Uncommon Assault: the Statesman and the Scribbler

I’m going to tell you the story of a case of technical assault which took place in the lobby of the House of Commons in the year 1893. What makes the incident especially unusual is that the assailant was a Member of Parliament and the victim was a Punch cartoonist.

This little tale intrigued me when I found out about it a year or two ago. I meant to write about it then, but I never did. So I’ll do it now.

Harry Furniss (1854-1925) was one of the major late Victorian caricaturists.

Harry Furniss.

His drawings are always full of life and fire, even if on occasion they seem to my eyes a bit harsh. Furniss may be known to some today as the illustrator of Lewis Carroll’s dreadful children’s books Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893), but a better legacy is his work for Punch from 1880 to 1894, especially his drawings for the “Essence of Parliament” column and of Gladstone in particular, dagger-like collars and all:

Gladstone at the Dispatch Box: from Punch, 27 May 1893

As can be seen above, he signed his “Essence of Parliament” sketches “Lika Joko”, but this wasn’t meant to fool anyone, and everyone knew it was Furniss really.

The issue of Punch dated 26 August 1893 contained its usual “Essence of Parliament”, including a summary of debates for the Irish Home Rule bill. The text includes the following passing snippet: “Once the blameless BARTLEY [Sir George Trout Bartley, M.P. for Islington] signalled out Member for South Donegal, mentioning him by name as responsible for particular exclamations. ‘Don’t presume to mention my name,’ said MACNEILL, leaning across gangway.”

All this was mild enough, but unfortunately it was accompanied by a cartoon by Furniss of the said Member for South Donegal, whose name was J.G. Swift MacNeill:

Harry Furniss’s caricature of J.G. Swift MacNeill, in Punch, 26 August 1893.

It may be admitted at this point that Mr MacNeill had some reason to be offended. The portrayal of the Irish in the Victorian age as monkey-like savages, notably in the pages of Punch, was part of the larger history of England’s harsh and often inhuman treatment of Ireland. Nevertheless, it must also be admitted MacNeill’s actual appearance gave Furniss something of an excuse for his portrayal; and it was not Furniss’s job to be kind when faced with such raw material.

Detail from a portrait of J.G. Swift MacNeill, 1897

The issue of Punch was dated 26 August, but as in the case of many other weekly magazines it was actually on sale earlier in the week. The lobby incident occurred on the evening of 25 August, and was widely reported thereafter, though the actual facts are to some extent a matter for discussion. Here is the beginning of the report in the Daily Telegraph of 26 August 1893:

“An Assault in the Lobby”: Daily Telegraph, 26 August 1893

The article is somewhat prolix, but the meat of the information can be found here, following a description of the Punch cartoon which is almost more offensive than the cartoon itself:

Daily Telegraph, 26 August 1893.

To repeat the above in shorter form, MacNeill accused Furniss of drawing the caricature, and on receiving confirmation of the fact rained abuse upon the cartoonist and struck him “three or four times” on the back or shoulders with his cane.

Here’s another account, from the Westminster Gazette of 26 August 1893, full of circumstantial detail and witness statements:

“A Fracas in the Lobby”: Westminster Gazette, 26 August 1893

The main addition to the previous information, according to Furniss himself, is that “the blows were not very hard. They were more probes than blows.” At the risk of overkill, here’s an interview with Furniss in the Westminster Gazette on the same day:

“Interview with Mr. Furniss To-Day”: Westminster Gazette, 26 August 1893.

And there, in one sense, the matter closed. Furniss made a complaint, but didn’t seem very worried about following it up; indeed it appears he was discouraged by Parliamentary officials from doing so.

However, it so happened that amongst his many other commitments he wrote and illustrated a “London Letter” for some of the regional papers. This included the Ipswich Evening Star, which I have consulted. The London Letter published on 2 September 1893 includes, not surprisingly, a detailed account of the incident – with illustrations. The online copy that I have accessed reproduces the illustrations in a bad, smudgy form, but luckily Furniss also included them in his 1902 book The Confessions of a Caricaturist, and it is these versions that I will include here.

In his London Letter, Furniss describes the incident as greatly exaggerated by the papers, and “the salvation of the silly season.”

“So many papers have given startling accounts of this attack upon me, some stating that I was caned, others that I was pummelled, shaken like a dog, and so on, that I am glad to take the opportunity of giving a clear statement of what really occurred.”

“startling accounts of this attack upon me”

According to Furniss, MacNeill called Furniss “a low blackguardly scoundrel”, adding “I want to assault you”, and “forthwith he nervously and gingerly tapped me, as if he were playing with a hot coal. He then danced off to members who were looking on, crying, ‘This is the scoundrel who has caricatured me; witness, I assault him!’ and he recommenced the tapping process which constituted this technical assault…. I treated the hon. member exactly as the policeman did the blue-bottle, with perfect indifference, not even troubling to brush away the trifling annoyance.”

“what really happened”

Furniss then proceeded to describe an encounter immediately afterwards with Dr Charles Tanner, M.P. for Mid-Cork, which made it clear to him that the whole “assault” was a put-up job amongst the Irish M.P.s as revenge for some comments made in Furniss’s touring show The Humours of Parliament.

There are more details to this story, but I’ve said enough. In the end, it’s something about nothing, and Furniss’s side of the story smells just a wee bit fishy to me, and I don’t feel the fault was all on MacNeill’s side. Nevertheless, the fact remains, there was a time in 1893 when a cartoonist got assaulted in Parliament just for being a cartoonist, but in a couple of weeks, somehow, the whole thing was forgotten.

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