Mr Brown, Mr Robinson, and the average Joe

U 16.536-8: A great opportunity there certainly was for push and enterprise to meet the travelling needs of the public at large, the average man, i. e. Brown, Robinson and Co.

Commentators typically refer to Robert Dent’s excellent Colloquial Language in Ulysses (1994), who relates “Brown, Robinson and Co” to Punch magazine:

Along with Jones, Punch commonly used Smith, Brown, and Robinson for “the man in the street”

(Dent, p. 233)

As it turns out, this is both helpful and unhelpful. There is no doubt at all that Punch was largely responsible for the popularity of the characters Smith, Brown, Robinson, and Jones in the nineteenth century. These are some of the most common English surnames, and might easily stand for the average man, the “man in the street”. There is a slight problem with this, as we will see. There is also the question of whether Punch introduced readers to the expression “Brown, Robinson and Co.” as well as to the general context of Smith, Brown, Robinson, and Jones.

The Punch Connections

Punch magazine was established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew (who later wrote the landmark London Labour and the London Poor) and the engraver Ebenezer Landells. But we find early references to the colourful quartet of Brown, Robinson, etc. four years before this, in the writings of dramatist and newspaper journalist/editor Douglas Jerrold. In 1837 Jerrold published his humorous and moralistic articles on “The Lives of Brown, Jones, and Robinson”:

"Smith! Brown! Jones! and Robinson!" We can see the eyes of the reader sparkle as they meet the names of his schoolboy friends.

1837 Douglas Jerrold in New Monthly Magazine (1837) Sept. p. 84

Jerrold published his set of three articles in the New Monthly Magazine, telling the story of four school-fellows who played truant and went swimming.1 Sadly Smith drowns, and the rest of the text shows how the actions and attitudes of the other three (a non-swimmer, a mediocre swimmer, and a strong swimmer) are indicators of their individual success or lack of it in later life.

Jerrold was one of the journalists who wrote for Punch from its second issue, and he was firmly associated with the magazine. In 1842 Punch published the popular Punch’s Pantomime, written jointly by Jerrold and others and performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden. In this, Barons Smith, Brown, Robinson, and Jones take their place in the dramatis personae alongside King John (“a character naturally drawn by Shakespere and now a little overdrawn by Punch”) and Oberon (“a mere wreck of the Rex of the Fairies”).2

None of the three school-friends is really what we would regard as a “man in the street”. They are each privileged, leisured, and – at least at school – idle. They are caricatures of the type of Victorian young man familiar from sketches from Pickwick’s Papers, or from the writings of Surtees. Perhaps to the readers of Punch these were just the average man.

Punch continues with the characters, who have clearly attracted a dedicated following amongst the reading classes. Another Punch journalist, Horace Mayhew – brother of the magazine’s founder Henry Mayhew – wrote a series of articles for Punch on “model” characters, including one on the “model waiter” in 1848. Mayhew refers in passing to the Punch stalwarts of Brown and his friends, now leisured and idle London diners:3

This testimonial represents him ["the model waiter"] in the act of drawing the cork of one of the ten years' bottles of port for a party of gentlemen who are sitting in a box in the corner of the picture, and who are portraits of Messrs. Brown, Robinson, and Smith, three of the oldest chop-eaters of the house!

Soon references to the characters appear in other sources, such as Dickens’s Household Words, but the expression “Brown, Robinson, and Co.” does not seem to occur yet:

Let no sceptic suggest that these bones, which Barbarossa took from Milan to Cologne, might possibly have belonged, when there was life-blood Sowing over them, to some Brown, Robinson, and Jones, among the ancients.

Household Words (1852), vol. 5 No. 109 p. 127/1

The characters receive another boost from the Punch stable in the cartoon-book The Foreign Tour of Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson of Messrs. Brown, Jones, and Robinson: Being the History of What they Saw, and Did, in Belgium, Germany, Switzerland & Italy, published by Punch caricaturist Richard Doyle in 1853. The adventures of the three friends are documented in sketches as they “tour” Europe.4

Beyond Punch

By now a new strain begins to creep into descriptions of the three chums. The characters find their surnames used in a new context: that of business. So, in the Bank Charter Act of 1844 (1858), one of the many books and pamphlets published on this legislation at the time, we find that Brown, Robinson, and Jones have become “Messrs.”:

Why should Messrs Brown, Robinson, and Jones be made, by Act of Parliament, to pay a rate of 8 per cent, for money borrowed, because Messrs Delarue & Co. have also borrowed of the Bank of England?

The Bank Charter Act of 1844 (1858), ch. 4 p. 21

The three chums

title-page excerpt

The business analogy was clearly an apt one, which was eagerly taken up. The magazine Vanity Fair develops the idea in 1861:

Messrs Jones, Brown, Robinson, & Co., recently had their large manufactory destroyed by fire. Messrs. Locke, Key 8: Co., safe manufacturers, of this city, who had furnished Messrs. J. B. R. & Co with safes, immediately telegraphed to learn how their workmanship had stood the fiery ordeal.

Vanity Fair (1861), 11 May p. 228

In the 1870s Brown, Robinson and Co. took on a new role, as a stock business name used in accounting and business manuals. So in F. Hayne Carter’s popular Practical Book-keeping (1874 ed. 2: Appendix, p. 202) the name of a stock business is based on Jerrold’s old characters in a new guide:

The business usage persisted, and in 1899 Notes & Queries states:

On the other hand, any clerk can sign "per" or "pro" without his signature having the same binding effect. The examples are :—

1. Per pro : Brown, Robinson & Co.

John Smith.

2. Per John Smith.

Brown, Robinson & Co.

3. Pro Brown, Robinson & Co.

John Smith.

Notes & Queries (1899), p. 38

Just before the publication of Ulysses the name usage crops up in Gerald Brackenbury’s Studies in English Idiom (1920, p. 195):

Robert Dent’s own illustration of “Brown, Robinson and Co.” is a late one, showing Punch regaining use of the stock business name which had arisen, it seems, well after Punch’s first involvement with the characters:

Ting-a-ling-a-ring. (Agonised rush to the telepjone.)

"Hulloa! Is that Smith?"

"Mr. Smith is in, Sir. Whom shall I say, please?"

"Brown, please. Brown of Brown, Robinson & Co."

"Very well, Sir. Will you wait a moment?" "All right."

Punch (1900), 10 October


Bloom categorically states that “Brown, Robinson and Co” represents the “average man”. When the names were first used together they referred to young men who enjoyed a comfortable, leisured lifestyle at school and on their travels. Later, the names were employed as a generic, typical name for a commercial business.

At what stage does the expression start to encompass the ordinary bloke?

Any generalisation of the names appears to take place quite late. In “Criticism as one of the fine arts” in the Saint Pauls Magazine of 1872 we still find the older use, where this time the critics Brown, Robinson and Co are contrasted with “the public”:

It is on these very grounds that the public should only smile good-humouredly when Brown, Robinson, and Co. take to puffing each other.

Saint Pauls Magazine (1872), April p. 395

In 1875 Punch itself allies “Brown, Robinson, and Jones” with those who “in vitreous tenements […] dwell” (i.e. who live in glass houses), but given the context we should not assume that the three friends are here intended to stand for the man in the street:

Let all in vitreous tenements who dwell […]

Forbear the flinty missile to propel.

Proverbial wisdom teachers must explain

Hereafter, when Brown, Robinson, and Jones,

May in glass houses live, and yet throw stones.

Punch (1875), 17 April p. 164

In 1885 the names are applied to typical, but nondescript and clearly incompetent actors:

The pleasure of seeing a play is entirely discounted if the dialogue recalls the agony endured on one well-remembered evening when it was our fate to see it played by Messrs Smith, Brown, Jones, and Robinson, and when, to use a convenient phrase, the "execution" was perfect.

Era (1885), 14 March

The American Linden H. Morehouse introduces the characters in his Biscuits and Dried Beef. But even here, the names are applied to several inept business friends rather than to anonymous ordinary people:

Thus Messrs. Jones, Brown, Robinson and Smith, were invited. These were as many as could be seated at the table, and all of them had been away with their families for the summer. It was Monday, and the dinner hour had arrived.Linden H. Morehouse Biscuits and Dried Beef (1894) ch. 4 p. 60

By the twentieth century the old association with Punch magazine is becoming lost. As we move into the century references to Brown, Robinson and Jones are less common and almost always in some form of business context when the names are all-purpose, generic and anonymous (but not “the man in the street”). The contexts are often, in addition, American:

Competition has brought about such a state of affairs that we lose sight of the element of fair play to all our customers when we make Brown, Robinson and Jones help to cheapen Smith’s box.

Packages (1910) vol. 13 p. 56

When John Smith opens a grocery at the corner of Tenth Street and Seventh Avenue, he is under no obligation to operate it a day longer than he desires… In opening his store, he has exercised no right that does not belong in the same measure to Jones, Brown, Robinson and the rest of his fellow citizens.

Executive’s Magazine (1922), vol. 6 p. 16

The names are merged with the tradition of the anonymous “John Smith”. The evidence seems to show that when Joyce used the expression in Ulysses it had lost its original strong association with Punch magazine and was enjoying the tail-end of its popularity in a business context – especially in America. Even here it seems that it was not normally used neutrally and generically to mean “the average person”, unless in some form of commercial context. Bloom’s context is commercial, perhaps as befits an advertising agent “in possession of the pen” (in Kenner’s phrase), but “Brown, Robinson and Co” is unusually applied to the average customer and not the average entrepreneur or business person.

John Simpson


1 New Monthly Magazine and Humorist (1837) vol. 51: September pp. 84-100; October pp. 221-30; November pp. 401-15. Jerrold re-published the stories in volume 2 of his Cakes and Ale (1842; pp. 1-69).

2 Punch’s Pantomime; or, Harlequin King John and Magna Charta.By the Writers of “Punch, or the London Charivari” (1843, ed. 2), p. [2]. Another London dramatist, Nelson Lee, had written a pantomime in 1840 for the Garrick Theatre called “ Smith, Brown, Jones, & Robinson, the four naughty boys, or, Harlequin and Old Tiddyball at the bottom of the Thames”, presumably slightly closer to Jerrold’s original story.

3 Punch (1848), vol. 15 p. 103. Later that year Mayhew republished his essays as Model Men (see “The Model Waiter”, p. 19), and in 1856 as part of Wonderful People.

4 Two of numerous other books along the same lines from this period include The Tour in North Devon of Brown, Jones, Robinson and Smith (1862: Spottiswoode) and A Freshwater yarn, by William Brown, Henry Jones and John Robinson; being ye true and veracious Log of ye Boats “Fury” and “Kate”, while on an exploring expedition in ye Month of August, A.D. 1861: Done by ye Three Officers in Charge thereof, viz: - Captain William Brown, Lieut. Henry Jones, and Lieut. John Robinson (1866).

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