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I’m reading a piece of historical mystery fiction, something that I don’t ordinarily enjoy, being much too rooted in the near present for some reason. But Rules of Engagement by Bruce Alexander is pretty good. Set in England’s 18th century, it features a blind London magistrate, Sir John Fielding, and his amanuensis, a boy who plans on becoming a lawyer.

Never completely happy, I cavil at the gavel. Time and time again Alexander has “the blind beak of Bow Street” pound his gavel to bring order to the Hogarthian scene in the courtroom. I don’t think so.

English and Canadian judges don’t use gavels. Don’t need to to get decorum that way. Gavels are an American thing. You’d think that someone doing research in the legal scene in England in the 1700’s would pay attention to this sort of thing. If it happened once or twice (I’ve read two of his books now), no big deal; but it must happen twenty times per a book.

Oddly, I can’t find clear evidence of this English lack. But the best proof I can offer of the gavelless nature of English courtrooms comes from the Oxford English Dictionary, where all but one of the many meanings of “gavel” have to do with “rent” or “payment” or “tithe” (this “gavel” is related to the word “give”). The last meaning is stamped “US” and talks about a mallet used by Masons in their rites. There are no usage quotations at all from England, so it’s hard to imagine that gavels were used but never written about.

If anyone has literary or pictorial evidence to the contrary, let me know. From here on in, keep gavels confined to U.S. courtrooms, eh?

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  • A United States Law School Professor, Author, and Lawyer, Steven R. Finz says
    he never saw a judge use a gavel anywhere in the United States but in movies. He has been in law for about 40 years. So it sounds like a movie thing to me. I can believe it, because the brainless unethical irresponsible film makers and TV people have done more damage than good with their corrupt and idiotic idea machines spewing complete idiocy and outlandishly wrong things.

  • I have changed the category from “Review” to “Opinion” for this post.

    While the lack of gavels in a Bow Street courtroom is a useful factoid, a “review” needs more than an objection to a single phrase in the book, however often repeated.