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Edward Burtenshaw Sugden, Baron St. Leonards (1781-1875)

This article was written by James McMullen Rigg and was published in 1898

SugdenEdward Burtenshaw Sugden, Lord Chancellor, second son of Richard Sugden, hairdresser, of Duke Street, Westminster, by his wife, Charlotte Burtenshaw, was born on 12 February 1781. From a private school he passed at once into a conveyancer's chambers, and was admitted on 16 September 1802 as a student at Lincoln's Inn. He was called to the bar after two years of practice as a certificated conveyancer, on 23 November 1807; he was elected a bencher on 23 January 1822, and treasurer in 1836. While he was still below the Bar he laid the foundation of his success in life by his ‘Practical Treatise of the Law of Vendors and Purchasers of Estates,’ (London, 1805), a work which became the standard textbook on its subject; it reached a fourteenth edition in 1862.

Upon his call to the Bar, Sugden united court with chamber practice and was soon retained, as a matter of course, in all cases of importance, whether in the common law or the chancery courts, which turned on the construction of wills or deeds. His profound knowledge of the technique of conveyancing is displayed in his ‘Practical Treatise of Powers,’ (London, 1808), and his learned edition of Gilbert's ‘Law of Uses and Trusts’. His diligence was unremitting, his mastery of his speciality unrivalled, his physical strength prodigious. Already, in 1817, he held a commanding position at the bar, and in Hilary term 1822 Lord Eldon conferred upon him the then very rare distinction of a silk gown. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament he was returned in the Tory interest on 20 February 1828 for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, Dorset, which seat he retained on his appointment to the office of solicitor-general, when he was knighted, 4 June 1829, and at the general election of August 1830.

In the House of Commons Sugden carried some minor, but useful measures, chiefly relating to the law of trusts and wills. A strong protestant, he gave a reluctant support to Catholic Emancipation as a political necessity; but in the debate on the Clare election (18 May 1829) he advocated the exclusion of O'Connell from the house. On the formation of Earl Grey's administration he was succeeded as solicitor-general (26 November 1830) by Sir William Horne; nor did he again take minor office. In the parliament of 1831-2 he represented St. Mawes, Cornwall, after which he was without a seat until 1837, when he was returned, 24 July, for Ripon, Yorkshire. The elevation of Brougham to the woolsack Sugden viewed with the disgust natural to a consummate lawyer, and vented his spleen in a peculiarly bitter bon mot. ‘If,’ he said, ‘the lord chancellor only knew a little law, he would know a little of everything.’ He had no faith in Brougham's projects for the reform of the complicated system of which Brougham understood so little. He was vexed by his apparent inattention in court. While Sugden was discoursing of such matters as scintilla juris or the doctrine of springing uses, the lord chancellor sometimes seemed to be writing letters or an article for the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ or perusing papers disconnected with the case. On one such occasion Sugden fairly lost patience and paused in his argument until Brougham, hardly raising his eyes from his papers, bade him continue. An altercation then ensued, Sugden complaining that the lord chancellor did not give him his attention, and Brougham replying that he was merely signing formal documents, and that Sir Edward might as well object to his taking snuff or blowing his nose. In the end Sugden sat down, having administered a reproof which, though treated for the time with nonchalance, was not wholly lost upon the chancellor. Less discreet was an attempt which he made to embarrass the chancellor in parliament. Brougham had conferred, provisionally, as it afterwards appeared, a certain chancery sinecure upon his brother. Sugden asked a pointed question on the subject in the House of Commons. Incensed at what he not unnaturally deemed a malignant insinuation of jobbery, Brougham made a veiled attack upon Sugden in the House of Lords, in a style so peculiarly offensive that it was impossible for the House of Commons to ignore it (25-27 July 1832). Feeling that he had gone too far, Brougham afterwards offered Sugden a place on the exchequer bench, and, when he declined it, made him a private apology, which, being at once accepted, laid the basis of a durable friendship.

Sugden held the great seal of Ireland in Sir Robert Peel's first administration, being sworn of the privy council on 16 December 1834. The advent of a stranger was at first resented by the Irish bar; but, though his tenure of office was of the briefest — the government fell in April 1835 — his great judicial qualities were soon cordially appreciated, and his departure was viewed with regret. On the question of privilege involved in the case of Stockdale v. Hansard, Sugden, in supporting the jurisdiction of the queen's bench (17 June 1839, 7 February, 5 March 1840), only expressed the general sense of the legal profession. He again held the great seal of Ireland in Peel's second administration (3 Oct. 1841-July 1846), during which period he conferred on chancery suitors the boon of a systematic code of procedure. By cancelling the commissions of certain magistrates who had countenanced the agitation for repeal of the union, he gave great offence to the nationalist party; but his action was sustained in parliament by Wellington and Lyndhurst (14 July 1843). Sugden moved at a county meeting held at Epsom on 17 December 1850 a resolution protesting against the so-called papal aggression; but otherwise took little part in public life during the administration of Lord John Russell. On Lord Derby's accession to power, he succeeded Lord Truro on the woolsack (4 March 1852), having been appointed Lord Chancellor 27 February, and raised to the peerage (1 March) as Baron St. Leonards of Slaugham, Sussex. His tenure of office, which was marked by the passing of measures in amendment of the law of wills, trusts, lunacy, and chancery and common-law procedure was cut short within the year by the fall of the government (20 December 1852).

St. Leonards declined office on the return of his party to power, in February 1858, but continued for many years to take an active part in the judicial deliberations of the House of Lords and privy council. Within his limits he as nearly as possible realised the ideal of an infallible oracle of law. His judgments, always delivered with remarkable readiness, were very rarely reversed, and the opinions expressed in his textbooks were hardly less authoritative. As a law reformer he did excellent work in the cautious and tentative spirit dictated by his nature and training. He would deserve to be had in grateful remembrance were it only for the abolition of the absurd rule which, before 1852, annually defeated a host of wills for no better reason than that the testator had not placed his signature precisely at the foot of the document. His last legislative achievement was the measure in further amendment of the law of trusts passed in 1859, and commonly known as Lord St. Leonards' Act.

His last years were divided between his country seat, Tilgate Forest Lodge, Slaugham, Sussex, and his villa, Boyle Farm, Thames Ditton, where he died on 29 January 1875. The mysterious disappearance of his will, which he had made some years before his death, occasioned a lawsuit which established the admissibility of secondary evidence of the contents of such a document in the absence of a presumption that the testator had destroyed it animo revocandi.

St. Leonards was LL.D. (Cambridge, 1835) and D.C.L. (Oxford, 1853), high steward of Kingston-on-Thames, and deputy-lieutenant of Sussex. He married, on 23 December 1808, Winifred (d. 19 May 1861), only child of John Knapp, by whom he had seven sons and seven daughters. He was succeeded in the title by his grandson, Edward Burtenshaw Sugden, the present Lord St. Leonards.

Besides the works mentioned above, St. Leonards was author of the following treatises and minor pieces, all of which were published at London:

  1. ‘A Series of Letters to a Man of Property on the Sale, Purchase, Lease, Settlement, and Devise of Estates,’ 1809,
  2. ‘A Cursory Inquiry into the Expediency of repealing the Annuity Act and raising the Legal Rate of Interest,’ 1812,
  3. ‘A Letter to Sir Samuel Romilly on the late Decisions upon the Omission of the word “Signed” in the Attestation to Instruments executing Powers, and on the Act for amending the Laws in that respect,’ 1814
  4. ‘Considerations on the Rate of Interest and on Redeemable Annuities,’ 1816
  5. ‘A Letter to Charles Butler, Esq., on the Doctrine of presuming a Surrender of Terms assigned to attend the Inheritance,’ 1819
  6. ‘A Letter to John Williams, Esq., M.P., in reply to his Observations upon the Abuses of the Court of Chancery,’ 1825
  7. ‘A Letter to James Humphreys, Esq., on his Proposal to repeal the Laws of Real Property and substitute a New Code,’ 1826
  8. ‘Extracts from the Acts of Parliament relating to the Oaths to be taken by the Members of the Imperial Parliament,’ 1829
  9. ‘Speech delivered in the House of Commons, 16th December 1830, upon the Court of Chancery,’ 1831
  10. ‘Observations on a General Register,’ 1834,
  11. ‘A Letter to the Right Hon. Viscount Melbourne on the Present State of the Appellate Jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery and House of Lords,’ 1835
  12. ‘Treatise on the Law of Property as administered by the House of Lords,’ 1849
  13. ‘Essay on the New Statutes relating to Limitations of Time, Estates Tail, Dower, Descent, Operation of Deeds,’ &c., 1852,
  14. ‘Shall we Register our Deeds?’ 1852
  15. ‘Improvements in the Administration of the Law,’ 1852
  16. ‘Life Peerages: substance of Speech in the House of Lords on 7 February 1856.
  17. ‘New Law Courts and the Funds of the Suitors of the Court of Chancery,’ 1861
  18. ‘A Handy Book on Property Law, in a series of Letters,’ 1858
  19. ‘Baronies by Tenure: Speech in the House of Lords, 26 February 1861, on the Claim to the Barony of Berkeley,’ 1861
  20. ‘Case of the Alexandra: Speech in the House of Lords, 6 April 1864.’
  21. 'Observations on an Act for amending the Law of Auctions of Estates,’ 1867

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