I am happy that you are using this web site and hope that you found it useful. Unfortunately, the cost of making this material freely available is increasing, so if you have found the site useful and would like to contribute towards its continuation, I would greatly appreciate it. Click the button to go to Paypal and make a donation.

Henry Thomas Cockburn, Lord Cockburn (1779-1854)

This article was written by Francis Espinasse and was published in 1887

Henry CockburnHenry Thomas Cockburn, Lord Cockburn, a Scotch judge, was born, probably in Edinburgh, 26 October 1779. His father, successively sheriff of Midlothian, judge admiral, and baron of the Scottish court of exchequer, was a rigid tory, and his mother's sister was the wife of Henry Dundas, afterwards Viscount Melville, long the tory autocrat of Scotland. At the high school and university of Edinburgh he received an education of which he said in old age, ‘We were kept about nine years at two dead languages which we did not learn.’ He acknowledges, however, his obligations at the university to Dugald Stewart's lectures on moral philosophy, and to the free discussion of the academic debating societies which he joined, and of one of which Brougham, Francis Horner, and Jeffrey were active members. Cockburn became a zealous whig, and formed a lifelong intimacy with Jeffrey.

Admitted in December 1800 to the Faculty of Advocates, in 1806 he was appointed one of the advocates-depute by his tory relatives, the Dundases. He was assured that his acceptance of the office need not involve infidelity to whig principles, but on his exhibition of political independence he was dismissed from it in 1810. In 1811 he married and settled at Bonaly, near Edinburgh, at the northern base of the Pentlands, his new home consisting of ‘a few square yards and a scarcely habitable farmhouse.’ His whiggism prevented official preferment, but he soon shared with Jeffrey the leadership of the Scottish bar. Cockburn shone in criminal cases, especially as counsel for the defence. He retained his Scottish accent, and was fond of Scotch allusions. His manner was extremely homely, and he spoke with an air of sincerity which gave him a singular influence over Scottish juries. In ‘Peter's Letters to his Kinsfolk’ Lockhart has given a graphic description of Cockburn's early forensic style and its contrast to Jeffrey's. One of the most effective of his speeches was that in which he opened the defence for Stuart of Dunearn, tried (10 June 1822) for killing Sir Alexander Boswell in a duel. Sir James Mackintosh said of it in the House of Commons that it ‘had not been surpassed in the whole range of ancient or modern forensic eloquence.’

After 1815 Cockburn was engaged as counsel for the defence of prisoners accused of political offences, and was a prominent speaker at whig public meetings. He also advocated the extension of the parliamentary and municipal franchices of Edinburgh in the following pamphlets:

  1. ‘A Letter to the Inhabitants of Edinburgh on the New Police Bill,’ 1822;
  2. ‘Considerations submitted to the Householders of Edinburgh on the State of their Representation in Parliament,’ 1823;
  3. ‘An Explanation of the State of the Case of the Edinburgh Representation in Parliament,’ 1826.

They were issued anonymously, but on the flyleaf of each of them in the library of the British Museum appears the statement, in Cockburn's handwriting, ‘Written by me, H. C.’ Another pamphlet of Cockburn's similarly acknowledged by him is entitled ‘Observations on the Mode of Choosing Juries in Scotland,’ 1822, a protest against the now long-abolished practice which allowed the judge in a criminal case to select at his pleasure from the jury-lists jurors who were to try it. To the Edinburgh Review for January 1824 he contributed the article, ‘Office of Lord Advocate of Scotland,’ objecting to that official's combination of the functions of an English home secretary with those of an English attorney-general. An article, ‘Criminal Law of Scotland,’ in the Edinburgh for January 1825, enforced the same view, which was virtually adopted by the legislature sixty years later. He contributed another article on the Scottish poor laws in October 1824. In 1825 he presided at the Edinburgh banquet (5 April) to Henry (afterwards Lord) Brougham .

In the Edinburgh Review for April 1830 Cockburn wrote upon ‘Scottish Judicial Reforms: the Law of England and Scotland,’ and in the October number a trenchant article on ‘The Parliamentary Representation of Scotland.’ On the formation of the Grey ministry in the following December he was appointed solicitor-general for Scotland, Jeffrey becoming lord advocate, and he was summoned to London the same month to confer with a committee of the whig cabinet upon a measure of Scottish parliamentary reform. During a second visit to London in September 1831 the draft, mainly Cockburn's handiwork, of the first Scotch Reform Bill was completed. In 1831 he was elected lord rector of the university of Glasgow in preference to Joseph Hume and John Gibson Lockhart, delivering his inaugural address 6 Jan. 1832. In 1833, the votes of the four ‘nations’ being equally divided between himself and Sir Daniel Sandford, the professor of Greek, he gave his casting vote in favour of his own re-election, explaining his reasons for the step (see his Journal, i. 55) in a printed ‘Letter by the late Rector of the University of Glasgow to the Electors, November 1833.’ In November 1834 he was appointed, as Lord Cockburn, one of the judges of the court of session, and in 1837 he became a lord of justiciary. As a judge he was more eminent in criminal than in civil cases, having been always somewhat deficient in a technical knowledge of the law. His decisions in civil cases were therefore often reversed by his brethren, but often, too, confirmed on appeal, by the House of Lords, a result said to have been due to the ‘utterly untechnical character of his mind, which made his exceptionally terse and lucid judgments read in the eyes of a foreign lawyer with a force not due to their intrinsic merits’ (North British Review for November 1856, art. ‘Cockburn's Memorials’). He strenuously co-operated with some of his whig brethren in judicially upholding those claims of the Scottish kirk to independence of the state which, repelled by a majority of the judges of the court of session and rejected by parliament, led to the disruption of 1843 and the formation of a free kirk of Scotland. Apparently his one contribution during his judgeship to the Edinburgh Review was the article in the number for January 1846, ‘Scottish Criminal Jurisprudence and Procedure.’ In 1852 appeared, in two volumes, his agreeable and sympathetic work, ‘The Life of Lord Jeffrey, with Selections from his Correspondence,’ a second edition of which was called for immediately. Cockburn's last appearance in print, made a few weeks before his death, was as the writer of letters in a local newspaper, suggesting a scheme for the architectural improvement of Edinburgh. He was fond of protesting against such acts of vandalism and projects for defacing the Scottish capital as are chronicled in his ‘Letter to the Lord Provost on the best ways of Spoiling the Beauty of Edinburgh’ (reprinted as an appendix to his ‘Journal’). One of its chief modern educational institutions, the Edinburgh Academy, was (in or about 1823) projected by Cockburn in conjunction with Leonard Horner, and its citizens have given his name to the most picturesque of the streets built in Edinburgh since his death. Cockburn died 26 April 1854 at Bonaly, the house and grounds of which he had greatly improved, extended, and embellished, and he was buried in the Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, near the grave of his friend, Lord Jeffrey. He was below the middle height, with a handsome and intellectual face, fond of outdoor exercises, and a devoted lover of nature. Among friends he was a delightful companion, and his general unconventionality and genial familiarity with his countrymen of every class contributed to make him one of the most personally popular of Scotchmen. On hearing of his death, a few weeks after that of John Wilson, ‘Christopher North,’ Carlyle wrote of him in his ‘Journal’ as ‘in all respects the converse or contrast of Wilson; rustic Scotch sense, sincerity and humour, all of the practical Scotch type. ¼ Cockburn, small, solid, and genuine, was by much the wholesomer product; a bright, cheery-voiced, hazel-eyed man; a Scotch dialect with plenty of good logic in it, and of practical sagacity; veracious, too. A gentleman, I should say, and perfectly in the Scotch type, perhaps the very last of that peculiar species’ (Froude, Thomas Carlyle, a History of his Life in London, ii. 158). In 1856 appeared Cockburn's posthumous volume of ‘Memorials of his Time,’ containing his autobiography up to his appointment to the solicitor-generalship, interspersed with sketches of Scottish social and political history, and with characteristic anecdotes of Edinburgh notables. Its graphic sketches of men and manners were accompanied by reflections on the social changes which Cockburn had witnessed in Scotland and Edinburgh, and the volume was very successful. In some strictures on it, above all in those contained in an article in the ‘Law Review and Magazine’ for August and November 1856, then generally attributed to Brougham, Cockburn's veracity was seriously impugned. It was successfully defended in the Edinburgh Review for January 1857 in an article, ‘Scottish Lawyers and English Critics,’ which also gave an interesting description of Cockburn's personal appearance, habits, and peculiarities, with an excellent estimate of his character and career. In 1874 was issued in two volumes Cockburn's ‘Journal ... 1831-44,’ a work resembling the ‘Memorials,’ of which it is a continuation, though its interest, if the same in kind, is less in degree. Among its contents is a valuable contemporary record of the development of the strife which issued in the disruption of the Scottish kirk. A number of letters of Cockburn's on Scotch politics and law reform, addressed to a Scotch whig M.P., and latterly a minor minister and government official, are published in a volume of ‘Letters chiefly connected with the affairs of Scotland from Henry Cockburn to T. F. Kennedy, M.P., with other Letters from eminent persons during the same period, 1818-1852’ (1874). The copy in the British Museum Library of ‘The Chronicle of the City’ (by Douglas Cheape), a squib produced by the Edinburgh election of May 1834, when Sir John, afterwards Lord, Campbell was returned, contains explanatory manuscript notes by Cockburn. The publication of an edition of ‘Lord Cockburn's Works,’ begun at Edinburgh in 1872, stopped with the reissue of the ‘Life of Jeffrey’ and the ‘Memorials.’

Meet the web creator

These materials may be freely used for non-commercial purposes in accordance with applicable statutory allowances and distribution to students.
Re-publication in any form is subject to written permission.

Last modified 12 January, 2016

The Age of George III Home Page

Ministerial Instability 1760-70

Lord North's Ministry 1770-82

American Affairs 1760-83

The period of peace 1783-92

The Age of the French Wars 1792-1815 Irish Affairs 1760-89

Peel Web Home Page

Tory Governments 1812-30

Political Organisations in the Age of Peel

Economic Affairs in the Age of Peel

Popular Movements in the Age of Peel

Irish Affairs
Primary sources index British Political Personalities British Foreign policy 1815-65 European history
index sitemap advanced
search engine by freefind