Bramwell, George William Wilshere (DNB01)

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BRAMWELL, GEORGE WILLIAM WILSHERE, Baron Bramwell (1808-1892), judge, was the eldest son of George Bramwell (1773-1858), a partner in the banking firm of Dorrien, Magens, Dorrien, & Mello, since amalgamated with Glyn, Mills, Currie, & Co. His mother is said to have been a woman of much character, and to have attained the age of ninety-six. Bramwell was born on 12 June 1808 in Finch Lane, Cornhill. At twelve years old he was sent to the Palace school, Enfield, kept by Dr. George May, where he was the school-fellow of (Sir) William Fry Channell [q. v.], afterwards Baron Channell, his contemporary on the home circuit and his colleague in the court of exchequer. On leaving school he became a clerk in his father's bank. In 1830, having married his first wife, he determined to devote himself to the law, and became the pupil of Fitzroy Kelly [q. v.] After practising for some years as a special pleader he was called to the bar by the Inner Temple in May 1838. He joined the home circuit, and speedily acquired, both on circuit and at the Guildhall, a substantial junior practice and a good reputation as a lawyer of solid learning. In 1850 he was appointed a member of the common law procedure commission, the other members being Chief-justice Jervis, Baron Martin, Sir A. Cockburn, and Mr. (afterwards Mr. Justice) Willes. The result of their labours was the Common Law Procedure Act, 1852, In 1851 Bramwell was made a Q.C., and in 1853 he served on the commission whose inquiries resulted in the Companies Act, 1862. Bramwell thus took an active part both in the modern development of English law represented by the joint effects of the Common Law Procedure Acts and the Judicature Acts, and in the invention of 'limited liability'—two revolutions of about equal importance in the history of law and of commerce.

In 1856, upon the resignation of Baron Parke, Bramwell was appointed to succeed him in the court of exchequer, and was thereupon knighted. He sat in this court until it ceased to exist in 1876, and perhaps refined scholarship was the only requisite of an ideal judge to which he had no pretension. An admirable lawyer, with an immense knowledge and understanding of case-law, he was also one of the strongest judges that ever sat on the bench. In the first year of his judgeship it fell to his lot, on circuit, to try a man named Dove for murder. Dove was an example of the people who are both mad and wicked. He hated his wife with a hatred that could only be called insane, and after brooding over and cherishing his hatred for years he murdered her with every circumstance of cruelty and premeditation. Bramwell stated the law to the jury with so much force, accuracy, and lucidity that Dove was found guilty and hanged. For the next twenty years the 'mad doctors,' who either could not or would not understand that by English law some mad persons who commit crimes are responsible, and others are not, had no more formidable antagonist than Bramwell. His favourite question, when a medical witness called to support a defence of insanity had deposed that in his opinion the prisoner 'could not help' acting as he did, was 'Do you think he would have acted as he did if he had seen a policeman watching him and ready to take him into custody.?' Bramwell gave both expression and effect to his opinions with the most absolute fearlessness, and never shrank from the logical conclusions of his views. When he sat in the House of Lords after his retirement, he held with equal clearness and vigour to his opinion that a corporation was legally incapable of malice, and therefore could not be sued as such for malicious prosecution, however great the hardship thereby inflicted upon the plaintiff. He distinguished clearly between the provinces of the legislature and the judge, and never sought to evade the duty of putting in force some part of the law which, by common consent, was obviously in need of alteration.

During the twenty years that he sat in the exchequer division he made a great reputation, and became extremely popular with the members of the bar who practised before him, owing to his kindness, good humour, and businesslike grasp of affairs. He used to relate with satisfaction how, when a ruffianly prisoner in the north of England had been convicted before him of an atrocious assault, he had begun to address to him the commentary upon the offence with which it is usual to preface a serious criminal sentence. When he had spoken a few words the convict interrupted him with the abrupt question, ‘How much?’ ‘Eight years,’ answered Bramwell, without saying another word.

In 1876, upon the establishment of the court of appeal under the Judicature Acts, Bramwell was appointed one of the lords justices with universal approbation. He held that office until the close of 1881, when he retired after twenty-six years' judicial service. He was memorably entertained at dinner by the bar of England in the Inner Temple Hall upon his retirement. Early in 1882 he was created a peer by the title of Baron Bramwell of Hever, and thereafter sat frequently in the House of Lords on the hearing of appeals. Many of his judgments both in the court of appeal and in the House of Lords were models of forcible conciseness, and for the strength and clearness of his understanding he had few equals on the bench.

Bramwell published no book, but during his tenure of judicial office, and more particularly after his resignation, he not unfrequently addressed letters to the newspapers upon the topics in which he took an interest. In later years these were usually signed ‘B.,’ and were so characteristic in style and substance as to be instantly recognisable by those who were interested. He was always interested in political economy, and to the end of his life strove vigorously in the House of Lords and in the columns of the ‘Times’ for freedom of contract—meaning the unchecked power of making contracts, and the means of enforcing them after they were made—and the cognate matters which had been the popular commonplaces of the middle of the century, and underwent so much socialistic modification in its last quarter. He became a champion of the ‘Liberty and Property Defence League,’ and never slackened in his efforts on account of the want of success which attended them. He died at his country house, Holmwood, near Edenbridge, on 9 May 1892, and was buried at Woking.

In or about 1829 Bramwell married Mary Jane, daughter of Bruno Silva. She died on 13 April 1836, leaving two daughters, one of whom is living. He married secondly, in 1861, Martha Sinden, who died at 17 Cadogan Place on 5 June 1889 in her fifty-fourth year (G. E. C[okayne], Complete Peerage, ‘Corrigenda,’ viii. 320).

No portrait of Bramwell is known to be in existence, but a reproduction of a good and characteristic photograph of him as he appeared in his old age forms the frontispiece of Mr. C. Fairfield's memoir.

[Some Account of George William Wilshire, Baron Bramwell of Hever, and his Opinions, by Charles Fairfield (London, 1898); private information; personal recollections.]

H. S.-n.