Nothing to sit down on – nowhere to put it

U 3.89-95:

—Uncle Richie, really...

—Sit down or by the law Harry I'll knock you down.

Walter squints vainly for a chair.

—He has nothing to sit down on, sir.

—He has nowhere to put it, you mug. Bring in our chippendale chair.

“Nowhere to put it” became something of a favourite punch-line for jokes in the second half of the nineteenth century, and Joyce alludes to one which would only just have been in place in the drawing-rooms of the period. I am grateful to Harald Beck for his suggestion that Joyce’s “nowhere to put it” might refer to a traditional joke.

There are at least three stories that utilize the punch-line. In 1851 the Mayor of Bristol gave an after-dinner speech following the annual ploughing-match organized by the Bath and West of England Society for the Advancement of Agriculture & the Arts:

He remembered an anecdote of a little girl, who, at an examination of a school, had to spell the word "chaos", and, upon being asked to define what chaos was, she replied, "a great heap of nothing, and nowhere to put it" (laughter).1

The second involves a cab-driver and his passenger (or sometimes just a passer-by):

Cabby: Hev a cab, sir? Passer-by? Awfully good of you, old man; but I’ve really nowhere to put it. Cabby growls unprintably, and the episode is closed.2

But the most popular joke is the one to which Joyce alludes. It was typically associated with “The Size of the House”, the fact that in the mid nineteenth century MPs often struggled to find an available seat in the debating chamber of the House of Commons, and this was compared to struggling to find a seat in an over-crowded train. In 1866 the Pall Mall Gazette offers its version:

"A Seat in 'The House'" […] [A member of Parliament] has got as it were a ticket for a seat in the House of Commons; but a ticket, as Mr. Darby Griffith pointed out on Monday night, is a very small thing to sit down upon. Talk of a member taking his seat! Unless he is a somewhat distinguished personage in one party or the other, he had better take a camp-stool […] The actual accommodation is barely sufficient for a very full House, so that many members might be in plight to reply [..], like the bishop in the overcrowded railway carriage, "They have plenty to sit upon, but nowhere to put it".3

The joke turns, of course, on the fact that the speaker has a perfectly adequate “seat” (posterior, backside), but nowhere adequate to sit it down upon.

Picture courtesy of Aida Yared

The Speaker of 1893 presents a variation of this parliamentary conundrum:

The Size of the House… New members who have never before entered the precincts … are astonished at nothing in the legislative palace so much as the smallness of the chamber… When they do arrive, they find themselves in the position of the late Father Tom Burke when his hostess asked him hadn’t he god a seat. (May we venture the citation? It will harm nobody.) "Haven’t you got a seat, Father Tom?" said the lady. "Bedad, I have, ma'am," said Father Tom, "but I have nowhere to put it."4

A slightly earlier explanation for the origin of this possibly apocryphal story occurs in the Fortnightly Review of 1898:

In 1856, it will be remembered, the Queen made Sir James Parke Lord Wensleydale for life. The peers resolved that the life baron could not sit among them. The question was asked in society, "What would be Lord Wensleydale’s position?" The reply of Charles Villiers or of [Sir Francis] Doyle, as the case may be, was: "Very much that of the fat lady at the crowded concert. 'I am afraid, madam,' said a gentleman, 'you have nothing to sit upon.' 'No, sir,' answered the lady, 'it is not that; but I have nowhere to put it.'"5

By now the joke had passed into popular folktale, and often lost its original parliamentary context, and begins to appear in the “comical” columns of newspapers and magazines:

Some Cycling Stories […] A certain fat man was riding a bicycle, and obscured the saddle by reason of his hugeness. A facetious friend meeting him observed, "Hullo, old man, you have nothing to sit on." "Nay," quoth he, being in no wise disconcerted, "I have plenty to sit on, but nowhere to put it."6

Retrospection. "What! Didn’t you have a seat for the Jubilee, Mac?" Mac. – "Yes, I had a seat all right, but nowhere to put it."7

The joke made it on to the London stage in the Drury Lane boxing-night pantomime The Forty Thieves of 1898:

The one joke that really made the audience laugh is when [Herbert] Campbell, in a wearisome school-scene, says: "I’ve nothing to sit on," and [Dan] Leno replies, "Yes, you have, but you’ve nowhere to put it."8

The writer adds laconically: “But we’ve heard this before somewhere.”

One further version was doing the rounds in 1904:

Nowhere to Put It – A brawny Scot, a private in a Highland regiment, was standing in a crowded tramcar in Southampton, when an old lady said:

"Have you nothing to sit on?"

"Oh, yes," replied the soldier, "I’ve plenty to sit on, but nowhere to put it."9

The allusion is hidden away in Ulysses and does not seem to have attracted the notice of commentators. But it had an extended and colourful history before Joyce’s day.

John Simpson


1 Bristol Mercury (1851), 10 May p. 4. The joke is repeated, as in the magazine Boys of England (1882), 29 December p. 256: “Fun […] No dictionary can equal the child’s definition of chaos. “It is a great pile of nothing,” she said, “and nowhere to put it.”

2 Leicester Chronicle Supplement (1985), 5 December p. 1. Repeated (for example) in the comic magazine Fun (1900) 25 December p. 207: “Cabby. – “Hev a cab, sir?” Passenger. – “Awfully good of you, old man; But I’ve really nowhere to put it.” Cabby growls unprintably, and the episode is closed.

3 Pall Mall Gazette (1866), 11 April p. 11.

4 Speaker (1893), 11 February p. 153.

5 Fortnightly Review (1898), July p. 125. The Review is here paraphrasing a passage from Sir [Sir] Henry Taylor’s Autobiography (London: Chapman, Green & Co., 1885), vol. 2 ch. 20 p. 272.

6 Hampshire Telegraph (1895), 13 July Supplement p. 11.

7 Fun (1897), 6 July p. 3.

8 Horse and Hound (1898), 1 January p. 3.

9 London Journal (1904), 24 September p. 276.

Search by keyword (within this site): Phrases Parliament Cycling Pantomime Theatre