Page images

ney-general, and of the chancellor, Lord Hardwicke. In the year 1753, the rank of king's counsel, and subsequently of king's serjeant, was offered to Mr. Wilmot by the chancellor, both of which marks of favour he declined, in consequence of a wish to retire into the country. In a letter to a friend on this subject, he thus expresses himself: -“ Consider it well, and tell me what you think of it, for when I have once struck the sail, I cannot set it up again ; and, therefore, it requires a proper consideration and digestion in every respect : one thing I am sure of, that any change must be for the better. The withdrawing from the eyes of mankind has always been my favourite wish; it was the first and will be the last of my life.” This design, which had also induced him to refuse several offers of a seat in parliament, Mr. Wilmot actually carried into effect, and settled in his native county as a provincial counsel. The ease, however, which he thus sought, he was not destined long to enjoy. Soon after his retirement, Sir Martin Wright, one of the judges of the court of king's bench, died, and it was rumoured that Mr. Wilmot was to receive the vacant appointment. By the person to whom it related, the report was discredited, as no application whatever had been preferred by himself for the office. An official intimation of his majesty's pleasure put the question beyond doubt; but it was not without much persuasion on the part of his friends, that Mr. Wilmot was induced to accept the honour thus offered to him. The influence to which he owed this appointment was unknown to him; but it probably proceeded from the friendship of Lord Hardwicke and Sir Dudley Ryder. He took his seat in Hilary term, 1755, and, according to custom, was knighted.

Another proof of the high esteem in which his professional character was held, was given in the following year, when, in conjunction with the Lord Chief Justice Willes and Sir S. S. Smythe, he was appointed one of the commissioners of the great seal, on the resignation

of Lord Hardwicke. In the opinion of many persons, Sir Eardley Wilmot was the person to whose sole custody the great seal would shortly be committed, an event, the possibility of which he seems to have regarded with much apprehension. In a letter to his brother, Sir Robert Wilmot, he says, “ The acting junior of the come mission is a spectre I started at, but the sustaining the office alone I must and will refuse at all events. I will not give up the peace of my mind to any earthly consideration whatever. Bread and water are nectar and ambrosia when contrasted with the supremacy of a court of justice."

In the year 1757, Sir Eardley Wilmot had a most remarkable escape at Worcester, the particulars of which are related by him in the following letter to his wife:

“ I send this by express, on purpose to prevent your being frightened, in consequence of a most terrible accident at this place. Between two and three, as we were trying causes, a stack of chimneys blew upon the top of that part of the hall where I was sitting, and beat the roof down upon us ; but, as I sat up close to the wall, I have escaped without the least hurt. When I saw it begin to yield and open, I despaired of my own life, and the lives of all within the compass of the roof. Mr. John Lawes is killed, and the attorney in the cause which was trying is killed, and I am afraid some others : there were many wounded and bruised. It was the most frightful scene I ever beheld. I was just beginning to sum up the evidence, in the cause which was trying, to the jury, and intending to go immediately after I had finished. Most of the counsel were gone, and they who remained in court are very little hurt, though they seemed to be in the place of greatest danger. If I am thus iniraculously preserved for any good purpose, I rejoice at the event, and both you and the little ones will have reason to join with me in returning God thanks for this signal deliverance: but if I have escaped to lose either my honour or my virtue, I shall think, and you ought

Q 4


all to concur with me in thinking, that the escape is my greatest misfortune.

“I desire you will communicate this to my friends, lest the news of such a tragedy, which fame always magnifies, should affect them with fears for me.

Two of the jurymen who were trying the cause are killed, and they are carrying dead and wounded bodies out of the ruins still.”

In another letter Mr. Justice Wilmot says, “ It was an image of the last day, when there shall be no distinction of persons, for my robes did not make way for me. I believe an earthquake arose in the minds of most people, and there was an apprehension of the fall of the whole hall.” The modesty of the writer has induced him to suppress the fact, that his safety was owing to the presence of mind which he displayed in remaining in his place till the confusion was over.

For many years Mr. Justice Wilmot continued to exercise the duties of a puisne judge in the king's bench, having the satisfaction of acting in conjunction with Lord Mansfield and those excellent lawyers, Mr. Justice Dennison, Mr. Justice Foster, and Mr. Justice Yates. Still his desire to occupy a less conspicuous and laborious station remained, and upon two several occasions he attempted to exchange his seat in the king's bench for that of chief justice of Chester. While he was meditating this retreat, Lord Camden, the chief justice of the court of common pleas, was raised to the woolsack, and Sir Eardley received an intimation from his brother, Sir Robert Wilmot, that it was in contemplation to confer upon him the vacant office. Having proceeded on his circuit, Sir Eardley received a letter from Lord Camden announcing the king's intention of removing him to the chief justiceship of the common pleas, if such a change should be agreeable to him. The purport of this letter was communicated by Sir Eardley to his colleague Sir Joseph Yates, with an intimation of his intention to decline the honour thus unexpectedly tendered to him.

* Cradock's Memoirs, vol. i. p. 86.

Sir Joseph, for some time, in vain endeavoured to dissuade him from his purpose, and it was only by sketching an answer to Lord Camden's letter himself that he prevailed upon his friend to revoke his determination. Sir Eardley accordingly accepted the office, and in the month of August, 1766, received his appointment.

In the evening of the day Sir Eardley kissed hands on being appointed chief justice, one of his sons, a youth of seventeen, attended him to his bedside. “Now," said he, “my son, I will tell you a secret worth knowing and remembering: the elevation I have met with in life, particularly this last instance of it, has not been owing to any superior merit or abilities, but to my humility, to my not having set up myself above others, and to an uniform endeavour to pass through life void of offence towards God and man.”

Among the congratulatory letters which Sir Eardley received on this occasion, none were warmer or more sincere than the following from his friend Sir Joseph Yates :

Clifton, August 30. 1766. “My dear Lord Chief Justice, “I have now the satisfaction of addressing my friend by the title I so ardently wished him, and blessed as you are with the liveliest feelings of a friendly heart (one of the greatest blessings that man can enjoy), don't you envy me the joy I feel from this event ? I should indeed have been heartily chagrined if you had missed it; and, had the fault been your own, should have thought you exceedingly blamable. My casuistry would then have been staggered indeed, and would have found it a difficult point to excuse you.

But now it is quite at peace and entirely satisfied. You do me great honour in rating it so high, and I am sure you speak from the heart. It is the privilege of friendship to commend, without the least suspicion of compliment, and I shall ever receive any approbation of yours with superior satisfaction. But no man breathing can have a surer guide or a higher sanction for his conduct than

my friend's own excellent heart.

Of this the very scruple you raised would alone have convinced me if I had no other proofs. I have not the least doubt that you will find your new seat as easy as you can wish, and all your coadjutors perfectly satisfied. There is but one of them that could entertain any thoughts of the same place for himself; and as he knows that in the present arrangement he had not the least chance of it, I dare say he will be pleased to see it so filled. And, as to the rest of the profession, I can affirm with confidence (for you know I have but lately left the bar, where I had a general acquaintance with the sentiments of the hall), that no man's promotion would have given so universal satisfaction as yours. I repeat this to you because it certainly must give you pleasure. Success is never more pleasing than when it is gained with honour and attended with a general good will. It will rejoice me highly 'to shake your hand before I


northwards ; and if I knew what day you would be at Bath, I would give you the meeting there. I long to hear a particular detail of every thing that has passed. - Your most affectionate friend,


On the chief seat of the common pleas Sir Eardley conducted himself with the same candour, modesty, and good sense which always distinguished his judicial character. Though presiding in a court in which he had many of his seniors on the bench, his fine temper and natural urbanity overcame the feelings of regret or chagrin which might have arisen in their minds from his elevation. The firm and impartial hand with which he administered justice between the crown and the subject was well manifested in the memorable case of Wilkes y. Lord Halifax and others, in which, after much argument, judgment was given against the legality of general warrants, notwithstanding the long course of office in favour of such a practice. - There is no doubt,” said his lordship, “ but that the warrant, whereby the plain

« PreviousContinue »