The Barrister and the ‘Charley,’ c.1780

‘A Brace of Public Guardians,’ by Thomas Rowlandson, via the Met Museum.

From the Irish Independent, 12 November 1907, this fantastic piece on ‘The Charleys,’ or the Old Dublin Watch, by D.J.M. Quinn, with an amusing story in its last paragraph about how an eminent and somewhat officious ‘gentleman of the wig and gown’ of times past found himself magnificently outwitted by a ‘Charley’ he had sought to reprimand:




Could the good citizen, who, gazing today on the stalwart form of the Dublin Metropolitan policeman as he paces with measured tread the streets of the city, take a glance backwards, say to the end of the 18th century, he would behold a vastly different type of custodian of the law.  At that period there existed in Dublin a body whose official designation was ‘the Watch,’ but who were known to the gallants of the day by the sobriquet of ‘The Charleys.’  The origin of the latter appellation is said to date back to the time of the gay King Charles II, in whose reign the Watch was first instituted.


‘The Charleys,’ who were the only guardian of the streets at night (there were none during the day), were generally old and feeble men, many of whom had, in their earlier days, been the domestic servants or retainers of members of the Corporation and of their friends.  They wore long frieze coats with large capes and low-crowned hats, and were armed with a single weapon, which they used for offensive and defensive purposes alike.  This was a long pole, with a spear at one end, and at the other was a crook for the purpose of catching runaway offenders.  They also carried a rattle, which they twisted violently round, made a harsh and discordant noise like that of a gigantic corncrake; with this, when in trouble or danger, they summoned fellow watchmen to their assistance.


The duties of these senile guardians of the peace were, to patrol a certain beat, to quell riots, and to arrest and bring to the watchhouse disorderly characters.  The first of these tasks they carried out fairly well, but the latter two, owing to their old age and stiff joints, was naturally a somewhat difficult and often an impossible achievement.  At times, however, they did manage to effect an arrest, but such an event was invariably brought about through sheer force of numbers.  They had also, as they walked along their beat, to call out the hour and the state of the weather, such as ‘Past 12 o’clock and a cloudy night,’ or ‘Past 2 o’clock and a stormy morning.’


For each ‘Charley’ at the end of his beat, was provided a small sentry-box, somewhat after the fashion of the shelter supplied at present to the night watchmen of the implements of the Corporation workmen.  In this, in bad weather, and often in good, he might be seen comfortably dozing away the silent watches of the night, oblivious to all the disturbance which were, at the time, the rule rather than the exception, of the hours of darkness.  But frequently his seeking after comfort proved his undoing, for it was no uncommon incident during a severe winter to find a ‘Charley’ stiff and cold in his box – literally frozen to death.  This was notably the case in the winter of 1785, when Dublin was visited with a terrible and prolonged spell of frost.  An old chronicler tells us: – ‘The Liffey was frozen over for weeks, traffic was at a standstill, and the Lord Mayor caused huge fires to be lit in the market-places to warm the poor.’  During this period no fewer than five ‘Charleys’ were found frozen to death in their boxes.


To show how utterly impotent were the ‘Charleys’ as preservers of the peace, the riot of 1790 between the frequenters of the coffee-houses in Dame Street will plainly show.  At midnight in December of that year, a duel was fought between two of the young Dublin bloods, each of whom asserted that the other had grossly insulted him.  During the progress of the fight, the supporters of the combatants had words, and in a short time two formidable forces were opposing each other with every conceivable weapon, naked fists included.  Above the din of the fight the loud buzzing sound of the Watch’s rattle was heard, but their advent had no effect whatever on the mob who, placing their own differences to one side, banded together to attack the common enemy, with the result that the Watch were severely mauled; their hats and cloaks were torn, their crooks and rattles taken from them, and they were chased from the courtways, where they endeavoured to secrete themselves.  The Lord Mayor, hearing of the riot, set out in his coach with the object of trying to restore order, but after a futile attempt to do so, he hurried to the Castle, where he invoked the aid of the soldiery, at whose approach the midnight disturbers of the peace made a rapid retreat.

‘Tom Getting the Best of a Charley,’ by Cruikshank, via


The greatest plague, however, with which the unfortunate ‘Charleys’ had to deal was the Trinity boy. These young gentlemen would sally out at night from one of the theatres (where they had perchance suddenly blown out all lights and left the audience in darkness) and walk in a body up the main streets of the city.  They usually contented themselves with flattening the hats of the ‘Charleys,’ who were out of their boxes, but those who were unfortunate enough to be inside fared much worse.  Creeping noiselessly behind him, they tilted the box over, thus imprisoning the unlucky Watch as securely as if he were under lock and key in the Watchhouse.   There he remained until his muffled shouts attracted some of his fellows or until some righteous citizen gave the alarm and summoned help to liberate him from his uncomfortable and undignified position.


If there was anything more than another which increased the respect of the Trinity boys for one another, it was some trophy borne triumphantly away after one of those midnight encounters, and as a result the walls of some of their ‘dens’ in the College were lavishly ornamented with crooks, rattles, hats, and even cloaks, wrested from time to time from the unfortunate ‘Charleys’.  So great became this practice that the Lord Mayor was forced to offer a reward ‘to any person or persons who would give information leading to the arrest of anyone despoiling the Watch of the various parts of their uniform.’ Notwithstanding the reward, however, the Trinity boys always managed to escape scot free, and at one time they had the audacity to advertise, whether in joke or otherwise is not known, a sale of property ‘most suitable to persons following the occupation of watchmen.’


A good story is told of a celebrated barrister of those days and an astute ‘Charley.’  The gentleman of the wig and gown returning to his home late at night came across a watchman asleep in his box.  Hastily shaking him up the man of opinions soundly rated him for his dereliction of duty and threatened to report him at headquarters for being asleep.  The ‘Charley,’ though recently awakened from a sound sleep, proved himself equal to the occasion, for swinging his rattle quickly round his head, so that its noise attracted a neighbouring watchman, he laid violent hands on the interpreter of his dreams.  When the other ‘Charley’ arrived on the scene, the disturbed one complained bitterly of the legal man’s bad language and disorderly conduct.  The barrister protested his innocence, but all to no purpose, and with a crook securely fastened in his coat tails, to prevent any attempt on his part to escape, he was ignominiously escorted by his captors to the Watchhouse, where he stormed and raved until morning, when he was brought before the magistrate.  Here things were somewhat cleared up, as the magistrate had a full knowledge of the prisoner’s character, and liberated him.  The ‘Charley’s purpose had, however been effected, as it is, of course, unnecessary to say how futile the barrister’s complaint of finding him asleep in his box would have been after he had himself been arrested for disorderly conduct.


A wonderful article impossible to resist transcribing in its entirety!

Point to Ponder: Could the well-known expressions: ‘a right Charlie,’ ‘get back in your box,’ and ‘you’re out of your box’ originally have been referable to the ‘Charleys’?

Author: Ruth Cannon BL

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

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