Bigham, John Charles, first Viscount Mersey 1840-1929, judge, was born 3 August 1840, the second son of John Bigham, a Liverpool merchant, by his wife, Helen, daughter of John East, of the same city. After passing through the Liverpool Institute he proceeded to London University where he matriculated; but he continued his education in Paris and Berlin. In 1870 he was called to the bar by the Middle Temple. Joining the Northern circuit, he found himself in a company of lawyers which included several men who later became eminent: among the juniors, William Rann Kennedy and Richard Henn Collins; among the leaders, Charles Russell, Farrer Herschell, and William Court Gully. The times were prosperous and there was an abundance of legal work for barristers in the North of England and in London. Bigham, who was learned, industrious, and full of confidence, obtained a large share of the commercial business in Liverpool, where his local connexions helped him, and at Westminster.
Having private means and ambition, Bigham took silk after he had been a junior for twelve years (1883). Henn Collins and Walter George Frank Phillimore became Queen's Counsel at the same time. This step added to his prosperity. Though surrounded by formidable competitors he was able to hold his own. He had no physical advantages to assist him; handicapped by small stature and a weak voice, he yet developed great powers of advocacy. Slow and concise of speech, he was lucid in statement and a skilful cross-examiner. Many learned lawyers fail with juries, but Bigham was no less successful when addressing a jury than he was when arguing a point of law before a judge. He was soon in request in every sort of case, but he was pre-eminent as a commercial lawyer owing to his familiarity with business methods. When the Commercial Court was established in 1895 Bigham shared with (Sir) Joseph Walton [qv.] the briefs in cases of importance, and his name constantly recurs in the Law Reports and in the series of Commercial Cases during the following two years. The rapid methods of Sir James Charles Mathew [qv.], the first judge to preside over the court, suited Bigham, who was ever ready to accept an invitation to confine his argument to the essential points.
During his last decade at the bar Bigham's practice was enormous, and his income, though not comparable with the earnings of post-War leaders, was probably as large as that of any contemporary. A nimble and receptive mind enabled him to take up the threads of a case at any stage of its progress, and he was unruffled when required to hurry from the court in which he was engaged to another where his presence was more urgently needed.
In November 1885 Bigham stood unsuccessfully for parliament as liberal candidate for the Toxteth division of Liverpool, and he was again defeated in July 1892 when he stood for the Exchange division of Liverpool. In 1895 he was elected for the latter constituency as a liberal unionist. His interest in the political questions of the day was not great, and he made no figure in the House of Commons. One of his few interventions in debate was in support of a bill which in due course became the Liverpool Court of Passage Act, 1896; and he was a member of the parliamentary committee which inquired into the circumstances of the Jameson Raid.
In the course of 1897 five judgeships of the Queen's Bench division became vacant by death or retirement, and Bigham was appointed by Lord Halsbury to succeed Sir Lewis William Cave [qv.]. The applause which greeted Bigham when he walked up the central hall of the Royal Courts of Justice on the first day of the Michaelmas sittings showed that the bar approved of the lord chancellor's choice. Bigham was at once placed upon the rota of judges in charge of the commercial list, and throughout his career as a judge of first instance he continued at intervals to preside in the court where he had played so prominent a part as counsel.
As a judge Bigham showed all the ability that was expected of him, though he was inclined to the failings of those whose minds work quickly. Disliking tedious arguments and full of robust common sense, he often took a short cut or forced the parties into a settlement. But his judicial worth was recognized by his appointment to preside over the court of the railway and canal commission (1904), to act as bankruptcy judge, and to assist the Court of Appeal and the Chancery division when a temporary member was wanted. In 1902, after the South African War, Bigham sat with Lord Alverstone, the lord chief justice, and Major-General Sir John Ardagh on a royal commission for the revision of martial law sentences.
As a criminal judge Bigham was occasionally criticized. In 1902 a Wiltshire lady, charged with the ill treatment of a child, was convicted before him at the Old Bailey. Bigham held that as the jury had acquitted her on the more serious charges in the indictment, a fine of £50 was the proper penalty. Some members of the public considered that he had been unduly lenient. In January 1904 it fell to Bigham to try Whitaker Wright [qv.] for fraudulent dealings in connexion with company finance. The law-officers of the day had declined to advise criminal proceedings, and there was therefore some doubt whether the private prosecution which followed would be successful. Bigham's firm handling of the case helped to secure the conviction of the defendant; but counsel for the defence resented what they regarded as unjudicial hostility to their client.
In 1909 Bigham was appointed to succeed Sir Gorell Barnes (afterwards Lord Gorell) as president of the Probate, Divorce, and Admiralty division. Barnes had preserved the tradition of dignity and austerity which had been handed down by Lord Hannen, but Bigham brought to the trial of matrimonial cases the spirit of the commercial court. Giving evidence before the divorce commissioners in 1910 he explained that he did not look upon the question of divorce from a religious point of view at all. The divorce work of the division was not congenial to him, but with the admiralty business he was completely at home. His reign as president, however, was a short one. In March 1910 his retirement, for reasons of health, was announced. He had been a judge for less than fifteen years, but his permanent infirmity (to quote the statute) entitled him to a pension, and he was raised to the peerage as Baron Mersey of Toxteth in the county of Lancaster.
During the following twenty years Bigham did much voluntary public and judicial work. As a peer who had held high judicial office he sat to hear appeals in the House of Lords, and he was a regular attendant at the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In 1912 he was appointed commissioner to inquire into the circumstances of the sinking of the S.S. Titanic; in 1913 he presided over the international conference on safety of life at sea; and in 1914 he held the court of inquiry in Canada on the loss of the S.S. Empress of Ireland. After the outbreak of the European War, when the Prize Court was established, he was invited to preside over the board of the Judicial Committee which heard appeals from that tribunal, and he continued to do so during the first two years of the War. The cases of the Roumanian (1916, as to the right to seize enemy property on land) and the Odessa (1916, as to the claims of pledgees of cargo seized as prize) were among those dealt with by him. In 1915 he inquired, as wreck commissioner, into the destruction of the S.S. Falaba and the S.S. Lusitania. He was created a viscount in 1916. Increasing deafness hampered him thereafter in the discharge of judicial duties, but in 1921, when there were heavy arrears in the divorce court, he helped to clear the lists with all his old efficiency.
Lord Mersey was a pleasant companion, and enjoyed social entertainment, both as host and guest. He was devoted to the Middle Temple, and in his extreme old age continued to dine with the benchers despite physical infirmities. He died at Littlehampton 3 September 1929.
Lord Mersey married in 1871 Georgina Sarah (died 1925), daughter of John Rogers, of Liverpool, and had three sons. He was succeeded in the viscounty by his eldest son, Charles Clive Bigham (born 1872). The drawing of Bigham by Spy in Vanity Fair (3 February 1898) is a good likeness.
The Times, 4 September 1929
Law Journal, 7 September 1929
Contributor: T. Mathew.