6th February 1856. The Man on the Clapham Omnibus.

Bonus Paterfamilias or Diligens P. : The Roman head of the household and regarded as possessing ordinary prudence. 

By the 19thc this prudence was seen, in law, as the attribute of the ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’.

One of the first cases ‘in tort’ where reasonableness and standard of care was a consideration, was in the freezing winter of 1856. This caused the fire-plug to rupture on the hydrant outside Mr Blyth’s Birmingham house, resulting in severe flooding.

Blyth took the case to the Exchequer Court, under Lord Alderson, who made the famous judgement on Negligence in Blyth v Birmingham Water Company which concluded Today.

Alderson adjudged that the company could not have foreseen the extreme frost conditions which had caused the rupture of the fire-plug in the hydrant. ‘In order not to breach a duty of care the defendant must generally meet a standard of a ‘reasonable man’.

'Clapham, please.' Alan Saunders.

‘Clapham, Please’. Alan Saunders.

Thus the water company had met certain standards regarded as being reasonable, what we know as the Man on the Clapham Omnibus.(1)

The ‘Legal Fiction’ of this ‘Man’ suggested a reasonable person and the phrase was first put to legal use in a judgment by Sir Richard Henn Collins, Master of the Rolls (1903) in a Court of Appeal libel case, McQuire v Western Morning News.

He attributed it to Lord Bowen said to have coined it when he was junior counsel defending The Tichborne Claimant in 1871.(2)

In Hall v Brooklands Auto Racing Club (1933) the case was decided by Lord Justice Greer, on, ‘The standard of care conforming to that which might be exercised by the man on top of the Clapham Omnibus’.

From the 1837 case, Vaughan v Menlove, on negligence, the reasonable person was like the Roman paterfamilias of old: a man. Women hadn’t any legal capacity, being restricted from operating in a legal sphere and less liable to be named or involved as plaintiff or defendant in ‘tortious cases’, in civil law.

Their economic activity was not recognised, so not worthy of legal protection. We now recognise that ‘The Man on the Clapham Omnibus’ is gender specific with all the association that implies. Also this mythical ‘Man’ couldn’t be held responsible regarding negligence, if trying to meet higher criteria than he is qualified for.

Coming up to date, ‘Clapham Man’ had become Lord Steyn’s, ‘Commuters on the London Underground’, in MacFarlane v Tayside Health Board 1999.

(1) The Journal of Arts in 1857 said: ‘So thoroughly has the tedious traffic of streets become ground into the true Londoners nature that…your dog-collared occupant of the knife-board of a Clapham omnibus will stick on London Bridge for half an hour with scarcely a murmur’.

(2) Brewer’s Quotations also cites this as a source.



blog.bodleian.ac.uk. Lawbod. 4.12.2013. ronaldrichenburg.

wakespace.lib.wfu.edu. Concept of Reasonable Practice. Wendy Parker.


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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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