Brett, William Baliol, Viscount Esher 1815-1899, judge, second son of the Rev. Joseph George Brett (d. 20 May 1852), of Ranelagh, Chelsea, for many years incumbent of Hanover Chapel, Regent Street, by Dorothy, daughter of George Best of Chilston Park, Kent, was born at the rectory, Lenham, Kent, on 13 Aug. 1815. He was educated at Westminster School and the university of Cambridge, where (from Caius College) he graduated Bachelor of Arts (senior optime) in 1840, and proceeded M.A. in 1845. He rowed once (1839) for his university against Oxford, and twice (1837, 1838) against the Leander Club. On 30 April 1839 he was admitted student at Lincoln's Inn, and was there called to the bar on 29 Jan. 1846, and elected bencher in 1861. He early showed an unusual aptitude for handling mercantile and marine cases, which brought him a plentiful supply of briefs on the Northern circuit and at Westminster. Gazetted Q.C. on 22 Feb. 1861, he soon led both in the court of passage at Liverpool and in the court of admiralty. A sound, though hardly a profound lawyer, an easy speaker, and, above all, a clearheaded and experienced man of the world, he was especially at home in addressing juries, and was naturally led to form an unusually high estimate of the value of their verdicts. He had also a considerable bankruptcy practice, and was for some years revising barrister for one of the Liverpool districts. Keenly interested in politics, and an ardent conservative, or, as he preferred to say, tory, he made on the death of Cobden in April 1865 a gallant but vain attempt to carry the borough of Rochdale against Cobden's friend, Thomas Bayley Potter [qv.], but he was defeated. He next tried his fortune at the Cornish borough of Helston, where he polled a parity of votes with his antagonist, who was nevertheless irregularly returned. The return, however, was amended on petition (5 July 1866), and the seat thus hardly won Brett retained until his elevation to the bench. He entered parliament with views already matured on the burning question of franchise reform, which he desired to see settled on as broad a basis as prudence would permit, and the practical experience which he had gained as a revising barrister was of great use to the government in committee. His services were recognised by his appointment to the office of solicitor-general, in succession to Sir Charles Jasper Selwyn [qv.], when he received the honour of knighthood (10, 29 Feb. 1868).
As solicitor-general Brett took part in the prosecution of the Fenians implicated in the partially successful plot to blow up Clerkenwell House of Detention (20 April 1868). In parliament he had the conduct of the measure abolishing public executions, and contributed to shape the enactments which conferred admiralty jurisdiction on county courts, and transferred the jurisdiction on election petitions from the House of Commons to the superior courts of common law. Under the clause in the latter measure providing for an augmentation of the judicial staff, he was appointed additional justice of the common pleas, and invested with the coif on 24 Aug. 1868. On the bench Brett proved himself no less competent to direct than he had been to convince a jury. He was what lawyers call a strong judge, more strong indeed than discreet, and his excessively severe sentence on the employés of the Gas Light and Coke Company, convicted of conspiracy in 1872, was commuted by the crown (see Cox, Criminal Cases, xii. 351). The Judicature Act of 1875 gave him the status of justice of the high court. He took part, not without distinction, in the deliberations of the court for crown cases reserved, and delivered in November 1876 an elaborate dissentient judgment on the question of jurisdiction reserved by Baron Pollock in Regina v. Keyn [cf. Pollock, Sir Charles Edward]. On the passing of the Appellate Jurisdiction Act of 1876 (39 & 40 Vict. c. 59, s. 15), he was appointed, with Barons Amphlett and Bramwell, justice—the title lord-justice was given in the following year—of appeal (27 Oct.), and sworn of the privy council (28 Nov.). He sat first with Bramwell, and shared the credit of a period of singularly efficient administration, afterwards with Sir George Jessel, whom, not altogether to the advantage of his reputation, he succeeded as master of the rolls on 3 April 1883. As a judge his most salient characteristic was a robust common sense, which predisposed him to make short work of legal and equitable technicalities when they seemed to militate against substantial justice; but this admirable quality was united with a criterion of justice which was unduly elastic, being, by his own avowal (Law Times, 20 Nov. 1897), nothing more than the general consent of people of candour, honour, and fairness. He thus assimilated the functions of the judge to those of the jury, for whose verdict he had indeed such respect as virtually to renounce the jurisdiction to order new trials. His judgments were colloquial in style, and, even within his own special domain of mercantile and marine law, by no means unimpeachable. (See the judgments of the House of Lords in Glyn, Mills, & Co. v. East and West India Docks; Law Reports, Appeal Cases, vii. 591, and Sewell v. Burdick, ib. x. 74, overruling his view of the effect of the endorsement of a bill of lading; and cf. ib. xii. 29, 503, 518, 531, xiv. 209.) Excessively impatient of prolix argument, he sometimes forgot his dignity in altercations with pertinacious counsel.
Brett was raised to the peerage as Baron Esher of Esher, Surrey, on 24 July 1885, and on his retirement from the bench in 1897 was created (11 Nov.) Viscount Esher, the highest dignity yet attained by any judge, not being a chancellor, for merely judicial service since the time of Coke. In the House of Lords he made no great figure, and indeed seldom spoke except on legal questions. His sole legislative achievement was the Solicitors Act of 1888, a small but salutary disciplinary measure. In law, as in politics, his bias was conservative, and his resistance to Lord Bramwell's bill to render the testimony of accused persons and their wives admissible in criminal courts helped to postpone a needful reform for some years. In drawing attention (17 July 1890) to defects in the administration of the law, he took occasion to deplore the introduction of chancery procedure into the queen's bench division. At the same time, however, he unequivocally declared in favour of a court of criminal appeal, and his last speech (8 July 1898) was in support of the measure (since carried) to validate within the United Kingdom marriages with deceased wives' sisters duly solemnised in the colonies. He died at his town house, 6 Ennismore Gardens, Kensington, on 24 May 1899, leaving issue by his wife Eugénie (married 3 April 1850), only daughter of Louis Mäyer, and stepdaughter of Colonel Gurwood, C.B., an heir, Reginald Baliol, who succeeded him in title and estate.
Esher's seat was Heath Farm, Watford, Hertfordshire, but his remains were interred in the family vault appendant to Moore Place, the seat of his younger brother, Sir Wilford Brett, K.C.M.G., in Esher churchyard. The vault contains his monument, a stately marble structure, with recumbent effigies of himself and Lady Esher, erected some years before his death, and also the tomb of his younger son, Lieutenant Eugène Leopold Brett, who died on 8 Dec. 1882 of fever contracted in Egypt. Despite the bereavement which clouded his old age, Esher retained to the end no little of the elasticity of youth. His strongly marked and somewhat stern features readily relaxed under the influence of a humorous suggestion, and his brusque, and in court sometimes overbearing, manners belied the kindness of his heart. He was essentially vir pietate gravis, and exemplary in all the relations of life. He was also fond of society, and society was fond of him. He was an indefatigable collector of curios, and was never happier than when displaying his treasures to his guests at Ennismore Gardens. His portrait by Millais was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1887.
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Contributor: J. M. R. [James McMullen Rigg]