Asquith, Cyril, Baron Asquith of Bishopstone 1890-1954, judge, was born at Eton House, in what used to be John Street, Hampstead, 5 February 1890. He was the fourth son and the youngest of the five children of Herbert Henry Asquith, later first Earl of Oxford and Asquith [qv.], by his first wife, Helen Melland, daughter of a distinguished Manchester physician. The daughter became Lady Violet Bonham Carter in 1915 and was created a life peeress in 1964. Their mother's death in 1891 may have contributed to the shyness which affected Cys, as he was always known to his friends, throughout his life. From Summer Fields, Oxford, Asquith went as a scholar to Winchester where he was a notable player of football. Like his father and his brother Raymond, he became a foundation scholar of Balliol College, Oxford, where he obtained first classes in classical moderations (1911) and literae humaniores (1913), and won the Hertford, Craven, and Ireland scholarships. He then became an Eldon scholar and was elected a fellow of Magdalen College in 1913. His reserve kept him from taking the same active part in college and university affairs as had his brothers Raymond and Herbert who had both been president of the Union. When the war began he immediately volunteered in the Queen's Westminster Rifles, later being promoted captain. From 1916 to 1918 he was employed in the Ministry of Munitions.
     In 1920 Asquith was called to the bar by the Inner Temple and became a pupil in the chambers of W. A. (later Earl) Jowitt [qv.], a choice of considerable significance later in Asquith's career. His main practice was in the common law courts. It is surprising that, with his many qualities, he was not more successful, yet his father had also been slow in acquiring a practice. From 1925 to 1938 Asquith was assistant reader in common law to the Council of Legal Education. Throughout his life he showed great interest in the academic side of the law. He seemed to be more concerned with legal questions than with questions of fact. If he found some difficulty in understanding the ordinary man, it did not arise from any sense of class distinction. In 1936 he took silk and in 1937 he was made recorder of Salisbury where he obtained useful experience in the trial of criminal cases.
     In 1938 Asquith was appointed a judge of the King's Bench division (with the customary knighthood) by the lord chancellor, Lord Maugham [qv.]. The appointment caused some surprise at the bar, for his practice had been a comparatively limited one; but this lack of experience did not prove a handicap. It was said that the lord chief justice, Lord Hewart [qv.], had felt that he had not been shown sufficient respect in being consulted regarding Asquith's appointment, and that for this reason he assigned him to try a number of notorious criminal cases at the Old Bailey where an error would have had an unfortunate effect on Asquith's reputation. It was, however, in the trial of criminal cases that Asquith proved particularly successful, because his clarity of expression and his skill in explaining the law when charging a jury were of special value. There was some complaint that he was over-merciful in sentencing the guilty, but this did not bother him.
     In 1946 he was appointed a lord justice of appeal by C. R. (later Earl) Attlee on Jowitt's recommendation, and was sworn of the Privy Council. His knowledge of the law, coupled with his delightful literary quotations and his flashes of humour, gave distinction to his judgements. Of these, perhaps the most frequently quoted are Victoria Laundry (Windsor) Ltd. v. Newman Industries Ltd., [1949] 2 K.B. 528, in which he stated the law concerning the measure of damages on the breach of a contract; Thurogood v. Van Den Berghs & Jurgens, [1951] 2 K.B. 537, on the measure of damages in tort; and Candler v. Crane, Christmas & Co., [1951] 2 K.B. 164, in which he replied to his friend Lord Denning's remark that there were the timorous souls who were fearful of allowing a new cause of action by saying If this relegates me to the company of timorous souls, I must face that consequence with such fortitude as I can command.
     In 1951 Asquith became a lord of appeal in ordinary, with a life peerage, again on Jowitt's recommendation. It was remarked that the higher he went the better he became. He held this post for only three years before he died, but during that time he gave a number of judgements of great interest. In Bank of New South Wales v. Laing, [1954] A.C. 135, he delivered the decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council on a difficult procedural point concerning the onus of proof in an indebitatus assumpsit count. His two dissenting judgements in King v. King, [1953] A.C. 124, and in Stapley v. Gypsum Mines Ltd., [1953] A.C. 663, illustrate the clarity and liveliness of his style.
     The most remarkable moment in Asquith's life came in October 1951 when (Sir) Winston Churchill offered him the lord chancellorship. He refused it, to the deep disappointment of the few persons who had heard about the offer, and Asquith himself never referred to it again. The offer was unexpected, since Asquith had no political experience which would have aided him in presiding in the House of Lords as a legislative body. Perhaps Churchill's choice was influenced in part by the fact that Asquith was the son of the prime minister under whom he had first served in the Cabinet; it may also have been due in part to the fact that they were fellow members of The Other Club, where they often met at dinner, and where Churchill had an opportunity to judge Asquith's brilliance of mind. But Asquith was far too high-minded to accept a post which he felt he was not strong enough physically to perform adequately. In a letter to his son-in-law (Sir) John Stephenson he insisted that Churchill mustn't be saddled with a lame duck on the Woolsack.
     Apart from his judicial career, Asquith filled a number of posts of importance. He became a member of the lord chancellor's Law Revision Committee in 1934. He was the high court judge attached to the General Claims Tribunal (1939) and he was chairman for six months in 1940 of the advisory committee on aliens. He was chairman of the commission on higher education in the colonies, 1943-4, and chairman of the royal commission on equal pay for equal work, 1944-6. This particularly onerous assignment gave rise to some complaints concerning the length of time that the commission sat, but the report when finally issued justified the work done in preparing it.
     Asquith must have been one of the major contributors to The Times in the number of letters he wrote to it and in the unsigned leaders. They varied from extreme seriousness to delightful humour. Most of the leaders concerned possible reforms in the law and dealt with such subjects as The Cost of Litigation, Reforming the Law, The Legal Machine, and The Law relating to Married Women.
     Asquith's publications included Trade Union Law for Laymen (1927) which achieved a popular success; Versions from A Shropshire Lad (1930), a translation into Latin of poems by A. E. Housman [qv.] which was less popular but received the approval of his former Balliol tutor, Cyril Bailey [qv.]; and in 1932 with J. A. Spender [qv.] the life of his father. About half the first volume, which deals with his father's early and family life, was written by Asquith, and a smaller part of the second volume; they would probably have been more successful if he had written the whole of them.
     His conversation and his writings have been described as showing the same deliberation, dry humour and careful choice of words that marked his father's style. Cyril Asquith was himself an illustration of his father's famous remark concerning the effortless superiority of Balliol men. Like his father he was elected an honorary fellow of the college.
     In 1918 Asquith married Anne Stephanie (died 1964), daughter of (Sir) Adrian Donald Wilde Pollock, chamberlain of the City of London; they had two sons and two daughters. He died in London 24 August 1954.
     A portrait by Honor Earl is in the possession of the family.

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Contributor: A. L. Goodhart.

Published: 1971