Collier, Robert Porrett (DNB00)
|←Collier, John Payne||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11
Collier, Robert Porrett
COLLIER, ROBERT PORRETT, Lord Monkswell (1817-1886), judge, was the eldest son of Mr. John Collier, a merchant of Plymouth, formerly a member of the Society of Friends and M.P. for that town from 1832 to 1842. Robert Collier was born in 1817, and was educated at the grammar school and other schools at Plymouth till the age of sixteen, when he was placed under the tuition of Mr. Kemp, subsequently rector of St. James's, Piccadilly, London. Thence he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and while there wrote some clever parodies, and published a satirical poem called 'Granta.' Ill-health compelled him to abandon reading for honours and to quit the university, to which he only returned to take the ordinary B.A. degree in 1843. Already a politician, he made some speeches at Launceston in 1841 with a view to contesting the borough in the liberal interest, but did not go to the poll, and he was an active member of the Anti-Cornlaw League and addressed the meetings in Covent Garden Theatre. He was called to the bar at the Inner Temple in Hilary term 1843, and joined the western circuit and Devonshire, Plymouth, and Devonport sessions. His first important success was a brilliant defence of some Brazilian pirates at Exeter in July 1845 ; the prisoners were, however, condemned to death, and the judge (Baron Platt) refused to reserve a point of law on which Collier insisted. Collier hurried to London and laid the matter before the home secretary (Sir James Graham) and Sir Robert Peel. Both ministers appear to have been convinced by Collier's argument, and on 5 Aug. it was announced in both houses of parliament that Baron Platt had yielded (Hansard, lxxxii. 1349-50, 1367-8). The subsequent argument before all the judges in London of the point taken at the trial resulted in the grant of a free pardon to Collier's clients. On his next visit to Exeter he had nineteen briefs. Local influence and wide practical knowledge gave him a good practice, and he was an excellent junior. He was appointed recorder of Penzance, and in 1852 he was returned to parliament for Plymouth, and retained the seat till he became a member of the judicial committee of the privy council. Lord Cranworth made him a queen's counsel in 1854. After a keen rivalry with Montague Smith, afterwards a judge, for the foremost place, he obtained the lead of the circuit and kept it for many years. In 1859 he was appointed counsel to the admiralty and judge-advocate of the fleet. It was his opinion in favour of detaining the Confederate rams in the Mersey that Mr. Adams, the American minister, submitted in 1862 to Lord John Russell, and, although too late to prevent the Alabama going to sea, it was afterwards adopted by the law officers of the crown. He had spoken frequently and with good effect in parliament, especially on trade with Russia in 1855, but chiefly on legal topics; and when, on Sir William Atherton's retirement in October 1863, Sir Roundell Palmer became attorney-general, Collier's appointment as solicitor-general in succession to him was somewhat unexpected. He filled
the office, however, with success until the liberal government resigned in 1866, and in December 1868 he became attorney-general, and in the next year he had the conduct of the Bankruptcy Bill in the House of Commons. He was, while attorney-general, appointed recorder of Bristol, but resigned the appointment at once in deference to the wishes of his constituency. In 1871, to enable the judicial committee of the privy council to overtake its arrears of colonial appeals, an act (34 & 85 Vict. c. 91) was passed providing for four paid judgeships, two of which were to be held by judges or ex-judges of the English bench. To none could one of the law officers be appointed. One of these two judgeships was accepted by Sir Montague Smith. The other was offered to and refused by three English judges, and a fourth having intimated that he would refuse it if offered, Lord Hatherley, the lord chancellor, thought it unseemly to hawk the appointment about any further. It was imperative that the vacancy should be at once filled, and Collier agreed to relieve the government in this difficulty. To give him the necessary technical qualification, Lord Hatherley in November 1871 appointed him to a vacant puisne judgeship in the court of common pleas. Here he sat a few days only ; three judgments of his are, however, reported (Law Reports, vii. Common Pleas, 163). Though a writ was made out appointing him a serjeant, it was never executed in open court, nor was he a member of Serjeants' Inn. Then Mr. Gladstone appointed aim to the vacancy on the privy council. No doubt was cast either on his fitness for the place or on his personal conduct in accepting it ; but a controversy, very damaging to the government, arose out of the appointment. Lord-chief-justice Cockburn and Chief-justice Bovill [q. v.] protected against it as contrary to the spirit of the act, and on 15 Feb. 1872 Lord Stanhope made a motion in the House of Lords condemning it, which was lost only by two votes. A similar motion in thellouse of Commons was lost by only twenty-seven. This post Collier held till his death, and the task of giving literary shape to the judgments of the privy council was frequently committed to him. In 1885 he was created a peer, taking his title from Monkswell, a small property in Devonshire. He married in 1844 a daughter of Mr. William Rose of Woolston Heath, near Rugby, and her sudden death in April 1886 shook him severely. In failing health he went to the Riviera, and died at Grasse, near Cannes, on 27 Oct. 1886, and was buried in London on 3 Nov. He was highly versatile and accomplished. He was a good billiard-player, an excellent scholar, and wrote some very pretty verses both in Latin and English. His memory was most retentive. But it was chiefly in painting, of which he was passionately fond, that he was distinguished. As a young man he drew very clever caricatures in the H.B. manner. When solicitor-general he painted in St. James's Park, and he exhibited frequently at the Royal Academy and Grosvenor Gallery, especially pictures of the neighbourhood of Rosenlaui, Switzerland, where he spent many vacations. He published a treatise on the Railways Clauses Acts, 1845; another on Mines in 1849 ; a letter to Lord John Russell on the 'Reform of the Common Law Courts,' 1851, 2nd ed. 1852 ; and a translation of 'Demosthenes de Coronâ' in 1875. He was succeeded by his son Robert, a barrister, who graduated in the first class of the Cambridge law tripos, 1866, and has held the post of conveyancing counsel to the treasury ; his son John is a well-known artist ; and his daughter Margaret, Mme. Galettidi Cadilhac, has written ' Our Home by the Adriatic ' and 4 Prince Peerless/ a fairy tale.
[Times, 28 Oct. 1886 ; Saturday Review, 30 Oct. 1886 ; Solicitors' Journal, 30 Oct. and 7 Nov. 1886 ; Law Journal 30 Oct. 1886 ; Life of Lord Hatherley, ii. 271 ; information supplied by the present Lord Monkswell]