Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/May, Thomas Erskine

MAY, Sir THOMAS ERSKINE, Baron Farnborough (1815–1886), constitutional jurist, was born in London on 8 Feb. 1815. He was educated (1826–31) as a private pupil of Dr. Brereton, then head-master, at Bedford grammar school, and in 1831 obtained the post of assistant librarian of the House of Commons. Called to the bar at the Middle Temple on 4 May 1838, he was elected a bencher honoris causa of that inn on 21 Nov. 1873. In 1844 he published ‘A Practical Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Proceedings, and Usage of Parliament’ (London, 8vo, 10th ed., much enlarged in 1893), a work of profound, accurate and well-digested learning, recognised by parliament as authoritative, and translated into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, and Hungarian. From 1847 to 1856 he was examiner of petitions for private bills and taxing master for both houses of parliament, from 1856 to 1871 clerk assistant, and from 1871 until shortly before his death clerk of the House of Commons. In 1854 he for the first time reduced to writing the ‘Rules, Orders, and Forms of Procedure of the House of Commons,’ which were printed by order of parliament. In 1860 he was made C.B., and on 6 July 1866 K.C.B. In 1874 he received from the university of Oxford the honorary degree of D.C.L. He served on the Digest of Law Commission, appointed 22 Nov. 1866, and from 1866 to 1884 was president of the Statute Law Revision Committee. In August 1885 he was sworn of the privy council. He resigned his post at the House of Commons in April 1886, and on the 10th of the following month was raised to the peerage as Baron Farnborough of Farnborough in the county of Southampton. He died at Westminster Palace on the 17th of the same month, and after a public funeral service at St. Margaret's, Westminster, where a window was subsequently dedicated to his memory, was buried on the 24th in the churchyard, Chippenham, Cambridgeshire. His bust, by Mr. Bruce Joy, executed from photographs taken after his death, was unveiled by the speaker in the House of Commons on 6 March 1890.

Erskine May married, on 27 Aug. 1839, Louisa Johanna, only daughter of George Laughton of Fareham, Hampshire, by whom he had no issue. His title is accordingly extinct. He was a most able, faithful, and meritorious public servant, and was universally respected. Besides his great work on parliamentary procedure he published a learned work on ‘The Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George III,’ 1760–1860, which is worthy to rank with that of Hallam, of which it is in fact a continuation; it has been translated into French and German (London, 1861–3, 2 vols. 8vo; 3rd edit., with supplementary chapter, London, 1871, 3 vols. 8vo). Another large undertaking was his ‘Democracy in Europe: A History,’ London, 1877, 2 vols. 8vo. He was also the author of a pamphlet entitled ‘Remarks and Suggestions with a view to facilitate the Despatch of Public Business in Parliament’ (London, 1849, 8vo), another ‘On the Consolidation of the Election Laws’ (London, 1850, 8vo). May was also a frequent contributor to the later volumes of the ‘Penny Cyclopædia,’ the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ the ‘Law Magazine,’ and other periodicals. A reprint of his article on ‘Parliament,’ from the ‘Penny Cyclopædia,’ is in ‘Knight's Store of Knowledge,’ London, 1841, 8vo. His article on ‘The Machinery of Parliamentary Legislation’ (‘Edinburgh Review,’ January 1854) was reprinted in pamphlet form in 1881, London, 8vo.

[The Biograph, January 1882; Times, 18, 25, and 27 May 1886; Ann. Reg. 1886, pt. ii. p. 139; Law Times, lxxxi. 70; Middle Temple Register; Inns of Court Cal. 1878; Men of the Time, 11th edit.; Foster's Peerage, Alumni Oxon. and Men at the Bar; Parl. Papers, House of Commons (1867) [3849] 65; the Statutes, 2nd rev. edit. 1888, Pref.; Chron. Table and Index of Statutes, 1870, Pref.; Adams's Manual of Historical Literature, pp. 482, 525; London Gazette, 10 May 1886.]

J. M. R.