Darling, Charles John, first Baron Darling, of Langham 1849-1936, judge, was born at Abbey House, Colchester, 6 December 1849, the elder son of Charles Darling, afterwards of Langham Hall, Essex, a member of a Border family, who managed estates and farmed on his own account in the neighbourhood of Colchester, by his wife, Sarah Frances, daughter of John Tizard, of Dorchester. In childhood he suffered much from very delicate health which isolated him from other children and prevented him from going to school. His education was given to him by a private tutor and added to by his own omnivorous reading, but he does not seem to have been possessed of ambition. Under the patronage of a rich uncle, by whom he was eventually left a most comfortable competence, Darling was at first articled to a firm of Birmingham solicitors. After a short time with them he joined the Inner Temple as a student and became the pupil in 1872 of John Welch, of King's Bench Walk, a pleader by profession. In these chambers he read for two years and was called to the bar in 1874, being made a bencher of the Inner Temple in 1892. He began by devilling for (Sir) John Huddleston [qv.] in Crown Office Row and joined the Oxford circuit. His early years were marked by much journalism, particularly in connexion with the St. James's Gazette, the Pall Mall Gazette, and the Saturday Review. His circuit life followed the usual round and was not such as to call for any particular mention. Indeed until his appointment as a judge Darling was never a prominent figure at the bar and his practice was almost wholly confined to his circuit. In 1885 he took silk and married Mary Caroline (died 1913), elder daughter of Major-General William Wilberforce Harris Greathed, R.E., a veteran of the Indian Mutiny, and granddaughter of Caroline Clive [qv.]. He had one son, who predeceased his father, and two daughters.
In December 1885 Darling contested South Hackney as a conservative, and after a further unsuccessful contest there (July 1886) against Sir Charles Russell (afterwards Lord Russell of Killowen) [qv.] he was returned at a by-election in February 1888 for Deptford and retained the seat until his elevation to the bench in 1897. His interventions in debate were those of a competent party man rather than of a politician with any original contributions to make. He mostly spoke on legal matters and on home rule for Ireland and was silent on social and economic issues. Apparently during nearly ten years in the House of Commons Darling never entered the smoke-room, its social centre. He gave as his reason that he was a non-smoker.
In the autumn of 1896 Darling was appointed commissioner of assize on his own circuit and did his work competently. The liberal party made the appointment a political issue on the ground that this place of profit under the Crown vacated his seat. The issue came to nothing when Darling pointed out that he had stipulated that no fee should be paid to him for his services. In October 1897 rumours spread that the lord chancellor, Lord Halsbury, was intending to appoint Darling to the High Court bench. On 26 October The Times devoted a leading article to the rumours and stated, without mentioning a name, that the subject of the rumour was a man of acute intellect and considerable literary power, but that he had given no sign of legal eminence — if he is raised to the Bench, it will be on political grounds. Two days later Darling's appointment to the Queen's Bench division was announced. The Times returned to the charge; Asquith gave expression to his doubts; much indignation was expressed in the Temple, but the Law Journal was prescient in writing: He will prove a far better judge than some of his critics believe. Darling remained a judge until 1923. He was not a great judge. His summing-up in a criminal case and his judgements in the Court of Criminal Appeal were on the whole excellent; his judgements being particularly characterized by close reasoning and being always expressed in admirable English. In a murder trial he was very good. Unfortunately, in charges of less gravity he often allowed himself to behave with a levity quite unsuited to the trial of a criminal case, thinking erroneously that he could thereby induce the jury to bring in the right verdict by an eventual careful and accurate summing-up. In fact he had frequently lost the respect of the jury to such an extent that they ignored or paid little attention to the judge. The Pemberton Billing case (1918) was a shocking example and went far to lower the status of the bench. In this instance he insisted on trying the case against the wish of the defendant, who alleged, without contradiction, that a few weeks before in a civil case Darling had said of him that he did not believe him on his oath. Darling often allowed himself as a judge to be grossly insulted by witnesses and laughed with them and at them. He presided over the notorious Steinie Morrison (1911) and Armstrong (1922) cases, Douglas v. Ransome and Wootton v. Sievier (1913), the Romney picture case (1917), and the Mond libel case (1919) amongst others, and was much concerned with the court career of Horatio Bottomley [qv.]. In the Court of Criminal Appeal Darling presided over the Crippen (1910) and Casement (1916) appeals.
When R. D. Isaacs, Lord Reading [qv.] went to the United States of America as ambassador during the war of 1914-1918, Darling as senior puisne of the King's Bench division served as his deputy and his work was recognized by the distinction, unusual in the case of a serving judge, of being sworn of the Privy Council (1917). It was at one time in some quarters thought that he would succeed Lord Reading as lord chief justice, but on being passed over by the appointment of A. T. Lawrence, Lord Trevethin [qv.], he is said characteristically to have remarked that he supposed he was not old enough. Darling retired from the bench in November 1923, an event which was marked by a public farewell in court. A few months later (January 1924) he was raised to the peerage as Baron Darling, of Langham. He spoke in the House of Lords on matters of legal interest; he took part in Privy Council cases as a member of the Judicial Committee; and as late as 1931 he returned to the King's Bench division in order to assist in reducing arrears. In 1926 he made a six weeks' tour of Canada as guest of the Canadian Bar Association. His last three years were lived quietly, and he died at the age of eighty-six at his home at Lymington 29 May 1936.
On the bench Darling was not a profound lawyer, nor was he a good judge for a commercial or lengthy case. He was interested in life and human beings and had sound common sense. His status as a wit was an established one, but how far his impromptus were prepared cannot be determined. They certainly were sometimes. But his literary sense and rapidity of literary allusion were due to a vast reading and deep appreciation of English and French literature.
Darling was a member of the royal commission on the working of the King's Bench (1912), and chairman of the committees on courts martial (1919), on the moneylenders bill (1925), and on national marks (1928). As a conversationalist, particularly in the Benchers' room of the Inner Temple, he was pleasant, amusing, and often really witty, and was a delightful companion on a walk. He wrote Scintillae Juris (1877), which is rich in gnomic wisdom and sharp satire, and On the Oxford Circuit and Other Verses (1924), amongst other works of distinct literary, although at times somewhat slight and precious, character.
Darling was succeeded as second baron by his grandson, Robert Charles Henry (born 1919).
A portrait of Darling by Charles Furse (1890) is in the National Portrait Gallery, and another by Aidan Savage (1924) is in the possession of the family. A cartoon by Spy appeared in Vanity Fair 8 May 1907.
The Times, 30 May 1936
D. Walker-Smith, Life of Lord Darling, 1938
Evelyn Graham, Lord Darling and his Famous Trials, 1929
Dudley Barker, Lord Darling's Famous Cases, 1936
Contributor: Neville Laski.