The Barber and the Abusive Parrot!

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the chattering barber was a comic stereotype. All sorts of satires and images lampooned the loquacious shaver, more intent on the sound of his own voice than the customer’s comfort. But in 1869 an unusual case came before the Greenwich Magistrates. Here, it wasn’t the barber’s chatter that caused the problem…but another talkative inhabitant of the shop.

barber

(Image from Wellcome Images)

The case centered upon a dispute between Stephen White, and Edwin Fox, a barber. White was accused of using foul language towards the barber and fleeing the shop without paying for his shave. Fox was determined to get his fee and have his day in court. So far, this all sounds fairly mundane – the sort of routine case doubtless heard in magistrates’ courts across the land. But the circumstances surrounding this particular case were anything but routine.

The dispute arose began as White was in the chair in Fox’s shop, with the barber busily removing his stubble, and doubtless chatting away. According to Fox, the defendant ‘suddenly moved from his seat’, causing him to move the razor rapidly away. Remembering that he had once before cut Mr. White quite severely when the man had wriggled around in the chair, he cautioned him to sit still, or risk another painful accident.

Upon this, Mr. White leapt from his seat, and let rip a furious tirade of profanities and oaths, threatening to ruin the barber in his business, before running out into the street, with the angry and bemused barber in hot pursuit. Fearful that the customer would carry out his threats both to his business and person, Fox felt compelled to bring the matter to court. It seemed like an open and shut case.

When he came to the stand, however, Mr. White’s version of events was somewhat different. The cause of his outrage, he argued, was ‘the indelicate conduct’ of the barber’s two pet parrots, one of which he described as ‘irritating and annoying’.

Parrot

(Parrot of Carolina on Cypress Tree, 1731, Wellcome Images)

White claimed to have been feeling out of sorts, due to a recent bout of gout and bronchitis, and was in no mood to be provoked that day. All initially seemed well. But, just as the shave commenced, one of the parrots apparently called out ‘Fox, I shan’t be able to pay for this shave till Saturday night!’.

Notwithstanding the fact that it came from a bird, White took clearly took the remark personally, seeing it as a slur on his creditworthiness. He believed that the barber had primed the parrot with the phrase deliberately for him. It was this, he claimed, that ‘irritated him and caused him to move his seat’.

Flying Barber

(Bob Foster, the Cambridge Flying Barber (!), Wellcome Images)

But worse was to come. Just as Mr. White ‘felt the razor passing across his flesh under the chin’, the parrot delivered its perfectly-timed coup de grace: “Fox…cut his throat!’ White ‘felt naturally alarmed at the recommendation of the bird and hastened his exit’.

Struggling to keep a straight face, the chief clerk of the court asked Mr. Fox if he kept parrots, and whether they were capable of such language. If so, said the clerk, it might be necessary to bind the barber over in sureties for the birds’ good behaviour. [general merriment in court]

With his feathers clearly ruffled, Mr Fox indignantly admitted that he did indeed own two parrots but was unable to explain their linguistic capacity.

The judge had heard enough and sent the two men on their way, telling them to settle their squabbles themselves, leaving ‘the whole court convulsed with laughter’. The parrots, it seems, escaped being brought before the beak!

 

The Case of the Severed Finger: Callow vs Heane, 1634

In my last blog post I looked at a libel case between two Exeter medical practitioners. It was interesting to see how professional reputations were at stake and the ways in which practitioners called each other’s skills into question. For this post I’m staying on a similar theme, but this time a medical practitioner plays the part of a key witness in a bitter dispute between two ‘Gentlemen’ from the Welsh marches in the 1630s.

In September 1634, members of the families of Heane and Callow were enjoying an evening’s revelry in an alehouse in Brockweir, Gloucestershire. No doubt oiled by good sack, a discussion about the wardship of a young member of the Heane family quickly became a debate….and inevitably a dispute which quickly got out of hand.

Alehouse

At some point a £10 wager was made and a member of the Heane family declaimed, loudly, that ‘the Heanes were as good men or better’ than the Callows and challenged them to back up their boasts with weapons. That did it. Rowland Callow called Walter Heane a ‘base rogue and a Villaine’ (strong stuff in the 17th century) and promised to ‘have Heane’s hart’s blood’. Callow made a grab for Heane’s sword, pulling it partly out of its scabbard, but things didn’t quite go his way. In pulling out the sword he severed one of his own fingers!

Meissonier_La-Rixe_Brawl

As was often the case, this one single flashpoint was the catalyst for a bitter feud that spilled over into other arenas and quickly came to court. Aside from the question of injury, both to Callow’s fingers and also to the reputation of both men, a variety of other petty accusations began to fly. Callow accused Heane of failing to present one of his nephews for the crime of trespass on Lord Pembroke’s estates. Heane called Callow’s witnesses ‘infamous and of no credit’, and others of taking bribes, living incontinently with a woman in Ireland and keeping an unlicensed alehouse. The stage was set for a court battle of epic proportions.

In January 1635 depositions began to be heard in Monmouth and a commission was further held in St Briavels in May 1635. It is interesting to examine some of the evidence that was heard before the commission. The defence was based on whether certain actions and words had taken place. Had, for example, Callow called Heane a rogue and a villain. Had he indeed threatened to have Heane’s blood and had he, as some witnesses had it, struck Heane, drawing blood and then, in a Tyson-esque show of fury, bitten off a piece of Heane’s ear?

17th century tribunal

Callow’s severed finger was the subject of much debate amongst witnesses. Robert Ellice of Deane Magna, Gloucestershire, a victualler, testified that Callow had come to him for ‘chuirurgerie and shewed him his hand whereon he had an hurt on the little finger and a scarr on the finger next to it, and he saith that the bone of the little finger was scaled and could not be cured, but that the scale must be by force pulled off or by corraisive plaister eaten off.’

John Morgan, a Malster also of Dean Magna, suggested a different course of events. As Callow had no weapon of his own, Morgan ‘Saith that Walter Heane did then draw his sword out of the scabbard and did strike Rowland Callow and cutt his little finger so much that it hanged downe’, and Morgan ‘was fayne to splint it up; and had done him further hurt if the company had not stopped and prevented him, by which Rowland Callow has lost the use of his finger’.

Here the finger was purposefully severed by Heane, rather than a result of Callow’s misjudged grab! Other witnesses testified to the finger ‘hanging down’ after the scuffle but other embellishments began to enter, such as Heane taking up a ‘great stone with an intention to throw it at Callow’s face’ and then ‘did buffet [Callow] on the face with his fist so that his face therewith brused and grew black and blew’.

One of the most interesting witnesses (for me as a researcher on Welsh medical practitioners!) was Thomas Evans of Trelleck in Monmouthshire, described as a barber surgeon aged about 30. Evans testified that ‘He had known Callow for 4 years ‘and in that tyme hath heard him called Mr Callowe and taketh him to be reputed a gentleman’. He did not know Heane. About 23 October last he was sent for to come to Callow’s house at Llandogo, co. Monmouth where he saw Callow’s wounded finger and was desired to cure it. He searched the wound ‘and was faine to take a bone out of it; and a weeke after he did take another bone out of Mr Callowe’s finger.’

St_Briavels_Castle_Victorian_print

The case dragged on, with testimony after testimony beginning to test the patience of the commissioners. Debate moved from the original incident to claim and counter claim, questions of ‘gentlemanliness’ and reputation, accusations of impropriety, and on it went. Finally the commissioners had enough. Sentence was due to be passed in May 1636 but was first referred to arbitration…which dragged on until January 1637. Frustratingly the final judgement is not recorded but something of the exasperation of the authorities can be gleaned from the comments of Sir Richard Catchmay, bailiff and local process server. Perhaps without much sarcasm he suggested that the two men should simply settle matters by seeing ‘which of them could leap furthest into the River of Wye’!

(The full details of this case and testimonies are available at the University of Birmingham’s great site and database relating to the early modern court of chivalry, available at: http://www.court-of-chivalry.bham.ac.uk)