‘the man on the Clapham omnibus’ – ‘the Clapham Sect’


Heads from an Omnibus - The Illustrated London News – 12 August 1843

Heads from an Omnibus
from The Illustrated London News – 12th August 1843



The phrase the man on the Clapham omnibus denotes the average or typical person, the ‘man in the street’ (Clapham is a district of south-west London).

This phrase was attributed to the English judge Charles Synge Christopher Bowen (1835-94) by the Anglo-Irish lawyer and judge Richard Henn Collins (1842-1911) when, as Master of the Rolls presiding over the Court of Appeal, he passed judgment on 11th May 1903 in the action for libel, McQuire versus Western Morning News; about the “very important question as to what are the limits of “fair comment” on a literary work, and as to what are the respective provinces of the judge and jury with respect thereto”, R. H. Collins declared:

The jury have no right to substitute their own opinion of the literary merits of the work for that of the critic, or to try the “fairness” of the criticism by any such standard. “Fair,” therefore, in this collocation certainly does not mean that which the ordinary reasonable man, “the man on the Clapham omnibus,” as Lord Bowen phrased it, the juryman common or special, would think a correct appreciation of the work; and it is of the highest importance to the community that the critic should be saved from any such possibility.

In The English Constitution (London, 1867), the British journalist and essayist Walter Bagehot (1826-77) had already used a similar image (he was apparently quoting an established phrase):

The middle classes—the ordinary majority of educated men—are in the present day the despotic power in England. “Public opinion” now-a-days “is the opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus.” It is not the opinion of the aristocratical classes as such; or of the most educated or refined classes as such; it is simply the opinion of the ordinary mass of educated, but still commonplace mankind.

I have found a very early instance of the man on the Clapham omnibus in The Manchester Guardian (Manchester, Lancashire) of 1st June 1903; its London correspondent wrote:

The “camps” are slowly forming themselves to face Mr. Chamberlain’s fiscal policy. The weaker section of the Liberal Imperialists (those with an eye to “the man on the Clapham omnibus”) are generally declaring against Mr. Chamberlain.

In the second-earliest occurrence that I have found, the phrase designates the ordinary citizen as a member of a jury; in The Sketch (London) of 12th July 1905, the theatrical reviewer wrote that Aylmer’s Secret, by Stephen Phillips,

like the ambitious new one-Act play at the Criterion, shows the immense importance of a little good sense in play-writing. Half-a-dozen questions by Lord Justice Bowen’s “Man on the Clapham omnibus” would demolish either.

The following is from The Sunderland Echo and Shipping Gazette (Sunderland, County Durham) of 13th July 1934:

“Sixpenny Seat” Opinion Of “Rasputin” Film

“I suppose it does not matter what the people in the sixpenny seats thought, because they would not know anything about these Russian personages,” remarked Lord Justice Greer, when Sir W. Jowitt, K.C., was speaking in the “Rasputin” libel award appeal to-day.
Sir William: I am prepared to be judged by the standard of the stalls or the gallery, or of those who knew the Russian people, but I won’t have them mixed up.
The appeal, challenging the award of £25,000 damages to Princess Youssoupoff for libel, was continued in the Court of Appeal before Lords Justices Scrutton, Greer, and Slesser.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures, Ltd., were the appellants. The verdict was given against them by a special jury sitting with Mr Justice Avory in the King’s Bench Division in favour of Princess Irina Alexandrovna Youssoupoff. a niece of the late Czar.
                                                                              “HOLDING NOSE” PENALTY
The case for the Princess was that Princess Natasha in the film, a character who was betrayed by Rasputin, could be taken to be a representation of herself, on account of the many points of similarity in the film and in her own life.
The defence said that Natasha was a purely fictional character.
Sir William Jowitt said that originally the punishment for slander was that the culprit had to hold his nose in a public place, pay a fine of 45/-, and say how sorry he was.
“That,” he suggested, “was a simpler, less costly and maybe more effective method than the present one.” (Laughter.)
Lord Justice Slesser: But a limited company might find it difficult to that. (Renewed laughter.)
Lord Justice Greer suggested that before the film appeared everyone knew that Prince Youssoupoff was responsible for Rasputin’s death. “The man on a Clapham omnibus would have known it,” he said.
Sir William, however, doubted whether people of 28 or 30 would know who Rasputin was, “and,” he added, “I should be very confident in saying that the man on the Clapham omnibus does not know of Princess Youssoupoff or of her existence.”
Criticizing the “excessive” damages, Sir William remarked, “My case is that nobody in the wide world thinks the less of the Princess because of the film.”
Lord Justice Slesser: But it is a grievous libel to say that a woman is not virtuous.

The Clapham Sect is the name that was applied in the 19th century to a group of persons of Evangelical opinions and philanthropic activity based at Clapham; among the chief members were William Wilberforce (1759-1833), Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838) and Henry Thornton (1760-1815).

This name seems to have been coined by the reviewer of The Life of Isaac Milner, by his niece, Mary Milner, and of Memoir of the Life and Correspondence of John Lord Teignmouth, by his son, Lord Teignmouth, published in The Edinburgh Review or Critical Journal (Edinburgh, Scotland) of July 1844; this reviewer titled his article The Clapham Sect and wrote:

In one of those collections of Essays which have recently been detached from the main body of this Journal, […] there occur certain pleasant allusions, already rendered obscure by the lapse of time, to a religious sect or society, which, as it appears, was flourishing in this realm in the reign of George III. What subtle theories, what clouds of learned dust, might have been raised by future Binghams, and Du Pins yet unborn, to determine what was The Patent Christianity, and what [was] The Clapham Sect of the nineteenth century, had not the fair and the noble authors before us appeared to dispel, or at least to mitigate, the darkness!

This reviewer also coined the noun Claphamite to designate a member of the Clapham Sect (who did not necessarily live at Clapham):

At the distance of a few bow-shots from the house of Henry Thornton, was the happy home in which dwelt Granville Sharpe; at once the abiding guest and the bosom friend of his more wealthy brothers. A critic, with the soul of a churchwarden, might indeed fasten on certain metes and bounds, hostile to the parochial claims of the family of Sharpe; but in the wider ken and more liberal judgment of the historian, the dignity of a true Claphamite is not to be refused to one whose evening walk and morning contemplations led him so easily and so often within the hallowed precincts.

On 20th July 1844, The Atlas (London) commented on this number of The Edinburgh Review:

The article entitled “The Clapham Sect” is a misnomer. Its name falsifies the spirit in which it is written. It is kindly, charitable, laudatory. The party so denominated contains the names of the most enlightened, and liberal-minded, and humane, and pious men of the time to which the writer refers.

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