and our
resources were at their lowest he proposed at a
Board meeting that every sou at our disposal
should be put upon some outsider for the Cam-
bridgeshire at 50 to I. The resolution was actually
carried, and I had really to invoke the aid of the
solicitors of the company to get the resolution
rescinded. Our articles of association gave us a
wide discretion, but our powers did not extend
to " fluttering " on the turf. But my chagrin
was great to hear afterwards that had we taken
the bet we should have multiplied our capital
fiftyfold. The outsider romped in. My friend
the captain, however, did not exult. " It wasn't
your fault, you young idiot," said he to me, " the
blame lay upon that beastly Limited Liability
Companies Act."

By degrees in the cause of economy I became
almost the entire staff of the Glowworm. I had
one assistant, the late Mr. Brockwell Dalton,
who was the best of sub-editors. But while it
was running its course the Glowworm had found
many distinguished contributors. For instance,
Mortimer Collins was one of our leader writers,
Andrew Halliday gave us a weekly letter, Dion
Boucicault furnished a feuilleton, and Tom



Robertson was an occasional contributor. But
by degrees I was left single-handed. I had to
write leaders, theatrical notices, reviews, even
sporting prophecies. It was excellent practice,
and made me a fairly ready writer during the
rest — so far as it has gone — of my life. But
before I came to the pass of writing everything
myself I had the assistance of two of my dearest
friends. One is still living, and after a brilliant
career at the Bar and on the Bench, has returned
to journalism. I refer to Mr. (now Sir) Douglas
Straight ; and the other was that brilliant
humorist, Corney (otherwise Dick) Grain. These
two friends of mine were of the greatest help to
keep the Glowworm glowing for many a long day.
Both were in active practice at the Bar. Later
on Straight and I wrote a novel together, and
Corney and I collaborated in a piece for German
Reed's. I was to some extent at one time the
stock author — with and without my brother
Gilbert — at the St. George's Hall. It was quite
a school for actors and dramatists. The firm of
German Reed (of which at one time Mr. Parry
was a member) turned out some actors and
actresses. Amongst the authors figured W. S.
Gilbert, Tom Robertson, Tom Taylor, Shirley
Brooks, Arthur Law, and the present editor of
Punch. When I was doing odd jobs for the firm I
was asked to bring up to date '' The Card Basket"
written by Shirley Brooks Having been assured
that there was no objection on the part of the
family of the author I set to work, proud of the



idea of being associated (even as a ghost) with one
of my father's Punch friends. When the time
came for me to revise the play it was discovered
that it had been lost, so I had to write the piece
and rely upon the recollection of Mrs. German
Reed, whose portrait, by the way, as Miss P.
Horton, had been published in Figaro in London.
I was immensely amused to read in the notices of
the new version of the ''Card Basket" that the old
dialogue of Shirley BrooKs (which I had supplied)
was much better than the conversation of more
modern plays. This idea was repeated when I
re-wrote some of the more risky parts of '' The
Maske of Flowers," on its production at Gray's
Inn in honour of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. I
spoke of " Kawasha's crew," and " crew " was
singled out as quite late Elizabethan or early
Jacobean. As a matter of fact, it was pure
a Beckettean. Before I quit the subject of the
Glowworm, I may say that my engagement on
the paper obtained me many pleasant acquaint-

I recall one of these pleasant acquaintanceships.

I am sitting at a round table in a corner house
of Stratford Place, Oxford Street. It is the
dining-room of the Portland Club, where the
table d'hote system, peculiar to the old Coffee
Houses of St. James's Street, still survives. I am
talking of many years ago, before the days of
** bridge," but when " humbug," or two-handed
whist, was the vogue. My neighbour at the
dinner of which I am writing played through the



night at " humbug," and two days later com-
mitted suicide. I was editing the Glowworm, as
I have explained, at the time, and was asked to
keep the inquest out of the paper. Looking
round the board I noticed one old gentleman,
who subsequently seemed to enjoy his rubber
thoroughly. He spoke to no one and no one
spoke to him. He was stone deaf. The name
of the old member of the " Portland " was Sir
Edward Bulwer Lytton — the butt of Thackeray
in the past, and only the other day the hero of
the literary hour. Cultured London was thinking
of the centenary of the author of half-forgotten
Pelham, and scarcely remembered Money,
Richelieu, and " The Lady of Lyons. The last
survives on account of the character of Claude
Melnotte, whose garb as a French peasant in
Act I makes an excellent costume for a fancy
dress ball. You can dance in it, and in these
khaki days it seems quite " possible."

One of the plays — now quite forgotten so far
as a theatrical repertoire is concerned, was " Not
so Bad as we Seem," written by Bulwer Lytton,
in aid of his pet scheme, the Guild of Literature
and Art. It was acted by amateurs selected from
studies and studios. At the head of this dramatic
company stood Charles Dickens, who subsequently
made it the nucleus of the troupe who furnished
the casts for " The Light House " and " The
Frozen Deep " at Tavistock House. For the
Boz theatricals the scenery was painted by
Clarkson Stansfield. In August, 1865, a dinner



was given to celebrate the completion of the
three houses of the Guild, on ground given by Sir
Edward Bulwer Lytton, at Stevenage. And last
year, 1902, if I am not mistaken, a private act of
Parliament relieved the surviving trustees — Sir
John Robinson, and, I fancy, Mr. J. C. Parkinson
— of any further responsibility. From first to
last, sad to say, the Guild of Literature and Art
was a failure.

At the dinner to which I have referred, Bulwer
Lytton spoke of the three houses as " modest in
themselves, but of such a character that a gentle-
man may inhabit them with a small but well-
assured pension." In responding to the toast of
his health, Charles Dickens added — ** The ladies
and gentlemen whom we shall invite to occupy
them will never be placed under any social dis-
advantage. They will always claim on equal
terms the hospitality of their generous neigh-
bours." But it would not do, in spite of the
wishes and suggestions of Lytton and Dickens.
Authors and artists would not live in the Guild's
almshouses, and the charity has been wound up.
I fancy some of the proceeds went to the Royal
Literary Fund and some to the Artists' Benevolent
Fund. I am afraid that in the distribution the
claims of that most admirable of charities, or
rather provident organizations, the Newspaper
Press Fund, were either ignored or forgotten.

To return to the Portland Club. I do not
think that Lytton played heavily. He was satis-
fied with the stakes, and did not care for " outside



betting." Oh, those outside bets ! I knew a
man — who has since joined the majority — who
never allowed a rubber to be played if he were
standing out without staking £500 on the result.
He said " it sounds terrible, as I lose or win thous-
ands every night ; but at the end of the year it
works out with something — not much — to the
good." He told me his golden rule was to go on
so long as he won, but the moment he had three
losses in succession to cease playing for the day.
After the second loss he turned his chair, and with
the third was off.

I am afraid it is impossible to ignore the fact
that Thackeray hated Bulwer Lytton — of course
on his literary merits. There may possibly have
been some personal reason which has never risen
to the surface. At the very dinner to which I
have referred, Lytton spoke of Dickens — who
was not on the best of terms with Thackeray — as
" the author whose writings are equally the delight
of the scholar and the artisan, and who has united
an unrivalled mastery over the laughter and the
tears of millions with as sweet and genial a
philosophy as ever made the passions move at the
command of virtue." In reply, Dickens spoke in
the handsomest terms of " the genius of their
accomplished host." This " passing of compli-
ments when gentlefolk meet " was scarcely likely
to commend itself to W. M. T.

One of the last pieces written by Lytton was
" The Rightful Heir." It was produced at the
Lyceum by Herr Bandmann, a German actor,



who spoke English with the accent of the Father-
land. It was immediately burlesqued under the
title of " The Frightful Hair." And of all people
in the world, that most accomplished actor, Mr.
William Kendal, was cast for the principal charac-
ter. As the hero, the creator of so many roles of
an entirely different kind, danced and sang admir-
ably. And in this connexion it is well to remember
that Mr. John Hare and Sir Charles Wyndham
were both excellent in burlesque. Remembering
their subsequent careers, the old saying might
be revised : " There is but a step from the ridicu-
lous to the sublime, and not a long one." A story
is told that Lytton was invited to a trial of the
heavy ordnance that was beginning to be adopted
just before his death. He duly watched the
preparations for loading and laying, and then
turned his back upon the cannon. Finding him-
self enveloped in smoke, he said to his neighbour :
** I suppose they have let it off ? " He had
heard nothing ! Another story : Once, when he
had spoken too long for the patience of his audi-
ence, they got out of hand, and conversation
became general. Wlien he had leisurely finished
his peroration, he added, " And now, ladies and
gentlemen, all I have left to do is to thank you
for your kind attention ! " Lytton may have
had faults — which raised the ire of Thackeray —
but for all that he was a good friend, a kind
father, and an excellent landlord.

Yet again I have a memory connected with
the Glowworm.



I am seated at a table in the Thatched House
Club (then the Civil Service), and there is a vacant
place. Opposite me is a gaunt, grumpy man,
twice my age — for it must be remembered I am
only a youngster of two-and-twenty or there-
abouts. He is as sulky as can be, and has re-
sponded to my attempts at conversation with a
" Yes " or a " No." I had never seen him before,
and I was to have been introduced to him by the
non-arrived. Charles B. Stephenson, once of
the Treasury, then of Lloyds, and always the
bright and brilliant writer, has failed to put in an
appearance, and consequently I am dining tete-
d-tete with Charles Reade, the novelist with a
purpose, and (on this occasion only) in a bad

After we had got to the first entree, I took the
bull by the horns. " Please, sir," I say to my
surly guest, in the tone of a would-be conciliatory
schoolboy speaking to an unreasonable school-
master, "it is not my fault. Please, sir, I am a
nervous young chap trying my best to make up
for Mr. Charley Stephenson's absence. Please
sir, you are a big and famous author, and I am
only a young journalist, just quit of the Civil
Service. Please, sir, don't be too hard upon
me." Charles Reade looks at me for a moment,
then he holds out his hand, shakes mine, bursts
into a loud laugh, and from that moment becomes
the most charming companion imaginable. He
stays at the Thatched House Club (then the Civil
Service), telling me amusing stories and drinking

145 K


cold tea, until three in the morning. I have never
had a more delightful evening.

I am afraid that in these days the works of
Charles Reade are scarcely ever read, and per-
chance half -forgotten. And yet in his time — not
so very long ago — he was a power in the land.
Charles Dickens " wrote down " abuses, and so
did Charles Reade. At this dinner to which I
have referred I spoke to him about a book he had
levelled at the system of cure for the mentally
afflicted. I told him that the antipathy he had
created to institutions for the cure of the insane
had ended, in a case that had come within my
knowledge, in a suicide. He was shocked. " I
wrote too strongly," said he. " I will write
another novel, and put the matter in another
light." And later on he kept his word. He
admitted that sometimes he was a little uncertain
about his dates. He produced a romance, sup-
posed to be of the passing hour, when the Blue
Book, upon which " the abuse " treated was
founded, was a decade old, or even more anti-

Before I met him at the Civil Service Club he
had had a controversy in the pages of the Glow-
worm. He had written a book called Griffith
Gaunt, and I had severely criticised some of his
" facts " about the practices in the Church of
Rome. He had answered very angrily, " slating "
the critic in the heartiest style. Then a corre-
spondent took up the cudgels on behalf of the
paper, and there was pretty sword play on both



sides. I owned up to Charles Reade. " Oh,
you were the critic, were you ? " cried my guest ;
*' and who was the ' Constant Reader ' ? " " Arch-
bishop Manning," I rephed. " Just so," returned
Charles Reade ; " a f ar better man than you ! "
And I did not complain of his estimate of our
respective characters.

I was reminded the other day by the contro-
versy that arose relative to the refusal of admis-
sion to the Times' critic to the stalls of the Garrick
Theatre on a certain first night, of a similar inci-
dent that had occurred in connexion with one
of Charles Reade's pieces. ** Never too Late to
Mend " was produced at the Princess's, and
George Guest Tomlin hissed it. George Vining
presumed to address the critics seated in the
stalls, and told them as they had not paid for
their seats, they were in the theatre on sufferance.
Tomlin called for an apology. He was backed
up by the audience, and Vining had to " express
his regret." Then I think we all left the theatre.
I was in years the youngest dramatic critic pre-
sent, and amongst my colleagues of those days
there still sur\dve Clement Scott, Sir Edward
Russell, John Hollingshead, W. S. Gilbert, Moy
Thomas, and Joseph Knight. The last is still
well to the fore to this day. He was representing
the Athenaeum at "Dante," at Drury Lane, a
few weeks since.

We have no novelist with a purpose nowadays.
Perhaps it is better as it is. Charles Reade, had
he been amongst us, would certainly have turned



out a romance touching upon Mr. Chamberlain's
project for Home and Colonial Free Trade. He
was the most impulsive scribe I ever met, and a
brave defender of writers' rights. He would have
made an admirable lieutenant of the late Sir Walter
Besant, when first that excellent gentleman was
establishing the Authors' Society. When he bade
me good night at the door of the Thatched House
Club on the occasion of our tete-d-tete meal, he
said : ** Well, my boy, writing is all very well,
but I have a University Fellowship to fall back
upon, n you think you can do better with a
pen in Fleet Street than with one in a Govern-
ment office further West, say in Pall Mall, that's
your business. At any rate, I wish you heartily
— good luck ! " On the whole, I think that wish
has been fulfilled.

The prospects of the Glowworm could scarcely
be ear-marked rose coloured. We had started
with too small a capital, and were pressed for
money. The directors had disappeared, and the
proprietors were represented by the card-playing
genius. He was very anxious to get rid of it,
and what I considered at the time a briUiant
idea occurred to me. There had been much talk
of starting a daily in the interests of the Church
of Rome. Already a weekly — called the West-
minster Gazette — existed, in which Archbishop
Manning was said to be interested. I sounded
the proprietor of the Glowworm upon the subject.

" Have you any objection to my trying to get
some sectarian party to take up the Worm ? "



I asked one day when we were considering ways
and means.

" My dear fellow," he repHed, " you can sell
the paper to (and he mentioned the name of the
traditional enemy of mankind) if you find him
fool enough to buy it."

I considered this a sufficient permission to
enter into negotiations with Archbishop Manning.
I called at York Place, and was received most
kindly. I was exceedingly nervous, as I had
never had the honour of meeting the Archbishop
before. Although a Catholic (a Papist, to use
the old-fashioned description), I was a little un-
certain about the proper title I should confer
upon him. Should I call him " My Lord " or
** Your Grace " ? While I was considering the
matter the door opened suddenly, and I was
within an ace of bending down to ask the blessing
of a footman. I was told that the Archbishop
would see me directly. In due course he ap-
peared, and seeing my nervousness — for I
knocked over a chair in my greeting — put me at

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Online LibraryArthur William À BeckettThe à Becketts of Punch; memories of father and sons → online text (page 9 of 21)