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This article was written by James McMullen Rigg and was published in 1889
Robert Gifford, judge, was the youngest son of Robert Gifford of Exeter, general dealer in a large way of business, by his second wife. He was born in Exeter on 24 February 1779, and, it is said, in the same house in which Lord King was born and bred. He was educated first at a school kept by a dissenting minister in Exeter, and then at the grammar school of the neighbouring village of Alphington. He early evinced a decided bent towards the law, being assiduous in his attendance at the assizes, and accordingly was articled to one Mr. Jones, a solicitor in Exeter.
Disappointed of being taken into partnership at the termination of his articles, he entered the Middle Temple in 1800, read with two eminent special pleaders, Robert Bayley and Godfrey Sykes, and in 1803 took chambers in Essex Court, where he practised for some years below the bar. He was called to the bar on 12 February 1808, and attached himself to the western circuit, where his connection with Exeter speedily brought him employment. His knowledge of law, particularly of the law of property, was greater than that of most of his contemporaries on the western circuit, and his rise was exceptionally rapid.
In 1812 he was elected to the recordership of Bristol, vacant by the resignation of Sir Vicary Gibbs, an office the duties of which he discharged so much to the satisfaction of the corporation that they commissioned Sir Thomas Lawrence to paint a full-length portrait of him for their town hall. On 9 May 1817 he was appointed solicitor-general and knighted. On 16 May he was elected M.P. for Eye in Suffolk, and the same day chosen a bencher of his inn. In the following month it devolved on him to deliver the reply for the crown in the case of James Watson, who was then on his trial for the offence of imagining the king's death. This he did on 14 June 1817 with great ability, but the jury acquitted the prisoner. He also appeared for the crown at Derby on 16 October on the occasion of the prosecution of some rioters, who were convicted of treason and executed.
At the general election of 1818 he retained his seat; on 24 July 1819 he was appointed attorney-general. In this capacity he conducted the prosecution of the Cato Street conspirators in April 1820, and in the following August addressed the House of Lords in support of the bill of pains and penalties against Queen Caroline, and delivered a remarkably able reply on the whole case.
In the various prosecutions for seditious libel which it fell to his lot to conduct on behalf of the government he showed a praiseworthy moderation. He now confined his private practice to the court of chancery and the House of Lords, where he had almost the monopoly of the Scotch appeals. On 6 January 1824 he took the degree of serjeant-at-law, on 9 January was appointed lord chief justice of the common pleas and sworn of the privy council, and on 31 January was raised to the peerage as Baron Gifford of St. Leonard, Devonshire. On 19 February he was commissioned to supply the place of the lord chancellor in the House of Lords during his absence. This was done in order that while Lord Eldon was presiding in the court of chancery Gifford might supply his place in the House of Lords.
This office of deputy-speaker of the House of Lords he continued to hold notwithstanding that on 5 April he was created master of the rolls. He discharged its duties gratuitously. It was generally understood that he was to succeed Eldon as lord chancellor, but this was prevented by his premature death. He had gone to Dover to spend the long vacation of 1826 at his house on the Marine Parade, when he was seized by a disorder of the liver to which he was subject, upon which cholera supervened, and, being exhausted by overwork, he succumbed on 4 September. He was buried in the Rolls Chapel on the 10th.
As a lawyer his abilities were of a high though not a brilliant order; as a political speaker he failed of conspicuous success; in private life he was courteous and amiable. Gifford married in 1816 Harriet Maria, daughter of the Rev. Edward Drewe, rector of Broad Hembury, Devonshire, by whom he had seven children. He was succeeded by his eldest son, Robert Francis.
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