Speeches: Literary and Social, by Charles Dickens

SPEECH: LONDON, MARCH 28, 1866.

[The following speech was made by Mr. Dickens at the Annual Festival of the Royal General Theatrical Fund, held at the Freemasons’ Tavern, in proposing the health of the Lord Mayor (Sir Benjamin Phillips), who occupied the chair.]

Gentlemen, in my childish days I remember to have had a vague but profound admiration for a certain legendary person called the Lord Mayor’s fool. I had the highest opinion of the intellectual capacity of that suppositious retainer of the Mansion House, and I really regarded him with feelings approaching to absolute veneration, because my nurse informed me on every gastronomic occasion that the Lord Mayor’s fool liked everything that was good. You will agree with me, I have no doubt, that if this discriminating jester had existed at the present time he could not fail to have liked his master very much, seeing that so good a Lord Mayor is very rarely to be found, and that a better Lord Mayor could not possibly be.

You have already divined, gentlemen, that I am about to propose to you to drink the health of the right honourable gentleman in the chair. As one of the Trustees of the General Theatrical Fund, I beg officially to tender him my best thanks for lending the very powerful aid of his presence, his influence, and his personal character to this very deserving Institution. As his private friends we ventured to urge upon him to do us this gracious act, and I beg to assure you that the perfect simplicity, modesty, cordiality, and frankness with which he assented, enhanced the gift one thousand fold. I think it must also be very agreeable to a company like this to know that the President of the night is not ceremoniously pretending, “positively for this night only,” to have an interest in the drama, but that he has an unusual and thorough acquaintance with it, and that he has a living and discerning knowledge of the merits of the great old actors. It is very pleasant to me to remember that the Lord Mayor and I once beguiled the tedium of a journey by exchanging our experiences upon this subject. I rather prided myself on being something of an old stager, but I found the Lord Mayor so thoroughly up in all the stock pieces, and so knowing and yet so fresh about the merits of those who are most and best identified with them, that I readily recognised in him what would be called in fistic language, a very ugly customer — one, I assure you, by no means to be settled by any novice not in thorough good theatrical training.

Gentlemen, we have all known from our earliest infancy that when the giants in Guildhall hear the clock strike one, they come down to dinner. Similarly, when the City of London shall hear but one single word in just disparagement of its present Lord Mayor, whether as its enlightened chief magistrate, or as one of its merchants, or as one of its true gentlemen, he will then descend from the high personal place which he holds in the general honour and esteem. Until then he will remain upon his pedestal, and my private opinion, between ourselves, is that the giants will come down long before him.

Gentlemen, in conclusion, I would remark that when the Lord Mayor made his truly remarkable, and truly manly, and unaffected speech, I could not but be struck by the odd reversal of the usual circumstances at the Mansion House, which he presented to our view, for whereas it is a very common thing for persons to be brought tremblingly before the Lord Mayor, the Lord Mayor presented himself as being brought tremblingly before us. I hope that the result may hold still further, for whereas it is a common thing for the Lord Mayor to say to a repentant criminal who does not seem to have much harm in him, “let me never see you here again,” so I would propose that we all with one accord say to the Lord Mayor, “Let us by all means see you here again on the first opportunity.” Gentlemen, I beg to propose to you to drink, with all the honours, “The health of the right hon. the Lord Mayor.”

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