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Henry Bickersteth, Baron Langdale (1783-1851)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1885.

BickerstethHenry Bickersteth, Baron Langdale, master of the rolls, was born at Kirkby Lonsdale on 18 June 1783, and was the third son of Henry Bickersteth, and brother of Edward Bickersteth. After receiving an education at the grammar school of his native place, he was apprenticed to his father in 1797, and in the following year was sent up to London further to qualify himself for the medical profession under the guidance of his maternal uncle, Dr. Robert Batty. By the advice of this uncle, in October 1801, he went to Edinburgh to pursue his medical studies, and in the following year was called home to take his father's practice in his temporary absence. Disliking the idea of settling down in the country as a general practitioner, young Bickersteth determined to become a London physician. With a view to obtaining a medical degree, on 22 June 1802 his name was entered in the books of Caius College, Cambridge, and, on 27 October in the same year, he was elected a scholar on the Hewitt foundation. Owing to his intense application to work, his health broke down after his first term. A change of scene being deemed necessary to insure his recovery, he obtained, through Dr. Batty, the post of medical attendant to Edward, fifth earl of Oxford, who was then on a tour in Italy. After his return from the continent he continued with the Earl of Oxford until 1805, when he returned to Cambridge. At this time he had a great wish to enter the army, but gave it up in deference to his parents' disapproval.

After three years of indefatigable industry he became the senior wrangler, and senior Smith's mathematical prizeman of his year (1808), Miles Bland, the mathematical writer, Blomfield, bishop of London, and Adam Sedgwick, the geologist, being amongst his most distinguished competitors. Having taken his degree, he was immediately elected a fellow of his college, and thereupon made up his mind to enter the profession of the law. On 8 April 1808 he was admitted to the Inner Temple as a student, and, in the beginning of 1810, became a pupil of John Bell, an eminent chancery counsel. He was called to the bar on 22 November 1811, and in the same year took his degree of M.A.

At first his professional progress was so slow that he seems to have doubted whether he ought to have occasioned his father any further expense by continuing at the bar. In 1819 he was offered a seat in parliament, through the Hon. Douglas Kinnaird, but this he refused, and he never sat in the House of Commons. His business and reputation so much advanced, however, that, in August 1824, he was examined before the commission appointed to inquire into the procedure of the court of chancery. His examination lasted four days, and the evidence which he gave showed the thorough grasp which he had of the subject, and the necessity of the reforms which he advocated. In May 1827 he was appointed a king's counsel, and thenceforth confined his practice wholly to the court of Sir John Leach, master of the rolls, where he shared the lead of the court with Mr. Pemberton Leigh for many years. He was called to the bench of his inn on 22 June 1827. In 1831 he declined the newly created office of chief judge in bankruptcy, in February 1834 that of baron of the exchequer, and in September of the same year the post of solicitor-general.

On 16 January 1836 he was sworn a member of the privy council, and on the 19th of that month was appointed master of the rolls in the place of Pepys, who had been made lord chancellor. By letters patent, dated 23 January 1836, he was created Baron Langdale of Langdale in the county of Westmoreland. It was not without a considerable struggle that he consented to take a peerage, and at length only withdrew his objections on the conditions that he might have entire political independence and be allowed to devote himself to law reform. During the fifteen years that he held the post of master of the rolls his judicial character stood deservedly high. Eminently patient in listening to argument, and painstaking in getting hold of the whole facts of the case, he has rarely been surpassed on the bench in impartiality, sound reasoning, or clearness of language. The appeals against his decisions were few and rarely successful. The reports of his more important judgments in the rolls court will be found in Beavan, vols. i. to xiii. The earliest of his decisions is the case of ‘Tullett v. Armstrong,’ so familiar to lawyers as a leading case on the law of married women's property, a subject about which he was always especially vigilant. By far the best known of his judgments, however, is that which he drew up and delivered in ‘Gorham v. the Bishop of Exeter,’ which came before the judicial committee of the privy council on appeal from the dean of arches. As keeper of the rolls he gained the name of the ‘father of record reform.’ It was through his unremitting perseverance that the government at last consented to provide an adequate repository for the national records. In the House of Lords he abstained from party controversy as being inconsistent with his judicial office, and devoted his time there to the prosecution of legal reforms. He conducted the act for the amendment of wills through the house, and was the principal author of the acts for abolishing the six clerks' office and for amending the law in relation to attorneys and solicitors. His speech on the second reading of the bill for the better administration of justice in the High Court of Chancery, which he delivered on 13 June 1836, was published as a pamphlet. His labours, however, as a reformer of the court of chancery fell far short of his intentions, for his time was fully occupied by his judicial and other numerous duties. He also gave unremitting attention to his duties as trustee of the British Museum and as head of the registration and conveyancing commission which was issued 18 February 1847. During the illness of Lord Cottenham in 1850 he undertook the duties of speaker of the House of Lords. Under the strain of this incessant labour his health gave way, and, in May 1850, when he was offered the post of lord chancellor by Lord John Russell, he felt obliged to decline it. He, however, consented to act as the head of a commission until a lord chancellor was appointed and the seal was delivered to him, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, the vice-chancellor of England, and Baron Rolfe, on 19 June 1850. This additional work overtaxed his failing health, and on 28 March 1851 he resigned the office of master of the rolls. Three weeks afterwards, on 18 April, he died at Tunbridge Wells, whither he had been ordered by the doctors, and on the 24th was buried in the Temple Church, close to the last resting-place of Sir William Follett.

He was a man of most admirable character, both in private and public life, of high principle, great integrity, and of wonderful industry. In politics he was throughout his life devoted to the cause of liberal opinions, and in his early life was the friend of Sir Francis Burdett and Jeremy Bentham, a circumstance which somewhat retarded his career at the bar. He married Lady Jane Elizabeth Harley, the eldest daughter of his friend and patron the Earl of Oxford, on 17 August 1835, and by her had an only daughter, Jane Frances, who married Alexander, Count Teleki, and died on 3 May 1870. In default of male issue the barony became extinct on Lord Langdale's death. His wife survived him, and upon the death of her brother Alfred, the sixth and last earl of Oxford, resumed her maiden name as the heiress of the Oxford family. She died on 1 September 1872.

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