Birkett, William Norman, first Baron Birkett 1883-1962, barrister and judge, was born at Ulverston, Lancashire, 6 September 1883, the fourth of the five children of Thomas Birkett and his first wife, Agnes, daughter of Moses Tyson, butcher. His mother died when he was three. His father was a draper with a substantial business at Ulverston, a prominent Wesleyan, active in the UDC and the Liberal Club. Norman Birkett was educated at the Wesleyan day school at Ulverston until he was eleven, and then at the higher-grade school at Barrow. He left school at fifteen and started in one of his father's shops as an apprentice. It was not long before he became a local preacher on the Ulverston Methodist circuit. His success was such that his father, who had decided that his son would never make a good draper, allowed him to leave the business when he was twenty-one and to study at home for the Wesleyan ministry. After about a year, the Methodist minister who was coaching him suggested he should go to Cambridge and read for a degree in history and theology.
So in 1907 at the age of twenty-four Birkett went up to Emmanuel College where he spent four years. He became president of the Union in 1910 and obtained a second class in history in part i of his tripos (1909) and a second in law in part ii (1911). He also obtained a first class in the theological special examination in 1910. Birkett did not find the change from theology to law an easy one to make, since he knew that it would be a disappointment to his father. But he had blossomed out in Cambridge and felt, as he told his father, that he would find the ministry rather cramping. His confidence that he could get to the bar without being a further burden on his father was justified. He was lucky enough to get a job as private secretary to one of the Cadburys at Birmingham; this paid him £200 a year with time to work for his bar examinations. He was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in June 1913 and in the following September he started practice as a local at Birmingham where obviously his prospects were best.
Birkett was thirty when he went to the bar but, like many who start practising at that age, he soon made up for lost time. His progress was naturally hastened by the fact that, when war broke out in 1914, most of his competitors went into the Services while Birkett himself was twice rejected as medically unfit. It was unusual, but not unheard of, for a junior barrister who had made a success at a local bar to move to London to spread his wings. In 1920 Birkett made the move and entered the chambers of Sir Edward Marshall Hall [qv.], then at the height of his fame and fashion; he acquired also the services of Edgar Bowker, Hall's clerk and one of the most successful of his time. In the same year (1920) Birkett married Ruth (died 1969), daughter of Emil Nilsson, of Sweden; this brought him lifelong happiness and a son and a daughter. The move to London was of course intended to lead to a silk gown; and after four years, when his earnings were over £4,000, Birkett felt justified in taking the step; he was made KC in 1924.
From then on until the outbreak of war in 1939 Birkett led a glorious life. The speed of his success was due in some measure to the talent of his clerk and to the ill health of Marshall Hall which gave Birkett unexpected chances. But these aids did no more than hasten his recognition as one of the foremost advocates of his time. In his first year as a silk he doubled the earnings of his last as a junior; and thereafter, although some of the sensational murderers he defended cannot have been sensational payers, his earnings averaged around £25,000 a year. Speaking thirty-five years later of Marshall Hall, Birkett said: The age that produced and gloried in his spectacular triumphs in the courts, has passed away for ever. The advocate no longer plays the part in our public life that he once did. The fashionable divorce suit, the sensational libel action, the great murder trial—they are no longer the dramatic events that once occupied public attention to the exclusion of almost everything else.
Hall died in 1927, but the great age continued until the second war; when that was over the special jury list perished and advocacy changed its bright apparel for a sober suit. Birkett had not the grandiose appearance of Hall—he was lanky, had untidy red hair, angular features, and spectacles—but he had the golden voice. In all the forensic gifts he was highly skilled but in chief he was an orator. Oratory itself was changing: tawdriness was more easily detected and men were beginning to look for earnestness and sincerity; these were Birkett's qualities, founded on his great integrity. He gave all he had to all his cases, often to the point of nervous exhaustion. At the bar he was universally liked; there can hardly have been anyone who knew him who did not receive from him some piece, great or small, of kindness or of courtesy. Of the many famous cases with which he was connected may be mentioned his defence in the Gladstone libel case (1927), of Clarence Hatry [qv.] (1930), of Maundy Gregory in the honours case (1933), of the murderers Mancini (1934) and Dr. Ruxton (1936), as well as his prosecution of another murderer A. A. Rouse in the blazing car case (1931).
During this time Birkett was also in politics. He first stood for Parliament in the post-war election of 1918 when, like many other Liberals without the coupon, he was at the bottom of the poll. Thereafter he shared the vicissitudes of the Liberal Party with the result that he was in the House only briefly, in the Parliaments of 1923-4 and 1929-31. He wanted very much to hold one of the law offices; but while many of his contemporaries, despairing otherwise of a political future, moved either to the left or to the right, he would not swerve.
Birkett held his last brief on the first day of the Michaelmas term in 1939 after the war broke out. Then he accepted the chairmanship of a committee to advise the home secretary on cases of detention under the emergency powers. The work was unpaid and in June 1941 he was knighted in recognition of his services. In 1928 Birkett had refused a seat on the High Court bench: I wasn't really drawn to the judicial office, he said later, I loved the Bar so much. When the offer was made again in November 1941, he was fifty-eight and must have sensed that, if ever he went back to the bar, things would be very different. He accepted, and went to the King's Bench.
It is rare for an impassioned advocate to be made a judge, for fear that he will be lacking in judicial restraint and unable not to take sides. Birkett proved the contrary. Greatly helped by an innate diffidence, he made himself an excellent judge of first instance. But he had to school himself rigorously as his diary shows. The truth is I like the limelight, and cannot bear now to be in obscurity, he recorded after three months on the bench. Ill health troubled him and he was often depressed. He was at the bottom of the judicial ladder, junior to many whom he had led to the bar. A great chance came and went in 1945 when the prime minister and the lord chancellor selected him to be the British judge at the projected trial of German war criminals with the likelihood of presiding over the international tribunal. But the men of protocol thought that someone higher in the judicial hierarchy was required. So in the end Birkett went to Nuremberg only as the alternate to Lord Justice Lawrence. When at the end of the proceedings Lawrence was made a baron, as Lord Oaksey, and Birkett's work went unrecognized, he was dreadfully upset; he was consoled in 1947 by a privy councillorship. He yearned for promotion to the Court of Appeal for which he was unsuited, since he was not an especially acute lawyer nor a profound one. When eventually it came in 1950, he found the work dull and it became duller. At the end of 1956, as soon as he had served the fifteen years on the bench which entitled him to a pension, he retired.
Thereafter he lived for five reviving years. In 1958 he went to the House of Lords. In the same year Cambridge gave him an honorary LLD; he had been an honorary fellow of his college since 1946 and already had honorary degrees from London (where he was chairman of the university court), Birmingham, and Hull. His interests had always been wide—cricket, literature, especially Dickens, the City of London (he was four times master of the Company of Curriers), the preservation of the English countryside, especially the Lakes from which he came. He revelled in speech and excelled in every form of speechmaking and on the radio and television. He was asked everywhere, from prizegivings to the great Bar Association meetings of America where he was as popular as in Britain; he became president of the Pilgrims in 1958 in succession to Lord Halifax [qv.]. He did not speak much in the House of Lords, but in 1962 he was stirred by a private Bill (but one which had the blessing of the Government) to secure Manchester's water supply by, its opponents said, the despoiling of Ullswater. On 8 February he moved the rejection of the Bill and with a speech which once again plucked the strings of advocacy he carried the House by 70 votes against 36. His life thus rounded, two days later he died, in London, 10 February 1962, and was succeeded by his son, Michael (born 1929).
The Imperial War Museum has a portrait by Dame Laura Knight and the National Portrait Gallery a working drawing by Sir David Low. A portrait by Maurice Codner is privately owned.
H. Montgomery Hyde, Norman Birkett, 1964