Darling went to work at a firm of solicitors in Birmingham. According to his biographer, Neville Laski: "Transferring to the bar, he was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1872, where he read in the chambers of John Welch.... His career at the bar was not particularly noteworthy but he took silk in 1885."
In 1885 Darling married Mary Greathed, the daughter of Major-General William Wilberforce Harris Greathed. The couple had one son and two daughters. Darling also worked in journalism contributed to The St James's Gazette, The Pall Mall Gazette and The Saturday Review.
Darling, a member of the Conservative Party, contested South Hackney in December 1885 and in July 1886. He was eventually successful at a by-election in February 1888 for Deptford. He mainly spoke on legal matters in the House of Commons.
In 1897 rumours began to circulate that Darling was going to be "raised to the bench". The Times reported that he was a man of "acute intellect and considerable literary power", but that he had given "no sign of legal eminence … if he is raised to the Bench, it will be on political grounds". Two days later, Darling was appointed to the Queen's Bench Division. This decision caused great controversy. The Solicitors' Journal complained that the "way to the High Court bench is once more shown to be through contested elections and general service as a political hack". He was defended by the editor of The Law Journal who wrote: "He (Darling) will prove a far better judge than some of his critics believe."
Darling presided over the cases of Stinie Morrison and Horatio Bottomley. He also dealt with the Hawley Crippen (1910) and Roger Casement (1916) appeals. According to Neville Laski: "It may be said in his favour that his summing-up in criminal cases and his judgments in the court of criminal appeal were on the whole excellent, his judgments being particularly characterized by close reasoning and admirable English.... Unfortunately, in charges of less gravity he often allowed himself to behave with a levity quite unsuited to the trial of a criminal case, thinking erroneously that he could thereby induce the jury to bring in the right verdict by an eventual careful and accurate summing-up. In fact he had frequently lost the respect of the jury to such an extent that they ignored or paid little attention to the judge."
On 16th February, 1918, the front page of The Vigilante, a newspaper owned by Noel Pemberton Billing, had a headline, "The Cult of the Clitoris". This was followed by the paragraph: "To be a member of Maud Allan's private performances in Oscar Wilde's Salome one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9 Duke Street, Adelphi, W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of those members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000."
As soon as Maud Allan became aware of the article she put the matter into the hands of her solicitor. In March 1918, Allan commenced criminal proceedings for obscene, criminal and defamatory libel. During this period Billing was approached by Charles Repington, the military correspondent of The Times. He was concerned about the decision by David Lloyd George to begin peace negotiations with the German foreign minister. According to James Hayward, the author of Myths and Legends of the First World War (2002): "Talk of peace outraged the Generals, who found allies in the British far right. Repington suggested that Billing get his trial postponed and use the mythical Black Book to smear senior politicians and inflame anti-alien feeling in the Commons. By this logic, the current peace talks would be ruined and Lloyd George's authority undermined."
Toni Bentley has argued in her book, Sisters of Salome (2002) that the government hired Eileen Villiers-Stuart to compromise Billing: "Lloyd George and his advisers hired a young woman with some experience in political subterfuge, as an agent-provocateur. She was to offer Pemberton-Billing her support, information, and sexual favours if necessary, and then lure him to a male brothel to be secretly photographed for blackmail. Eileen Villiers-Stuart was a political adventuress primed for the job. She was an attractive, twenty-five-year-old bigamist, and her lunch with the Independent M.P. was all too successful. By the end of the afternoon, mesmerized by him, she flipped her allegiance, slept with him, and divulged the Liberals' conspiracy to blackmail him. She even agreed to testify as a star witness in her new lover's libel case."
This view is supported by Michael Kettle, the author of Salome's Last Veil : The Libel Case of the Century (1977): "Eileen, though previously mistress to Asquith's former Chief Whip, was not acting for the Liberal Party machine (still run by Asquith), but for Lloyd George and Conservative Central Office - in fact, for the Coalition Government. Tory Central Office, it is known, hated Billing; and both Bonar Law, leader of the Tory party, and Lloyd George were later to be closely involved in secret machinations for Billing's final downfall - which was rather different than the one originally planned for him."
The libel case opened at the Old Bailey in May, 1918. The prosecution was led by Ellis Hume-Williams and Travers Humphreys and the case was heard in front of Chief Justice Charles Darling. Billing chose to conduct his own defence, in order to provide the opportunity to make the case against the government and the so-called Unseen Hand group.
Billing's first witness was Eileen Villiers-Stuart. She explained that she had been shown the Black Book by two politicians since killed in action in the First World War. As Christopher Andrew has pointed out in Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (1985): "Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers-Stuart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception." During the cross-examination Villiers-Stuart claimed that the names of Herbert Asquith, Margot Asquith and Richard Haldane were in the Black Book. Darling now ordered her to leave the witness-box. She retaliated by saying that Darling's name was also in the book.
The next witness was Harold S. Spencer. He claimed that he had seen the Black Book while looking through the private papers of Prince William of Wied of Albania in 1914. Spencer claimed that Alice Keppel, the mistress of Edward VII, was a member of the Unseen Hand and has visited Holland as a go-between in supposed peace talks with Germany.
The prosecuting counsel, Travers Humphreys, asked Spencer what he meant when he said during cross-examination that "Maud Allan was administering the cult.... Will you tell the court exactly what you meant by that?" He replied: "Any performance of a play which has been described by competent critics as an essay in lust, madness and sadism, and is given and attracts people to it at from five guineas to ten guineas a seat, must bring people who have more money than brains; must bring people who are seeking unusual excitement, erotic excitement; and to gather these people together in a room, under the auspices of a naturalised alien (Jack Grein), would open these people to possible German blackmail, and that their names, or anything that transpires, might find their way into German hands, and these people would be blackmailed by the Germans; and it was to prevent this that the article was written."
Spencer then went onto to explain what he meant by the "Cult of the Clitoris". In reply to Travers Humphreys: "In order to show that a cult exists in this country who would gather together to witness a lewd performance for amusement during wartime on the Sabbath... The Cult of the Clitoris meant a cult that would gather together to see a representation of a diseased mad girl." Billing joined in the attack on Maud Allan: "Such a play.... is one that is calculated to deprave, one that is calculated to do more harm, not only to young men and young women, but to all who see it, by undermining them, even more than the German army itself."
On 4th June, 1918, Noel Pemberton Billing was acquitted of all charges. As James Hayward has pointed out: "Hardly ever had a verdict been received in the Central Criminal Court with such unequivocal public approval. The crowd in the gallery sprang to their feet and cheered, as women waved their handkerchiefs and men their hats. On leaving the court in company with Eileen Villiers-Stewart and his wife, Billing received a second thunderous ovation from the crowd outside, where his path was strewn with flowers."
Cynthia Asquith wrote in her diary: "One can't imagine a more undignified paragraph in English history: at this juncture, that three-quarters of The Times should be taken up with such a farrago of nonsense! It is monstrous that these maniacs should be vindicated in the eyes of the public... Papa came in and announced that the monster maniac Billing had won his case. Damn him! It is such an awful triumph for the unreasonable, such a tonic to the microbe of suspicion which is spreading through the country, and such a stab in the back to people unprotected from such attacks owing to their best and not their worst points." Basil Thomson, who was head of Special Branch, an in a position to know that Eileen Villiers-Stuart and Harold S. Spencer had lied in court, wrote in his diary, "Every-one concerned appeared to have been either insane or to have behaved as if he were."
Noel Pemberton Billing retained his seat at the 1918 General Election but with the end of the First World War he was seen as an irrelevance. His reputation was severely damaged when Eileen Villiers-Stuart admitted that the evidence she had given in the Maud Allan trial was entirely fictitious, and that she had rehearsed it with Billing and Harold S. Spencer. Knowing that he faced defeat in the next election he retired in 1921 claiming he was too ill to continue.
Miss Allan and her producer, Mr J. T. Grein, took offence and brought an action for criminal libel. The case opened on 29 May 1918 at the Old Bailey before Acting Lord Chief Justice Darling, whose own suspicions of Germany bordered on paranoia. The prosecution was led by Mr (later Sir Ellis) Hume-Williams KC, assisted by Mr (later Mr Justice) Travers Humphreys and Mr Valetta. Pemberton Billing conducted his own defence alone, but had the support of enthusiastic crowds outside the court, a crowded gallery, and a remarkable series of witnesses who spoke with feeling on either sexual perversion or German espionage or both. His first witness was Mrs Eileen Villiers Stuart, an attractive young woman who, a few months later, was to be sent to prison in the same court for bigamy. Mrs Villiers Stuart explained that she had been shown the Black Book of the German Secret Service by two politicians since killed in action. Though evidence is not normally allowed in court about the contents of documents which cannot be produced, exceptions may be made in the case of documents withheld by foreign enemies. Mrs Villiers Stuart explained that the Black Book was just such an exception. Her life, she added, had recently been threatened in connection with the case. When Mr Justice Darling intervened at this point to reprove the defendant for his line of questioning, Pemberton Billing moved quickly and dramatically to the counter-attack.
"Is Mr Justice Darling's name in that book?" he asked the witness.
"It is," replied Mrs Villiers Stuart, "and that book can be produced."
Darling was understandably bemused. "It can be produced?" he queried.
"It can be produced," declared the witness. "It will have to be produced from Germany, it can be and it shall be. Mr Justice Darling, we have got to win this war, and while you sit there we will never win it. My men are fighting, other people's men are fighting."
The dramatic quality of Pemberton Billing's cross-examination was well sustained. "Is Mrs Asquith's name in the book?" he asked the witness.
"It is in the book."
"Is Mr Asquith's name in the book?"
"Is Lord Haldane's name in the book?" "It is in the book."
Darling had had enough. "Leave the box," he told the witness.
"You daren't hear me!" shouted Mrs Villiers Stuart.
To his later regret Darling relented and allowed Pemberton Billing to continue his bizarre cross-examination. Before long, however, he found himself assailed by both defendant and witness and brought the cross-examination to a close.
The next witness was a Captain Spencer who claimed to have been shown the Black Book by a German prince and gave some further details of its contents. During cross-examination Mr Hume-Williams KC enquired as to his mental stability. Captain Spencer retaliated by asking whether Mr Hume-Williams was working for the Germans. He was followed into the witness box by a doctor, a surgeon, a literary critic and a cleric who testified to the depravity of Salome. Then came Pemberton Billing's star witness, Oscar Wilde's disaffected former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who complained of being "bullied and brow-beaten" by both Darling and Hume-Williams.
The final witness was Mrs Villiers Stuart, whose second appearance was as sensational as her first. "Did you take any steps," asked Pemberton Billing, "to put this knowledge (of the German Black Book) before any public person in this country?"
"Was he a prominent public man?"
"You may ask his name," Darling told Pemberton Billing.
"Mr Hume-Williams!" replied Mrs Villiers Stuart, pointing dramatically at the leading counsel for the prosecution. After cross-examination by Hume-Williams' colleague, Travers Humphreys, Pemberton Billing began a re-examination. Uproar followed. Hume-Williams called Pemberton Billing a liar. Pemberton Billing threatened to thrash Hume-Williams.
In his final address Pemberton Billing won the hearts of the jury by denouncing the "mysterious influence which seems to prevent a Britisher getting a square deal". Hume-Williams made a less successful defence of Darling's reputation. "It has recently pleased the King", he reminded the jury, "to make him a member of the Privy Council." "I wish you would not allude to that", said Darling, "because privy counsellors are particularly mentioned among the 47,000."
In the course of his summing-up Darling lost most of what control he still exercised over the proceedings. Lord Alfred Douglas intervened to call him "a damned liar", stormed out of the court, and then returned to ask if he might collect his hat. A series of spectators were ejected and Darling finished his address amid scenes of chaotic farce. The jury returned after an hour and a half to find Pemberton Billing not guilty. Tumultuous cheering filled the court and was echoed by the enormous throng outside. Pemberton Billing emerged to a hero's welcome. The case remains mercifully unique in the history of the British courts.
After a bickering match with the judge, Billing sprang his first mine by shouting at Mrs Villiers-Stuart, "Is Mr Justice Darling's name in the book?" and the witness replied, "It is." Three similar questions elicited that the names of Asquith, his wife and Haldane were in its pages. Captain Spencer also named a famous name; referring to supposed peace talks with Germany, he said that Mrs George Keppel, one-time mistress of Edward VII, had visited Holland as a go-between. The allegation was flatly denied by Mrs Keppel, but she was not allowed to make her rebuttal in court. Billing's defiance of the judge was flagitious; after evidence about a homosexual brothel in London he shouted, "It will take more than you to protect these people, my Lord." Among witnesses who made fools of themselves was the fashionable priest, Father Bernard Vaughan, who knew not the first thing about the laws of evidence and shook Billing by the hand as he left the box; and Dr John Clarke, who said the play Salome should be stored in a museum of sexual pathology and "even then it might corrupt medical students". Throughout the hearing the gallery were on Billing's side, accepting him on his own valuation as the only man who dared to bring the country's secret enemies into the open. They also enjoyed the way he made the law look silly and spoiled the judge's jokes. (These were, in any event, lamentable. When a witness spoke of someone "talking the language of sodomy", the judge said, "I suppose you found it interesting, as the language of Sodom was a dead language, to find it being talked.")
If Billing was a tool in a generals' plot to unseat Lloyd George and to foul any chances of peace (as Michael Kettle argues), the secret was well kept. For six days the court was in a state of hysteria, with more neurotic balderdash talked to the reported inch than seems conceivable. During those six days a ferocious drive by the Germans on Paris was held and blunted by the British Army; what nobody knew then was that this German failure presaged the end of the war. On the sixth day the judge, having allowed any number of questions about the Black Book, said in his summing up that it had nothing to do with the case. The jury returned a verdict for Billing, sparking off chaotic jubilation in court.