The Man on the Clapham Omnibus

“Who is ‘The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’?” – Some time ago I was asked this question, half in jest, by one of my Enquirers.  My first response was “What man where?” …but after a little explanation I set out to track him down…

‘The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’ is a phrase used, mainly in England I would assume, to illustrate the ordinary or average man, the ‘man on the street’[1].  In legal terms he is a fair and reasonable man.  A pinnacle of right-thinking.

The first reported legal use of this term was in a judgement given by Sir Richard Henn Collins, Master of the Rolls, in the case McQuire v Western morning News Company:

“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, the juryman common or special, would think a correct appreciation of the work;[2]

Sir Richard gives no specific citation here but there are, elsewhere in the opinion, references to a reported opinion of Lord Bowen’s from 1888[3].  However, having looked through this report, I was unable to find any mention of ‘The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’.  Lord Bowen may have used the phrase during the course of the case but it was not included in his reported opinion.

Although Lord Bowen may have been the first to use this phrase in court it did not originate with him.

The journalist Walter Bagehot is credited with coining the term but I have found no evidence of him referring specifically to the Clapham Omnibus. In his book The English Constitution he says:

“Public opinion” nowadays, “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 of the most educated and refined classes as such; it is simply the opinion of the ordinary mass of educated, but still commonplace mankind.[4]

Note that Bagehot uses inverted commas around the phrase. This implies it was a term already in use around his time.

The earliest reference I have come across was from 1857 in the Journal of the Society of Arts.  It was used in relation to the terrible traffic problems which already existed in London at that time:

So thoroughly has the tedious traffic of the streets become ground into the true Londoner’s nature, that, to shorten his course from Piccadilly to the Bank, would be to rob him of a vested right or a natural privilege.  If a railway train from Aberdeen or the Land’s End arrives in London five minutes behind its time, the indignant traveller vents his spleen and writes a letter to the Times, 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.[5]

So, there you have it!  The extent of my, admittedly fairly light-hearted, search for The Man on the Clapham Omnibus.  He seems to have originated in a 150 year old complaint about traffic congestion. Nothing changes.

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed, 1989, Vol III, p.272
[2] [1903] 2 KB 100 (at p. 109)
[3] Merivale v Carson [1888] 20 QBD 275
[4] 2nd edition, 1872, p.355
[5] May 1, 1857, p. 348

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