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sphere which, like pure mathematics, is far
removed from the comprehension of ordinary
educated men, is sure, in a time like ours, to
become well known to the world and acquire
influence in it. A great advocate practising in
the Common-law Courts is, of course, still more
certain to become a familiar figure. But the cases
which are dealt with by the Courts of Equity,
though they often involve vast sums of money
and raise intricate and important points of
law, mostly turn on questions of a technical
kind, and are seldom what the newspapers call
sensational. Thus it may happen that a practi-
tioner or a judge in these Courts enjoys an


Sir George Jessel 171

extraordinary reputation within his profession,
and is by them regarded as one of the ornaments
of his time, while the rest of his fellow-countrymen
know nothing at all about his merits.

This was the case with Sir George Jessel,
though towards the end of his career the admira-
tion which the Bar felt for his powers began so
far to filter through to the general public that
his premature death was felt to be a national

Jessel (born in 1824, died in 1883) was only
one among many instances England has lately
seen of men of Jewish origin climbing to the
highest distinction. But he was the first instance
of a Jew who, continuing to adhere to the creed of
his forefathers, received a very high office ; for Mr.
Disraeli, as every one knows, had been baptized
as a boy, and always professed to be a Christian,
Jessel's career was not marked by any remarkable
incidents. He soon obtained practice at the bar,
and after a time began to rise quickly. His
powers were still more fully seen and appreciated
when he became (in 1865) a Queen's Counsel,
and brought him with unusual speed to the front
rank. He came into Parliament at the general
election of 1868 on the Liberal side, and three
years later was made Solicitor-General in Mr.
Gladstone's first Government, retaining, as was
then usual, his private practice, which had be-
come so large that there was scarcely any case of

172 Biographical Studies

first-rate importance brought into the Chancery-
Courts in which he did not appear. Although
a decided Liberal, as the Jews mostly were
until Lord Beaconsfield's foreign policy had
begun to lead them into other paths, he had
borne little part in politics till he took his
seat in the House of Commons ; and when
he spoke there, he obtained no great success.
Lawyers in the English Parliament are under
the double disadvantage of having had less leisure
than most other members to study and follow
political questions, and of having contracted a
manner and style of speaking not suited to an
assembly which, though deliberative, is not de-
liberate, and which listens with impatience to a
technical or forensic methcd of treating the topics
which come before it.

Jessel's ability would have soon overcome
the former difficulty, but less easily the latter.
Though he was lucid and powerful in his treat-
ment of legal topics, and made a quite admirable
law officer in the way of advising ministers and
the public departments, he was never popular
with the House of Commons, for he presented
his views in a hard, dry, dogmatic form, with no
graces of style or delivery. However, he did
not long remain in that arena, but on the retire-
ment of Lord Romilly from the office of Master
of the Rolls, was in 1873 appointed to succeed him.
In this post his extraordinary gifts found their

Sir George Jessel 173

amplest sphere. The equity judges in England
had theretofore always sat, and now practically
always sit, without a jury to hear causes, with or
without witnesses, and they despatch a great deal
of the heaviest business that is brought into the
courts. Commercial causes of the first importance
come before them, no less than those which relate
to trusts or to real property ; and the granting of
injunctions, a specially serious matter, rests chierty
in their hands. Each equity judge sits alone, and
the suitor could in those days choose before which
of them he would bring his case. Among the
four a number subsequently increased to six
equity judges of first instance, Jessel immediately
rose to the highest reputation, so that most of the
heavy and difficult cases were brought into his
court. He possessed a wonderfully quick, as well
as powerful, mind, which got to the kernel of a
matter while other people were still hammering
at the shell, and which applied legal principles
just as swiftly and surely as it mastered a group
of complicated facts.

The Rolls Court used to present, while he
presided over it, a curious and interesting sight,
which led young counsel, who had no business
to do there, to frequent it for the mere sake of
watching the Judge. When the leading counsel
for the plaintiff was opening his case, Jessel
listened quietly for the first few minutes only,
and then began to address questions to the

174 Biographical Studies

counsel, at first so as to guide his remarks in a
particular direction, then so as to stop his course
altogether and turn his speech into a series of
answers to the Judge's interrogatories. When,
by a short dialogue of this kind, Jessel had
possessed himself of the vital facts, he would
turn to the leading counsel for the defendant
and ask him whether he admitted such and such
facts alleged by the plaintiff to be true. If these
facts were admitted, the Judge proceeded to
indicate the view he was disposed to take of the
law applicable to the facts, and, by a few more
questions to the counsel on the one side or the
other, as the case might be, elicited their re-
spective legal grounds of contention. If the facts
were not admitted, it of course became neces-
sary to call the witnesses or read the affidavits,
processes which the vigorous impatience of
the Judge considerably shortened, for it was a
dangerous thing to read to him any irrelevant
or loosely-drawn paragraph. But more generally
his searching questions and the sort of pressure
he applied so cut down the issues of fact that
there was little or nothing left in controversy
regarding which it was necessary to examine the
evidence in detail, since the counsel felt that
there was no use in putting before him a conten-
tion which they could not sustain under the fire
of his criticism. Then Jessel proceeded to deliver
his opinion and dispose of the case. The affair

Sir George Jessel 175

was from beginning to end far less an argument
and counter-argument by counsel than an in-
vestigation directly conducted by the Judge him-
self, in which the principal function of the counsel
was to answer the Judge's questions concisely
and exactly, so that the latter might as soon as
possible get to the bottom of the matter. The
Bar in a little while came to learn and adapt
themselves to his ways, and few complained of
being stopped or interrupted by him, because
his interruptions, unlike those of some judges,
were neither inopportune nor superfluous. The
counsel (with scarcely an exception) felt them-
selves his inferiors, and recognised not only that
he was better able to handle the case than they
were, but that the manner and style in which they
presented their facts or arguments would make
little difference to the result, because his penetra-
tion was sure to discover the merits of each con-
tention, and neither eloquence nor pertinacity
would have the slightest effect on his resolute
and self-confident mind. Thus business w^as
despatched before him with unexampled speed,
and it became a maxim among barristers that,
however low down in the cause -list at the
Rolls your cause might stand, it was never
safe to be away from the court, so rapidly
were cases "crumpled up" or "broken down'
under the blows of this vigorous intellect.
It was more surprising that the suitors, as well

176 Biographical Studies

as the Bar and the pubHc generally, acquiesced,
after the first few months, in this way of
doing business. Nothing breeds more dis-
content than haste and heedlessness in a judge.
But Jessel's speed was not haste. He did as
much justice in a day as others could do in a
week ; and those few who, dissatisfied with these
rapid methods, tried to reverse his decisions before
the Court of Appeal, were very seldom successful,
although that court then contained in Lord Justice
James and Lord Justice Mellish two unusually
strong men, who would not have hesitated to
differ even from the redoubtable Master of the

As I have mentioned Lord Justice Mellish, I
may turn aside for a moment to say a word re-
garding that extraordinary man, who stood along
with Cairns and Roundell Palmer in the fore-
most rank of Jessel's professional contemporaries.
Mellish held for some years before his elevation
to the Bench in 1869 a position unique at the
English Common-law Bar as a giver of opinions
on points of law. As the Israelites in King
David's day said of Ahithophel that his counsel
was as if a man had inquired at the oracle of
God,^ so the legal profession deemed Mellish
practically infallible, and held an opinion signed
by him to be equal in weight to a judgment of
the Court of Exchequer Chamber (the then court

' 2 Sam. xvi. 23.

Sir George Jessel 177

of appeal in common-law cases). He was not
effective as an advocate addressing a jury, being
indeed far too good for any jury; but in arguing
a point of law his unerring logic, the lucidity
with which he stated his position, the cogency
and precision with which he drew his inferences,
made it a delight to listen to him. The chain of
ratiocination seemed irrefragable :

ev 8' WiT ciKjiod^TM fxeyav aKjj.ova, k6~T 8e Secrfiov^
dpprjKTov^ aAvTous, 6(jip efxeSov avdi fievouv.^

He had, indeed, but one fault as an arguer.
He could not argue a point whose soundness he
doubted as effectively as one in which he had
faith ; and when it befell that several points arose
in a case, and the Court seemed disposed to lay
more stress on the one for which he cared little
than on the one he deemed conclusive, he refused
to fall in with their view and continued to insist
upon that which his own mind approved.

I remember to have once heard him and
Cairns argue before the House of Lords (sitting
as the final Court of Appeal) a case relating
to a vessel called the Alexand^'a it was a case
arising out of an attempt of the Contederates,
during the American War of Secession, to get
out of a British port a cruiser they had ordered.

1 Odyss. viii. 274: "And upon the anvil-stand he set tb.e niii^luy
anvil ; and he forged the links that could be neither broken nor loosed, so
that they should stay firm in their place. '"


lyS Biographical Studies

Cairns spoke first with all his usual power, and
seemed to have left nothing to be added. But
when Mellish followed on the same side, he set
his points in so strong a light, and placed his
contention on so solid a basis, that even Cairns's
speech was forgotten, and it seemed impossible
that any answer could be found to Mellish's
arguments. One felt as if the voice of pure
reason were speaking th'-ough his lips.

Such an intellect might seem admirably quali-
fied for judicial work. But as a judge, Mellish,
admirable though he was in temper, in fairness,
in learning, and in logic, did not win so exceptional
a reputation as he had won at the Bar. People used
to ascribe this partly to his weak health, partly
to the fact that he, who had been a common-law
practitioner, was sitting in a court which heard
equity appeals, and alongside of a quick and
strong colleague reared in the equity courts.^
But something may have been due to the fact
that he needed the stimulus of conflict to brinpf
out the full force of his splendid intelligence.
A circumstance attending the appointment of
Mellish illustrates the remark already made
that a great counsel whose work lies apart
from so-called "sensation cases" may remain

^ I^ord Justice James said of his colleague that he had only one
defect as a judge : "lie was too anxious to convince counsel that they
were wrong, when he thought their coniention unsound, seeming to
forget that counsel are paid not to be convinced."

Sir George Jessel 179

unknown to his contemporaries. Wlien Mr.
Gladstone, being then Prime Minister, and
having to select a Lord Justice of Appeal,
was told that Mellish was the fittest man for
the post, he asked, "Can that be the boy
who was my fag at Eton?" He had not
heard of Mellish during the intervening forty
years !

However, I return to the Master of the Rolls.
In dealing with facts, Jessel has never had a
superior, and in our days, perhaps, no rival. He
knew all the ways of the financial and commercial
world. In his treatment of points of law, every
one admitted and admired both an extraordinary
knowledge and mastery of reported cases, and
an extremely acute and exact appreciation of
principles, a complete power of extracting them
from past cases and fitting them to the case in
hand. He had a memory which forgot nothing, and
which, indeed, wearied him by refusing to forget
trivial things. When he delivered an elaborate
judgment it was his delight to run through a long
series of cases, classifying and distinguishing
them. His strength made him bold ; he went
further than most judges in readiness to carry
a principle somewhat beyond any decided case,
and to overrule an authority which he did not
respect. The fault charged on him was his
tendency, perhaps characteristic of the liebrew
mind, to take a somewhat hard and dry view

i8o Biographical Studies

of a legal principle, overlooking its more deli-
cate shades, and, in the interpretation of
statutes or documents, to adhere too strictly to
the letter, overlooking the spirit. An eminent
lawyer said, "'If all judges had been like
Jessel, there might have been no equity." In
that respect many deemed him inferior to
Lord Cairns, the greatest judge among his con-
temporaries, who united to an almost equally
wide and accurate knowledge of the law a grasp
of principles possibly more broad and philo-
sophical than Jessel's was. Be this as it may,
the judgments of the Master of the Rolls, which
fill so many pages of the recent English Law
Reports, are among the best that have ever gone
to build up the fabric of the English law. Except
on two occasions, when he reserved judgment
at the request of his colleagues in the Court
of Appeal, they were delivered on the spur of
the moment, after the conclusion of the aru-
ments, or of so much of the arguments as he
allowed counsel to deliver ; but they have the
merits of carefully-considered utterances, so clear
and direct is their style, so concisely as well as
cogently are the authorities discussed and the
grounds of decision stated. The bold and sweep-
ing character which often belongs to them makes
them more instructive as well as more agreeable
reading than the judgments of most modern
judges, whose commonest fault is a timidity

Sir George Jessel i8i

which tries to escape, by dwelling on the de-
tails of the particular case, from the enunciation
of a definite general principle. Positive and
definite Jessel always was. As he put it him-
self: " I may be wrong, but I never have any

At the Bar, Jessel had been far from popular ;
for his manners were unpolished, and his conduct
towards other counsel overbearing. On the
Bench he improved, and became liked as well as
respected. There was a sort of rough bonhomie
about him, and though he could be disagreeable
on occasions to a leading counsel, especially if
brought from the commxon-law bar into his court,
he showed a good-humoured wish to deal gently
with young or inexperienced barristers. There
was also an obvious anxiety to do justice, an
impatience of mere technicalities, and a readiness,
remarkable in so strong-willed a man, to hear
what could be said against his own opinion, and to
reconsider it. Besides, a profession is naturally
proud of any one whose talents adorn it, and
whose eminence seems to be communicated to
the whole body.

Ever since, under the Plantagenet kings, the
Chancery became a law court, the office of Master
of the Rolls had been that of a judge of first
instance. In 1881 its character was changed,
and its occupant placed at the head of the
Court of Appeal. Thus it was as an appellate

1 82 Biographical Studies

judge that Jessel latterly sat, giving no less
satisfaction in that capacity than in his former
one, and being indeed confessedly the strongest
judicial intellect (except Lord Cairns) on the
Bench. Outside his professional duties, his chief
interest was in the University of London, at
which he had himself graduated. He was a
member of its senate, and busied himself with its
examinations, being up till the last excessively
fond of work, and finding that of a judge who
sits for five or six hours daily insufficient to
satisfy his appetite. He was not what would
be called a highly cultivated man, although he
knew a great deal beyond the field of law,
mathematics, for instance, and Hebrew literature
and botany, for he had been brought up in
a not very refined circle, and had been absorbed
in legal work during the best years of his life.
But his was an intelligence of extraordinary power
and flexibility, eminently practical, as the Semitic
intellect generally is, and yet thoroughly scientific.
And he was also one of those strong natures who
make themselves disliked while they are fighting
their way to the top, but grow more genial and
more tolerant when they have won what they
sought, and perceive that others admit their pre-
eminence. The services which he rendered as a
judge illustrate not only the advantage of throw-
ing open all places to all comers the bigotry of
an elder day excluded the Jews from judicial office

Sir George Jessel 183

altogether but also the benefit of having a judge
at least equal in ability to the best of those who
practise before him. It was because Jessel was
so easily master in his court that so large and
important a part of the judicial business of the
country was, during many years, despatched with
a swiftness and a success seldom equalled in the
annals of the English Courts.


Hugh M'Calmont Cairns, afterwards Earl
Cairns (born 1819, died 1885), was one of three
remarkable Scoto- Irishmen whom the north-east
corner of Ulster gave to the United Kingdom
in one generation, and each of whom was fore-
most in the career he entered. Lord Lawrence
was the strongest of Indian or Colonial adminis-
trators, and did more than any other man to
save India for England in the crisis of the great
Mutiny of 1857. Lord Kelvin has been, since the
death of Charles Darwin, the first among British
men of science. Lord Cairns was unquestionably
the greatest judge of the Victorian epoch, perhaps
of the nineteenth century.^ His name and family
were of Scottish origin, but he combined with the
shrewd sense and grim persistency of Scotland
some measure of the keen partisanship which
marks the Irish Orangeman, Born an Episco-

^ No biography of Lord Cairns has (so far as I know) appeared a
singular fact, considering the brilliancy of his career, and considering the
tendency which now prevails to bestow this kind of honour on many
persons of the second or even the third rank. One reason may be that
Cairns, great though he was, never won personal popularity even with his
own political party or among his contemporaries at the bar, and was to the
general public no more than a famous name,


Lord Chancellor Cairns 185

palian, he grew up a Tory in politics, an earnest
Low-Church Evangelical in religion ; nor did his
opinions in either respect ever seem to alter
during his long life. His great abilities were
perceived both at school (he was educated at
the Academy in Belfast) and at college (Trinity
College, Dublin), and so much impressed the
counsel in whose chambers he studied for a
year in London, that he strongly dissuaded the
young man from returning to Dublin to practise
at the Irish bar, promising him a brilliant career
on the wider theatre of England. The prediction
was verified by the rapidity with which Cairns,
who had, no doubt, the advantage of influential
connections in the City of London, rose into
note. He obtained (as a Conservative) a seat
in Parliament for his native town of Belfast
when only thirty -three years of age, and was
appointed Solicitor- General to Lord Derby's
second Ministry six years later a post which
few eminent lawyers have reached before fifty.
In the House of Commons, though at first
somewhat dififident and nervous, he soon proved
himself a powerful as well as ready speaker, and
would doubtless have remained in an assembly
where he was renderincj such valuable services
to his party but for the weakness of his lungs
and throat, which had threatened his life since
boyhood. He therefore accepted, in 1867, the
office of Lord Justice of Appeal, with a seat in

1 86 Biographical Studies

the House of Lords, and next year was made
Lord Chancellor by Mr. Disraeli, then Prime
Minister, who dismissed Lord Chelmsford, then
Chancellor, in order to have the benefit of Cairns's
help as a colleague. Disraeli subsequently caused
him to be raised to an earldom.

After Lord Derby's death. Cairns led the
Tory party in the House of Lords for a time
(replacing the Duke of Richmond when the latter
quitted the leadership), but his very pronounced
Low-Church proclivities, coupled perhaps with a
certain jealousy felt toward him as a newcomer,
prevented him from becoming popular there, so
that ultimately the leadership of that House settled
itself in the hands of Lord Salisbury, a statesman
not superior to Cairns in political judgment or
argumentative power, but without the disadvan-
tage of being a lawyer, possessing a wider range
of political experience, and in closer sympathy
with the feelings and habits of the titled order.
There were, however, some peers who, when
Lord Beaconsfield died in 1881, desired to see
Cairns chosen to succeed him in the leadership
of the Tory party, then in opposition, in the
Upper Chamber. Whether in opposition or in
power, Cairns took a prominent part in all " full-
dress " political debates in the House of Lords
and in the discussion of legal measures, and was
indeed so absolutely master of the Chamber when
such measures came under discussion, that the

Lord Chancellor Cairns 187

Liberal Government, during the years from 1S68
to 1874, and again from 1880 till 1885, could
carry no legal reforms through the House of
Lords except by his permission, which, of
course, was never given when such reforms
could seem to affect any political issue. Yet
the vehemence of his party feeling did not over-
cast his judgment. It was mainly through his
interposition (aided by that of Archbishop Tait)
that the House of Lords consented to pass the
Irish Church Bill of 1869, a measure which
Cairns, of course heartily disliking it, accepted
for the sake of saving to the disestablished
Church a part of her funds, since these might
have been lost had the Bill been rejected then
and passed next year by an angrier House of
Commons. Of all the members of Disraeli's
two Cabinets, he was the one whom Disraeli
himself had been wont most to trust and
most to rely on. In January 1874, when Mr.
Gladstone's suddenly announced dissolution of
Parliament startled all England one Saturday
morning, Disraeli, who heard of it while still in
bed, was at first frightened, thinking that the
Liberal leader had played his cards boldly and
well, and would carry the elections. When his
chief party manager came to see him he was
found restless and dejected, and cried out, " Send
for Cairns at once. " Lord Cairns was sent for,
came full of vigour, hope, and counsel, and after

1 88 Biographical Studies

an hour's talk so restored the confidence of his
ally that Disraeli sat down in the best spirits to
compose his electoral manifesto. As everybody
knows, Cairns's forecast was right, and the Tories
won the general election by a large majority.

For political success Cairns had several qualities
of the utmost value a stately presence, a clear
head, a resolute will, and splendid oratorical gifts.
He was not an imaginative speaker, nor fitted
to touch the emotions ; but he had a match-
less power of statement, and a no less matchless
closeness and cogency in argument. In the
famous controversies of 1866, he showed himself
the clearest and most vigorous thinker amgng
the opponents of reform, more solid, if less

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