1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Herschell, Farrer Herschell, 1st Baron
HERSCHELL, FARRER HERSCHELL, 1st Baron (1837–1899), lord chancellor of England, was born on the 2nd of November 1837. His father was the Rev. Ridley Haim Herschell, a native of Strzelno, in Prussian Poland, who, when a young man, exchanged the Jewish faith for Christianity, took a leading part in founding the British Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Jews, and, after many journeyings, settled down to the charge of a Nonconformist chapel near the Edgware Road, in London, where he ministered to a large congregation. His mother was a daughter of William Mowbray, a merchant of Leith. He was educated at a private school and at University College, London. In 1857 he took his B.A. degree at the University of London. He was reckoned the best speaker in the school debating society, and he displayed there the same command of language and lucidity of thought which were his characteristics during his official life. The reputation which Herschell enjoyed during his school days was maintained after he became a law-student at Lincoln’s Inn. In 1858 he entered the chambers of Thomas Chitty, the famous common law pleader, father of the late Lord Justice Chitty. His fellow pupils, amongst whom were A. L. Smith, afterwards master of the rolls, and Arthur Charles, afterwards judge of the queen’s bench division, gave him the sobriquet of “the chief baron” in recognition of his superiority. He subsequently read with James Hannen, afterwards Lord Hannen. In 1860 he was called to the bar and joined the northern circuit, then in its palmy days of undividedness. For four or five years he did not obtain much work. Fortunately, he was never a poor man, and so was not forced into journalism, or other paths of literature, in order to earn a living. Two of his contemporaries, each of whom achieved great eminence, found themselves in like case. One of these, Charles Russell, became lord chief justice of England; the other, William Court Gully, speaker of the House of Commons. It is said that these three friends, dining together during a Liverpool assize some years after they had been called, agreed that their prospects were anything but cheerful. Certain it is that about this time Herschell meditated quitting England for Shanghai and practising in the consular courts there. Herschell, however, soon made himself useful to Edward James, the then leader of the northern circuit, and to John Richard Quain, the leading stuff-gownsman. For the latter he was content to note briefs and draft opinions, and when, in 1866, Quain donned “silk,” it was on Herschell that a large portion of his mantle descended.
In 1872 Herschell was made a queen’s counsel. He had all the necessary qualifications for a leader—a clear, though not resonant voice; a calm, logical mind; a sound knowledge of legal principles; and (greatest gift of all) an abundance of common sense. He never wearied the judges by arguing at undue length, and he knew how to retire with dignity from a hopeless cause. His only weak point was cross-examination. In handling a hostile witness he had neither the insidious persuasiveness of a Hawkins nor the compelling, dominating power of a Russell. But he made up for all by his speech to the jury, marshalling such facts as told in his client’s favour with the most consummate skill. He very seldom made use of notes, but trusted to his memory, which he had carefully trained. By this means he was able to conceal his art, and to appear less as a paid advocate than as an outsider interested in the case anxious to assist the jury in arriving at the truth. By 1874 Herschell’s business had become so good that he turned his thoughts to parliament. In February of that year there was a general election, with the result that the Conservative party came into power with a majority of fifty. The usual crop of petitions followed. The two Radicals (Thompson and Henderson) who had been returned for Durham city were unseated, and an attack was then made on the seats of two other Radicals (Bell and Palmer) who had been returned for Durham county. For one of these last Herschell was briefed. He made so excellent an impression on the local Radical leaders that they asked him to stand for Durham city; and after a fortnight’s electioneering, he was elected as junior member. Between 1874 and 1880 Herschell was most assiduous in his attendance in the House of Commons. He was not a frequent speaker, but a few great efforts sufficed in his case to gain for him a reputation as a debater. The best examples of his style as a private member will be found in Hansard under the dates 18th February 1876, 23rd May 1878, 6th May 1879. On the last occasion he carried a resolution in favour of abolishing actions for breach of promise of marriage except when actual pecuniary loss had ensued, the damages in such cases to be measured by the amount of such loss. The grace of manner and solid reasoning with which he acquitted himself during these displays obtained for him the notice of Gladstone, who in 1880 appointed Herschell solicitor-general.
Herschell’s public services from 1880 to 1885 were of great value, particularly in dealing with the “cases for opinion” submitted by the Foreign Office and other departments. He was also very helpful in speeding government measures through the House, notably the Irish Land Act 1881, the Corrupt Practices and Bankruptcy Acts 1883, the County Franchise Act 1884 and the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885. This last was a bitter pill for Herschell, since it halved the representation of Durham city, and so gave him statutory notice to quit. Reckoning on the local support of the Cavendish family, he contested the North Lonsdale division of Lancashire; but in spite of the powerful influence of Lord Hartington, he was badly beaten at the poll, though Mr Gladstone again obtained a majority in the country. Herschell now thought he saw the solicitor-generalship slipping away from him, and along with it all prospect of high promotion. Lord Selborne and Sir Henry James, however, successively declined Gladstone’s offer of the Woolsack, and in 1886 Herschell, by a sudden turn of fortune’s wheel, found himself in his forty-ninth year lord chancellor.
Herschell’s chancellorship lasted barely six months, for in August 1886 Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill was rejected in the Commons and his administration fell. In August 1892, when Gladstone returned to power, Herschell again became lord chancellor. In September 1893, when the second Home Rule Bill came on for second reading in the House of Lords, Herschell took advantage of the opportunity to justify the “sudden conversion” to Home Rule of himself and his colleagues in 1885 by comparing it to the duke of Wellington’s conversion to Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and to that of Sir Robert Peel to Free Trade in 1846. In 1895, however, his second chancellorship came to an end with the defeat of the Rosebery ministry.
Whether sitting at the royal courts in the Strand, on the judicial committee of the privy council, or in the House of Lords, Lord Herschell’s judgments were distinguished for their acute and subtle reasoning, for their grasp of legal principles, and, whenever the occasion arose, for their broad treatment of constitutional and social questions. He was not a profound lawyer, but his quickness of apprehension was such that it was an excellent substitute for great learning. In construing a real property will or any other document, his first impulse was to read it by the light of nature, and to decline to be influenced by the construction put by the judges on similar phrases occurring elsewhere. But when he discovered that certain expressions had acquired a technical meaning which could not be disturbed without fluttering the dovecotes of the conveyancers, he would yield to the established rule, even though he did not agree with it. He was perhaps seen at his judicial best in Vagliano v. Bank of England (1891) and Allen v. Flood (1898). Latterly he showed a tendency, which seems to grow on some judges, to interrupt counsel overmuch. The case last mentioned furnishes an example of this. The question involved was what constituted a molestation of a man in the pursuit of his lawful calling. At the close of the argument of counsel, whom he had frequently interrupted, one of their lordships, noted for his pretty wit, observed that although there might be a doubt as to what amounted to such molestation in point of law, the House could well understand, after that day’s proceedings, what it was in actual practice. In addition to his political and judicial work, Herschell rendered many public services. In 1888 he presided over an inquiry directed by the House of Commons with regard to the Metropolitan Board of Works. He acted as chairman of two royal commissions, one on Indian currency, the other on vaccination. He took a great interest in the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, not only promoting the acts of 1889 and 1894, but also bestowing a good deal of time in sifting the truth of certain allegations which had been brought against the management of that society. In June 1893 he was appointed chancellor of the university of London in succession to the earl of Derby, and he entered on his new duties with the usual thoroughness. “His views of reform,” according to Victor Dickins, the accomplished registrar of the university, “were always most liberal and most frankly stated, though at first they were not altogether popular with an important section of university opinion. He disarmed opposition by his intellectual power, rather than conciliated it by compromise, and sometimes was perhaps a little masterful, after a fashion of his own, in his treatment of the various burning questions that agitated the university during his tenure of office. His characteristic power of detachment was well illustrated by his treatment of the proposal to remove the university to the site of the Imperial Institute at South Kensington. Although he was at that time chairman of the Institute, the most irreconcilable opponent of the removal never questioned his absolute impartiality.” With the Imperial Institute Herschell had been officially connected from its inception. He was chairman of the provisional committee appointed by the prince of Wales to formulate a scheme for its organization, and he took an active part in the preparation of its charter and constitution in conjunction with Lord Thring, Lord James, Sir Frederick Abel and Mr John Hollams. He was the first chairman of its council, and, except during his tour in India in 1888, when he brought the Institute under the notice of the Indian authorities, he was hardly absent from a single meeting. For his special services in this connexion he was made G.C.B. in 1893, this being the only instance of a lord chancellor being decorated with an order.
In 1897 he was appointed, jointly with Lord Justice Collins, to represent Great Britain on the Venezuela Boundary Commission, which assembled in Paris in the spring of 1899. So complicated a business involved a great deal of preparation and a careful study of maps and historic documents. Not content with this, he accepted in 1898 a seat on the joint high commission appointed to adjust certain boundary and other important questions pending between Great Britain and Canada on the one hand and the United States on the other hand. He started for America in July of that year, and was received most cordially at Washington. His fellow commissioners elected him their president. In February 1899, while the commission was in full swing, he had the misfortune to slip in the street and in falling to fracture a hip bone. His constitution, which at one time was a robust one, had been undermined by constant hard work, and proved unequal to sustaining the shock. On the 1st of March, only a fortnight after the accident, he died at the Shoreham Hotel, Washington, a post-mortem examination revealing disease of the heart. Mr Hay, secretary of state, at once telegraphed to Mr Choate, the United States ambassador in London, the “deep sorrow” felt by President McKinley; and Sir Wilfred Laurier said the next day, in the parliament chamber at Ottawa, that he regarded Herschell’s death “as a misfortune to Canada and to the British Empire.” A funeral service held in St John’s Episcopal Church, Washington, was attended by the president and vice-president of the United States, by the cabinet ministers, the judges of the Supreme Court, the members of the joint high commission, and a large number of senators and other representative men. The body was brought to London in a British man-of-war, and a second funeral service was held in Westminster Abbey before it was conveyed to its final resting-place at Tincleton, Dorset, in the parish church of which he had been married. Herschell left a widow, granddaughter of Vice-Chancellor Kindersley; a son, Richard Farrer (b. 1878), who succeeded him as second baron; and two daughters.
A “reminiscence” of Herschell by Mr Speaker Gully (Lord Selby) will be found in The Law Quarterly Review for April 1899. The Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation (of which he had been president from its formation in 1893) contains, in its part for July of the same year, notices of him by Lord James of Hereford, Lord Davey, Mr Victor Williamson (his executor and intimate friend), and also by Mr Justice D. J. Brewer and Senator C. W. Fairbanks (both of the United States). (M. H. C.)