Open main menu

Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 29.djvu/375

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.


severe discipline; a knowledge of English law none the less wide, profound, and minute because he had found time to master the general principles of the Roman law and the modern codes founded thereon, and could estimate more justly than most Englishmen the relative merits and defects of the two systems. His clear and logical intellect revolted against the anomalies of the English system, far more numerous when he began to practise than at present. ‘Only in a sense,’ he said in his speech on the Bankruptcy Bill of 1869, ‘was it true that our common law was not based on the Roman law, for we had used the Roman law as the Turks used the remains of the splendid temples of antiquity. We had pulled out the stones and used them in constructing buildings which we called our own’ (Hansard, 3rd ser. cxcv. 143). And he went on to urge the remodelling of the bankruptcy law upon the principles of the Roman cessio bonorum as exemplified in the continental codes, besides certain reforms in the administration of estates in chancery.

However impatient of technicalities and anomalies, Jessel was nevertheless in practice the most practical of lawyers. His mind was a veritable magazine of case-law. His knowledge of affairs was extraordinarily wide and accurate, his apprehension so quick as to seem like intuition. Physically he was indolent, and extremely averse to writing, with which his powerful memory enabled him to a great extent to dispense, so that his briefs usually left his chambers almost as clean as they entered them. Though he rarely took notes while at the bar, his speeches in reply to his opponents' arguments were none the less effective, and after his elevation to the bench it commonly happened that the plaintiff's counsel had hardly opened his case before the master of the rolls was pressing him with questions which showed that he had already mastered it in all its bearings. His mind once made up he became rather impatient of argument, and was sometimes unduly brusque in manner (except towards young and inexperienced counsel, to whom he was always very considerate), partly no doubt from sheer weariness, but mainly from an instinctive love of despatch. Never while at the rolls court did he reserve judgment—not even in the great Epping Forest case (Commissioners of Sewers v. Glasse) in 1874, where the arguments lasted twenty-three days and the evidence filled several folio volumes—and only twice, and then only at the request of his colleagues, in the court of appeal. His judgments, which were always remarkably full and lucid, were rarely appealed from and still more rarely reversed. His self-confidence was very great. ‘I may be wrong,’ he said once while solicitor-general, ‘and sometimes am, but I never have any doubts.’ This confident habit of mind with his extraordinary love of despatch led to his describing with perhaps undue depreciation Lord Eldon as ‘the dubitative chancellor,’ who might have sat to a painter for the impersonation of the law's delay. Lord Hardwicke he considered the greatest of English equity judges, Lord Cairns he was inclined to place second, and himself third. It is certain that the final estimate of his powers will be a very high one.

Jessel took for many years an active part in the management of the university of London, of which he was a senator from 1862 and vice-chancellor from 1881 until his death, and for which he prepared the Brown Institute committee's report on the treatment of the diseases and injuries of animals. He sat on the royal commission appointed on 2 May 1881 to inquire into the working of the medical acts, and was mainly responsible for the report laid on the table of the House of Lords in the following year, on which the Medical Act of 1886 was based. In 1883 he was chosen treasurer of Lincoln's Inn. He was also vice-president of the council of legal education and a fellow of the Royal Society. In the course of 1883 Jessel suffered much from diabetes, but continued to discharge his duties with characteristic assiduity and efficiency. He sat in court for the last time on 16 March, took to his bed next day, and died on the 21st. He was interred on the 23rd in the cemetery of the United Synagogue at Willesden, in the presence of a large concourse of mourners. Jessel, although a lax observer of Jewish religious rites, was a good Hebrew scholar and well read in the critical controversies relating to the Old Testament. He retained his interest in scientific botany to the last. Jessel married, on 20 Aug. 1856, Amelia, eldest daughter of Joseph Moses of London, who survived him. After his marriage he resided at Cleveland Square, Hyde Park, whence on his elevation to the bench he removed to 10 Hyde Park Gardens. His country seat was Ladham House, Goudhurst, Kent. He left two sons and three daughters. A baronetcy was conferred upon his heir, Charles James Jessel, on 25 May 1883.

In person Jessel was about the middle height and in later life inclined to corpulence. He had dark hair, grey eyes, a fresh complexion, a straight nose, and a somewhat large mouth. His face in repose had a rather heavy look, but became wonderfully animated in argument. His bust by