Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Palmer, Roundell

PALMER, ROUNDELL, first Earl of Selborne (1812–1895), lord chancellor, second son of William Jocelyn Palmer, rector of Finmere and of Mixbury, Oxfordshire, by Dorothea Richardson, daughter of the Rev. William Roundell of Gledstone, Yorkshire, was born at Mixbury on 27 Nov. 1812. His grandfather, William Palmer of Nazing Park, Waltham, Essex, was a scion of the ancient family of Palmer of Wanlip, Leicestershire. George Palmer [q. v.] of Nazing Park, the philanthropist and politician, was his uncle, and William Palmer (1802–1858) [q. v.] Gresham professor of civil law, was his first cousin. His father, William Jocelyn Palmer, was a graduate of Brasenose College, Oxford (B.A. 1799, M.A. 1802, and B.D. 1811). Possessed of private means, he exerted a paramount influence over his parishioners, and was equally beloved and respected by them. He died at Mixbury on 28 Sept. 1853, aged 75. He had five sons besides Roundell, and five daughters. The eldest son, William, eventually seceded to the Roman church [see Palmer, William,1811–1879)]; the fourth son, Henry Roundell, entered the East India Company's marine service, and was lost at sea in 1835; the fifth, George Horsley, succeeded his father as rector of Mixbury; while Edwin, the youngest, became archdeacon of Oxford in 1878.

After two years (1824–5) at Rugby, Roundell was transferred to Winchester College, of which Dr. Gabell was then headmaster, in the autumn of 1825. There he had for contemporaries Robert Lowe (afterwards Lord Sherbrooke) [q. v.]; Edward (afterwards Lord) Cardwell [q. v.]; Anthony Trollope [q. v.]; William Monsell (now Lord Emly); and William George Ward [q. v.] After gaining his full share of school laurels, he matriculated on 3 May 1830 from Christ Church, Oxford. His academic course was brilliant in the extreme. Besides an open scholarship at Trinity College (1830), he gained in 1831 the chancellor's prize for Latin verse (subject, ‘Numantia’), and in 1832 both the Ireland Greek scholarship and the Newdigate prize, with a poem on ‘Staffa.’ The latter, written, as the conditions required, in the metre of Pope, exhibited occasionally the influence of Wordsworth. In 1834 Palmer won a first-class in the classical schools and the Eldon law scholarship, and in 1835 a Magdalen fellowship and the chancellor's Latin essay prize (subject, ‘De Jure Clientelæ apud Romanos’). He graduated B.A. in 1834 and M.A. in 1836. He also distinguished himself on the tory side in the debates of the Union Society, and in the autumn of 1833 formed, with several friends, including W. G. Ward, Archibald Campbell Tait [q. v.] afterwards archbishop of Canterbury, John Wickens [q. v.] and George Mellish [q. v.] (both subsequently judges), a separate society called the ‘Rambler’ club. This society came into being as a protest against the election of Edward Massie (1806–1893), a graduate of Wadham and Ireland scholar, as president of the Union. An animated debate followed in the Union on the momentous question whether the Ramblers should be permitted to retain their membership of the parent society, and that oratorical contest was the occasion of the spirited mock Homeric Greek poem, ‘Uniomachia’ [see Jackson, Thomas, 1812–1886]. With Tait and three other undergraduates, Palmer spent the long vacation of 1833 at Seaton in Devonshire. The young visitors impressed the imagination of a local bard (the Rev. J. B. Smith, a dissenting minister), who referred to them in a published effusion entitled ‘Seaton Beach’ (London and Exeter, 1835), auguring, with singularly happy presage, that Tait ‘a mitred prelate’ might ‘hereafter shine,’ while Palmer might ‘win deserved applause’ as ‘an ermined judge.’ The poet, who had noticed Palmer's zeal in collecting rare pebbles on the seashore, also credited him with an ambition to explore ‘nature's laws.’ This estimate was fully justified by Palmer's habit through life of seeking relaxation from professional work in a study of many branches of natural history, and especially of botany.

A high-churchman from the first, he took at this time a keen interest, but no active part, in the ecclesiastical controversies which had already begun to agitate the university. Of the friends whom he had made as an undergraduate, those with whom he was most closely associated in after years were Thomas Legh Claughton (afterwards bishop of St. Albans), Charles Wordsworth (afterwards bishop of St. Andrews), and John Wickens. During his later career at the university he formed intimate relations with Frederick William Faber [q. v.] (afterwards superior of the London Oratory), and his early predilections for theological discussion were thereby stimulated. But science and literature always shared with theology his intellectual interests. From Charles Wordsworth he learned—and Faber learned from him—to study and appreciate the poetry of William Wordsworth, and he watched with admiration the development of Tennyson, who was his friend and neighbour when he subsequently settled at Blackmoor, and who dedicated ‘Becket’ to him in 1884.

But the study and practice of law were to be the business of Palmer's life. In November 1834 he entered the chambers of the eminent conveyancer William Henry Booth; and on 9 June 1837 he was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn, of which on 23 April 1849 he was elected a bencher, and in 1864 treasurer. While waiting for briefs he contributed to the ‘British Critic,’ but only on colourless topics, such as Greek grammar (see British Critic, October 1840), and he maintained his connection with the university in other ways. In the contest for the poetry chair in 1842, which the narrow ecclesiastical spirit of the time converted into a party question, he actively supported the ‘Tractarian’ candidate, Isaac Williams; and on the suspension of Dr. Pusey, on 2 June 1843, for preaching a sermon on the mystery of the holy eucharist, which was censured by a court of ‘Six Doctors,’ he expressed a decided opinion that the action of the vice-chancellor was illegal. Academic dignities were freely bestowed on him as his career advanced. He was created D.C.L. and an honorary fellow of Magdalen in 1862, and honorary student of Christ Church in 1867. From 1861 to 1863 he was counsel to the university and deputy steward, and on the death of Lord Carnarvon in 1891 he was appointed high steward.

To the practice of the law Palmer brought a mind as keen and subtle as that of one of the great mediæval schoolmen, a rare power of easy and persuasive speech, a learning and knowledge of affairs equally wide, profound, and exact, the abstemiousness of an ascetic, a vigorous constitution, untiring energy, and a high and chivalrous sense of the duty of the advocate. Though the equity bar was never stronger than in his day—among his many rivals were Richard Bethell (afterwards Lord Westbury) [q. v.] and Hugh McCalmont (afterwards Earl) Cairns [q. v.] —he rose rapidly in his profession, soon made a large income, and took silk in Hilary vacation 1849.

According to Lord Westbury, Palmer's only defect as an equity pleader was a habit of pursuing a fine train of reasoning on a matter collateral to his main argument, a defect resulting from that subtlety of mind with which nature had superabundantly endowed him, and which, kept under due control, makes the consummate lawyer. This subtlety, united with vast learning, comprehensiveness of view, and the inexhaustible patience which he applied to the mastery of the most intricate complications of law and fact, gave to his opinions while counsel something of the weight of judicial decisions. In court his rare gift of luminous exposition and the singular persuasiveness of his manner lent to his arguments an air of irrefragableness which during the zenith of his powers caused him to be regarded by clients as all but indispensable. His style was severely simple, and was rarely relieved by action. He seldom fixed his eyes on the judge, but seemed rather to be talking to himself, yet all the while he was perfectly alive to the impression he was producing both on the bench and within the bar, and knew as if by instinct when to develop a point which had told, and how to glide stealthily over a weak place in his argument. His memory was prodigious, so that he rarely needed to refer to his brief, and was able to meet unforeseen emergencies by prompt references to cases in point.

Before becoming a law officer of the crown Palmer had little or no experience of common-law practice, and he never found it possible to acquire the needful dexterity in cross-examination, and the peculiar tact indispensable for addressing juries. Finding the work extremely irksome, he protected himself as far as possible from retainer in such cases by charging unusually heavy fees. When retained, however, he spared no pains to fit himself for the discharge of his duty.

While his reputation at the bar was steadily rising, Palmer was returned to parliament in the Peelite interest for Plymouth at the general election of July 1847. Like most equity lawyers, he did not show to great advantage on the floor of the House of Commons; but his speeches, if rarely impassioned, were always lucid and weighty, and an extremely pure accent and melodious enunciation went far to compensate for a somewhat monotonous delivery. His maiden speech, on the government of New Zealand bill (13 Dec. 1847), was a warm eulogium on the bishop of New Zealand (G. A. Selwyn), whose recent political action had elicited much adverse comment, both in the colony and at home.

Though nominally a conservative, Palmer was in truth an independent, and lent an earnest support to the movement for the emancipation of the Jews (Hansard, 3rd ser. xcviii. 642). In regard, however, to all that concerned the church of England, and the traditional methods of higher culture, his conservatism was intense, and led him to oppose, in 1850, the government plan for a commission of inquiry into the state of the universities. His opposition to the ecclesiastical titles bill, introduced in consequence of the ‘No Popery’ hubbub raised on occasion of the so-called papal aggression, brought him into collision with the dominant feeling of the country; and at the election of July 1852 he lost his seat, but his rival, Charles John Mare, was unseated on petition, and Palmer was returned in his stead on 2 June 1853. To the Oxford University bill of 1854 he gave a qualified support, and was indefatigable in amending it in committee. In the great pitched battle of February–March 1857, on Palmerston's Chinese policy, he fought under Cobden's standard, and led, in a speech of great power, the final assault on the government. Defeated at the subsequent general election, he did not re-enter parliament until he succeeded Sir William Atherton as solicitor-general in Lord Palmerston's ministry on 28 June 1861. He was then returned for Richmond, Yorkshire, which seat he retained until his elevation to the peerage. On 5 Aug. 1861 he was knighted. On 2 Oct. 1863 he was advanced to the attorney-generalship, which he held until the fall of Lord John Russell's second administration in July 1866.

On the accession of Mr. Gladstone to power, in December 1868, Palmer declined the great seal and a peerage rather than consent to the disendowment of the Irish church. He had taken no part in the debates raised in the session of 1867 on Mr. Gladstone's resolution on the subject. On the second reading of the Irish church disestablishment bill he attacked it strongly as an act of injustice (22 March 1869), and voted with the minority against it next day. He did his best to amend the measure in committee. But on other questions he gave an independent support to the administration. On the reference of the Alabama dispute to the international court of arbitration at Geneva, he appeared as counsel for Great Britain, and argued a hopeless case with the utmost patience, tact, and ability. He was generally said at the time to have refused the offer of a fee of 30,000l. for his services, but he is known to have accepted remuneration on a satisfactory scale, and the popular story cannot be corroborated.

On 15 Oct. 1872 Palmer succeeded Lord Hatherley as lord chancellor, and was sworn of the privy council. Three days later he was raised to the peerage of the United Kingdom by the title of Baron Selborne of Selborne in the county of Southampton. In 1865 he had purchased the Temple and Blackmoor estates (of about eighteen hundred acres) in the parish of Selborne, Hampshire, and he built there a house on the site of Blackmoor farmhouse. While digging the foundations the workmen discovered a rich hoard of Roman pottery and coins, an account of which Selborne contributed to the edition of Gilbert White's ‘Natural History of Selborne,’ published in 1875. He procured the formation of Blackmoor into a separate ecclesiastical district, to the endowment of which he contributed not only a large sum of money, but also a church, a parsonage, and schools.

As lord chancellor, Selborne at once proceeded to grapple in a large and statesmanlike spirit with the urgent and formidable problem of judicature reform upon which a royal commission had already reported. His measure, if carried in its original form, would not only have united the superior courts of law and equity and London court of bankruptcy into one supreme court in two principal divisions, original and appellate, but have transferred to the latter division the appellate jurisdiction, not only of the privy council but of the House of Lords, in all but ecclesiastical cases or such as originated in Scotland, Ireland, or the colonies or dependencies of the crown. So radical a reform, however, found favour neither with the profession, nor with the public, nor with the House of Lords; and, though the appellate jurisdiction of the privy council in admiralty and lunacy matters was transferred to the new court of appeal, that of the House of Lords was preserved intact. The London court of bankruptcy was also permitted to retain its independent existence, though it has since been merged in the supreme court. With these and some less important modifications the measure became law on 5 Aug. 1873, and effected a most salutary reform. Besides putting an end to the multiplicity of courts of original jurisdiction in which English justice had been administered for centuries, it provided for the gradual fusion of law and equity into a common system. The first effect indeed of the attempt to administer law and equity concurrently was to increase the uncertainty incident to both, and old practitioners loudly denounced the ‘fusion’ as sheer ‘confusion;’ but the gain to our jurisprudence in precision and symmetry is already apparent, and must in the end do more to expedite and cheapen the administration of justice than the most ingeniously devised system of procedure.

As a law lord sitting in court Palmer displayed a conspicuous reverence for precedent, which never degenerated into superstition. He knew exactly how to penetrate to the true ratio decidendi of a case, and so to elicit universal principles from particular decisions, and how to draw a fine distinction without falling into the vice of hair-splitting. Hence, both as a judge of first instance, sitting for Lord Romilly at the rolls court in 1873, and as lord chancellor, he contributed not a little to the extension and refinement of some of the leading doctrines of our equitable jurisprudence. The principal fault of his judgments was an appearance of excessive elaboration, the facts being stated with perhaps supererogatory fulness and minuteness, and side issues pursued at tedious length. In these respects they compare unfavourably with those of his great contemporaries, Lord Cairns and Sir George Jessel.

With the return of the conservatives to power under Disraeli in February 1874, Selborne was succeeded on the woolsack by Lord Cairns. As a member of the opposition, he took a leading part in the debates in the upper house. His speech of 20 May 1878 on the constitutional question involved in the transport, during peace and without consent of parliament, of troops belonging to the Indian native army from India to Malta is, with the reply of Lord Cairns, the locus classicus on that important topic. Notwithstanding his high-churchmanship, he supported Archbishop Tait's Public Worship Regulation Bill of 1874 and the Burials Bill of 1880. But the first measure he only regarded as a pis-aller.

On the formation of Mr. Gladstone's second administration Selborne returned to the woolsack, 28 April 1880, and on 29 Dec. 1882, on the occasion of the opening of the new law courts in the Strand, was created Viscount Wolmer of Blackmoor in the county of Southampton, and Earl of Selborne. Selborne fully concurred in Mr. Gladstone's Irish policy so far as it was merely agrarian, and he retained office until the fall of the administration in June 1885. He was prevented from entering Mr. Gladstone's third cabinet (formed in February 1886) by inability to follow his former chief in his sudden espousal of the cause of home rule. The grounds of his dissent Selborne made public in a letter to the ‘Times’ of 23 April 1886. As a liberal-unionist he played a potent if not very prominent part in the long struggle which followed, and, in September 1893, spoke with effect in the House of Lords against the Home Rule Bill presented by Mr. Gladstone's government. Meanwhile he succeeded in effecting some minor but useful measures of law reform, and took part in the agitation against the proposal of Lord Rosebery's ministry to disestablish and disendow the Welsh church (1893–4). His interest in public affairs remained unabated until his death, which took place at his residence, Blackmoor, Petersfield, on 4 May 1895. He was then in his eighty-third year. His remains were interred on 8 May in the church of St. Matthew, Blackmoor, which he had himself built.

At all periods of his life a devout and loyal son of the church of England, Selborne admirably illustrated her history and literature both in his hymnal, entitled ‘The Book of Praise’ (Golden Treasury series), London, 1863, and in his ‘Notes of some Passages in the Liturgical History of the English Church’ (London, 1878, 8vo). He also contributed to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ 9th edit. (1881), a scholarly article on hymns, of which a separate reprint appeared in 1892 under the title ‘Hymns: their History and Development in the Greek and Latin Churches, Germany, and Great Britain,’ London, 8vo. The depth of his religious convictions is apparent in his inaugural address as rector of the university of St. Andrews, 21 Nov. 1878 (published in pamphlet form), and his address as president of the Wordsworth Society, 7 July 1886 (Trans. of Wordsworth Society, No. viii.). In ‘A Defence of the Church of England against Disestablishment,’ London, 1886, 8vo, 4th edit. 1888, and ‘Ancient Facts and Fictions concerning Churches and Tithes,’ London, 1888, 8vo, he reproduced and reinforced with much learning and lucidity the argument of Selden in favour of the unbroken continuity of the reformed church of England with the church founded by St. Augustine.

Selborne was for some years chairman of the house of laymen of the province of Canterbury. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society on 7 June 1860, and was an hon. LL.D. of Cambridge University. From his early years he was a member of the Mercers' Company, as his father and grandfather had been before him, and he was elected master in 1876. During his mastership he visited the company's estates in Ireland, and also attended carefully to home affairs.

Selborne's portrait in oils, as an old man, by G. F. Watts, R.A., hangs in the drawing-room at Lincoln's Inn, where also an engraving by W. Holl, from a sketch in profile by Mr. Richmond, R.A., shows him in early manhood. A third portrait, by Mr. Ouless, is in Magdalen College hall, Oxford; a fourth, a good likeness by Miss Busk, is in Trinity College hall, Oxford; and a fifth, by Mr. Wells, is in the Mercers' Hall, London.

Selborne married, on 2 Feb. 1848, Lady Laura Waldegrave (d. 1885), second daughter of William, eighth earl Waldegrave, by whom he had issue one son, William Waldegrave, viscount Wolmer, his successor in title and estate, and four daughters.

Selborne left autobiographical memorials, which are to be published.

[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Ward's W. G. Ward and the Oxford Movement, and W. G. Ward and the Catholic Revival; Davidson and Benham's Life of A. C. Tait; Newman's Letters, ed. Anne Mozley, ii. 321; Charles Wordsworth's Annals of my Early Life, 1806–48, and Annals of my Life, 1847–56; Greville Memoirs, pt. ii. vol. iii. p. 400; Times, 6 May 1895; Solicitors' Journal, 11 May 1895; private information.]

J. M. R.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.214
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
153 ii 22 Palmer, Roundell, 1st Earl of Selborne: for effort read effect
3 f.e. for 1875 read 1878