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Charles Austin (1799-1874)

This article was written by John Macdonell and was published 1885

Charles Austin, lawyer, the second son of Jonathan Austin, of Creeting Mill, in the county of Suffolk, was born in 1799. He was educated at Bury St. Edmunds grammar school. He was for a time apprenticed to a surgeon at Norwich, but disliking that occupation he quitted it, and was sent to Cambridge, entering at Jesus College. In 1822 he won, much to the amazement of his friends who knew his heterodox opinions, the Hulsean prize for an essay on Christian evidence. In 1824 he graduated B.A. The late Mr. John Stuart Mill, in his ‘Autobiography,’ has described the immense influence exercised by Austin over his contemporaries at Cambridge in terms which might seem exaggerated but for the concurrent testimony of others. ‘The impression he gave,’ writes Mr. Mill, was that of boundless strength, together with talents which, combined with much force of will and character, seemed capable of dominating the world.’ An ardent, brilliant, and paradoxical exponent of the doctrines of Bentham at a time when utilitarianism had the zest of novelty, a militant radical of a type new at Cambridge, he won admiration in debates at the union and in conversation with his most distinguished rivals. It is recorded as one proof of his influence that the opinions which Macaulay brought from his Clapham home were modified by converse with Austin. Austin was one of a brilliant group, including Macaulay, Praed, Moultrie, Lord Belper, Romilly, Buller, and Cockburn; and none of these young men who rose to distinction gave more promise than Charles Austin. Moultrie, who has sketched that group in his poem, ‘The Dream of Life,’ describes Austin as

A pale spare man of high and massive brow,
Already furrowed with deep lines of thought
And speculative effort — grave, sedate,
And (if the looks may indicate the age)
Our senior some few years. No keener wit,
No intellect more subtle, none more bold,
Was found in all our host.

Mr. Trevelyan, in his ‘Life of Lord Macaulay,’ tells a story which illustrates Austin's brilliancy as a converser, while on a visit to Lord Lansdowne at Bowood. Macaulay and Austin happened to get upon college topics one morning at breakfast. ‘When the meal was finished they drew their chairs to either end of the chimneypiece, and talked to each other across the hearthrug, as if they were on a first-floor in the old court of Trinity. The whole company — ladies, artists, politicians, and diners-out — formed a silent circle round the two Cantabs, and, with a short break for lunch, never stirred till the bell warned them that it was time to dress for dinner.’

Having chosen law as a profession, Austin entered as a student at the Middle Temple, read in the chambers of Sir William Follett, then in the height of his fame as an advocate, and was called to the bar in 1827. He joined the Norfolk circuit, and went the Ipswich, Bury, and Norwich sessions. The reputation which he brought from Cambridge was sustained in London, and his conversational powers were regarded by those who knew Macaulay and Sydney Smith as unmatched. He wrote much for the ‘Parliamentary History and Review,’ and contributed occasionally for the ‘Retrospective Review’ and the ‘Westminster Review.’ But his rapid success at the bar soon led him to quit all literary labour.

The late Mr. Sumner, who met Austin frequently in 1839, describes him as ‘the first lawyer in England me judice,’ adding that he was ‘a more animated speaker than Follett; perhaps not so smooth and gentle, neither is he ready or instinctively sagacious in a law argument, and yet he is powerful here, and immeasurably before Follett in accomplishments and liberality of view. He is a fine scholar, and deeply versed in English literature and the British constitution.’ It was the wish of Austin's friends that he should enter parliament, and the elder Mill used his offices with Joseph Hume to get him returned for Bath. But he never presented himself as a candidate to any constituency. In 1841 he was made queen's counsel. Such was his professional position that he is said to have been offered the solicitor-generalship. His success at the parliamentary bar was unprecedented. In 1847, the year of the railway mania, his income was enormous — the computations of it vary from £40,000 to £100,000. There is a story that, when he left his chambers one morning in the year of the great gold discoveries, some one wrote on the door ‘Gone to California;’ and there is another of his having been seen riding in the park during the height of the parliamentary session, and of his saying to one who asked how he came to be there, that he was doing equal justice to all his clients. At the parliamentary bar there linger traditions of his skill as a cross-examiner and his oratorical force.

The trying work of his profession had overtaxed a constitution never very strong; and in 1848 he retired from practice with a large fortune. From that time to that of his death he lived in retirement, reading much, interested in public affairs, but withdrawn from all active participation in them, and content to do his duties as a landlord. He indulged his passion for the ancient classics, and kept abreast of modern literature. He lost the anti-theological asperity which had in early years marked his speculative opinions, and ‘wisely or unwisely,’ writes one who knew him well, ‘in his later years he accepted the religion of his country in the manner sanctioned by Elisha and practised by Socrates.’ He was high-steward of Ipswich and chairman of the quarter-sessions of East Suffolk, and his duties in that position he performed admirably. Throughout the twenty-six years which elapsed between his quitting the bar and his death the world received no hint that the forensic equal of Follett and Scarlett, the most eloquent disciple of Bentham, the rival in conversation of Macaulay and Sydney Smith, was still living; and the news of his death, on 21 December 1874, was a surprise to many of his old friends who believed that he had long ago passed away. He married, in 1856, Harriet Jane, daughter of the late Captain Ralph Mitford Preston Ingelby. He died at Brandeston Hall, near Wickham Market, on 21 December 1874.

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