Open main menu

PEMBERTON (afterwards PEMBERTON LEIGH), THOMAS, Lord Kingsdown (1793–1867), eldest son of Robert Pemberton, a chancery barrister, by his wife Margaret, eldest daughter and coheiress of Edward Leigh of Bispham Hall, Lancashire, was born on 11 Feb. 1793. His father, a member of a family settled near Warrington in Lancashire, and a descendant of Sir Francis Pemberton [q. v.], chief justice of the common pleas, died in 1804. Though he had earned a good income, he had been unable to save money, and his widow was left poorly off, considering the size of his family—three sons and two daughters. Accordingly Thomas Pemberton, who had been for four years at Dr. Horne's school at Chiswick to be prepared for Westminster and Oxford, was obliged to give up all hope of a university career, and, quitting Dr. Horne's school at the age of sixteen, went into the office of a solicitor, Mr. Farrer, for twelve months, and then became a pupil in the chambers of his uncle, Edward Cooke, a barrister in good chancery practice. He had been a studious and diligent boy, left school a fair scholar, and was throughout his life fond of classical studies. He earned 100l. to 150l. a year before his call by drawing equity pleadings, according to the practice of the day, for solicitors. He was called to the bar at Lincoln's Inn in 1816. His youth had been, as he called it, ‘gloomy and joyless,’ but he had read diligently, and success came rapidly. He made the hitherto unprecedented sum of 600l. in his first year. Though he joined the northern circuit and occasionally appeared before parliamentary committees on election petitions, his practice was almost exclusively in equity. Before he was thirty his income was 3,000l. a year. In 1829 he became a king's counsel, and divided with Bickersteth the practice of the rolls court, which, when Bickersteth became Lord Langdale, he entirely dominated. In April 1831 he entered parliament for Rye as a staunch conservative, after an election at which great violence was displayed; he spoke with great effect against the Reform Bill, and afterwards published his speech. He lost the seat in 1832, began and abandoned a candidature for Taunton, and was elected in January 1835 for Ripon, which seat he retained as long as he remained in parliament. He declined in December 1835 Sir Robert Peel's offer of the solicitor-generalship in his first administration, as well as Lord Lyndhurst's offer of a puisne judgeship. With characteristic diffidence he distrusted his judicial fitness, and preferred to remain undisputed leader of the chancery bar. Until 1838 he spoke little in the House of Commons, when he joined with Sugden, his colleague in the representation of Ripon, in resisting the privilege claim of the House of Commons in the case of Stockdale v. Hansard. On no other occasion did he produce so powerful an effect in debate. His pamphlet on this controversy, in the form of a letter to Lord Langdale, had been much read, and had passed through two editions in 1837. He afterwards took a large share in the arrangements made for settling the matter by act of parliament. In 1841 the vice-chancellorship was offered him and refused, but he accepted from Sir Robert Peel in 1841 the post of attorney-general for the Duchy of Cornwall.

In December 1842 Pemberton came into a life income of upwards of 14,000l. a year on the death of Sir Robert Holt Leigh, a distant relative and large Lancashire landowner, whose admiration he had won by successfully conducting a cause for him in 1831. He then assumed the name of Leigh in addition to his father's surname, Pemberton, and took a step for which few parallels can be found among lawyers. His position at the bar was such that he could rise no higher, unless he became a judge or a law officer, and he wished to be neither. He was rich, unmarried, and unencumbered, and he determined to quit public and professional life, and retire into the country to his country seat, Torry Hill, near Sittingbourne, Kent, and to the country sports he loved. Sir Robert Peel made him thereon chancellor of the Duchy of Cornwall and a privy councillor, and it was arranged that when he quitted the bar he should become one of the members of the judicial committee of the privy council. He resigned his seat for Ripon in the spring of 1843, and his practice at the bar at Christmas. He was a man of varied tastes, and even when in full practice had travelled widely in Bohemia, Italy, and Spain; but he feared now the want of occupation. ‘I provided myself,’ he wrote, ‘with microscopes, telescopes, painting implements, a chest of turners' tools, and I know not how many other resources against ennui, none of which I ever used, and after the lapse of seventeen years I can safely say that I have never had one hour hang heavy on me.’

In February 1844 he commenced his attendances at the judicial committee of the privy council, which continued for twenty years. He also devoted considerable time to the affairs of the Duchy of Cornwall, and thus became intimate with, and an admirer of, Prince Albert. During his tenure of the chancellorship he succeeded in rehabilitating the finances of the duchy, and in accumulating a considerable fund during the minority of the Prince of Wales. Honours were repeatedly offered to him and refused. It was expected that he would have been lord chancellor in 1849 (Lord Campbell, Life, ii. 248). Four successive governments, beginning with Lord John Russell's in 1853, offered him a peerage. Lord Derby pressed the great seal upon him in vain, though it is said that he promised to take it if the interests of the conservative party, to which he was staunch, imperatively demanded it. He steadily devoted himself to judicial labours. The judicial committee, reorganised in 1833, still required a strong hand to mould its practice. Pemberton Leigh (as he was called from 1842) soon acquired a control over its proceedings, and, more than any other member, regulated its practice, reduced its costs, and cleared off its arrears. Though nominally only the equal of his colleagues, it was well known that he was their chief in bearing the burden of preparing and formulating decisions. In 1854 Lord Aberdeen requested him to take especial charge of appeals in prize cases, and he uniformly interpreted the law of blockade, capture, and prize with a liberal bent towards freedom of trade. By his elevation to the peerage as Lord Kingsdown in 1858 he also became a member of the appellate tribunal of the House of Lords, and, though he never really approved of it as the ultimate court of appeal, was a much needed source of judicial strength there. In his later years indolence and distaste for judicial activity somewhat grew upon him, and at length, after a lingering illness, he died at Torry Hill on 7 Oct. 1867. He was unmarried, and his title became extinct. He was buried at Frinsted Church, near Sittingbourne.

Modest and shy, Kingsdown shrank from publicity or popularity, and his great powers were only known to a few of the most enlightened members of his own profession. Yet he stands in the front rank of English judges. His fastidious striving after perfection, his refinement of taste, his inexhaustible patience and vast learning, made the judgments which he prepared at once standard decisions and models of judicial expression. Many of them he wrote and rewrote several times over. His legal knowledge was extraordinarily varied, and he was especially versed in the minutiæ of Indian land tenures. His grasp of principles was great, and led him to place little dependence on reported decisions. For twenty years, without ever receiving or desiring a shilling of public money, he rendered to the public unnoticed services of the highest imperial value. Personally he was simple and unassuming in tastes and manner, generous with money, tolerant in opinion, but a pious and convinced churchman; his fault, if it be one, was want of ambition and a dislike of popularity.

[See Edinburgh Review, cxxix. 40, founded on Lord Kingsdown's own privately printed Reminiscences; Law Mag. xxvi. 46; Times, 8 Oct. 1867, probably written by H. Reeve (see Nash's Life of Lord Westbury, ii. 157); Greville Memoirs, 1st ser. iii. 267; Gent. Mag. 1867 ii. 674.]

J. A. H.