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Rumpole of the Bailey

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On 3 December, 1975, the BBC transmitted a 'Play for Today' entitled Rumpole of the Bailey. This was in fact the first Rumpole story ever written. The BBC had commissioned a series of one-off plays and John Mortimer was asked to write a play for the series. He decided to write about an Old Bailey 'hack', many of which he had come across in his career; to quote Mortimer '[about] the men who used to call the judges Old Darling and their wives She Who Must Be Obeyed'. Thus Rumpole was born. The creator of Rumpole, John Mortimer QC1 is a distinguished barrister, probably best known for leading the defence in the Lady Chatterley's Lover obscenity trial, and thus is well qualified to write on this subject.

When Rumpole was brought to the TV screen in 1978 a piece of inspired casting introduced the distinguished Australian actor Leo McKern to the role. McKern has appeared in such well-known parts as Number 2 in The Prisoner and Klang, the High Priest in the Beatles' film Help, but it was Horace Rumpole that many consider his finest role and, to anyone who has seen the television adaptation, Rumpole will be forever McKern.

'Never Plead Guilty'

Horace Rumpole is a rather portly, irreverent barrister, partial to small cigars, cheap claret and spouting poetry at every opportunity.


Rumpole was educated at Linklater's (a 'minor' public school) and Oxford (although there seems to be some confusion as to which college - both Keble and 'St. Joseph's' being quoted), where he apparently achieved 'a minor third'. After leaving university, Rumpole joined the legal profession with Chambers at Number 3 Equity Court which were headed by CH Wystan. Wystan's daughter, Hilda, got married to Rumpole 'after an absent-minded proposal at an Inns of Court Ball'. Hilda now rules 'casa Rumpole' - a flat at 25b Froxbury Court, Gloucester Road, London - with an iron hand. She rejoices in the title of 'She Who Must be Obeyed'2.

The Rumpoles have one son, Nicholas, who was conceived following a night of passion on holiday in Brittany that Rumpole blamed on the oysters. He attended Oxford as well, and began an academic career in the United States at the sociology department of the University of Baltimore, moving later to the University of Miami, where he was the youngest department head ever. Nicholas is married to Erica and they have a son, Sam, the first Rumpole grandchild.


Although fast approaching retirement age, even when the reader first meets him, Rumpole is still a 'junior' barrister. A barrister is a student of the law, who, having been called to the bar, has the privilege of practising as advocate in the superior courts of law. A 'junior' barrister is the one who handles relatively minor cases and does the background work for QCs.

It is very unusual for a junior to take charge of the defence of a capital crime, but in the Penge Bungalow Murders case, Rumpole did so and triumphed due to his expertise in bloodstains. This case he considers as his finest hour. One other early Rumpole triumph was the Great Brighton Benefit Club Forgery trial, which he won due to his extensive knowledge of typewriters. Despite such highlights as these, the day-to-day details of Rumpole's life involve more minor crimes, for instance, shoplifting, indecent exposure, petty theft and so on. A steady diet of such cases has led over the years to Rumpole earning his most famous description - an 'Old Bailey Hack'.

The Central Criminal Court (London's principal criminal court) is situated in Old Bailey, a street in the western part of the City of London. Thus, from the British custom of referring to buildings by their location, any mention of 'the Old Bailey' raises an immediate image of a British court in its most traditional guise.

She Who Must be Obeyed has long held the ambition that Rumpole should follow in her father's footsteps and assume his rightful place as Head of Chambers. On several occasions it has taken all of Rumpole's skill and luck to avoid this fate. In Rumpole's life, the barristers are at the mercy, financially, of the solicitors who bring them cases, and the clerk of chambers who distributes these cases. If the solicitors, or the clerk, don't like you, you could find yourself like Rumpole, a 'Distinguished member of the Bar' who is (nearly) always broke! However, Rumpole can usually rely on the generations-old feud between the Timsons and the Molloys (the English version of the Montagues and Capulets). Rumpole has been retained by three generations of Timsons, who typify Rumpole's skewed view of the criminal world - the Timsons are 'good' criminals, not given to violence but inveterate (though honourable - and often stupid) thieves. 'You always done right by the Timsons' they tell Rumpole, and he is ever-respectful to the source of these recurrent briefs.

Rumpole's abrasiveness, his genius for defence (rather than prosecution, or some more lucrative law practice), and his sheer devious skill at extracting justice from a reluctant system, seem to have halted his rise to the top - and left him doing exactly the work he loves, and does so well. His motto is 'Never plead guilty!'


  • A propensity for quoting 'that old sheep of the lake district,' William Wordsworth. He is also fond of quoting many of the 'greats' of English literature, including Keats, Shakespeare, Kipling and Shelley. His preferred reading is the Oxford Book of English Verse, but only the older edition edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch3.

  • A fondness for small cigars and cheap claret, aka 'Chateau Fleet Street' or 'Chateau Thames Embankment' in Pommeroy's wine bar frequented by Rumpole and other members of Chambers4.

  • A taste for a 'fried slice' with his breakfast at the Tast-Ee-Bite cafĂ© in Fleet Street.

  • And above all else, avoiding direct confrontation with She Who Must be Obeyed!

1Queen's Counsel, or senior lawyer.2A quote from 'She' by H Rider Haggard.3Pronounced 'cooch'.4In real-life, the wine bar is reputed to be based on El Vino's, a very well known wine bar (in Fleet Street of course).

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