Given the trend for modern dress opera and interaction with the audience, the barrister convicted of hitting a man who had climbed over a seat at Covent Garden at the beginning of Siegfried to get a better view possibly thought that he was being attacked by Fafner before he was transformed into a dragon. 

Morton landscape

James Morton

But no, the man was only a jimmer. Jimmering – to get a free or better seat than that paid for – seems to have begun in the 1930s in the round-the-clock burlesque shows at the Windmill Theatre off Piccadilly Circus. There, at the end of a performance, those in the back rows climbed over the seats to get nearer the front to see the nearly nude women which made the shows such an attraction.

Over the years, it seems to have become something of a trend, at least in the cheaper places, at the Garden. After all who would want to stand for five hours if they didn’t have to?

‘To jimmy’ is altogether different. It can mean to pick a lock, while the jims is American slang for the shakes. Then there is also the rhyming slang to Jimmy (riddle = piddle). At one long-running committal proceedings in the West Country, magistrates decided to sit to a finish and immediately one of the defendants asked, ‘Can I go and have a jimmy, sir?’ Jimmy was not part of the chair’s vocabulary and when it was explained to him he sharply said ‘No’. The light was fading – and memory deceives – but I fancy the man was passed a milk bottle.

Be careful in front of whom you use slang expressions. The pre-war chief magistrate Sir Chartres Biron was another stickler for the King’s English. Biron affected not to understand what an advocate meant when he said an explanation ‘did not hold water’. The man tried again. ‘Well, it wouldn’t work,’ he offered. ‘What you mean,’ said Biron, ‘is that the explanation was unacceptable.’ ‘That’s it’, said the man eagerly. ‘Well, why did you not say so in the first place?’ demanded Biron.


James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor