Reading a newspaper recently I saw the heading Three Years for Man in Cupboard. A stiff sentence, you will say, particularly since most people are unaware that it is illegal to enter a cupboard. Many eminent judges, however, have made it clear that they are determined to put down these cupboard offenses. The prosecution is always taken under certain old acts, Cap. xi, xviii, and lvi Vic. Reg., generally cited as the Cupboard Regulation acts.

These somewhat obsolete statutes were later codified and brought up to date by the Presses Acts of 1853 and further extended by the Small Presses Act of 1893. Grattan's Parliament, a pioneer in certain matters, passed a Small Cabinets Act but this was quickly repealed after some eighty thousand pounds had changed hands in bribes.

The cupboard mania was a serious social problem a hundred years ago. It was quite common for an entire tribe of mendicants to live in the cupboards of a big house without the knowledge of the family occupying the house. These beggars would emerge at night, eat and drink everything in sight, and retire again, like ghosts in the night. A search of the cupboards rarely revealed any trace of the intruders: they were all expert carpenters and usually had constructed ingenious secret compartments, often with lifts and stairways communicating with other cupboards.

The wainscoting and underfloors of nearly all the grandiose piles of Victorian England were infested with beggars in the manner imitated by rats in our own day. The Small Presses Acts was intended to deal with a somewhat different problem. Dwarfs and undersized or deformed criminals realized the peculiar potentialities of their physique and took to infesting quite humble dwellings. The presses they entered were too small to admit of any structural alterations, but a system comparable to the jungle trick of camouflage was adopted.

The intruder cunningly assumed the appearance of a roll of linoleum, a bundle of old clothing, a carpet bag, or whatever looked appropriate to the setting. Cases came to light where dwarfs were sent to the laundry, passed through the machinery there, and returned to the householder neatly parcelled.

A case was heard in 1893 in the King's Bench Division, in which a household sued a steam laundry for the return of 48 pounds, being paid unwittingly over a period of twenty years for the laundering of a female dwarf.

HELD: that the laundry bills were well charged having regard to the fact that the company had laundered clothing for a fair consideration and was under no obligation, whether of statute or in equity, to satisfy themselves that said clothing was not inhabited.

Incidentally, a thorough search by the police of the household's premises revealed a tribe of 18 foreign dwarfs complete with wives and children and accompanied by --- of all things --- a grotesque dog which had been trained to make himself look like an old cracked wash basin.

There was a great to-do when these persons were charged in court. The learned judge created a scene on entering the court by ordering the attendants to clear away the litter of rubbish which he espied in the well of the court. He could scarcely be persuaded that this mass of old rope, buckets, lady's cycling bloomers, and broken gramophones was in fact the defendants. When a cracked wash basin was led in growling loudly, his honour had to retire for a moment in order to recollect himself.

There were other odd cases. In Dublin it came to light that a somewhat overgrown dwarf who had once worked as a contortionist in the halls took to living in the press of a prominent gentleman's bedroom. The dwarf took the form of an overcoat hung on a peg. Unfortunately, the gentleman one day lost his customary overcoat and perforce had to use temporarily the overcoat he had seen so often in the press. For a full week he paid his social calls attired in middle-aged dwarf, whom he hung on the hall stands or handed to butlers.

Yes, much of the colour has gone out of life. Today, nobody troubles to look even like a respectable Irish person.

--- From At War
Columns from The Irish Times
Flann O'Brien
John Wyse Jackson, Editor
©1999, Dalkey Archive Press

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