Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Russell, Charles (1832-1900)
RUSSELL, CHARLES, Baron Russell of Killowen (1832–1900), lord chief justice of England, was born at Newry on 10 Nov. 1832. He was the elder son of Arthur Russell (1785–1845) and Margaret, daughter of Matthew Mullin and widow of John Hamill, a merchant of Belfast. The Russells were of an old stock long settled in the county of Down. The family had clung to the ancient faith, and, like others, had suffered from the persecutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Arthur Russell died in 1845, and the care of his young family devolved upon their clever mother and their paternal uncle, Dr. Charles William Russell [q. v.], then a professor at and afterwards president of Maynooth College. The school days of Charles Russell are described in the petition for his articles, presented to the Incorporated Law Society of Ireland in 1848. He was for a short time at a diocesan seminary at Belfast, then for two years at a private school in Newry, finally for one year at St. Vincent's College, Castleknock. The records of his school career are scanty. They show that he was a hard-working boy, of more than average attainments, but there is nothing to indicate that he displayed any brilliant qualities. In January 1849 he commenced his career with Cornelius Denvir, a solicitor at Newry, who died in 1852, and his articles were transferred to Alexander O'Rorke of Belfast. He was admitted a solicitor in January 1854. For six months he took charge of an office of O'Rorke's in Londonderry. He then returned to Belfast, and practised on his own account in the county courts of Down and Antrim. About that time injudicious attempts by protestants to proselytise had led to riots, and when the reckoning came before the magistrates Russell was the catholic champion. His speeches were reported in the 'Ulsterman' newspaper, and were as able as many he afterwards delivered when at the bar. On one occasion when he had done well his admirers carried him on their shoulders to his hotel, and he had difficulty in preventing the celebration of his triumph by another riot. His success, and the advice of those among whom he practised, confirmed his resolve to become a barrister in London.
On 6 Nov. 1856 he entered at Lincoln's Inn. Before doing so he had matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, but did not graduate. From that time he resided in London. In 1857 Henry Bagshawe, then a junior in large practice at the equity bar, and now a county court judge, invited him to become a pupil.
While in these chambers he is described as being grave, reserved, and hard-working. He acquired a considerable knowledge of real property law, but conveyancing and equity drafting did not interest him, and he left to join the common law bar. The Inns of Court had recently appointed five readers to teach law. Russell attended the lectures of Henry Maine in 'Roman Law and Jurisprudence,' of Phillimore in 'Constitutional Law,' Broom on the 'Common Law,' and Birkbeck on 'Equity.' By close private study and with the guidance of these distinguished teachers he qualified himself for practice. He never attended the chambers of a pleader. The common law procedure acts had struck a blow at technicalities which that class of practitioner did not long survive. He found time to write for newspapers and magazines, and contributed a weekly letter on current politics to the Dublin 'Nation.' In Trinity term 1858 he presented himself for examination for the studentship founded by the Inns of Court. Though unsuccessful he was awarded a certificate of honour. On 10 Aug. 1858 he was married to Ellen, eldest daughter of Joseph Stevenson Mulholland, M.D., of Belfast.
In Hilary term 1859 he again competed for the studentship, which was awarded to Mr. Montague Cookson, now Crackanthorpe, K.C. On 26 Jan. in that year he was called to the bar and joined the northern circuit. He practised in the passage court, Liverpool, and from the first was successful. His fee books show that in the third year from his call he made over 300l., and in his fourth year over 1,000l.
He soon began to be known in London, and argued a case before Lord Westbury with so much ability as to procure for him the offer of a county court judgeship.
In 1872 he took silk at the same time as Farrer, afterwards Baron Herschell [q. v. Suppl.] They speedily divided between them the mercantile business of the circuit. In commercial cases, where rights mainly depended on written evidence, Russell's knowledge of business and of the law enabled him to go straight to the point and get through a long list with great smoothness and rapidity. But where there was a conflict of evidence, his style of advocacy was open to criticism and complaint. He was not a pleasant antagonist. Occasionally his opponents were made to feel a personal pressure fatal to the harmony which is a tradition of the bar. Always desperately in earnest and determined to win, he was neglectful of the small amenities which soften professional contests. He dealt with witnesses who gave their testimony in good faith with consideration, and confined his cross-examination in such cases to its legitimate purpose, viz. to glean from the witnesses such admissions as helped to reconcile their statements with his client's case. But his quick temper sometimes betrayed him into attack, and any interference for the protection of the witness was hotly resented. He had, however, great self-control, and was able, by an effort which was visible, to break off an angry discussion and proceed with the case as if nothing had happened. Opposing counsel were often sorely ruffled, but his manifest honesty of purpose secured him indulgence. He made no enemies. As years went by his methods were less aggressive, and old grievances were condoned or forgotten by the bar and the profession. On his circuit he was popular, and was ever ready with a kindly word and a helping hand for a deserving junior.
The power that made him the greatest advocate of his time was best displayed when fraud or perfidy or malice had to be exposed. It has been said that the finest actors off the stage are members of the bar. This was not true of Russell. He felt the indignation and contempt which he poured upon the witness. His searching questions flashed in rapid succession; his vehemence of manner and his determination to force out the truth secured him a complete mastery of the dishonest witness. His extraordinary power when addressing a jury was owing not so much to any oratorical display as to the authority which he could always exercise over those he sought to influence. Spellbound under his vigorous and often passionate reasoning, their verdict was often due to the merits not of the litigant but of his counsel.
In a difficult case he prepared himself most laboriously, and the junior or solicitor who failed to supply him with the information he desired felt his heavy hand. He was often as impetuous in consultation as he was in court.
In 1875 he was invited to stand for Durham; but, finding that his religion might be a difficulty in his way, he withdrew ; and Farrer, afterwards Lord Herschell, who upon his advice was accepted as the liberal candidate, was returned.
In 1876, on the death of Percival A. Pickering, Q.C., he applied with other leaders of the circuit for the vacant judgeship of the court of passage at Liverpool. The appointment was given to Mr. T. Henry Baylis, Q.C., a distinguished lawyer, in whose chambers the home secretary (now Viscount Cross) had been a pupil. The office would not have interfered with private practice. In 1880, after two unsuccessful attempts, he was returned to parliament for Dundalk. He stood as an independent liberal, and was opposed by home-rulers and Parnellites. He had been given to understand that he might expect personal violence, and an attempt was made to assault him ; but he gave such convincing proof of his courage and ability to defend himself that he was not further molested. When he entered parliament the national cause was represented in the House of Commons by a small minority of the Irish members. It was not till the franchise was lowered by the act of 1884, and as many as eighty-five members were returned from Ireland to support the demand for an Irish parliament, that he pledged himself, together with the majority of liberals, to the policy of home rule. But he was always a firm supporter of the Irish cause ; and before the alliance between Gladstone and Parnell he spoke constantly in Irish debates and voted usually with the national party. In February 1881 he opposed the coercion bill. W. E. Forster had stated that the measure was aimed at 'village blackguards.' Russell retorted with some effect that among them might be found some 'village Hampdens.' The prediction was verified in the following year when 'the suspects' were released from prison. Many of them were men of good repute, and the title 'ex-suspect' became in Ireland one of distinction.
In March 1882 he opposed the proposal for an inquiry into the working of the Land Act, and in the following April he supported the government in their change of policy which led to the release of Forster's prisoners. He resisted strongly the measure of coercion which followed upon the Phoenix Park murders, and after a brief truce renewed the warfare between the government and the Irish members. He sought by various amendments to mitigate the severity of the government proposals. In 1883 he delivered a long speech in the debate on the address, complaining that the legitimate demands for the redress of Irish grievances were disregarded ; and in 1884 he spoke in support of an inquiry into the Maamtrasna trials. He took little part in debates not connected with Ireland. In 1883 he spoke in favour of a bill for creating a court of criminal appeal, contending that the interference of the home secretary with the sentences of judges was unconstitutional; and during the same parliament he supported the granting of state aid to voluntary schools.
His opinions throughout these anxious times were wisely measured by what he considered practicable. On Irish questions he did not hesitate to differ from the government ; but the views he expressed were temperate and conciliatory. His parliamentary speeches between 1880 and 1885 did not add to his great reputation. The time was not propitious. The House of Commons was exasperated by the obstruction which Parnell was conducting with so much skill, and lent an unwilling ear to discourses on the well-worn topics that crime would be prevented by proper remedial measures, and that Ireland must be governed according to Irish ideas. In 1882 he was offered a judgeship. He was tempted to accept it, for he could not hope to retain an Irish seat. But he declined the offer, and determined to look for an English constituency. In 1885 he was returned for South Hackney, and was appointed attorney-general in Gladstone's government of 1886. His re-election upon taking office was opposed by the conservatives, but he was again returned. He threw himself with extraordinary energy into the home rule struggle. The alliance between liberals and Parnellites enabled him to give full play to his enthusiasm, and he travelled all over England addressing public meetings, great and small, in every part of the country. He seemed unconscious of what such exertions mean to most men in point of fatigue and weariness, and was content to forego the gratification, so essential to most politicians, of elaborate notices in the daily press. His speeches in the House of Commons on the home rule bill were probably his best parliamentary performances. In supporting the second reading he referred to 'the so-called loyal minority' as not being an aid but a hindrance to any solid union between England and Ireland. 'Their loyalty,' he said, 'had a close relation to their own status and their own interest.' At the general election of 1888 he was again returned for South Hackney, defeating his opponent, Mr. C. J. Darling (afterwards a judge of the high court), by a small majority. In 1887 he resisted the passing of the coercion bill of that year in a speech of considerable power.
In 1888 the Parnell Commission Act was passed. Its object was declared to be to create a tribunal to inquire into charges and allegations made against certain members of parliament and other persons by the defendants in the recent trial of an action of O'Donnell v. Walter and another. Three of the judges were appointed commissioners, and the sittings began on 22 Oct. Russell appeared as leading counsel for Parnell, and the attorney-general, Sir R. Webster (now Lord Alverstone and lord chief justice) was on the other side.
The cross-examination of many of the Irish witnesses called by the attorney-general devolved upon Russell, and was conducted under great difficulty and with great success. He had no notice of the order in which they would appear, and had little information about them. Yet it was said that few witnesses left the box without being successfully attacked and disparaged. His famous speech for the defence occupied six days, and was concluded on 12 April 1889. It was well suited to the occasion and to the tribunal, and was undoubtedly his greatest forensic effort. The delivery was so slow and so deliberate as to divest the speech of all oratorical character. It began with an account of the land legislation in Ireland of much historical value. His comments upon the witnesses were in his best form, and his criticism upon the conduct of those who had been imposed upon by Richard Pigott [q. v.] were strikingly keen and sagacious. The touching words with which he closed his speech are classic. They were spoken with an emotion which in court he had never shown before.
In 1889 he defended Mrs. Maybrick on the charge of poisoning her husband. The case excited extreme interest, and Russell felt very deeply his failure to save her from a capital conviction.
In 1890 he spoke in the debate in the House of Commons on the report of the special commission. His speech was described in the 'Times' as being that of an advocate, but 'a very able speech in which argument, invective, cajolery, and eloquent appeals to prejudice or sentiment were blended with practised skill.'
In 1892, on the return of Gladstone to power, he was again appointed attorney-general, and was once more returned for Hackney by a large majority. In 1893, together with Sir R. Webster, he represented Great Britain in the Behring Sea arbitration. The points in controversy were these. The United States, by an alleged purchase from Russia in 1867, set up as matter of title an exclusive jurisdiction over the sealing industry in the Behring Sea. This was denied by Great Britain. Independently of this title the United States claimed to be the lawful protectors of the seals bred in the islands of the Behring Sea, as trustees for all nations. In support of this contention a novel legal doctrine was advanced by Mr. Carter, one of the counsel for the United States, and was supported by an address of great length and ingenuity. The arbitrators were invited to apply to the question of pelagic sealing what were called ' principles of right,' viz., those rules upon which civilised nations ought to be agreed. This, it was said, was international law. This contention was combated with vigour, and necessarily with great labour, by Russell and Sir R.W T ebster, the former speaking for eleven and the latter for five days. They contended that international law consisted of the rules which civilised nations had agreed to treat as binding. These rules were not to be ascertained by reference to 'principles of right,' but were to be found in the records of international transactions. It was argued that, apart from actual consent, so ascertained, there was no universal moral standard. The award on these points was in favour of Great Britain. The discussion as to the future regulations for the management of the sealing industry occupied eight days. Russell's services were acknowledged by the conferring upon him of the grand cross of St. Michael and St. George.
In May 1894 he succeeded Charles Synge Christopher, lord Bowen [q. v. Suppl.] as lord of appeal, and was raised to the peerage for life by the title of Russell of Killowen. In June of the same year, on the death of John Duke, lord Coleridge [q. v. Suppl.], he was appointed lord chief justice, and entered upon that part of his career in which he earned the reputation by which he will be best remembered. As chief justice he was as masterful as ever, but he was patient, courteous, and dignified. In his knowledge of the law and in those qualities requisite for the discharge of his great duties, he was the superior of many of his illustrious predecessors. No judge gained more speedily and enjoyed more fully the confidence and goodwill of the public.
Outside the range of his judicial duties there were subjects in which he took a deep interest.
In 1895 he supported the judges of his division in the endeavour to establish the court for the trial of commercial causes, a project which for many years had been met by the strenuous and successful opposition of Lord Coleridge. In the same year he delivered an address in Lincoln's Inn Hall on legal education. He dwelt at length on the failure of the existing system, and insisted that no student should be admitted to the degree of barrister who had not given proof of his professional competency. He bestowed faint praise on the council of legal education, and urged that there should be a charter of a school of law with a senate not wholly composed of benchers and lawyers. His comments were resented and entirely disregarded. It was said the public did not demand any change in the existing system. The degree of barrister no more implied a knowledge of the law than the degree of the universities was a guarantee of scholarship. The old formula was repeated, that the best lawyer is self-taught. It was pointed out that prior to his call the chief justice himself obtained his knowledge of the law with the help of the readers of the Inns of Court an excellent argument for the existing system if all law students were as able as Russell. The benchers were firm ; he was vox clamantis as Westbury and Selborne had been before him.
The years following were occupied by his ordinary judicial duties ; the trial of the Jameson raiders in 1896 was the principal event ; the law was laid down by Russell with great clearness and firmness, and the defendants were convicted.
In 1896 he visited the United States for the purpose of delivering an address to American lawyers assembled at Saratoga. He chose for his subject 'Arbitration : its Origin, History, and Prospects.' He adhered to the view that he had laid before the Behring Sea arbitrators that international law was neither more nor less than what civilised nations have agreed shall be binding on one another. Amid great applause he expressed hopes for the peaceful settlement of disputes between nations.
In 1899, on the death of Farrer, lord Herschell, he was appointed in his place to act as one of the arbitrators to determine the boundaries of British Guiana and Venezuela under the treaty of 2 Feb. 1897. The arbitration was held* in Paris, Great Britain being represented by Sir R. Webster and Sir R. Reid, and Venezuela by American counsel. Though he took little part in the discussion, he displayed in the conduct of the inquiry his old power of seizing upon and directing attention to the vital points,
and of rescuing the argument from details which only obscured the real issues. The award was in favour of Great Britain, and was remarkable for the fact that it was arrived at unanimously.
In July 1900 he left town for the North Wales circuit. At Chester he was attacked by alarming symptoms of illness, 'and was advised to come home. In a few days it became clear that there was grave internal mischief. After an attempt to relieve him by an operation he died on 10 Aug. at 2 Cromwell Houses, Kensington. He was buried at Epsom on the 14th. He was survived by his widow and five sons and four daughters.
In Russell were combined qualities of character and temperament that are usually found apart. He was a blending of the northern and southern Irishman. With his keen intellect and resolute will he united much sensibility and even enthusiasm. He was a man of business and a man of dreams. Under a manner often cold and severe there lay concealed great kindliness and consideration for others.
His amusements were those of an idle man. He did not. find relaxation in books. He was an indefatigable player of whist and piquet, and a familiar figure on race-courses. His interest in horses was chiefly confined to ' blood-stock.' He possessed a store of knowledge of the ancestors and descendants of distinguished winners, and never tired of discoursing of them in congenial company. He prided himself upon his skill in identifying in the paddock the offspring of a famous sire.
His activity and energy followed him in his pursuit of recreation, and, if bent upon a project, he was careless of fatigue and labour. He was large-minded in his views of men and things, and his intimate friends included those who differed widely from him and each other in station, politics, and religion.
When hard at work he shut himself up at his chambers or at his country house, Tad worth Court, near Epsom, but when free he was indisposed to seclusion. For society he preferred many to few, and he readily accepted invitations to address public meetings upon politics, education, or for charitable projects. Even after he became chief justice he was ready to preside upon public occasions, and principally at dinners for benevolent objects. While he never failed to interest his audience his style was sombre, and he was more disposed to dwell upon shortcomings than to congratulate upon achievements. The information and statistics which he imparted to his audience had usually been acquired by a vigorous cross-examination of a secretary or member of committee which was only completed just before he rose to speak.
He had a strong view of his obligation to enforce the duty of honesty and good faith in commercial transactions. His protests from the bench against fraud in the promotion of companies and the practice of receiving commissions were offered courageously, and his sanguine disposition led him to believe that good results would follow. The secret commissions bill which he introduced in the House of Lords in 1900 cost him infinite labour, the collection of the necessary materials involving him in a personal correspondence with public bodies and individuals all over the kingdom.
He published the following works: 'New Views of Ireland, or Irish Land: grievances: remedies' (reprinted from the 'Daily Telegraph'), London, 1880, 8vo; 'The Christian Schools of England and recent Legislation concerning them,' London, 1883, 8vo; an article on Lord Coleridge, C. J., in the 'North American Review' in 1894; an article on the legal profession in the 'Strand Magazine' in 1896; 'Address on Legal Education,' London, 1895, 8vo; 'Arbitration: its Origin, History, and Prospects: an Address to the Saratoga Congress,' London, 1896.
The income that he made at the bar was very great. His fee-book shows that from 1862 to 1872 he made as junior on an average 3,000l. a year. He took silk in 1872, and for the following ten years he made at the rate of 10,000l. a year. From 1882 to 1892 his annual earnings averaged nearly 16,000l., and from 1893, when he was again appointed attorney-general, till he became a lord of appeal in April 1894, he received 32,826l.
The honorary degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by Trinity College, Dublin, in 1894, by the Laval University, Canada, by Edinburgh University in 1896, and by the university of Cambridge in 1897. The best likeness of him is the portrait by Mr. J. S. Sargent, R.A., now in the possession of the family, a replica of which it is proposed to place in the National Portrait Gallery.
[Personal knowledge; Times, 11 Aug. 1900; Burke's Peerage, 1900; G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage; Foster's Men at the Bar; Lincoln's Inn Reg.; Law List, various years.]