1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Esher, William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount

1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 9
Esher, William Baliol Brett, 1st Viscount

ESHER, WILLIAM BALIOL BRETT, 1st Viscount (1817–1899), English lawyer and master of the rolls, was a son of the Rev. Joseph G. Brett, of Chelsea, and was born on the 13th of August 1817. He was educated at Westminster and at Caius College, Cambridge. Called to the bar in 1840, he went the northern circuit, and became a Q.C. in 1861. On the death of Richard Cobden he unsuccessfully contested Rochdale as a Conservative, but in 1866 was returned for Helston in unique circumstances. He and his opponent polled exactly the same number of votes, whereupon the mayor, as returning officer, gave his casting vote for the Liberal candidate. As this vote was given after four o’clock, however, an appeal was lodged, and the House of Commons allowed both members to take their seats. Brett rapidly made his mark in the House, and in 1868 he was appointed solicitor-general. On behalf of the crown he prosecuted the Fenians charged with having caused the Clerkenwell explosion. In parliament he took a leading part in the promotion of bills connected with the administration of law and justice. He was (August 1868) appointed a justice in the court of common pleas. Some of his sentences in this capacity excited much criticism, notably so in the case of the gas stokers’ strike, when he sentenced the defendants to imprisonment for twelve months, with hard labour, which was afterwards reduced by the home secretary to four months. On the reconstitution of the court of appeal in 1876, Brett was elevated to the rank of a lord justice. After holding this position for seven years, he succeeded Sir George Jessel as master of the rolls in 1883. In 1885 he was raised to the House of Lords as Baron Esher. He opposed the bill proposing that an accused person or his wife might give evidence in their own case, and supported the bill which empowered lords of appeal to sit and vote after their retirement. The Solicitors Act of 1888, which increased the powers of the Incorporated Law Society, owed much to his influence. In 1880 he delivered a remarkable speech in the House of Lords, deprecating the delay and expense of trials, which he regarded as having been increased by the Judicature Acts. Lord Esher suffered, perhaps, as master of the rolls from succeeding a lawyer of such eminence as Jessel. He had a caustic tongue, but also a fund of shrewd common sense, and one of his favourite considerations was whether a certain course was “business” or not. He retired from the bench at the close of 1897, and a viscounty was conferred upon him on his retirement, a dignity never given to any judge, lord chancellors excepted, “for mere legal conduct since the time of Lord Coke.” He died in London on the 24th of May 1899.

Lord Esher was succeeded in the title by his only surviving son, Reginald Baliol Brett (b. 1852), who was secretary to the office of works from 1895 to 1902, but subsequently came into far greater public prominence in 1904 as Chairman of the war office reconstitution committee after the South African War.