The man on the Clapham Omnibus

01:00 Thu 14th Mar 2002 |

Q. Who was he, then

A. The phrase is used in legalese to mean 'the reasonable person', and has gone into the language to mean 'the man in the street', a modern Everyman.

Q. Everyman

A. Everyman was the central character of the medieval morality play of the same name, which dates from the early 1500s.

Q. So, the Clapham Omnibus

A. The phrase is said to have been coined by Sir Charles Bowen QC in 1903. While hearing a case for negligence he said (though whether he originated it is not proven, m'lud): 'We must ask ourselves what the man on the Clapham omnibus would think.' Clapham at the turn of the 20th century was a moderately well-off suburb, peopled by 'decent' middle-class types, who, by their staid lifestyle and unchallenging common sense may well have been deemed to be the epitome of ordinariness by the standards of the day, and thus an appropriate yardstick against which the Law Lord might have made a judgement.

Q. What about the Omnibus

A. At the time all the omnibuses in London were still horse drawn. It wasn't until 1916 that all the bus routes were finally taken over by motorised vehicles. In fact, this was not the Clapham Omnibus's only claim to fame.

Some 40 years earlier a young German chemist, Friedrich Kekule von Stradonitz, was working as a laboratory assistant at St Bartholomew's Hospital in the City of London. Having fallen asleep on the bus one evening in 1865 he fell into a dream that was to revolutionise organic chemistry. He wrote: '...the atoms were gambolling before my eyes...I saw how the longer ones formed a chain...[and then] the cry of the conductor "Clapham Road" awakened me from my dreaming....". He had dreamt of the benzene molecule as a snake biting its tail while in whirling motion. From that vision his concept of the six-carbon benzene ring was born, and all the facts of organic chemistry known up to that time fell into place.

Q. What about Clapham

A. Since its years of Edwardian stolidity, Clapham slumped socially throughout the 20th century, though from the 1980s onwards it once again began to drag itself up and is now one of the serious property hotspots in London. By the 1990s it had become the epitome of yuppiness and earned itself the joke pronunciation of its name as 'Clahm' in imitation of the Hooray Henrys and Camillas who moved in in their droves. Contiguous areas of London - Battersea and Streatham - also acquired similar ironic epithets, with Battersia (emphasis on the 'e') at St Reatham.

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By Simon Smith

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