Gibbs, Vicary (DNB00)

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GIBBS, Sir VICARY (1751–1820), judge, was the second son of George Abraham Gibbs, chief surgeon to the hospital at Exeter, by his wife, Anne, daughter of Anthony Vicary of the same city. He was born in the Cathedral Close at Exeter on 27 Oct. 1751, and was sent to Eton, where he gained much distinction by his compositions in Latin verse, a specimen of which will be found in the ‘Musæ Etonenses,’ 1795, i. 295–6. In 1770 he was elected a scholar of King's College, Cambridge, of which he afterwards became a fellow, and where he greatly distinguished himself as a Greek scholar. He was elected Craven university scholar in 1772, and graduated B.A. in 1775, and M.A. in 1778. Gibbs was admitted a member of Lincoln's Inn on 24 Aug. 1769. For some years he practised as a special pleader, and thus acquired by degrees a large connection. ‘When the attornies,’ he remarked, ‘have no one else to go to, they come to me! other pleaders have the luck of getting some easy cases. I never remember having had a single one. They were all difficult, and had nothing short about them but the fees.’ He was called to the bar in February 1783, and joined the western circuit. Ten years later he defended William Winterbotham, a baptist minister indicted for preaching two seditious sermons at Plymouth (Howell, State Trials, xxii. 823–908). He was appointed recorder of Bristol in February 1794, a post which he held until November 1817. In the autumn of 1794 Gibbs assisted Erskine in the defence of Thomas Hardy and Horne Tooke (ib. xxiv. 199–1408, xxv. 1–745), and it was owing to his forcible exposition of the law and his clear application of the facts, as well as to the marvellous eloquence of Erskine, that the prisoners were both acquitted. At the end of the trial Sir John Scott (afterwards Lord Eldon), then the attorney-general, sent the following note to Gibbs across the table: ‘I say from my heart that you did yourself great credit as a good man, and great credit as an excellent citizen, not sacrificing any valuable public principle; I say from my judgment that no lawyer ever did himself more credit, or his client more service; so help me God!’ Gibbs had now raised himself by his own sheer legal ability to the front rank of the profession, and at the end of the year received a silk gown. In the following year he was appointed solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales, and in 1799 was promoted to the post of attorney-general to his royal highness. In 1804 he became chief justice of Chester, and in December of that year was returned to parliament for the borough of Totnes. In February 1805 he accepted the office of solicitor-general in Pitt's last administration, and was knighted on the 20th of the same month. Gibbs resigned office on Pitt's death in the following year. But on 7 April 1807 he was appointed attorney-general in the Duke of Portland's administration, and a few days after was returned to parliament for Great Bedwin. At the general election in May 1807 he was elected, after a very close contest, one of the members for the university of Cambridge. After holding the post of attorney-general for five years, he was made a serjeant-at-law on 29 May 1812, and appointed a puisne judge in the court of common pleas. On 8 Nov. 1813 Gibbs became lord chief baron in the place of Sir Archibald Macdonald, and was sworn a member of the privy council on the last day of the same month. Upon the resignation of Sir James Mansfield, Gibbs was finally promoted, on 24 Feb. 1814, to be the chief justice of the common pleas. After presiding over this court for more than four years he resigned, owing to ill-health, on 5 Nov. 1818. He died on 8 Feb. 1820 at his house in Russell Square, in his sixty-ninth year, and was buried in the family vault at Hayes, Kent, where a monument was erected to his memory, the inscription being written by his friend, Lord Stowell.

Gibbs was a small man, not more than five feet four inches in height, and of a meagre frame. His merits as a skilful special pleader and an acute and learned lawyer have been universally acknowledged. He was wholly destitute of humour, and possessed of so caustic and bitter a manner that he acquired the name of ‘Vinegar Gibbs.’ Confident of his own legal strength, he was equally uncivil and outspoken to his own clients, and once gave his opinion of a proposed defence in these words: ‘The defence is good in law, but the person who suggested it ought to be hanged.’ Though somewhat narrow-minded and impatient on the bench, Gibbs was a thoroughly conscientious judge, and Taunton's ‘Reports’ bear record to the accuracy and extent of his legal knowledge. In politics Gibbs was a strong and decided tory. As a parliamentary speaker he met with little success, and confined himself entirely to legal topics. His first reported speech in the House of Commons was made on 11 March 1805 (Parliamentary Debates, iii. 850–3), and the most important was that delivered by him in the defence of the Duke of York on 9 March 1809 (ib. xiii. 240–65). As attorney-general he waged incessant war against the press, and between 1808 and 1810 no less than forty-two ex officio informations were filed. Cobbett was convicted for an article in the ‘Register,’ while in 1811 the Hunts and Perry and Lam- bert were acquitted of the charges brought against them, arising out of articles which had appeared in the ‘Examiner’ and the ‘Morning Chronicle’ respectively. In 1811 Lord Holland in the House of Lords and Lord Folkestone in the House of Commons drew attention to the extraordinary increase in the numbers of these prosecutions, and Gibbs made a long speech in his own defence, declaring that ‘it would be found that every prosecution of that nature had been conducted with the greatest lenity’ (ib. xix. 129–74, 548–612). The statute passed at his instigation authorising the arrest of any person who should be prosecuted by indictment or information in the king's bench (48 Geo. III, c. 58), was of so oppressive a nature that it was never put into force. Gibbs was elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn in Easter term 1795, and acted as treasurer of that society in 1805. He married, in June 1784, Frances Cerjat Kenneth, daughter of Major William Mackenzie, a sister of Francis, lord Seaforth, by whom he had an only child, Maria Elizabeth, who married General Sir Andrew Pilkington, K.C.B. Lady Gibbs survived her husband many years, and died at Hayes on 1 May 1843, aged 88. His portrait by William Owen, R.A., is in the possession of his granddaughter, Mrs. Burrell Hayley of Catsfield, Sussex. It has been engraved by S. W. Reynolds and T. Lupton, and a replica of the picture is preserved at Eton College. Mrs. Hayley has another portrait of Gibbs by Mrs. Hoare of Bath, and a third by her brother, Mr. Prince Hoare, is in the possession of Mr. H. Hucks Gibbs of Aldenham House, near Elstree. Gibbs's speeches in the defence of Hardy and Tooke were published separately in 1795. A collection of his opinions, transcribed and selected from the numerous volumes of manuscripts which Gibbs left behind him, was many years ago presented to the Truro Law Library.

[Townsend's Lives of Twelve Eminent Judges (1846), i. 239–98; Foss's Judges of England (1864), viii. 287–94; Brougham's Statesmen of the Time of George III (1839), 1st ser. pp. 124–134; The Georgian Era (1833), ii. 318; Annual Register, 1820, chron. p. 163*; Gent. Mag. (1794) lxiv. pt. ii. 1061, (1820) xc. pt. i. 190, 275, 640, (1843) new ser. xix. 667, (1853), xxxix. 436; Burke's Landed Gentry (1879), i. 365; Grad. Cantabr. (1856), pp. 150, 445; Notes and Queries, 5th ser. v. 220, 275; Haydn's Book of Dignities (1851); Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, pt. ii. pp. 217, 236, 242; Lincoln's Inn Registers.]

G. F. R. B.