Barnes, John Gorell, first Baron Gorell, of Brampton 1848-1913, judge, was born at Walton-on-the-Hill, near Liverpool, 16 May 1848, of a Derbyshire stock. His great-grandmother was a daughter of Edward Gorell, of Hazle Hall, Yorkshire, not far from Leeds, a dissenter belonging to the sect founded by John Glas [qv.] and Robert Sandeman [qv.]. His grandfather, John Gorell Barnes, was a landowner near Chesterfield and a colliery proprietor who combined shrewd business abilities with a passion for social reform. Henry, the third son of this John Gorell Barnes, founded a forwarding agency and shipping business at Liverpool, and married in 1847 Georgiana, daughter of the Rev. Richard Smith, rector of Staveley, Derbyshire, whose father, also Richard Smith, had been fellow and dean of Trinity College, Cambridge. The future judge was the eldest child and elder son of this marriage. He was educated privately, and after his father's sudden death in 1865 the boy, not yet seventeen, was sent to Peterhouse, Cambridge, the college of Dr. Edward John Routh [qv.], who had married Hilda Airy, a daughter of Sir George Airy, astronomer royal, and a niece of Henry Barnes. Barnes, despite his youth, was classed as a senior optime in January 1868. Cambridge, its steady practical thinking, its athletics and social pleasures, left a definite mark upon his life. He was made an honorary Doctor of Law in 1898 and an honorary fellow of Peterhouse the next year.
After a short period in his father's old firm, Barnes was articled to a firm of solicitors in Liverpool, but a few years later was advised in the office to go to the bar. He entered at the Inner Temple in 1873, and after reading in equity chambers became a pupil in October 1874 of (Sir) James Charles Mathew [qv.], the leading commercial junior in the Temple at that time. He worked in Mathew's chambers till shortly before Mathew became a judge in 1881. Barnes, who had been called to the bar in 1876, at once succeeded to Mathew's great junior practice; and to this he gradually added a substantial admiralty practice and a great deal of mercantile work on the Northern circuit. He soon became a familiar figure in the Court of Appeal, the House of Lords, and the Privy Council. He always found time, however, to pay close attention to the work of the men in his crowded pupil room. After seven years of ceaseless work, he took silk in self-protection (1888) and made an immediate mark as a weighty, industrious, and popular leader, whose temper nothing could ruffle. In June 1892 he was, rather unexpectedly, made a judge of the probate, divorce, and admiralty division in succession to Sir Francis Henry Jeune [qv.], afterwards Lord St. Helier, who had just succeeded Sir Charles Parker Butt as president. In February 1905 Barnes succeeded Jeune as president of the division, a position which he held till February 1909, when he was raised to the peerage as Baron Gorell, of Brampton, near Chesterfield. As president, he had already sat from time to time in the Court of Appeal and on the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council; and from July 1909 to July 1912 he sat regularly in the House of Lords and delivered many judgments of moment.
Barnes found time and energy for much extra-judicial work. He was a member of a committee appointed by the lord chancellor to consider improvements in the High Court. He was chairman of the county courts committee which reported in 1909 and laid the basis for some of the proposals of the royal commission on divorce. In 1909 he also acted as an arbitrator in the dispute between the Great Eastern Railway Company and its employees; and in the same year he was chairman of the copyright committee, the report of which led to the passing of the Copyright Act of 1911. The nomination in 1909 of the royal commission on divorce and matrimonial causes was due to the strong opinion which he expressed, in the House of Lords, that the law which he had administered as a judge for sixteen years needed a large measure of amendment. Lord Gorell was the chairman of the commission, and every class of thought and social outlook was represented by the commissioners or by the numerous witnesses whose services they utilized to secure an absolutely exhaustive inquiry into the social, legal, theological, and medical aspects of the marriage tie. The majority report recommended an extension of the grounds for divorce so as to include desertion, cruelty, incurable insanity, habitual drunkenness, and penal servitude for life in commutation of a death sentence. The minority report rejected any extension of the grounds of divorce; but there was a large volume of reforms in law and procedure common to the two reports, including far-reaching proposals relating to nullity of marriage, presumption of death for purposes of remarriage, equality of the sexes for divorce purposes, and restraints on the publication of reports of divorce cases. The majority report was signed 30 January 1912 and the commission came to an end in the following November. Lord Gorell's health was then rapidly breaking. He died at Mentone 22 April 1913 and was buried at Brampton beside his grandfather, John Gorell Barnes.
The broad characteristics of Lord Gorell's character and work are exemplified by his brief, rapid, and smoothly successful career at the bar; by his many reported arguments and reported judgments in the court of first instance, the Court of Appeal, the Privy Council, and the House of Lords; by his extra-judicial work and his speeches in the House of Lords. As a judge of first instance his judgments were very rarely reversed, and all of them are models of industry, insight, and common sense. The foundation of a commercial court was the joint idea of Sir James Charles Mathew and himself. Barnes, soon after his appointment to the probate, divorce, and admiralty division, announced that he was prepared to deal with cases raising points of insurance law, and his court was therefore largely resorted to by commercial solicitors. The establishment of the commercial court from 1 March 1895 under Mathew was a successful development of Barnes's experiment [see Weekly Notes, 2 March 1895].
Barnes combined a great enthusiasm for any work that he undertook with an unusual capacity for mastering complicated facts. His keen and profound intelligence was never satisfied until the broad principle governing any particular set of circumstances had been fully exposed. In field after field of law he showed these qualities, with the result that many of his judgments are distinct contributions to the growth of English law. His work on the divorce commission revealed his passionate desire to see justice made available for all classes of the community. He was no politician, but he represented the best thinking of the old school of liberal thought. Like his paternal grandfather, he was a reformer. From the Gorells he inherited an almost gloomy mysticism that seemed at times to dominate his outlook on life. Yet normally he was a very cheerful man who loved the pleasant things of life. As a friend and a judge he was kindly, genial, enthusiastic, full of praise for all good work, considerate to the bar, penetrating, intensely human.
Barnes married in 1881 Mary Humpston, eldest daughter of Thomas Mitchell, of West Arthurlee, Renfrewshire, who also was of Derbyshire descent; they had two sons and one daughter. He was succeeded by his elder son, Henry Gorell Barnes, second Baron Gorell, a barrister of considerable promise, who in May 1914 introduced in the House of Lords a Bill incorporating the common elements of the two reports of the divorce commission. He was killed in action at Ypres in January 1917, and was succeeded as third baron by his younger brother, Ronald Gorell Barnes.
J. E. G. de Montmorency, John Gorell Barnes, first Lord Gorell: a Memoir, 1920
personal knowledge. Portrait, Royal Academy Pictures, 1896.
Contributor: J. E. G. de M. [James Edward Geoffrey de Montmorency]