The Tall Hat as Mandatory Off-Duty Legal Wear, 1800-1934

Irish barrister and politician Daniel O’Connell, popularly known as ‘the Liberator’, wears a top hat on his release from prison in 1844. O’Connell’s top hat was iconic, but other Irish barristers and solicitors would have been similarly attired on their daily journeys to and from the Four Courts. Image via Alamy.

From the Freeman’s Journal, 5 February 1916:



(Before Mr Justice Pim)

The plaintiff, Kate Mullen, brought an action to recover from the defendant, John Lemass, £90, arrears of rent due out of premises at 15 Usher’s quay.  The defendant pleaded surrender, and that he was entitled to certain deductions for rates and taxes, and that the rent had been reduced by £3 by agreement many years ago. 

When the case was called, Mr C.S. Campbell (instructed by Mr H. Lemass) informed his lordship that it had been settled by consent.

Mr Serjeant McSweeny, with whom was Mr Joseph Reddy (instructed by Mr CJ Reddy) read the consent, which provided that judgment should be entered for £80, there being an allowance of £10 towards the rates and taxes paid by the defendant.

Mr Campbell then said that his client had a case for the consideration of his lordship under the Courts Emergency Powers Act.  The defendant was a member of a well-known Dublin family, who had carried on the business of hat manufacturers in Dublin for generations, a staple product being tall hats.  Unfortunately, of recent years, the tall hat had ceased to be the badge of aristocracy, and had become the mere emblem of respectability, with disastrous results to the defendant’s business.  However, he had carried on a successful business until April, 1914, when a serious fire occurred at his factory, destroyed the stock and plant and stopped the manufacture of hats.  Immediately on top of this came the war, the effect of which was to stop credit from English and foreign firms.  Prior to the war the defendant had had unlimited credit.  The result was that a prior action had been taken against him, and it had then been ascertained by Mr Justice Dodd that a fair sum for the defendant to pay by instalments would be £80 a year.

The defendant having been cross-examined as to his means, by Serjeant McSweeny, Mr Justice Pim said he would, if he could, give the defendant time to pay by making an instalment order; but he was afraid this would not be a kindness to him, and he thought it best to let the plaintiff take the liberty to issue execution.”

The location of Mr Lemass’s premises on Usher’s Quay, opposite the Four Courts, was no coincidence. As noted by the Wicklow People of 13 January 1934:

“Up to a few generations ago a shiny silk hat was as much a necessity to a barrister as a horse-hair wig, and in a well-known Dublin hatter’s may still be seen an outsize, the property of the Liberator, which would go down over the eyes of some of our present-day politicians.  They bobbed up everywhere in the Four Courts, and at the opening of circuit, when judges went on circuit in the good old days, there was an epidemic of tall hats.  Lawyers of all grades, officers and other functionaries who graced the colourful occasion looked important and even imposing in the glossy headgear always associated with decorative ceremonial.”

You can see here a photograph of some 1878 gents in top hats inspecting ex post facto the scene of a tragic foundry explosion and building collapse at Hammond Lane, next to where 158-9 Church Street now stands. I like to think they may have been off-duty barristers.

High-hatted Tim Healy himself in Vanity Fair in 1886, just before the safety bicycle sent the top hat flying out of fashion, never really to return. Image via Wikimedia.

Horsewhipped Irish barrister and MP Tim Healy is quoted in the Sligo Champion of 21 October 1933 as saying that in his young days “everybody (who was anybody) wore a silk hat.”  According to Healy,

“the ‘topper’ went out when the ‘safety’ bicycle came in in about 1887… the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) begged Earl Spencer to ride beside him in Rotten Row (at the request of the hatters) in a silk hat.  They rode for a week so apparalled, but could not restore the old headgear.”

The writing was on the wall for tall hats in Ireland since 1913, when the Irish Independent of 7 February reported on evidence given by an impoverished draper sued by an assistant for his salary, that the assistant “had stayed on when there was nothing to be done, and there was nothing to sell in the place, the shop only consisting of hundreds of bandboxes of some antiquated tall hats that nobody would buy.”

There were rumours of a tall hat revival in 1926, when the Meath Herald and Cavan Advertiser of 7 February stated that

“We were all delighted to read about the return of the tall hat; it is such a dignified piece of headgear and is generally associated with clergymen, cabinet ministers, judges, barristers and the professional classes generally.”

Immediately below, the Advertiser noted that the inventor of the top hat, John Hetherington, had himself ended up in court when he “took a stroll down the Strand in the first topper one day in 1797, causing such a disturbance that he was arrested for a breach of the peace.  When tried before the Lord Mayor he was accused of wearing, on a public highway, ‘a tall structure of shiny luster, calculated to frighten timid folk,’ and it was stated that several women had fainted at the sight of the monstrosity.  Hetherington was bound over in the sum of £500 not to repeat the offence.”

Fortunately, for those hatters willing and able to diversify, there were lots of other hats beside tall hats – homburgs, derbies, fedoras, trilbies, and, of course, ladies’ hats, it being having been judicially noted by Judge Craig, the Belfast Recorder, in 1913 that

 “a good many ladies spend the sermon time in church in studying the dress of their lady friends.  A new hat, a new bonnet a new bow… is written down in the tablets of their memory.  Dress is a very great point with them, and to be an expert on such questions is one of things in which women pride themselves.”

John Lemass chose to diversify from hats into men’s outfitting generally and continued in business in Capel Street for years after the proceedings detailed at the start of this post. Indeed, many would say the greatest days of the Lemass family were yet to come – John’s son Seán (aged 17 at the date of Mrs Mullen’s case) became Taoiseach of Ireland in 1959.   

Perhaps his family firm even provided the silk top hats that the Irish judges wore instead of wigs to the official opening of the courts system of the Irish Free State in Dublin Castle in 1924?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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