Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Thesiger, Frederick (1794-1878)

THESIGER, FREDERICK, first Baron Chelmsford (1794–1878), lord chancellor, was the third and youngest son of Charles Thesiger (d. 1831), comptroller and collector of customs in the island of St. Vincent, by his wife Mary Anne (d. 1796), daughter of Theophilus Williams of London. Frederick's grandfather, John Andrew Thesiger (d. 1783), was a native of Saxony, who settled in England about the middle of the eighteenth century, and was employed as amanuensis to the Marquis of Rockingham. Frederick was born in London on 15 April 1794, and was at first placed at Dr. Charles Burney's school at Greenwich. He was destined for the navy, in which his uncle, Sir Frederick Thesiger [q. v.], afterwards Nelson's aide-de-camp at Copenhagen, was a distinguished officer, and was removed subsequently to a school at Gosport kept by another Dr. Burney specially to train boys for the navy. After a year at Gosport he joined the frigate Cambrian as a midshipman in 1807 and was present at the seizure of the fleet at Copenhagen; but shortly afterwards he quitted the navy on becoming heir to his father's West Indian estates by the death of his last surviving brother, George. He was sent to school for two years more, and then in 1811 went out to join his father at St. Vincent. A volcanic eruption on 30 April 1812 utterly destroyed his father's estate and considerably impoverished his family. It was then determined that he should practise in the West Indies as a barrister. He entered at Gray's Inn on 5 Nov. 1813, and successively read in the chambers of a conveyancer, an equity draughtsman, and of Godfrey Sykes, a well-known special pleader. Sykes thought his talents would be thrown away in the West Indies, and on his advice, though friendless and without connections, Thesiger resolved to try his fortune in England.

On 18 Nov. 1818 he was called to the bar. He joined the home circuit and Surrey sessions. In two or three years, by the removal of his chief competitors, Turton and Broderic, he attained the leadership of these sessions. He also became by purchase one of the four counsel of the palace court of Westminster. The experience thus gained in a constant succession of small cases, civil and criminal, was of great value to him. He attracted attention by his defence of Hunt, the accomplice of John Thurtell [q. v.], in 1824, and he owed so much to his success in an action of ejectment, thrice tried at Chelmsford in 1832, that, when he was raised to the peerage, he elected to take his title from that circuit town. He became a king's counsel in 1834, and was leader of his circuit for the next ten years. His name became very prominent in 1835 as counsel for the petitioners before the election committee which inquired into the return of O'Connell and Ruthven for Dublin. After an unsuccessful contest in 1840 at Newark against Wilde, the solicitor-general, he was returned to parliament as conservative member for Woodstock on 20 March. In 1844, owing to differences of opinion with the Duke of Marlborough, he ceased to represent Woodstock, and was elected for Abingdon, and at the general election of 1852 he was returned for Stamford by the influence of Lord Exeter.

On 8 June 1842 Thesiger was created D.C.L. by the university of Oxford, and on 19 June 1845 was elected a fellow of the Royal Society. On 15 April 1844 he was appointed solicitor-general in succession to Sir William Webb Follett [q. v.] and was knighted. The breakdown of Follett's health threw upon him almost all the work of both law officers, and on Follett's death he became attorney-general on 29 June 1845. He retired on the fall of the Peel administration, 3 July 1846. Had the ministry lasted another fortnight, he would have succeeded to the chief-justiceship of the common pleas, which became vacant on 6 July by the death of Sir Nicholas Tindal, and was given to Wilde.

He returned to his private practice at the bar, and in parliament acted with Lord George Bentinck. He obtained office again as attorney-general in Lord Derby's first administration from February to December 1852; and when Lord Derby formed his second administration, and Lord St. Leonards refused, owing to his great age, to return to active life, Thesiger received the great seal, 26 Feb. 1858, and became Baron Chelmsford and a privy councillor. His chancellorship was short, for the ministry fell in June 1859. His chief speech while in office was an eloquent opposition to the removal of Jewish disabilities, on which subject he had repeatedly been the principal speaker on the conservative side in the House of Commons.

After his resignation he continued active in judicial work, both in the House of Lords and the privy council. He constantly found himself in collision with Westbury, for whom he had a profound antipathy, and in particular severely attacked him early in 1862 with regard to the hardship inflicted under the new Bankruptcy Act upon the officials of the former insolvent court. Lord Westbury, on the whole, had the best of the encounter (Nash, Life of Westbury, ii. 38). Chelmsford resumed office again under Lord Derby in 1866, but was somewhat summarily set aside in 1868 by Disraeli when Lord Derby ceased to be prime minister. He died on 5 Oct. 1878 at his house in Eaton Square, London.

Thesiger married, in 1822, Anna Maria (d. 1875), youngest daughter of William Tinling of Southampton, and niece of Major Francis Peirson [q. v.], the defender of Jersey. By her he had seven surviving children, of whom Alfred Henry is noticed separately.

Thesiger had a fine presence and handsome features, a beautiful voice, a pleasant if too frequent wit, an imperturbable temper, and a gift of natural eloquence. He was, after the death of Follett, probably the most popular leading counsel of his day. As a lawyer he was ready and painstaking, and was a particularly sagacious cross-examiner; but his general reputation was that he was deficient in learning (see Life of Lord Campbell, ii. 357). It was perhaps a misfortune that he was never appointed to a common-law judgeship; but his judgments in the House of Lords show sound sense and grasp of principle. Throughout a laborious career, which politically was for long periods unlucky, though professionally immensely successful, he preserved an unbroken good humour, patience, and freedom from acerbity.

His portrait, painted by E. U. Eddis, is in the possession of the present Lord Chelmsford. It was mezzotinted by W. Walker.

[Foss's Lives of the Judges; Law Journal and Law Times, 12 Oct. 1878; Times, 7 Oct. 1878; J. B. Atlay's Victorian Chancellors, 1908, ii.]

J. A. H.