Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Fearne, Charles

FEARNE, CHARLES (1742–1794), legal writer, born in London in 1742, was the eldest son of Charles Fearne, deputy secretary of the admiralty and judge advocate, who presided at the trial of Admiral Byng. He was educated at Westminster School, on leaving which he entered the Inner Temple, though evidently without any fixed resolution as to his future career. In 1768 his father died (Gent. Mag. xxxviii. 142), leaving a small fortune to be divided equally among him, his younger brother, and his sister. It is related of Fearne that he refused to take his share, on the ground that he had already received some hundred pounds to start him in his profession, and had had an education superior to that of his younger brother. He seems to have had a very remarkable inventive faculty, which for some time prevented him from settling down seriously to the practice of the law. In order to carry out one of his ideas, having discovered a new process of dyeing morocco leather, he sold his books, and along with a partner hired vats and tan-pits near Fulham; but he became alarmed at the expense, and abandoned the project after losing about half his little fortune. During the rest of his life he spent much of his leisure in such pursuits. His editor, Butler, relates that a friend of his having communicated to an eminent gunsmith a project of a musket of greater power and much less size than that in ordinary use, the gunsmith pointed out to him its defects, and observed that ‘a Mr. Fearne, an obscure law-man, in Breame's Buildings, Chancery Lane, had invented a musket which, although defective, was much nearer to the attainment of the object’ (Reminiscences, i. 118). Butler moreover speaks of Fearne as a man of great classical and mathematical attainments, and mentions a treatise on the Greek accent, and another on the ‘Retreat of the Ten Thousand,’ neither of which appears to have been published. These were what Fearne himself called his dissipations. Comparatively soon after devoting himself in earnest to the law he acquired a considerable chamber practice. The publication in 1772, when the great controversy over the rule in Shelley's case was at its height, of his ‘Essay on the Learning of Contingent Remainders and Executory Devises’ placed him in the first rank of real property lawyers. This work, which was greatly enlarged in subsequent editions, has remained to this day the classical work on its subject, and is included in the short list of quasi-authoritative books of the law. It has been said that ‘no work perhaps on any branch of science affords a more beautiful instance of analysis’ (Butler, pref. to seventh ed.); and Lord Campbell goes so far as to assert that Fearne was ‘a man of as acute understanding as Pascal or Sir Isaac Newton’ (Chief Justices, ii. 434). If this be somewhat exaggerated, at any rate the essay is distinguished among legal treatises for its close and sustained reasoning. Fearne was not content with such a mechanical piecing together of cases and dicta of varying authority as was imperfectly done for real property a few years later by Cruise; he thoroughly assimilated the crabbed learning of his subject, used his independent judgment, and gave to his work a logical completeness and consistency rare in legal literature. Of its educational value one may say that the student may more safely omit the reading of Coke upon Littleton than of Fearne on ‘Contingent Remainders.’ It should be said, however, that in the opinion of some lawyers the merits of the essay have been greatly overrated (see the criticisms in Law Mag. xxxi. 356.)

Having risen so high in his profession that he is said to have been ‘more consulted than any man of his time’ (see 1 Cl. and Fin. 399), Fearne's energy gradually relaxed. Other interests and a love of ease distracted him; he remained out of town for longer and longer periods, leaving directions with his clerk ‘not to know where he was, how he was, or when he would be in town,’ till one by one his clients dropped away. He had been making a large income, but he lived so extravagantly that in the end he had to accept assistance from his friends. He took up his business once more; but the fall in his fortunes and the loss of his independence had crushed him both in mind and body, and after a lingering illness he died at Chelmsford on 25 Feb. 1794 (Gent. Mag. lxiv. 182).

The following are Fearne's works: 1. ‘A historical legigraphical Chart of Landed Property in England, from the time of the Saxons to the present æra, displaying, at one view, the Tenures, Mode of Descent, and Power of Alienation of Lands in England at all times during the same period,’ 1769, reprinted 1791. 2. ‘An Impartial Answer to the Doctrine delivered in a Letter which appeared in the “Public Advertiser” on 19 Dec. 1769 under the signature “Junius,”’ 1770 (Watt, not in British Museum). 3. ‘An Essay on the Learning of Contingent Remainders and Executory Devises,’ first edit., 1772; second, 1773; third, 1776; fourth (part relating to ‘Contingent Remainders,’ containing opinions on will in Perrin v. Blake), 1791; fifth (with notes by Powell), 1795 (‘Executory Devises’), and 1801 (‘Contingent Remainders’); sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth (with notes by Butler), 1809, 1820, 1824, 1831; tenth (the standard edition, edited by J. W. Smith; the second volume consists of ‘An Original View of Executory Interests on Real and Personal Property,’ by the editor), two volumes, 1844. 4. ‘Copies of Opinions on the Will which was the subject of the case of Perrin v. Blake before the Court of King's Bench in 1769,’ 1780, and also in fourth edition of ‘Essay,’ 1791. In the first edition of the ‘Essay on Contingent Remainders’ Fearne had quoted an opinion of Lord Mansfield, written when solicitor-general, on the will in Perrin v. Blake. Lord Mansfield disavowed the opinion; Fearne replied by publishing it verbatim, together with the opinions of other eminent counsel taken about the same date, and succeeded in establishing its authenticity while ironically appearing to acknowledge that he and Mr. Booth, from whom he received it, had been mistaken (see Campbell, Chief Justices, ii. 434). 5. ‘The Posthumous Works of Charles Fearne, Esquire, Barrister-at-Law; consisting of a Reading on the Statute of Enrolments, Arguments in the singular case of General Stanwix, and a Collection of Cases and Opinions. Selected from the Author's Manuscripts by Thomas Mitchell Shadwell of Gray's Inn, Esquire,’ 1797.

[European Mag. August, September, and October 1799; Law Mag. i. 115; Butler's Reminiscences, i. 118; Butler's preface to 7th edit. of Essay.]

G. P. M.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.121
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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275 i 20 Fearne, Charles: for Watts read Watt