Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Coleridge, John Duke

COLERIDGE, Sir JOHN DUKE, first Baron Coleridge (1820–1894), lord chief justice of England, was the eldest son of Sir John Taylor Coleridge [q. v.], by his wife Mary, the daughter of the Rev. Gilbert Buchanan, D.D., vicar of Northfleet and rector of Woodmansterne. Henry James Coleridge [q. v. Suppl.] was his younger brother. He was born at Heath Court, Ottery St. Mary, on 3 Dec. 1820. He was educated at Eton, where he was in the remove in 1832, in the fifth form in 1835, and in the sixth in 1838; in that year he was elected a scholar of Balliol College, Oxford, matriculating on 29 Nov. 1838. As an undergraduate he was the friend and contemporary of Arthur Clough, Matthew Arnold, Dean Church, Theodore Walrond, and Lord Lingen, all of whom were with him members of a small club for purposes of discussion called the 'Decade.' Coleridge graduated B.A. in 1842 and M.A. in 1846; from 1843 to 1846 he was fellow of Exeter, of which he was elected honorary fellow in 1882.

On 27 Jan. 1843 Coleridge was admitted student of the Middle Temple, and on 6 Nov. 1846 he was called to the bar and joined the western circuit. Follett, at that time a leader of the circuit, was his friend and adviser; Karslake (afterwards Sir John) was his contemporary, professional rival, and warm friend. His scholarly eloquence soon obtained him practice. In 1855 he was appointed recorder of Portsmouth, and in 1861 he was made a queen's counsel and a bencher of his inn. During his early years at the bar he contributed to the 'Guardian' and the 'Quarterly' and 'Edinburgh' Reviews. At the general election of 1865 he was elected M.P. for Exeter, as a liberal, and sat for that city until his appointment as chief justice of the common pleas in 1873. As a private member he took an active part in the successful movement for the abolition of religious tests in the universities, and consistently supported the proposal to disestablish the Irish church. He was selected by Gladstone, then leader of the opposition in the House of Commons, to move the instruction as to rating which so materially modified Disraeli's reform bill of 1867. Upon the liberals coming into office in 1868 Coleridge was appointed solicitor-general and knighted (12 Dec.), and in 1871 he succeeded Sir Robert Porrett Collier (afterwards Lord Monkswell) [q. v.] as attorney-general. Being an exceedingly persuasive and successful advocate he was much employed during this period in the sort of actions at nisi prius which attract most public attention. His professional reputation was thoroughly established in London by his conduct of the plaintiffs case in Saurin v. Starr. This was an action for conspiracy and false imprisonment brought against the lady superior of a convent of sisters of mercy at Hull, at whose hands the plaintiff alleged that she had, while one of the inmates, suffered many grievances. Coleridge obtained a substantial verdict after a trial which was then almost if not quite unprecedented in its duration.

It was, however, entirely eclipsed in this respect by the famous 'Tichborne case' which followed a year or two later, in 1871-2. In the action of ejectment, tried in the court of common pleas before Chief-justice Bovill, Coleridge led for the defendants, his juniors being Messrs. Hawkins (now Lord Brampton), Honyman (afterwards Mr. Justice Honyman), C. Barber, and Charles (afterwards Lord) Bowen. His cross-examination of the 'claimant' [see Orton, Arthur, Suppl.] lasted three weeks, and though it was considered lacking in startling or exciting episodes, entirely destroyed in the minds of all reasonable persons who followed it any possibility of belief in the plaintiff's assertion that he was Roger Tichborne. His speech in opening the case for the defendants occupied twenty-three days, and never fell from a high level of forensic eloquence. The trial was stopped by the jury in the summer of 1873, and in November of that year, Chief-justice Bovill having died his life being supposed to have been shortened by the duration and anxiety of this case Coleridge was appointed his successor. On 10 Jan. 1874 he was, during his father's lifetime, created Baron Coleridge of Ottery St. Mary, co. Devon; he was elected F.R.S. in 1875, and created D.C.L. of Oxford University on 13 June 1877.

Coleridge retained the office of chief justice of the common pleas for seven years, and was the last person who ever held it. In 1880, on the death of Lord-chief-justice Cockburn, Coleridge was appointed chief justice of the queen's bench, and the offices of chief justice of the common pleas and chief baron of the exchequer (vacant by the death of Chief-baron Kelly) were abolished under the Judicature Acts. Coleridge and his successors seem to be indubitably entitled to the style of chief justice of England, which may previously have been an inaccurate mode of describing the chief justices of the king's (or queen's) bench, though it had been commonly used by them since Sir Edward Coke, chief justice, 'took particular delight' in so styling himself (Campbell, Lives of the Chief Justices, i. 326). Coleridge presided in the queen's bench division for fourteen years, and died at his house, 1 Sussex Square, W., on 14 June 1894; he was buried at Ottery St. Mary on the 22nd.

Among the more famous trials with which he was connected as a judge were the Franconia case, in which his opinion as to territorial jurisdiction at sea within three miles of the coast subsequently obtained legislative ratification; the case of the Mogul Steamship Company, which deals with the right of combination among traders; Regina v. Foote, in which he held that the temperate expression of atheistic opinions, if it had been (as some authorities held) a crime, had ceased to be so; Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, the only case in which a sentence of death has been passed in the royal courts of justice; and Bradlaugh v. Newdegate, the most recent authority upon the law of maintenance.

Coleridge was tall and handsome in feature, and had an extremely beautiful voice. His language was refined and forcible, and no one could, on occasion, produce a greater sense of solemnity with less effort. His nature was receptive and sympathetic to an unusual degree. It was almost impossible to him not to agree largely with, the person to whom he happened to be talking, and many persons who knew him slightly were inclined to attribute to him an insincerity which was probably entirely foreign to his real nature. He had a marvellous store of anecdotes, which he related with great skill. An American who stayed with him as his guest is asserted to have ascertained that he told two hundred different anecdotes in the course of three rainy days, for the amusement of an ambassador who was confined to the house by a cold, and that none of them were tiresome. His kindness of heart and great sensitiveness made him a passionate opponent of vivisection for experimental purposes. He had a great love and wide knowledge of English literature, especially of the poetry and drama of the Elizabethan, and collected a valuable library, in which Elizabethan literature was well represented. Portraits of him were painted by E. U. Eddis and E. Matthew Hale, and an admirable sketch of him was drawn by the first Lady Coleridge for Grillon's Club.

Coleridge married, on 11 Aug. 1846, at Freshwater, Jane Fortescue, third daughter of the Rev. George Turner Seymour of Farringford Hill in that parish, and by her he had four children Bernard (now Lord Coleridge), Stephen, Gilbert, and Mildred, who married Charles Warren Adams, esq. Lady Coleridge, who was an accomplished painter, died on 6 Feb. 1878, and Coleridge married, secondly, on 13 Aug. 1885, Amy, daughter of Henry Baring Lawford, who survives him.

Coleridge published in 1870 an inaugural address to the members of the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, and in 1887 an address to the Glasgow Juridical Society.

[Private information and personal recollections; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715-1886; Stapylton's Eton School Lists; Foster's Men at the Bar; Burke's Peerage; G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage, ii. 331, viii. 350.]

H. S.-n.