Horace Twiss.

The public and private life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, with selections from his correspondence (Volume 2) online

. (page 61 of 65)
Online LibraryHorace TwissThe public and private life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, with selections from his correspondence (Volume 2) → online text (page 61 of 65)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

tion, complained with good ground that their advancement was un-
reasonably deferred. His postponements were probably the result of
that " cunctative" habit which he acknowledged in himself, and of
the difficulty which he found to decide, among a great body of candi-
dates, whom he might fitly select with least damage or offence to those
whom he might exclude. To some, no doubt, the delay was extremely
injurious ; because when a Chancery barrister has arrived at such a
point of eminence that he is confidently considered to be on the point
of obtaining the rank and precedence of a silk gown, which removes
him from his junior practice, those solicitors, his clients, who have
pleadings to be drawn, are apt, from an apprehension that he may not
continue his services through the suit in his junior capacity, to lay
their papers before other counsel less advanced ; and thus he loses
his old ground, without being allowed to plant his foot upon the new.
Perhaps, however, even the delay itself was hardly so mischievous
as the consequence which followed, not necessarily, indeed, but yet
very naturally from it that when, at last, the chancellor did make up
his mind to create what is called " a batch of silk gowns," he found
himself obliged, from the intermediate accumulation of claims, to
constitute so many, that a few more or less appeared hardly a matter
of moment. Among the numerous candidates thus poured in, but a
few were able to secure even business enough for a fair trial ; and the
inner bar was swamped by an influx which, if the stream had been
more gradual, might possibly have been absorbed. The fashion of
making king's counsel in great batches has, indeed, been productive
of serious evil, in all ways. It has transferred that which ought to
be the patronage of the crown to the hands of the solicitors, and,
through the competition of numbers within the bar, has tended to
divest the leading counsel of that control which they ought always to
have power as well as disposition to exercise over the tempers and
appetites of keen practitioners. It has lowered the value and cha-
racter of professional honours by the wide distribution of them. And


by forcing a premature emulation for rank, it has given a false stimu-
lus to much ability and learning, which would have worked more
safely and more usefully to the community, if left to a less sudden
development. On several of these brevets, it would probably have
been better even for the candidates themselves (to say nothing of the
general credit of the bar), that only one in three or four of them
should have been singled out on almost any principle not involving
actual injustice, than that so many should have been condemned
to obtain their requests. They have but helped to illustrate the posi-
tion of Juvenal,

nocitura toga, nocitura petuntur


The bar was considered by Lord Eldon to have partaken the ad-
vance which all other classes of society have made during the present
century : and his demeanour toward them corresponded with this
favourable opinion. Speaking, on one occasion, of Lord Chancellor
Hardwicke, 10 Ves. 342, Lord Eldon said :

"He was undoubtedly a very great lawyer; with reference to his knowledge, both
of common law and equity, perhaps much more eminent than the counsel of that day,
great as they were, are in comparison with those of the present time ; for it has fre-
quently struck me, that the discussion at the bar at that period was by no means
equal to that of the present time."

In fact, the increase of competition produced by the spread of edu-
cation, has in this, as in all other pursuits, from school and college
forward, induced a higher bidding for the prizes of life than was suffi-
cient when the rivals in each walk were less numerous and conse-
quently less anxious and less industrious. In the last century, a
little law and a grave aspect would go a great way at the bar : but in
later times, unless where there has existed a powerful connection
among solicitors to force its possessor into practice, men have seldom
owed their prosperity to any thing short of the severest toil. In the
state which the profession has now reached, the only resource of
unaided men, resolved upon success, is to compel a preference, by
paying, as the consideration for it, an amount of labour to which the
spirit or the strength of their competitors is unequal. After a while,
the arguments of such men begin to attract notice for the superior
reflection and diligence betokened in them ; until, although by slow
degrees and after many disappointments, they obtain, in the higher
descriptions of business, a lead and command which mere connection
can never bestow, and which reacts by example to elevate the gene-
ral habit of the bar, its tone, and its reputation.

That kindness to counsel, of which Mr. Farrer's letter of 9th
March, 1824, contains so pleasing an acknowledgment, was made
the subject of a public eulogium in the House of Commons, from Mr.
Brougham, who observed*

"That in the amiability of his habits, and in his courteous manner in all public
business, Lord Eldon far surpassed even- other judge, from the highest to the lowest,
that he had ever seen."

7th June, 1825.


In his earlier years, he had not been without some little of the
irritability of juvenile eagerness natural to a profession in which
competition is so active. "I remember," said he, "the case of
Deering v. the Earl of Winchilsea. I argued it, and very angry I
was with the decision ; but I lived long enough to find out that one
may be very angry and very wrong." (Buck, 556.)

Mr. Farrer gives an instance of Lord Eldori's good nature as
evinced to old Mr. Hall, a learned and uncouth barrister, who had
great practice in Chancery some five-and-thirty years ago. " One
day, in Lincoln's Inn, he was making the speech of a ' laudator tem-
poris acti,' and wound up with a querulous sort of peroration 'But
now, my lord, I find that I know no law.' ' Mr. Hall,' said Lord
Eldon, ' if you now know no law, I can say of my own knowledge
that you have forgot a great deal since I sat in those rows in which
you now sit.' Old Hall's broad face," says Mr. Farrer, " spread
wider and wider, and his eyes became full of morning dew: and,
attempting to say something in reply, he abruptly sat down without
being able to finish the sentence."

" When I was very young at the bar," adds Mr. Farrer, " a junior
barrister applied to the lord chancellor to put off some case, on the
ground that he was going the circuit. ' Is any gentleman with you ?'

said Lord Eldon. 'Mr. is my leader.' 'We shall be very

sorry to lose your assistance,' rejoined Lord Eldon, ' but we will do
the best we can in your absence.' '

Perhaps Lord Eldon's courtesy was owing, not more to the gentle-
ness of his temper, than to the vigour of his capacity. Inferior
judges, conscious of weakness, have but too often fallen into a habit
of leaning upon some eminent leader, whom they have found it safer
to indulge than to contradict; and the result has been not only very
disadvantageous to the younger practitioners, who may have hap-
pened to be opposed to the favourite, but very injurious to the
interests of justice, which are obviously quite as much damaged in
any cause by a judge's partiality to one of the counsel, as to one of
the parties. But Lord Eldon was too secure in his own strength to
slide into this vice. The junior, who had that morning put on his
gown for the first time, was sure of an equal hearing with the Romilly
or the Sugden of the time. Lord Eldon considered what, not whose,
the argument might be. Thus, observes the Law Magazine,*

"By the great majority of the bar, notwithstanding his niggardly distribution of
honours, though he even kept back some eminent and deserving lawyers from the
rank of king's counsel, to which their standing entitled them, Lord Eldon is held in
affectionate remembrance, for that mixture of suavity and firmness the mild and
kindly spirit, yet dignified address, of which Lord Chesterfield inculcated the diligent
study, but which he had by nature.


" Upon those unhappy persons, the afflicted in mind, body, or estate, who some-
times broke through the trammels of Chancery etiquette to make their grievances
known in person, his singular kindness of manner acted with the force of a spell.
However irregular the application, or however unbecomingly pertinacious the appli-
cant, Lord Eldon listened with the most patient attention, until the object was disco-
vered, and then advised with gentleness, or softened refusal by complacency."



Sir Watkins Lewes, an aged alderman of London, who, in his
youth, had been at the bar, appeared in the chancellor's court to
conduct a cause of his own, and took a very erroneous view of the
law as applicable to it. " I am afraid, Sir Watkin," said Lord
Eldon, " that either you or I must have forgotten the law of our early
days." " Your lordship may," said the old citizen ; " I have not."
The chancellor took the answer in good part, and allowed the vete-
ran to finish in peace.

Mr. Plowden, the Irish historian, addressing him once from the
bar, in a state of great excitement, permitted himself to utter some
expression implying that Lord Eldon was acting partially. " Per-
haps," said Sir Samuel Romilly, when it came to his turn to speak,
" it may be difficult wholly to gainsay that imputation ; for if justice
had been administered in strictness, the learned counsel would by this
time be halfway down to the fleet." In the instance of Mr. Plow-
den, there were extenuating circumstances of a personal nature, for
which Lord Eldon made compassionate allowance. But with all his
forbearance, says the Law Magazine,*

" He kept his court in perfect subjection. We recollect a case, which had stood so
long in the paper that every one had forgotten its circumstances. When the chan-
cellor had finished giving judgment, 'I know I was in this case,' said Mr. Heald;
' but whether judgment is for me or against me, I have not, at this distance of time,
the most remote conception.' 'I have a glimmering notion that it is for me,' an-
swered Mr. Home. Their chief instantly stopped further discussion, by desiring,
in a tone of grave rebuke, that counsel would not make him the subject of their
observations. They yielded at once to a demeanour which softened the roughness
of Bell.j- and subdued ihe despotic and domineering temper of Romilly. Though
meeting the solicitors of his court almost as equals in his private room, Lord Eldon.
would give a check to any undue familiarities. He had been chatting familiarly

with an attorney. 'You never gave me a brief, Mr. L , how was that? ' 'Yes

I did,' said the gentleman sturdily. ' Nay, nay, I am satisfied of the contrary,' re-
joined ihe chancellor, 'my recollection on such a point must be ihe better of the two.'
But when he proceeded to express an opinion adverse to the attorney's case, and the
latter exclaimed with too much bluntness, ' Your lordship is decidedly wrong; I will
have your decision reversed in the lords.' 'Perhaps, Mr. L ,' said the chan-
cellor, rising, 'you had better take that chair, and pronounce judgment there.'"

The following passage is from the life of Mr. Wilberforce : J

"One of the most remarkable things about Romilly was, that though he had such
an immense quantity of business, he always seemed an idle man. If you had not
known who and what he was, you would have said, 'he is a remarkably gentlemanlike
pleasant man : I suppose, poor fellow, he has no business;' for he would stand at the
bar of the house and chat with you, and talk over the last novel, with which he was
as well acquainted as if he had nothing else to think about. Once, indeed, I remember
coming to speak with him in court, and seeing him look fagged, and with an immense
pile of papers before him. This was at a time when Lord Eldon had been reproached
for having left business undischarged, and had declared that he would get through
all arrears by silting on till the business was done. As I went up to Romilly, old
Eldon saw me, and beckoned to me wilh as much cheerfulness and gaiety as possible.
When I was alone with Romilly, and asked him how he was, he answered, 'I am
worn to death ; here have we been sitting on in the vacation, from nine in the morning
until four, and when we leave this place I have to read through all my papers to be
ready for to-morrow morning; but the most extraordinary part of all is, that Eldon,

* No. XLll.

| Bell's roughness was only in his voice and provincial dialect. He was always
respectful to the court, and always kind to his brethren at the bar.
t Vol. v. p. 341.


who has not only mine, but all the other business to go through, is just as cheerful
and untired as ever.'"

From these various details of the judicial faculties, habits, principles,
and practice of Lord Chancellor Eldon, the reader will have been
enabled to draw his own conclusions. Those political opponents of
this eminent man, who ventured to attack him openly, were never
unwise enough whatever course may have been taken by anony-
mous assailants to damage their personal credit, by denying or
depreciating his great qualifications. They exaggerated his habits of
delay, and they charged upon him the blame of grievances with
which he had no connection ; but they never ventured to impeach his
vast ability or his deep learning any more than his high integrity.
A fair specimen of the many testimonials thus afforded, will be found
in the speech made on the 5th of June, 1823, by Mr. Abercromby,
who was then a practising counsel of the Court of Chancery, as well
as a leading member of the Whig opposition. He expresses his belief

no man could be more conscientiously inclined to give a correct judgment than Lord
Eldon: and declared himself willing to admit that the noble and learned lord was an
individual gifted with the most extraordinary acuteness of intellect that he pos-
sessed a most profound knowledge of law that he enjoyed a most astonishing me-
mory and that he was endowed with a surprisingly correct and discriminating

Such acknowledgments, and they are frequent in the debates from
1823 to 1827 take away from his defenders all necessity, nay, almost
all excuse, for indulging in the details of panegyric. He can have
no more complete and satisfactory voucher than the reluctant candour
of his adversaries.

But it is not alone upon cotemporary testimonials that his judicial
fame will rest. The usefulness of a judge does not cease with his em-
ployment: his judgments survive to succeeding times, as lights and
landmarks ; and with them his reputation endures. By such remains
the lawyers of future days will form their estimate of Lord Chancellor
Eldon. They will feel and acknowledge his power, not merely in
the quantity and variety of his labours, but in their quality and value :
in the learning with which his judgments are imbued in the patience
wherewith the collateral and incidental considerations (which, how-
ever material to the suit, so often deter or mislead inferior judges by
their perplexity) are all, in his hands, proportioned to their just
importance in the case, and brought to bear upon the general result :
nay, further, in the practical illustration which he had left for the
guidance of future chancellors, and the good of future suitors, that
the judge who combines the most profound knowledge of the law
with the most perspicacious apprehension of the facts, may afford to
exercise the most anxious caution in disposing of the rights and for-
tunes of mankind. These are the moral, the strong, and sure grounds,
on which the judicial fame of Lord Eldon will stand with the gene-
rations that are to come ; on these his monument is founded, and by
these his memory will live.



His private life was, for the most part, amiable as well as just.
The foregoing pages have shown him, as he lived, an affectionate
and dutiful son, a true and tender husband, a kind and liberal father,
and a cordial and grateful friend. He sometimes gave way to mo-
mentary impetuosity ; but he was habitually indulgent to, and pro-
portionally beloved by all around him : and the only occasions in
which he manifested any long-enduring displeasures, were when obe-
dience or attention was withheld from him by persons from whom
he considered himself entitled to such observances. Such a feeling
evinced itself rather indefensibly with respect to the two ladies of his
family who contravened his wishes in their marriage. In the case of
his son's widow, he had neither right nor reason to object at all : and
in that of his own daughter, though his title to interpose may have
been stronger than in the other instance, the degree and duration of
his estrangement were excessive, and especially unsuitable in him
who had himself been party to a like offence. But, with the excep-
tion of these instances, and of something like fractiousness toward
the period of his final decay, there is nothing to be found in his
private history which could give a pretext for censure.

He has, indeed, been accused of a narrow and unbecoming eco-
nomy ; and it is true that his style of living was deficient in the
splendour and hospitality which are expected from the Lord Chan-
cellor of England. But the defect was not in Lord Eldon himself.
His lady, in the early days of their union, when their very scanty
means made it necessary to observe a rigid parsimony, had acquired
close and retired habits, which were not expanded by the progress of
their fortunes. She had a distaste for visiting, and for most kinds of
amusement ; her sole pleasures were those of her home. Her devo-
tion to her husband continued unabated in advancing years ; and his
boundless indulgence to her left all her peculiarities unchecked.
The wicked wits of the law used to satirize their housekeeping ; and
even the stern Romilly had his jest, which he put into a professional
form. At a time when there was great complaint of delay in the
chancellor's court, Sir Thomas Plumef, the master of the rolls, gave
a series of dinners. " Very right," said Romilly ; " he is clearing
away the chancellor's arrears." This close principle of administra-
tion, however, had no place beyond the affairs of the household.
The management of Lord Eldon's estates, both in Durham and in
Dorsetshire, was regulated by himself, and conducted on an ample
and liberal scale with reference to the tenantry and to the poor ; and
his domestic arrangements, too, from the period of his lady's death,
were such as befited his great fortune and high station.

At all seasons of his life, after he had once attained a competence,
his private bounties were large and frequent. The applications to him
for pecuniary assistance were, as always happens to eminent men, a
great deal more numerous than it was reasonable, or indeed possible,
that he should grant. " I have received letters from strangers," says


he, in his Anecdote Book, " asking relief upon every possible ground.
One man, from a prison, candidly stated that he had behaved so
excessively ill, that nobody, who knew him, and none of his rela-
tions, would assist him; and therefore he hoped that I would."
When the case was one which he considered as raising no claim upon
his benevolence, he would answer decidedly, but very kindly. The
following is one of his letters of refusal :

" SIR,

"It is painful to return an unfavourable answer to your last letter. I cannot, how-
ever, consistently wilh what are my duties to many, many other persons, who have
very strong claims upon me, and more than I can satisfy as I ought, lead you to
expect that I can comply with what I understand is proposed by your letter.

" I am, sir, your obedient servant,


The late Mr. Pensam, who was for many years his secretary of
bankrupts, often acted as his almoner. The following is the general
account which that gentleman gave of his deceased patron's unos-
tentatious and substantial charity, in a paper written for the informa-
tion of the present earl.

" The Earl of Eldon contributed by donation, to many of the
eleemosynary and other public institutions not to the annual collec-
tions. His private donations were of considerable amount in some
instances, often and long repeated to the same object particularly to
the decayed of the legal profession and clergy ; but not, to my
knowledge, in any case placing himself at the head of a list of sub-
scriptions, or permitting his name to be entered into any such, or
ever inquiring what others contributed. He expressed his unwilling-
ness to be the guide to, or to influence others ; nor was he regulated
or influenced by what others did. Neither in these transactions, nor
in any of the acts of his life, did he seek publicity, show, popularity,
or ostentation. In more than forty years' means of observation, it
never occurred, that the consideration of expense was, in a single
instance, suffered to impede the attainment of any object, or the
adoption of any measure, that could be reasonably deemed useful in
the probable results."

Liberality, as he himself had occasion, in the construction of a will,
judicially to declare,* may evince itself in more ways than those com-
monly called charitable. Mr. Pensam relates, in a letter to the present
earl, that independently of private benevolence, and donations to
public institutions, and exclusively of the contribution of 2,500/. per
annum to the vice-chancellor's salary, under the statute introduced
with his concurrence for the constitution of such an officer, there were
sums voluntarily given or remitted by Lord Eldon out of his judicial
income, on official and public accounts, amounting, in the course of his
chancellorship, to nearly 30,000/.f One branch of them is related by
Mr. Pensam to have originated thus : " The emoluments of the per-
sons employed in the Bankrupt Office consisted partly of fees, author-

* Morice r. Bishop of Durham, 10 Ves. 541, 2, 3.
See letter of March 13th, 1832.


ized, before Lord Eldon's time, to be taken by them when called upon
to transact business on any of the holidays which had been usually,
till that time, kept at the bank and other public offices, and immemo-
rially at the Bankrupt Office. Lord Eldon ordered, in the first place,
that no holiday should be kept, except Christmas day and Good Fri-
day, and the former hours of business daily be extended ; and strictly
that no gratuities or perquisites of any kind, or on any account, for
accommodation, or otherwise, should be taken or accepted. But as
it might be considered reasonable that the former salaries of the per-
sons so employed should be increased to such an amount as to be
sufficient remuneration for their respective situations and services and
the degree of trust with which they were to be severally charged, his
lordship directed that such salaries should be fixed, and increased to
the most liberal amount that could be suggested as consistent with
propriety, and at his expense; and as a fund for that purpose, he di-
rected a portion of those fees to be applied, which, for as long a period
as could be traced, had been accounted for to former chancellors, and
considered a material part of their official emoluments."

An anecdote is current of his having purchased the library of an
eminent lawyer then in difficulties, and returned it entire as a present
to the owner; but this particular example was denied by Mr. Pensam.

Mr. Belt, a gentleman of the Chancery bar, happened to mention,
in Lord Eldon's hearing, that he had prepared, with great labour,
some Notes, on the Reports of the Elder Vesey. " You should publish
them," said the chancellor. "My lord," replied Mr. Belt, " I have
offered them to the booksellers ; but they will not take the risk of the
printing, and I cannot afford it myself." " The notes ought not to be
lost," rejoined Lord Eldon: "let me know what the printing would
cost." On learning the probable expense, which was estimated at
200/., Lord Eldon sent Mr. Belt a check for that amount. The work
was successful ; and when it had repaid its expenses, Mr. Belt came
to Lord Eldon, and proposed to repay him the 200/. "No, no! Mr.
Belt," said the chancellor: "I wish to have the pleasure of making
your work a present to the profession."*

Another instance of Lord Eldon's liberality was related in the Times
of the 18th of Jan., 1838, within a week after his death. One day,

Online LibraryHorace TwissThe public and private life of Lord Chancellor Eldon, with selections from his correspondence (Volume 2) → online text (page 61 of 65)