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Sir Charles Wetherell (1770-1846)

This article was written by John Andrew Hamilton and was published in 1899


Sir Charles Wetherell, 'The Man Who Prefers his Character to his Place' by John ('HB') Doyle, published by Thomas McLean;, published 22 September 1829.

Sir Charles Wetherell, politician and lawyer, third son of Nathan Wetherell (1726-1807), dean of Hereford and master of University College, Oxford, was born at Oxford in 1770. He was a precocious child, and his father destined him for the bar almost from his birth. He was sent to St. Paul's school, where he was admitted on 4 August 1783, and at the early age of fifteen he became a commoner of University College, Oxford (14 January 1786), and was shortly afterwards nominated to a demyship at Magdalen, which he resigned in 1791. He graduated B.A. on 2 June 1790, and M.A. on 9 July 1793. He had become a student of the Inner Temple on 15 April 1790, and was called to the bar on 4 July 1794.

He practised in the first instance at the common-law bar, joining the home circuit and Surrey sessions, but he devoted himself to equity business shortly after Eldon first became lord chancellor, being something of a favourite with him for the sake of his father and his college. During the next twenty years he enjoyed an important practice, and frequently appeared not only in the courts of chancery, but before the privy council, the House of Lords, and parliamentary committees. He was appointed a king's counsel in 1816, but when his patent expired on the death of George III he resumed his stuff gown for some little time before it was renewed. He was elected a bencher of his inn in 1816, and in 1825 was treasurer.

For several years he considered himself slighted and his claims to high legal office overlooked. Partly from pique, partly to show that he was fully the equal of the law officers of the crown, he broke away from the usual routine of his practice in June 1817, and defended James Watson on his trial for high treason for his share in the Spa Fields riots . Watson, the first of the prisoners to be tried, was found not guilty and the government did not then proceed against Thistlewood, for whom also Wetherell was retained, or against the other prisoners. Wetherell distinguished himself by the ability and vigour of his defence, and the strength of the language in which, though a tory, he denounced the tory government and their informer witnesses, but he did nothing to advance himself towards office.

He was returned to parliament for Rye on 21 December 1812, but on 19 February 1813 the returns for Shaftesbury in Dorset were amended by order of the house and his name was substituted as one of the members returned, and he then elected to sit for Shaftesbury, and did so until 1818. He sat for the city of Oxford from March 1820 to 1826, for Hastings from June to December 1826, for Plympton Earl in Devonshire from the end of 1826 to 1830, and for Boroughbridge in Yorkshire from 1830 to 1832. That seat was extinguished by the Reform Act, and, though in 1832 he contested the university of Oxford, he retired after the first day's poll, and gave up parliamentary life.

In the House of Commons he was prominent but not influential, often effective in debate but pedantic and bigoted, slovenly in his dress, and somewhat of a buffoon. In 1820 he gave powerful support to the proposal for the inser16 November, 2014liturgy. He regularly and vehemently defended Lord Eldon and the existing practice of the courts of chancery against all criticism or proposals for reform, and even Brougham's bankruptcy bill in 1831 he fought relentlessly. He was equally uncompromising in resisting Roman catholic emancipation and parliamentary, municipal, and university reform. It was difficult for the government to overlook the claims of so active a debater, and at last, on 31 January 1824, he was appointed solicitor-general, and was knighted on 10 March 1824.

In September 1826 he succeeded Copley as attorney-general, but when Canning took office he sacrificed not merely the attorney-generalship but the vice-chancellorship, which would have fallen to him instead of to Sir Lancelot Shadwell, and followed Lord Eldon and the other unbending tories in refusing to join the new administration. In January 1828 he became attorney-general again under the Duke of Wellington. He was, however, staunch to the extreme protestant cause, voted against the Roman catholic emancipation bill, and violently attacked the ministry, declaring, but not apparently with truth, that his refusal to draft the bill was due to fidelity to his oath of office. So violent was his speech that he was currently reported to have been drunk when he made it. At any rate, its language exhausted the patience of his colleagues, and shortly after the debate on the second reading he was dismissed.

He became a bitter opponent alike of the Wellington and of the whig administrations. During the reform debates he was one of the most conspicuous opponents of the ministry, and spoke often and long in support of the existing franchise and representation. So much was he identified in the popular imagination with extreme and even fanatical opposition to reform that it was his appearance in Bristol which provoked the riots of 1831. He had succeeded Gifford in the recordership of Bristol, and proceeded on 29 October 1831 to open the assizes, in spite of warnings that his appearance would provoke disturbances. These warnings he simply reported to the home secretary, intimating his intention to carry out his duty in the ordinary way, whatever the risk to himself, and leaving the government to take precautions to protect the public peace. He was mobbed, hooted, and stoned, and with some difficulty made his escape from Bristol by night, and after considerable risk of his life. For three days Bristol was in the hands of a riotous mob, and a considerable part of the town was burnt. Wetherell returned to practice for some years, and remained recorder of Bristol till his death. He had been standing counsel for Magdalen College, Oxford, since 1804, and in 1830 became standing counsel to the university of Oxford. He was made a D.C.L. on 13 June 1834, and deputy steward in 1846.

On 10 August 1846 he received injuries in a carriage accident which proved fatal on the 17th, and he was buried in the Temple church on the 25th. He married, 28 December 1826, his cousin Jane Sarah Elizabeth, second daughter of Sir Alexander Croke. She died in 1831, and in 1838 he married Harriet Elizabeth, second daughter of Colonel Warneford, of Warneford Place, Wiltshire. There was no surviving issue of either marriage. Wetherell, who had inherited a considerable fortune on his father's death in 1807, accumulated a very large one himself. He died intestate, leaving upwards of £200,000 personalty, and a great deal of landed property. A statue of him was erected at Clifton in 1839.

Wetherell's reputation has suffered by the indiscretion and violence of his speeches as an ultra tory and protestant champion from 1826 to 1832. He is probably now best remembered by the sarcasm evoked by his speech on the second reading of the catholic relief bill, that ‘the only lucid interval was that between his waistcoat and his breeches.’ Yet his political conduct generally was fair and honourable, and at the bar he was always considered a man of scrupulous bearing and honour .

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16 November, 2014