Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Toler, John
TOLER, JOHN, first Earl of Norbury (1745–1831), chief justice of the court of common pleas in Ireland, youngest son of Daniel Toler by his wife Letitia, daughter of Thomas Otway of Castle Otway, was born at Beechwood, co. Tipperary, on 3 Dec. 1745. The family, originally from Norfolk, traced its descent in Ireland to an officer in the Cromwellian army, who acquired some property in county Tipperary. Having been educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where Toler graduated B.A. in 1761 and M.A. in 1766, he entered the legal profession, and was called to the Irish bar in Michaelmas term 1770. In 1776 he was elected M.P. for Tralee, and on entering parliament he let it soon be seen that his services were at the disposal of government. His silent vote was rewarded with a silk gown in 1781. At the general election in 1783 he was returned as one of the representatives of the borough of Philipstown, his elder brother, Daniel (d. 1796), being at the same time chosen one of the county members for Tipperary. When Henry Flood [q. v.] in November 1783 moved for leave to bring in a bill to reform parliament, Toler urged its rejection on the ground that ‘it was not the legitimate offspring either of the parliament or the people. It was the spurious abortion of the lying-in-hospital sent into the world before its time.’ In 1789 (patent 12 Aug.) he succeeded Arthur Wolfe (afterwards Viscount Kilwarden) [q. v.] as solicitor-general, and demonstrated the propriety of his advancement by opposing (20 Feb. 1790) a motion of Grattan reprobating the sale of places and peerages during the administration of the Marquis of Buckingham. He was returned for Gorey borough at the general election in May 1790, and established a claim to further promotion by the consistent support he gave the government of the Earl of Westmorland in 1790–3.
Though possessing little claim to respect as a politician, his deficiencies were amply compensated by his readiness to give or exact personal satisfaction; while his broad humour and absolute indifference to propriety often saved the situation by converting a serious matter into a wholly ludicrous one. During the short session of 1792 he made a savage attack on James Napper Tandy [q. v.], alluding to the personal part he had played in the affairs of the catholics, and regretting that they had been unable ‘to set a better face on the matter.’ When called upon by Tandy to explain his words he declined to do so on the ground of his immunity as a member of parliament. No one could question his readiness to give Tandy satisfaction, but, owing to some misunderstanding, a meeting never took place, and, the house having intervened to place Tandy in custody, he scored an easy victory.
Naturally when Earl Fitzwilliam in 1794–5 undertook the government of Ireland on professedly liberal principles, Toler's removal was a matter of first importance; but in consenting to it Pitt expressly stipulated that he was not to be removed unless a place was provided for him such as he might have accepted under Lord Westmorland (Lecky, vii. 87; cf. also Beresford Corresp. ii. 67). Exasperated by the attack that had been made upon him, Toler, after the recall of Fitzwilliam, avenged himself on the opposition by unreservedly supporting the government of Lord Camden. On 4 May 1795 he moved the rejection of the catholic relief bill. ‘He spoke,’ wrote Marcus Beresford to his father, ‘for above two hours, and left the question without an attempt to argue it, but concluded with a vehement assertion that the bill could not be carried without the repeal of the bill of rights, the breach of the coronation oath and of the compact between the two countries. The other side was even with him; for they as positively asserted the contrary’ (ib. ii. 108; Parl. Reg. xiv. 208–17). He was rewarded with a title for his wife, who was created a peeress of Ireland in her own right on 7 Nov. 1797 by the title of Baroness Norwood of Knockalton, co. Tipperary, and on 10 July 1798 he himself was appointed attorney-general in succession to Wolfe, who had been promoted to the chief-justiceship of the king's bench, being sworn of the privy council on 2 Aug. As attorney-general he conducted the prosecution of those who were concerned in the rebellion of '98; but his indifference to human suffering, as in the case of John and Henry Sheares [q. v.], disgusted even those who thought the occasion called for firmness on the part of government. In 1799 he brought in a bill investing the lord-lieutenant with discretionary power to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act and to establish martial law. He supported the union, and was advanced to be chief justice of the court of common pleas in succession to Hugh Carleton, viscount Carleton [q. v.], on 20 Dec. 1800. He was elevated to the peerage as Baron Norbury of Ballyorenode, co. Tipperary, on the 29th of the same month. His appointment to the chief-justiceship was deprecated by Lord Clare, who thought him, with reason, unfitted for the bench. ‘Make him,’ Clare is reported to have said, ‘a bishop, or even an archbishop, but not a chief justice.’
Norbury held the appointment for nearly twenty-seven years; although his scanty knowledge of law, his gross partiality, his callousness, and his buffoonery, completely disqualified him for the position. His court was in a constant uproar owing to his noisy merriment. He joked even when the life of a human being was hanging in the balance. He presided at the trial of Robert Emmet [q. v.] To Daniel O'Connell (1775–1847) [q. v.], who made more than one effort to procure his removal before he ultimately succeeded, he was an especial object of abhorrence; but Norbury was sometimes able to turn the tables on his adversary. It happened that O'Connell, shortly after his return to Ireland from London, where he had been arrested on his way to the continent to fight a duel with Peel, was arguing a case before Norbury to which the latter was apparently paying no attention. ‘I am afraid your lordship,’ said O'Connell severely, ‘does not apprehend me.’ ‘I beg your pardon, Mr. O'Connell,’ replied the chief justice, with a sneering chuckle, ‘no one is more easily apprehended than Mr. O'Connell when he wishes to be.’ The bons mots ascribed to him are innumerable, and doubtless many spurious ones were fathered upon him.
As a staunch supporter of protestant ascendency, and one whose creed was summed up in the words ‘stare super vias antiquas,’ Norbury's influence in the government of Ireland during the early years of the century was very great. The discovery in 1822 of a letter addressed to him some years previously by William Saurin [q. v.], then attorney-general, urging him to use his influence with the gentry composing the grand juries on circuit against the catholics, did not improve his reputation for impartiality, and at the instigation of O'Connell the matter was brought before parliament by Brougham. The attack greatly exasperated him. ‘I'll resign to demand satisfaction,’ he is reported to have said; ‘that Scottish Broom wants to be made acquainted with an Irish stick.’ His presence on the bench was, however, ultimately felt by all parties to be a scandal and an obstacle to the establishment of a better understanding with the catholics. In 1825 O'Connell drew up a petition to parliament calling for his removal on the ground that he had fallen asleep during a trial for murder and was unable to give any account of the evidence when called on for his notes by the lord-lieutenant. The petition was presented, but no motion was based upon it, as Peel gave an assurance that the matter would be inquired into. But it was not till the accession of Canning as prime minister in 1827, when Norbury was in his eighty-second year, that he was induced to resign, or, as O'Connell put it, ‘bought off the bench by a most shameful traffic,’ by his advancement in the peerage as Viscount Glandine and Earl of Norbury, with special remainder to his second son, together with a retiring pension of 3,046l. He died at Dublin on 27 July 1831, aged 85. He had his joke to the last; for hearing that his neighbour, Lord Erne, was expiring, and feeling his own end near, he called his valet: ‘James,’ said he, ‘run round to Lord Erne and tell him, with my compliments, that it will be a dead-heat between us.’
Toler married, on 2 June 1778, Grace, daughter of Hector Graham, esq., and by her, who was created Baroness Norwood in 1797 and died on 21 July 1822, he had two sons and two daughters. His elder son, Daniel, lord Norwood, who succeeded his mother in that title in 1822, was of unsound mind. The second son, Hector John, second earl of Norbury, after his eviction of a tenant, was shot near Durrow Castle on 1 Jan. 1839, and died three days later (Times, 5 and 7 Jan. 1839); he was succeeded by his son, Hector John, third earl, the father of the fourth and present earl.
Somewhat short in stature and rather pursy in advancing years, with a jovial countenance and merry twinkling little grey eyes, Toler's appearance ‘set dignity at defiance and put gravity to flight.’ In speaking he had an extraordinary habit of inflating his cheeks at the end of every sentence, and was consequently nicknamed Puffendorf. He sat a horse well, and, in addition to his other accomplishments, could sing a good song, and often did so in miscellaneous company long after he became chief justice. He had an excellent memory, knew much of Shakespeare and Milton by heart, and declaimed well. He had the reputation of being an excellent landlord and a gentle and forbearing master.[Gent. Mag. 1831, ii. 368, 478; Annual Register, 1831, p. 251; Burke's Peerage; Smyth's Law Officers, pp. 48–50, 122, 170, 180, 199, 201; Phillips's Curran and his Contemporaries; Grattan's Speeches, ii. 363, iii. 247; Official Return of M.P.'s (Irel.); Castlereagh's Corresp. ii. 73, 428; Fitzpatrick's Secret Service under Pitt, pp. 125, 158, 312; Shiel's Sketches of the Irish Bar, with notes by Skelton Mackenzie (N.Y. 1856), pp. 5–40; Russell's Eccentric Personages, ii. 117–35; O'Connell's Corresp. ed. Fitzpatrick, i. 80, 146–7, 195; O'Keeffe's Life and Times of O'Connell, i. 464–73; Mr. Gregory's Letter-Box, pp. 152, 205–6, 295; Hist. MSS. Comm. 4th Rep. (Colchester MSS.) p. 345, 14th Rep. App. pt. i. (Rutland MSS.), iii. 316; Addit. MSS. 29960 ff. 2, 4, to J. Welcot, 1805, 1806, 34420 f. 284 to W. Eden, 1785; Wills's Irish Nation, iii. 679–86; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography.]