Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Thring, Henry
THRING, Sir HENRY, first Baron Thring (1818–1907), parliamentary draftsman, born at Alford, Somerset, on 3 Nov. 1818, was second son of the Rev. John Gale Dalton Thring by Sarah, daughter of John Jenkyns, vicar of Evercreech, Somerset, his father was both squire and rector of Alford; his mother was a sister of Richard Jenkyns [q. v.]. Master of Balliol College, Oxford. He came of a long-lived stock. His father died at the age of ninety, his mother lived to be 10l. Of his younger brothers Edward Thring [q. v.] was headmaster of Uppingham school, and Godfrey Thring [q. v. Suppl. II] acquired reputation as a writer of hymns.
Henry Thring was educated at Shrewsbury school under Benjamin Hall Kennedy [q. v.], to whose teaching, and that of his brother George, Thring used in after years to attribute that nice sense of the exact meaning of words which he rightly considered essential to the work of a good draftsman. From Shrewsbury Thring went to Magdalene College, Cambridge, was in 1841 third classic in the classical tripos, and was subsequently elected to a fellowship at his college. He occasionally examined for the classical tripos, but does not seem to have taken any other part in university or college work. He went to London, studied law, and on 31 Jan. 1845 was called to the bar as a member of the Inner Temple. He worked at conveyancing, 'the driest of all earthly studies,' as he describes it in the autobiographical introduction to his little book on 'Practical Legislation.' Having much leisure, and finding that the task of a conveyancer was neither profitable nor attractive, he passed to the study of the statute law, and there found the work of his future life. He read the English statute book critically from its earliest pages downwards, extolled Stephen Langton as 'the prince of all draftsmen,' and contrasted the draftsman of Magna Charta favourably with his wordy successors. He convinced himself that a radical departure ought to be made from the conveyancing models then followed by the draftsmen of Acts of parliament. He sought for better principles and a better type of drafting in Coode's book on legal expression (1845) and in the American codes, especially those of David Dudley Field, which then enjoyed a high reputation. In 1850 he tried his hand as an amateur in framing for Sir William Molesworth [q. v.] a colonial bill in which he endeavoured to simplify and shorten the expression of legal enactments. In 1851 he published portions of this bill as an appendix to a pamphlet which he entitled 'The Supremacy of Great Britain not inconsistent with Self-Goyemment of the Colonies.' In this pamphlet he carefully enumerated and analysed the powers exercisable by the home government and the colonial government respectively, and distributed them on lines which foreshadowed the fines of the Irish home rule biU drawn at the end of his official life. Sir William Molesworth's bill did not become law, but drew attention to its draftsman, who soon obtained employment from the government on the lines in which he had specialised. Thring drew the Succession Act of 1853 which formed part of Gladstone's great budget of that year. At the same time he was engaged on a more comprehensive piece of legislative work. Edward (afterwards Lord) Cardwell [q. v.] was then president of the board of trade, and desired to recast the body of merchant shipping law administered by his department. Accordingly, under Cardwell's instructions, and in co-operation with Thomas Henry (afterwards Lord) Farrer [q. v. Suppl. I], Thring drew the great Merchant Shipping Act of 1854 which for forty years was the code of British merchant shipping law. In the preparation of this measure he found an opportunity for putting into practice those principles of draftsmanship which he afterwards expounded in his 'Instructions to Draftsmen.' He divided the bill into parts, divided the parts under separate titles, arranged the clauses in a logical order, and constructed each clause in accordance with fixed rules based on an analysis of sentences. From merchant shipping law Thring passed to another branch of law with which the board of trade is intimately concerned, that relating to joint-stock companies, and drew the series of bills which culminated in the Companies Act of 1862. His treatise on this Act went through three editions. Thring's work on these measures began when he was still in private practice at the bar, but in 1860 he was appointed to the important office of home office counsel. This office had been created in 1837, when, as a consequence of the Reform Act of 1832, the responsibility of the government for current legislation had been largely increased, and had devolved mainly on the home secretary. John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune [q. v.] was the first holder of the post, and, on his appointment in 1845 to the governor-general's council at Calcutta, his successor, Walter Coulson [q. v.], was entrusted with the wider duties of preparing under the direction of the home secretary bills originating from any department of the government, and of revising and reporting on any other bills referred to him by the home office. These were the duties taken over by Thring, and in his performance of them he appears to have drawn all the most important cabinet measures of the time. In his introduction to 'Practical Legislation' (1902) he described how he drew for Lord Derby's government the famous 'ten minutes' bill, the bill which, after radical alterations in parliament, became law as the Representation of the People Act, 1867. The story illustrates the conditions in which the work of drafting parliamentary bills is sometimes performed. On 3 March 1866 (November in Thring's account is an obvious slip) Spencer Walpole [q. v.], the home secretary, sent for Thring and asked him to read a bill which had been prepared by (Sir) Philip Rose, a parliamentary agent who acted for Disraeli in election matters. Thring expressed to Walpole, and on the following day to Lord Derby, an unfavourable opinion on the draft. He was asked to put himself in communication with the draftsman, and was engaged in doing so when he received from Disraeli, through his private secretary Montague Corry (afterwards Lord Rowton), a message saying that the bill was to be entirely redrafted on different lines, and must be ready on Saturday the 16th. On Friday 15 March Thring took the bill in hand, and, working with two shorthand writers from ten to six, completed it. It was printed during the night, laid before the cabinet on Saturday, considered by Disraeli on Monday, and circulated to the House of Commons on Tuesday. This tour de force in draftsmanship could not, as Thring explains, have been accomplished if he had not been saturated with his subject. He had drawn for the government the franchise bill of 1866, which did not become law, and had prepared in connection with it a series of memoranda and notes which bore fruit in the following year.
At the end of 1868 Disraeli was succeeded as prime minister by Gladstone, with Lowe as chancellor of the exchequer. One of Lowe's first steps was to improve the machinery for the preparation of government bills. The most important of them were, at that time, prepared by the home office counsel, but some departments continued to employ independent counsel to draw their bills, and other bills were drawn by departmental officers without legal aid. The result of this system, or absence of system, was unsatisfactory. The cost was great, for counsel charged fees on the parliamentary scale. There was no security for uniformity of language, style, or arrangement in laws which were intended to find their places in a common statute book. There was no security for uniformity of principle in measures for which the government was collectively responsible. And, lastly, there was no check on the financial consequences of legislation, nothing to prevent a minister from introducing a bill which would impose a heavy charge on the exchequer and upset the budget calculations for the year. The remedy which Lowe devised was the establishment of an office which should be responsible for the preparation of all government bills, and which should be subordinate to the treasury, and thus brought into immediate relation, not only with the chancellor of the exchequer, but with the first lord of the treasury, who was usually prime minister. The office was constituted by a treasury minute dated 8 Feb. 1869. The head of the office was to be styled parliamentary counsel to the treasury, and was given a permanent assistant, and a treasury allowance for office expenses and for such outside legal assistance as he might require. The whole of the time of the parliamentary counsel and his assistant was to be given to the public, and they were not to engage in private practice. The parliamentary counsel was to settle all such departmental bills and draw all such other government bills (except Scotch and Irish bills) as he might be required by the treasury to settle and draw. The instructions for the preparation of every bill were to be in writing or sent by the head of the department concerned to the parliamentary counsel though the treasury, to which latter department he was to be considered responsible. On the requisition of the treasury he was to advise on all cases arising on bills or Acts drawn by him and to report in special cases referred to him by the treasury on bills brought by private members. Thring was appointed head of the office, and was given as his assistant (Sir) Henry Jenkyns, who succeeded to the office on Thring's retirement.
Thring held the office of parliamentary counsel during Gladstone's first ministry of 1868 to 1874, during Disraeli's ministry of 1874 to 1880, and until the close of Gladstone's third brief ministry of 1886. This period was one of great legislative activity. The first important measure prepared by him as parliamentary counsel was the Irish Church Act of 1869 ; the last was Gladstone's Irish home rule bill of 1886. In the interval, among a host of other bills which did or did not find their way to the statute book, but which absorbed the time of the parliamentary counsel and his office, were the Irish Church Act of 1869, the Irish Land Act of 1871, and the Army Act of 1871, which was based on instructions given to Thring by Card well in 1867, and the labours on which, as its draftsman has remarked, lasted longer than the siege of Troy. The preparation of many bills relating to Ireland, which strictly lay outside the scope of his office, is accounted for by the circumstance that Irish bills always involve finance, and in practice the work of preparing them is apt to fall mainly on the office which works immediately under the treasury. It may be added that Thring's experience of Irish legislation made him a convinced home ruler.
Thring will be remembered as a great parliamentary draftsman. He broke away from the old conveyancing traditions, and introduced a new style, expounded and illustrated in the 'Instructions to Draftsmen,' which were used for many years by those working for and under him, and were eventually embodied in his little book on 'Practical Legislation' (1902, with an interesting autobiographical introduction). His drafting was criticised by the bench and elsewhere, often without regard for the difficulties inherent in parliamentary legislation, but the value of the improvements which he introduced into the style of drafting was emphatically recognised by the select committee on Acts of parliament which sat in 1875.
Thring was not merely a skilful draftsman. He was also 'a great legislator, so far as his duties and functions allowed, in the constructive sense. The quickness of his mind and the force of his imagination, controlled and restrained as they were by his rare technical skill, his vast knowledge of administrative law, and his instinctive insight into the nature, ways, and habits of both houses of parliament, enabled him at once to give effect to the views and wishes of the ministers who instructed him in a form best adapted to find the line of least parliamentary resistance' (The Times, 6 Feb. 1907). He thought in bills and clauses, and knew by instinct whether suggestions presented to him were capable of legislative expression, and if so how they should be expressed and arranged.
Improvement of the statute law was the object to which Thring persistently devoted the energies of his long and active life. He endeavoured to effect this object, not merely by introducing a better style of drafting new laws, but by throwing light upon the contents, diminishing the bulk, and reducing to more orderly arrangement the vast and chaotic mass of existing statute law. He was an original member of the statute law committee which was first appointed by Lord Cairns [q. v.] in 1868 ; he was for many years, and until his death, chairman of that committee and the last survivor of its original members. The work done by this committee fell under four heads: — (1) indexing; (2) expurgation; (3) republication ; (4) consolidation. The chronological table of and index to the statutes, now annually published, were prepared in accordance with a plan and in pursuance of detailed instructions carefully framed by Thring. The contents of the statute book having been thus ascertained, the next step was to purge it of dead matter. This has been done by a long succession of statute law revision bills, most of which were framed under the directions of the statute law committee at a time when Thring was its most active member. Then came the republication of the living matter under the title of the statutes revised. The first edition of these statutes substituted eighteen volumes for 118 volumes of the statutes at large, the second comprised in five volumes the pre-Victorian statutes which had formerly occupied seventy-seven volumes. In the process of consolidation, although a great deal still remains to be done, much was done in Thring's time and under his guidance, and his name takes the first place in the history of this important task. It was to Thring's initiative that was due the valuable publication of state trials from 1820, when Howell's series ended, to 1858. Its preparation arose out of a memorandum which he wrote in 1885, while he was parliamentary counsel, and he was an unfailing attendant at the meetings of the committee which supervised the publication.
Thring was made a K.C.B. in 1873, and was created a peer in 1886, on his retirement. In 1893 he seconded the address to the crown, but he was not a frequent speaker in the House of Lords, though, when he did speak, he could express himself clearly, cogently, and incisively. His quick mind and constructive intellect made him a valuable member of many public bodies, especially after his retirement from office in 1886. He had a country house at Englefield Green, in Surrey, and discharged his local duties by active membership of the Surrey county council and of the governing body of Holloway College. He also took a large part in the work of the council of the Imperial Institute and of the Athenæum club, where he was a well-known and popular figure.
Thring was a keen, vivacious little man, with a sharp tongue, which was often outspoken in its criticism of those whom he efficiently and loyally served. 'Now, Thring,' said Cardwell one day, at the outset of a cabinet committee, 'let us begin, by assuming that we are all d — d fools, and then get to business.'
Thring's published writings arose out of his professional or official work. Besides those mentioned he contributed an article to the 'Quarterly Review' of January 1874 which was republished in 1875 as a pamphlet under the title ' Simphfication of the Law.' He superintended the compilation of the first edition of the war office 'Manual of Military Law,' and contributed to it four chapters, one of which, on the laws and customs of war on land, was taken by Sir Henry Maine [q. v.] as the text of some of his lectures on international law.
Thring died in London on 4 Feb. 1907, and was buried at Virginia Water. He married on 14 Aug. 1856 Elizabeth (d. 1897), daughter of John Cardwell of Liverpool and sister of Lord Cardwell. He left one daughter, but no son, and the peerage became extinct on his death.
A cartoon portrait by 'Spy' appeared in 'Vanity Fair' in 1893.
[Introduction to Practical Legislation; The Times, 6 Feb. 1907; personal knowledge.]