Gully, William Court, first Viscount Selby 1835-1909, Speaker of the House of Commons, born in London on 29 Aug. 1835, was second son of Dr. James Manby Gully [qv.], the well-known physician of Great Malvern, by Frances, daughter of Thomas Court. He was educated privately, and at the early age of sixteen went to Trinity College, Cambridge. He was popular at the university and was chosen president of the Cambridge Union. In 1856 he graduated Bachelor of Arts with a first class in the moral sciences tripos, then recently established, and proceeded M.A. in 1859. On 26 Jan. 1860 he was called to the bar at the Inner Temple, and joined the northern circuit. He shared the usual struggles of a junior barrister, and there is a well-authenticated story of a meeting between three members of the circuit who, despairing of their prospects at home, agreed to try their fortunes in India or the colonies. But they reconsidered their determination, and all of them rose to eminence in their own country. The three were Charles Russell [qv.], afterwards lord chief justice of England, Farrer Herschell [qv.], afterwards lord chancellor of Great Britain, and Gully, who gradually established a good practice at the bar, especially in commercial cases at Liverpool. He had a sound knowledge of law, and a fine presence and attractive personality. According to a contemporary, who spoke with intimate knowledge, he was one of the straightest advocates a circuit ever saw. He took silk in 1877, was elected a bencher in 1879, and eventually became leader of the northern circuit.
In 1880 he felt that his position at the bar justified him in entering political life, and at the general election of that year he stood as a liberal candidate for Whitehaven, where the Lowther influence was strong against him. His opponent was George Cavendish Bentinck, and he was defeated by 182 votes. Nor was he more successful in 1885, when he tried again and was again defeated by the same opponent. It was not until 1892 that he obtained a seat in the House of Commons. Robert Ferguson, the liberal member for Carlisle, dissented from Gladstone's home rule policy, and at the general election of 1892 Gully was selected as a liberal candidate in his place. He was opposed by F. Cavendish Bentinck, but was returned by a majority of 143, and retained the seat until he left the House of Commons. In the same year he was appointed recorder of Wigan.
In the House of Commons Gully did not take a very active part in debates, but was known, and liked, as a quiet member, apparently more interested in his professional than in his political work. His opportunity came in 1895. In the April of that year Mr. Speaker Peel resigned his post. The liberal majority was small, dwindling and precarious, and the unionists resolved to nominate a member of their own party as his successor. The candidate whom they selected was Matthew White Ridley [qv.], afterwards home secretary and first Viscount Ridley. On the liberal side Mr. Leonard Courtney (now Lord Courtney of Penwith), who had been chairman of ways and means, was suggested by the cabinet. But his attitude on the Irish question and his somewhat brusque individualism were certain to alienate liberal and nationalist votes. Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman [qv.] avowed his willingness to take the post, and he would apparently have been accepted by the unionists. But Sir William Harcourt was unwilling to lose so valuable a colleague. Then Gully was suggested as a safe man, whom all the sections of the liberal party would support. The suggestion is said to have come from Henry Labouchere. Gully was adopted as the liberal candidate, and on 10 April he was elected against Sir Matthew White Ridley by a majority of eleven votes. The opposition resented their defeat, and it was intimated that in the event of an early change of government the unionist party, if returned to power at a general election, would not feel bound to continue Gully as speaker in a new parliament. On 25 June, after Lord Rosebery's retirement, Lord Salisbury became prime minister, parliament was dissolved on 8 July, and at the general election the unionist party obtained a large majority. Gully's seat at Carlisle was contested, but he succeeded in retaining it by an increased majority. During the short interval which elapsed between Gully's election to the office of speaker and the dissolution of parliament he had firmly established his reputation as an excellent occupant of the chair, and when the new parliament met in August the notion of opposing his re-election was abandoned, the tradition of continuing in office an efficient speaker was maintained, and on the motion of Sir John Mowbray, the father of the house, he was unanimously re-elected. He retained his office, after another re-election in 1900, until his retirement in March 1905.
Gully had a difficult task to perform in succeeding the majestic and awe-inspiring Peel, but he proved himself equal to the task. Handsome, dignified, courteous, impartial, he sustained the judicial traditions of many parliamentary generations. His professional training enabled him to master quickly the rules and practice of the house, and his judicial temperament secured their impartial application. There were some who criticised his interpretation of them as too technical, to others it sometimes appeared that, as is natural to men of sensitive conscience, he inclined too much, in cases of doubt, to the side to which he was politically opposed; but no one ever questioned his fairness of mind. One regrettable incident lost him the confidence of the Irish nationalist party. On 5 March 1901, at a sitting of the committee of supply, the chairman, Mr. Lowther (afterwards speaker), had granted the closure, and a division was called; but when the order was given to clear the house, about a dozen Irish members refused to leave their seats. The speaker was sent for, and repeated the order; but the members refused to leave the house, and were forcibly removed by the police. The rule thus enforced was not embodied in any standing order and has since been expressly repealed. But there is no doubt that it represented the then existing practice of the House. Whether its enforcement could have been avoided is a question about which anyone acquainted with the difficulties of such situations would hesitate to express a confident opinion.
In March 1905, after nearly ten years' service, Gully found himself compelled, on the ground of health, to resign the office of speaker. The strain of his work was much increased by the serious illness of his wife, to whom he was devotedly attached. In accordance with custom, he received a peerage and a pension, and a vote of thanks from the House of Commons. He took as his title (Viscount Selby) the family name of his wife. Release from his official duties restored his health, and during the remaining years of his life he was a regular attendant at debates of the House of Lords, and served the public in many ways. He was chairman of the royal commission on motor cars, and also of the commission on vaccination; chairman of the board of trade arbitration committee in 1908, and a member of the permanent arbitration court at the Hague. He was also chairman of the executive committee of the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908. Gully was made an hon. Doctor of Law of Cambridge in 1900, and an hon. Doctor of Civil Laws of Oxford in 1904, and received the freedom of the City of London on his resignation of the office of speaker. His health greatly suffered from his wife's death on 15 Nov. 1906. He was taken seriously ill whilst staying at Menaggio, on the lake of Como, in September 1909, and being brought home made a temporary recovery. He died on 6 November in that year at his country seat, Sutton Place, Seaford, and was buried at Brookwood. He married on 15 April 1865 Elizabeth Anne Walford (d. 1906), eldest daughter of Thomas Selby of Whitley and Wimbush in Essex. He had issue four daughters and two sons. His elder son, James William Herschell, succeeded to the peerage. His younger son, Edward Walford Karslake, was for many years private secretary both to his father and to his father's successor as speaker, and is now examiner of private bills for the two houses of parliament. The best portrait of Gully is that by Sir George Reid in the speaker's official house. Another portrait, painted by the Hon. John Collier in 1898, is in the hall of the Inner Temple. A cartoon portrait by Spy appeared in Vanity Fair in 1896.
The Times, 8-11 Nov. 1909
Carlisle Express and Examiner, 13 Nov. 1909
A. I. Dasent, Lives of the Speakers, 1911
Contributor: C. P. I. [Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert]