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James Scarlett, first Baron Abinger (1769-1844)

This article was written by George Fisher Russell Barker and was published in 1897

James Scarlett, first Baron Abinger — lord chief baron of the exchequer — was born on 13 December 1769 in Jamaica, where his family held considerable property, and had long been resident. He was the second son of Robert Scarlett of Duckett's Spring in the parish of St. James, Jamaica, by his wife Elizabeth, widow of a Mr. Wright, and daughter of Colonel Philip Anglin of Paradise Estate in the same island. His younger brother, Sir Philip Anglin Scarlett, who died in October 1831, was for some years chief justice of Jamaica.

In the summer of 1785 James was sent to England in order to complete his education, and on 9 September 1785 was admitted a member of the Inner Temple. A few weeks afterwards he was admitted as a fellow commoner at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he commenced to reside in November 1785. While at the university he refused to join the ‘True Blue Club,’ and acquired the reputation of a hard-reading man; he formed a friendship with John Baynes, from whom he received much assistance in the direction of his studies. Owing to his desire ‘for an early establishment in life,’ Scarlett declined to wait until he could go in for honours, and took his B.A. in June 1789. By the advice of his friend Romilly, Scarlett, on taking up his quarters in the Temple, studied law for a year by himself, and subsequently became the pupil of George Wood, the special pleader, who afterwards became a baron of the exchequer. He was called to the bar on 28 July 1791, and graduated M.A. in 1794. After some doubts, for he was entirely without professional connections, he joined the northern circuit and the Lancashire sessions. His success was gradual and the result of steady application.

He married some twelve months after his call, and his professional income for the first time exceeded his expenditure in 1798, when his father died. He quitted the Lancashire sessions, where he had obtained a great deal of work, in 1807, and soon afterwards found himself in the command of every variety of business; but, by the advice of Plumer, he ultimately confined himself to the court of king's bench and the northern circuit. Though he applied to Lord Eldon for silk in 1807, he did not become a king's counsel until March 1816. From this time to the close of 1834 Scarlett ‘had a longer series of success than has ever fallen to the lot of any other man in the law’. The largest income which he ever made in one year at the bar appears to have been £18,500, but this in later days has of course been frequently surpassed. He purchased the seat and estate at Abinger in Surrey in 1813, and was called to the bench of the Inner Temple three years later.

Scarlett unsuccessfully contested the borough of Lewes as a whig candidate in October 1812, and again in March 1816. Several offers of a seat were made to him if he would consent to support the government, but, though their acceptance would have led to his immediate advancement to office, Scarlett refused them all. At last, through the influence of Lord Fitzwilliam, he obtained a seat at Peterborough at a by-election early in February 1819.

He spoke for the first time in the House of Commons during the debate on the Windsor establishment on the 22nd of that month. His speech on that occasion was pronounced by Brougham to have been ‘one of the most able speeches that any professional man ever made’, but his subsequent efforts in parliament were less successful, and, like many another famous barrister, he failed to sustain in the House of Commons the brilliant reputation which he had gained in the law courts. On 3 March he supported Sir James Mackintosh's motion for the appointment of a select committee ‘to consider so much of the Criminal Laws as relates to Capital Punishment in Felonies,’ and was placed on the committee to inquire and report to the house on that subject. In June he opposed Vansittart's demand for additional taxation to the amount of three millions, and spoke strongly against the Foreign Enlistment Bill. On 13 December he protested against the Seditious Meetings Prevention Bill, the provisions of which he described as being ‘inimical to the liberties of the country'. He was re-elected for Peterborough at the general election in March 1820. On 26 June he denounced the appointment of a secret committee of inquiry into the queen's conduct, and on 17 October following he declared that if the bill of pains and penalties ever reached the House of Commons, he ‘should consider it as a disgrace if it was entertained for a moment’. On 26 January 1821 he attacked the government for having prejudged the queen's case by omitting her name from the liturgy. On 8 May 1821 he obtained leave to bring in a bill to amend the law ‘relating to the relief of the poor in England,’ which was read a second time on the 24th of the same month, but was subsequently withdrawn. On 31 May 1822 he moved the second reading of his Poor Removal Bill, but was defeated by a majority of sixteen votes.

Scarlett resigned his seat at Peterborough in order to contest Cambridge University at a by-election in November 1822. Though there were two tories in the field, he was easily beaten, and in February 1823 he was re-elected for his old constituency, which he continued thenceforth to represent until July 1830. He warmly resented Lord Eldon's attack upon Abercromby, and on 1 March 1824, ‘forgetting the measured compass of his long-adopted voice and manner, spoke out in a broad northern dialect and told daring truths which astonished the house’. In the following year he unsuccessfully opposed, in a speech of great length, the third reading of the bill for altering the law of principal and factor.

On Canning becoming prime minister, Scarlett, with the consent of the whig leaders, accepted the post of attorney-general (27 April 1827), and received the honour of knighthood (30 April). When Goderich was in power, Scarlett appears to have proposed the repeal of the Foreign Enlistment Act and the two Libel Acts of 1819. Though invited by the king and the Duke of Wellington to continue in office, Scarlett resigned on the duke's accession to power in January 1828. While supporting the bill making provision for Canning's family on 22 May, Scarlett declared that ‘of all public men he ever knew, he differed least from Mr. Canning on public principles’.

Scarlett succeeded Sir Charles Wetherell as attorney-general in the Duke of Wellington's administration on 29 June 1829, reserving to himself the right of acting independently of the government on the question of reform. As chief law officer he exhibited much hostility to the press, and at his instance several informations were filed against the ‘Morning Journal,’ ‘Atlas,’ and other papers for libels on the Duke of Wellington and the lord chancellor. On 9 March 1830 he brought in a bill for improving the administration of justice, which received the royal assent on 23 July 1830. By this act the separate jurisdiction for the county palatine of Chester and the principality of Wales was abolished, and provision was made for the appointment of three additional judges. At the same time the court of exchequer was thrown open to general practice, and fixed days were appointed for the commencement and close of terms.

On 9 July he moved the third reading of the Libel Law Amendment Bill, which also became law this session. By it the punishment of banishment was repealed and the amount of the bonds to be given by publishers of newspapers increased. At Lord Fitzwilliam's request Scarlett retired from the representation of Peterborough at the dissolution of parliament in July 1830, and became a candidate for the borough of Malton, for which he was duly returned at the general election in the following month. On the Duke of Wellington's downfall in November 1830 Scarlett resigned his office. He appears to have thought himself badly treated by the new ministry, and was much annoyed at the appointment of Lord Lyndhurst to the exchequer in January 1831. He had never been a very ardent reformer, and after some hesitation he made up his mind to oppose the Reform Bill. On 22 March 1831 he spoke against the second reading and declared his conviction that if the bill passed it would ‘begin by destroying the House and end in destroying the other branches of the constitution’. A few days afterwards he accepted the Chiltern Hundreds.

He now cast in his lot with the tories, and at the general election in April was returned for Lord Lonsdale's borough of Cockermouth. On 19 September 1831 he protested strongly against the third reading of the second Reform Bill, and warned the house that ‘they might soon expect that the Corn Laws would be repealed and that the first blow to all property, the confiscation of the property of the church, would soon be given’. At the general election in December 1832 Scarlett and Lord Stormont stood for Norwich in the tory interest, and were returned at the head of the poll. The return was petitioned against, but the committee, not admitting the proof of agency, declared them to be duly elected, and Scarlett continued to sit for Norwich until the dissolution of parliament.

He was appointed lord chief baron of the exchequer on 24 December 1834 in the place of Lord Lyndhurst, who had been raised to the woolsack for the second time. Previously to his appointment to the exchequer, Scarlett was sworn a member of the privy council (15 December) and made a serjeant-at-law (24 December). He was created Baron Abinger of Abinger in the county of Surrey, and of the city of Norwich on 12 January 1835, and took his seat in the House of Lords for the first time on 20 February following. In the same year he was created an LL.D. of Cambridge.

He took but little part in the debates of the upper house. He expressed his opinion that ‘a system of national education must inevitably fail’, and declared that ‘he should oppose with his utmost force the abolition of the equity side of the exchequer’. On 21 February 1843 Duncombe called the attention of the House of Commons to the ‘partial, unconstitutional, and oppressive’ conduct of Abinger while presiding over the special commission issued for Lancashire and Cheshire. The language used by Abinger in his charges to the grand juries on this occasion was undoubtedly indiscreet, but his conduct in other respects was free from reproach, and the motion for an inquiry was defeated by 228 votes to 73. Abinger presided in the exchequer court for rather more than nine years, and attended the Norfolk circuit in the spring of 1844, apparently strong and well. But after doing his work in court at Bury St. Edmunds on 2 April with his usual clearness and skill, he was suddenly seized with apoplexy. He never spoke again, and died at his lodgings in Bury on 7 April 1844, aged seventy-four. He was buried in the family vault in Abinger churchyard on the 14th of the same month.

Scarlett married first, on 22 August 1792, Louise Henrietta, third daughter of Peter Campbell of Kilmory, Argyllshire, by whom he had three sons, viz. (1) Robert Scarlett, born on 5 September 1794, who succeeded as second baron Abinger and died, leaving issue, on 24 June 1861; (2) Sir James Yorke Scarlett; (3) Peter Campbell Scarlett; and two daughters: (1) Mary Elizabeth Scarlett, who became the wife of John (afterwards Baron) Campbell on 8 September 1821, was created Baroness Stratheden of Cupar, Fifeshire, on 22 January 1836, and died on 25 March 1860; and (2) Louise Lawrence Scarlett, who married Lieut.-colonel Sir Edmund Currey, K.C.H., on 14 June 1828, and died on 26 October 1871. Scarlett's first wife died on 8 March 1829. He married, secondly, on 28 September 1843, Elizabeth, widow of the Rev. Henry John Ridley, rector of Abinger, Surrey, and daughter of Lee Steere Steere of Jayes-in-Wotton in the same county, by whom he had no issue. His widow survived him many years, and died on 13 October 1886.

Scarlett was neither a great lawyer nor an eloquent speaker, and yet he was by far the most successful advocate of his day. He possessed three great qualifications of a nisi prius leader — a thorough knowledge of human nature, perfect quickness of perception and decision, and imperturbable self-possession. His tact in the management of a cause was unrivalled. Some of his extraordinary success as a verdict-getter was undoubtedly due to abundance of clever artifice, but much more was due to the exquisite art which he possessed of putting the whole facts of the case before the jury in the clearest possible manner, and in the most efficacious way for his client. His manner was admirably adapted to his cases, and the effect was enhanced by his handsome person, gentlemanly bearing, and finely modulated voice. His one object was to get a verdict, and he never showed any desire to produce a brilliant effect or to win cheap applause. His opening speeches were generally confined to a clear and lucid statement of the facts. He made no attempt at eloquence, and never even prepared his speeches. He never took notes of the evidence, and cross-examined but little. In re-examination he was exceedingly skilful. His reply was short, crushing, and conclusive, and it was by his last words that he achieved many of his greatest triumphs. Nor was his influence confined only to juries; it was almost as great with the judges. Indeed, his influence over Lord Tenterden was so marked as to become the subject of complaint at the bar. His reputation as a judge was by no means equal to his fame as an advocate. He had been too long at the bar to be a great success on the bench. He had several judicial qualities in a high degree, but he rarely presented more than one side of the case to the jury, who, offended by his high assumption of superiority, frequently refused to submit to his dictation. Excessive vanity and a want of impartiality were the chief defects of his character.

He refused to take part in the defence of Queen Caroline, but he defended Lord Cochrane, John Hatchard, John Hunt, Charles Pinney, and the Wakefields. He appeared on behalf of Sir Francis Burdett, and, as counsel for the crown, prosecuted Henry Hunt, George Dewhurst and John Ambrose Williams.

He was the author of the ironical note appended to Romilly's ‘Letters containing an Account of the late Revolution in France; translated from the German of Henry Frederic Groenvelt,’ London, 1792. He also contributed a note to Brougham's ‘Inaugural Discourse’ at his installation as lord rector of the university of Glasgow, 1825. Several of his speeches were separately published.

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