The man on the Clapham omnibus
It is a while since I have been to Clapham, never mind travelled to or from by bus, but I suspect that the demographics of the area have changed since this phrase sprang up. It was used to denote the average or typical person, the man on the street or, as the Americans might put it, an ordinary Joe. We live in a much more polarised society but this mythical person was supposed to be the epitome of fairness and a true representative of the wishes, thoughts and Opinion of the public at the time. Naturally, he was a chap as the opinions of women didn’t count for much at the time.
An Omnibus was a four-wheeled public vehicle with seats for passengers, introduced to London in 1829. Over time it became a popular way of getting around the metropolis, at least until the development of the underground system, for those not wealthy enough to be able to afford their own means of transport.
Contrary to popular opinion, it wasn’t the journalist, Walter Bagehot, or a bright, thrusting QC who coined the phrase. We will come to them in a moment.
No, the first appearance in print appears to have been in a piece in the Journal of Society of Arts of 1857, moaning about the perennial traffic problems in London which, the correspondent claimed, the weary commuter endures with nary a complaint unlike the rail traveller who is quick to voice their indignation if their chosen form of transport is late. “But your dog-coller’d occupant of the knife-board of a Clapham omnibus, will stick on London-bridge for half-an-hour with scarcely a murmur.” Nothing ever changes, it would seem.
Walter Bagehot, in his magisterial The English Constitution, published in 1867, gave us a variant when discussing public opinion. He argued; “public opinion now-a-days is the opinion of the bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus. It is not the opinion of the aristocratical classes as such; or the most educated or refined classes as such; it is simply the opinion of the ordinary mass of educated, but still commonplace mankind.”
So the component parts of the Clapham Omnibus and the ordinariness of average traveller on public transport, with or without hair or dog collar, were there before the first formulation of our phrase, attributed to a junior counsel in 1871 later Lord Bowen, who was defending the Tichbourne Claimant case, a major case at the time and one which scandalised the nation. Richard Henn Collins, the Master of the Rolls, in his summation in the 1903 libel case of McQuire v Western Morning, noted; “Fair, therefore, in this collocation certainly does not mean that which the ordinary reasonable man, the man on the Clapham omnibus, as Lord Bowen phrased it..”
Frustratingly, his Lordship gave no reference for Bowen’s pearls of wisdom and, so far as I can trace, no one has found it.
Perhaps it was already in the common vernacular or perhaps the phrase was regarded as an apposite description of the ordinary man but within twenty days of Collins’ use of the phrase, on 1st June 1903, it popped up in the Manchester Guardian; “The weaker section of the Liberal imperialists (those with an eye to the man on the Clapham omnibus) are generally declaring against Mr Chamberlain.”
Inevitably, the English phrase spawned local variants around the Empire. So we have “the man on the Bondi tram” in New South Wales and “the man on the Bourke Street tram” in Victoria and “the man on the Shaukiwan Tram” in Hong Kong.
It has travelled far.
This post first appeared on Windowthroughtime | A Wry View Of Life For The World-weary, please read the originial post: here