[From High Bailiff Laughton's Recollections, 1911]
The habits, customs, and manners of the past differed materially from those obtaining now.
The warmth of the language, for instance, now used in public criticism of the public acts of public men, though sometimes decidedly too strong, altogether pales in the presence of the days of my studentship. In these times, a single inuendo, a biting satire, a disparaging comparison, or a sarcastic allusion will suffice; In fact, nowadays, hostile criticism is mostly a sort of refined rapier practice. There were no rapiers in those days we used bludgeons !
The following is a specimen of the style of libel in which the Press indulged in the Isle of Man, in the so called good old days. I would not have alluded to it, but that the individual who was libelled died, a bachelor, many years ago, leaving no relative behind him.
Living at the Union Mills, near Douglas, was a gentleman named Grellier, who had started a woollen mills, imagining no doubt that he would derive a fair profit therefrom, and likewise confer a benefit upon the Island, by introducing a new industry. It soon became evident that his capital was insufficient for the purpose, and he got into difficulties. He sought the benefit of the Manx Insolvent Act of those days, and satisfactory evidence was given in Court of the cause of his failure.
Messrs Penrice and Wallace, the proprietors of the " Manx Liberal " newspaper of the day (long since extinct) were two of Grellier's creditors, and after commenting upon his business career, they thus expressed themselves in a leading article: " If the concentrated curse of a suffering people is to be visited with more emphatic energy upon one man on earth than another, upon James Grellier be it levied. He is the embodiment the incarnation, the identity, the presence of perfect scoundrelism. He is too hideous an Idol of Sin to be gazed upon with an unflinching eye by ordinary sinners. Bank Directors (there had been a recent failure of a Manx Joint Stock Bank, under unpleasant suspicion as to the conduct of the directors) indeed may contemplate him coolly, but the mass of mankind must shrink, paralysed from the withering spectacle. We have long suspected the truth of every statement that fell from Grellier's pen; we suspected him when he was standing uncovered in the immediate presence of His Maker, with the Holy Volume in his polluted hand, and Edward Forbes' letter has confirmed our suspicions," etc., etc.
Mr. Grellier instituted an action for damages; and the jury gave him a verdict of " forty shillings " as a solatium for his wounded feelings! I presume that they were of opinion that the words quoted were reasonable and modest, and did not go beyond fair criticism.
Now considering that Grellier's debts exceeded his assets only to the amount of £1,500, and: that no fraud was even hinted at, I fancy that nowadays the result to the defendants would have been more unpleasant.
The fact, however, must be taken into consideration that language then, both spoken and written, was in constant use which nowadays would not be tolerated.
For instance, about sixty years ago [in 1822], his late Grace the Duke of Athole, admitted an Irish barrister Mr. Roper to the Manx Bar, at which he soon acquired a large practice.
Frank Byne, a gentleman then living at Burleigh, near Douglas, had some legal dispute with a man named John Lowry, a well-known character, whose figure happened to be very crooked and ungainly.
Mr. Byne retained the services of Mr. Roper, and the trial of the case came on before a jury at the Court House, Kirk Michael. Mr. Byne had not a leg to stand on, and he knew it. All the merits were on the other side, but he wanted to have Lowry well abused, so he Instructed Roper accordingly. . After the evidence had been given Roper began his address to the Jury thus: ' Gentlemen of the Jury, the defendant Lowry, whose mind is as crooked as his body , and that you'll perceive is the shape of of the letter Z" (then to Lowry) " stand forth Mr. Lowry and show yourself to the Jury." This sally was received with peals of laughter, scarcely checked by the presiding Deemster, and the learned advocate proceeded to the end of his oration in the same strain. Verily the great Dan O'Connell could hardly have excelled this!