Wright, Robert Samuel (DNB12)
WRIGHT, Sir ROBERT SAMUEL (1839–1904), judge, born at Litton rectory on 20 Jan. 1839, was eldest son of Henry Edward Wright, rector of Litton, Somerset, by his wife, a daughter of the Rev. Edward Edgell. Educated at King's School, Bruton, Somerset, he matriculated as a commoner at Balliol College, Oxford, on 6 June 1856, at the early age of seventeen, and in 1857 was elected a scholar. Benjamin Jowett was his tutor, and he became one of Jowett's favourite pupils, continuing his intimate friend until Jowett's death, which took place at Wright's house, Hadley Park, in 1893. In the Easter term, 1859, Wright was placed in the first class in classical moderations, and in Michaelmas term, 1860, in the first class in the final classical school. He obtained university prizes for Latin verse in 1859 and for the English essay in 1861, and the Arnold essay, his subject being ‘The Danube as connected with the Civilisation of Central Europe,’ in 1862. He was Craven scholar in 1861, and in the same year was elected to a fellowship at Oriel College. This he held until 1880. He graduated B.A. in 1861, proceeding B.C.L. in 1863, and M.A. in 1864. He remained at Oxford until 1865, occupying himself in private tuition and classical studies. During this period he published the ‘Golden Treasury of Ancient Greek Poetry’ (1866), subsequently revised (in 1889) by Evelyn Abbott, and in collaboration with J. E. L Shadwell, Christ Church, the ‘Golden Treasury of Ancient Greek Prose’ (1870). In 1882 he was elected honorary fellow of Oriel. Wright had become a student of the Inner Temple on 20 Nov. 1861, and was called to the bar on 9 June 1865. Removing to London, he speedily obtained a considerable junior practice both in London and on the northern circuit. In 1873 he published a short volume on the ‘Law of Conspiracies and Agreements,’ and in 1884, together with Henry Hobhouse, an ‘Outline of Local Government and Taxation in England.’ Subsequently he had occasion to study the thorny subject of possession in connection with the criminal law, and as Sir Frederick Pollock, then Corpus professor at Oxford, was doing the same thing in preparation for his standard work on the law of tort, they jointly produced a volume entitled ‘An Essay on Possession in the Common Law’ (Oxford, 1888). It is ‘a composite not a joint work.’ Wright's share, part iii., which is nearly half of the whole, relates to possession in respect of criminal offences against property. The subject is one of extreme complexity and much difficulty. Wright treats it with abundant learning and ingenuity, and though his essay is not sufficiently lucid or complete to take a place among the greatest legal treatises of the century, it may be said that there was not previously, and has not been since, any work containing a fuller or more accurate statement of this particular part of the law. In 1883 the attorney-general Henry (afterwards Lord) James appointed Wright junior counsel to the treasury (‘attorney-general's devil’) in succession to (Sir) Archibald Levin Smith. In that capacity he appeared as one of the counsel for the crown in some of the prosecutions of Fenian conspirators for treason-felony in connection with the dynamite explosions of 1883 and 1884, but the bulk of his labours was little known to the general public. Wright stood without success as a liberal candidate for parliament in 1884 for Norwich and in 1886 for Stepney. In Dec. 1890 Lord Halsbury appointed him a judge of the queen's bench division in succession to Baron Huddleston. His simple tastes and radical opinions made him unwilling to accept the honour of knighthood, but it was conferred in April 1891. In June 1891 Wright became a bencher of the Inner Temple.
Wright's great learning and his swift and keen intelligence were well fitted for a court of appeal. For real success in a court of first instance he lacked patience, stolidity, and willingness to listen without open disagreement to contentions which appeared to him to be groundless. He always thought quickly and often spoke hastily, not infrequently committing himself thereby to blunders which a man of less ability but more equable temper would easily have avoided. Both in criminal work and at nisi prius these weaknesses considerably impaired his efficiency. On the other hand he had not many superiors in the decision of a difficult question of law involving the examination and comparison of a great mass of authorities. His judgment in The British South Africa Company v. Companhia de Moçambique, which was reversed by the court of appeal, and restored, with strong expressions of approval, by the House of Lords, is an example of his judicial power at its best. He was one of the judges requested by the House of Lords to give their opinions in the great case of Allen v. Flood in 1897. He and Mr. Justice Mathew differed from their brethren in holding that the trade combination in question was not made unlawful by the fact that it was intended to injure and did injure another person for the benefit of those who combined. The House of Lords upheld this view.
Wright's ability and possibly his limitations led to his frequent selection to sit as an extra chancery judge, as judge in bankruptcy, and as the judicial member of the railway commission. It was in the first named of these capacities that he decided in Jan. 1893 the important case of Samuel Hope and Arnold Morley v. William H. Loughnan and his brothers, in which, with the approval of the profession and the public, he set aside gifts amounting to nearly 150,000l.
During the later years of his life Wright lived at Headley Park, Hampshire, where he carried on the affairs of his home farm in the form of a small republic with himself as permanent president. Seated under a tree, he would invite the opinions of his labourers, and decide upon the course to be pursued in greater or less accordance with the sentiments of the meeting. He had the tastes of a sportsman, and being fond of shooting it was his habit to sue poachers in the county court for nominal damages and an injunction—the breach of which would lead to the imprisonment which he considered too harsh a penalty to be indiscriminately enforced.
After an operation in May 1904 Wright sent his resignation to the lord chancellor, but in the hope of his recovery it was not accepted. He was not, however, able to resume his labours, and died at Headley on 13 Aug. 1904, and was buried there. He married in 1891 Merriel Mabel Emily, daughter of the Rev. Richard Seymour Chermside, prebendary of Salisbury, and had two sons, of whom the younger, Michael Robert (b. 1901), survives.
A caricature appeared in ‘Vanity Fair’ in 1891.
[The Times, and Manchester Guardian, 15 Aug. 1904; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Abbott and Campbell's Life of Jowett; personal knowledge.]