Open main menu


ROMILLY, JOHN, first Lord Romilly (1802–1874), master of the rolls, second son of Sir Samuel Romilly [q. v.], by his wife Anne, daughter of Francis Garbett of Knill Court in Herefordshire, was born on 10 Jan. 1802. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became a wrangler, and graduated B.A. in 1823, and M.A. in 1826. In 1827 he was called to the bar at Gray's Inn, of which society he had been admitted a member on 26 Jan. 1817, and of which for many years before his death he was a bencher. In 1832 he entered parliament in the liberal interest as member for Bridport, a seat which he held till 1835, when Horace Twiss, Q.C., defeated him by eight votes only. In 1846 he again contested the same borough, and on a scrutiny was declared entitled to the seat. At the general election of 1847 he was elected member for Devonport. Meantime he had prospered at the chancery bar, became a queen's counsel in 1843, was appointed solicitor-general by Lord John Russell in March 1848, was knighted, and was advanced to be attorney-general in July 1850 in the same administration. While law officer his principal achievement in parliament was carrying the Encumbered Estates Act through the House of Commons, but he also introduced and carried through bills for improving equitable procedure in Ireland, for making freehold land liable to the simple contract debts contracted by its late owner in his lifetime, and he obtained the appointment of a commission for the reform of the court of chancery. On 28 March 1851 he was, on Lord John Russell's recommendation, appointed master of the rolls, on the death of Lord Langdale, and was sworn of the privy council. The right of the master of the rolls to hold a seat in parliament had not yet been taken away by the Judicature Act (36 & 37 Vict. c. 66, § 9), and he continued to represent Devonport in the House of Commons till the general election of 1852; but, having lost his seat there, he sought no other, and was in fact the last master of the rolls who sat in the House of Commons. In addition to the discharge of his judicial duties, he was active in facilitating access to the public records under his care, continuing in this respect the work begun by his predecessor, Lord Langdale. In particular, he relaxed the rules as to fees enforced by Lord Langdale, and permitted gratuitous access to the records for literary and historical purposes, and promoted the preparation and publication of calendars. On 19 Dec. 1865 he was raised to the peerage, taking the title of Lord Romilly of Barry in Glamorganshire, and in 1873 he resigned the mastership of the rolls, being succeeded by Sir George Jessel [q. v.]

He died in London on 23 Dec. 1874, after a short illness. He was to the last actively engaged in the duties of arbitrator in connection with the European Assurance Company, a task which he undertook when Lord Westbury, the previous arbitrator, died; but it may be doubted whether his judicial powers were equal to this work. At any rate he declined to follow the rules of law already laid down in the case by Lord Westbury, and thereby greatly unsettled matters that were thought to have been finally disposed of. The characteristic of his mind was indeed rather industry than breadth or grasp. As a judge he was unusually conscientious and painstaking. His decisions were extremely numerous, and in a very large number of cases were reported, but they were somewhat often reversed on appeal. He was prone to decide causes without sufficiently considering the principles they involved and the precedents by which they were governed; but perhaps, as the court of chancery then was, his example of rapid decision was worth more than the cost of the errors into which haste sometimes betrayed him.

In October 1833 he married Caroline Charlotte, second daughter of William Otter [q. v.], bishop of Chichester, who died on 30 Dec. 1856, and by her he had four sons and four daughters.

[Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, vii. 322; Life of Lord Hatherley; Foss's Judges of England; Foster's Gray's Inn Reg. pp. x, 421; Times, 24 Dec. 1874; Law Times, Law Journal, and Solicitors' Journal for 2 Jan. 1875.]

J. A. H.