Rolfe, Robert Monsey (DNB00)
|←Rolfe, John||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 49
Rolfe, Robert Monsey
ROLFE, ROBERT MONSEY, Baron Cranworth (1790–1868), lord chancellor, born at Cranworth in Norfolk on 18 Dec. 1790, was elder son of Edmund Rolfe, curate of Cranworth and rector of Cockley-Clay, by his wife Jemima, fifth daughter of William Alexander, and granddaughter of Messenger Monsey [q. v.], physician to Chelsea Hospital. His father was first cousin of Admiral Lord Nelson, while his mother was a niece of James, first earl of Caledon. He received his early education at the grammar school of Bury St. Edmunds, where he was the junior of Charles James Blomfield [q. v.], afterwards bishop of London. He was then sent to Winchester, where he obtained the silver medal for a Latin speech in 1807. Proceeding to Trinity College, Cambridge, he became seventeenth wrangler in 1812, and gained one of the members' prizes for senior bachelors in 1814. He graduated B.A. in 1812, M.A. in 1815, and was elected a fellow of Downing College. Rolfe was admitted to Lincoln's Inn on 29 Jan. 1812, and was called to the bar on 21 May 1816. His progress as a junior was slow; but he gradually acquired a large business in the chancery courts. At the general election in the spring of 1831 he unsuccessfully contested Bury St. Edmunds in the whig interest. He was appointed a king's counsel in Trinity vacation 1832, and was called within the bar on the first day of the following Michaelmas term. He was elected a bencher of Lincoln's Inn on 2 Nov. 1832, but left the society on 11 Nov. 1839, when he became a serjeant-at-law. At the general election in December 1832 he was returned to the House of Commons for Penryn and Falmouth, and continued to represent that constituency until his appointment to the judicial bench. He spoke for the first time in the House of Commons on 19 March 1833 (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. xvi. 847–9), but he seldom took part in the debates. Rolfe was appointed solicitor-general in Lord Melbourne's first administration on 6 Nov. 1834, and resigned office in the following month, on Sir Robert Peel's accession to power. On the return of the whigs to office, in April 1835, Rolfe was restored to the post of solicitor-general, and received the honour of knighthood on 6 May following. He was appointed a baron of the exchequer in the place of Sir William Henry Maule [q. v.], and, having received the order of the coif, took his seat on the bench on 11 Nov. 1839. Though Rolfe had only practised in the court of chancery, he had acquired experience in criminal cases while sitting as recorder of Bury St. Edmunds, a post which he had held for some years. With Abinger and Williams he took part in the trial of John William Bean for shooting at the queen in August 1842 (Reports of State Trials, new ser. iv. 1382–6). In March 1843 he presided at the trial of Feargus O'Connor and fifty-eight other chartists for seditious conspiracy (ib. iv. 935–1231). In March 1849 he presided at the trial of Rush for the murder of Isaac Jermy [q. v.] and his son. He acted as a commissioner of the great seal from 19 June 1850 to 15 July following, his colleagues being Lord Langdale and Vice-chancellor Shadwell. Owing to Shadwell's illness nothing but the routine business could be done, and the long arrears of appeals arising from Cottenham's absence remained untouched (Life of John, Lord Campbell, 1861, ii. 281). On 2 Nov. 1850 Rolfe was appointed a vice-chancellor in the room of Shadwell, and on the 13th of the same month was admitted to the privy council. He was created Baron Cranworth of Cranworth in the county of Norfolk on 20 Dec. 1850, and took his seat in the House of Lords at the opening of parliament on 4 Feb. 1851 (Journals of the House of Lords, lxxxiii. 4). He made his maiden speech in the house during the discussion of Brougham's County Courts Extension Bill on 7 Feb. 1851 (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. cxiv. 178–9). When the court of appeal in chancery was created under the provisions of 14 & 15 Vict. cap. 83, Cranworth and Knight Bruce were appointed the first lords justices (8 Oct. 1851).
On the formation of Lord Aberdeen's cabinet in December 1852, Cranworth was promoted to the post of lord chancellor. The great seal was delivered to him on the 28th, and he took his seat on the woolsack as speaker of the House of Lords on 10 Feb. 1853 (Journals of the House of Lords, lxxxv. 65). Four days afterwards he introduced a bill for the registration of assurances. At the same time he announced the intention of the government to deal with the question of the consolidation and simplification of the statute law, and was bold enough to hold out some hope that the proposed step would lead to the formation of a Code Victoria (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. cxxiv. 41–6). A small board was nominated by Cranworth to consolidate the statutes under the superintendence of Charles Henry Bellenden Ker [q. v.] In the following year this board was replaced by a royal commission, over which Cranworth himself presided (see Parl. Papers, 1854 vol. xxiv., 1854–5 vol. xv.). The result of their deliberations led ultimately to the successive statute law revision acts passed during the chancellorships of Lords Campbell, Westbury, and Chelmsford. Though the Registration Bill passed through the House of Lords in spite of the strenuous opposition of Lord St. Leonards, it was dropped in the House of Commons. Cranworth was more successful with his bill for the better administration of charitable trusts, which became law during the session (16 & 17 Vict. cap. 137). On 11 July 1853 he moved the second reading of the Transportation Bill (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. cxxix. 7–13). This bill, which substituted penal servitude in lieu of transportation and adopted the ticket-of-leave system, passed through both houses with but little opposition, and received the royal assent on 20 Aug. 1853 (16 & 17 Vict. cap. 99). In the session of 1854 Cranworth carried through the house a bill for the further amendment of the common-law procedure (17 & 18 Vict. cap. 125); but neither the Testamentary Jurisdiction Bill nor the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill, which he introduced, passed into law (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. cxxx. 702–720, cxxxiv. 1–12). Cranworth continued in his post on the formation of Lord Palmerston's administration in February 1855, in which year he was also appointed a governor of the Charterhouse. He introduced a bill to facilitate leases and sales of settled estates on 11 May following (ib. cxxxviii. 398–9), but it failed to pass through the House of Commons. The delay of the ministerial measures of legal reform in this session was the occasion of an attack on Cranworth by Lord Lyndhurst, who pointed out ‘the want of cordial co-operation between the lord chancellor and the law officers of the crown in the other house’ (ib. cxxxix. 1189–96). Cranworth took part in the debate on Lord Wensleydale's patent on 7 Feb. 1856 [see Parke, Sir James]. He defended the action of the government, and insisted that ‘the legality of life peerages was perfectly clear’ (ib. cxl. 314–27). The bill to facilitate leases and sales of settled estates passed through both houses in this session (19 & 20 Vict. cap. 120); but neither the Appellate Jurisdiction Bill nor the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Bill passed the commons. In the session of 1857 the government measures for the establishment of the probate and divorce court passed through both houses (20 and 21 Vict. caps. 77 and 85). Cranworth, however, refused to distribute any of the patronage under these acts, and gave the whole of it to Sir Cresswell Cresswell [q. v.], the first judge in ordinary. He resigned office on the accession of Lord Derby to power in February 1858. On 23 March following he moved the second reading of a Land Transfer Bill and a Tenants for Life Bill, but neither of them became law during that session (Parl. Debates, clxix. 559–63). Cranworth was not offered the great seal on Lord Palmerston's return to office in June 1859, as ‘his reputation had been so much damaged while chancellor by allowing Bethell to thwart and insult him’ (Life of John, Lord Campbell, ii. 368). He moved the second reading of the Endowed Schools Bill on 9 Feb. 1860 (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. clvi. 689–95). This bill, which enabled the children of dissenters to enjoy the benefit of the King Edward's schools, received the royal assent on 31 March following (23 & 24 Vict. cap. 11). ‘Cranworth's Act,’ by which his name is remembered, became law during the session (23 & 24 Vict. cap. 145). Its object was the shortening of conveyances, and it has now been superseded by Lord Cairns's Conveyancing and Law of Property Act. He differed with Lord Westbury with regard to the Bankruptcy Bill of 1861, and opposed the appointment of a chief judge (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. clxiii. 1223–5). In the session of 1862 he introduced a bill for obtaining a declaration of title, as well as a Security of Purchasers Bill (ib. clxv. 373, 897–903, clxvi. 1190–1). The former became law (25 & 26 Vict. cap. 67), but the latter was dropped in the House of Commons. On Lord Westbury's retirement Cranworth was reappointed lord chancellor (7 July 1865), and at the opening of parliament on 1 Feb. 1866 he again took his seat on the woolsack (Journals of the House of Lords, xcviii. 7). On 1 May 1866 he moved the second reading of the Law of Capital Punishment Amendment Bill (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. clxxxiii. 232–41), which passed through the lords, but was withdrawn in the commons. In the following month he introduced a Statute Law Revision Bill (ib. clxxxiv. 210), but withdrew it before the second reading. He resigned the great seal on the formation of Lord Derby's second administration in July 1866. In the session of 1867 he took charge of Russell Gurney's Criminal Amendment Bill, and safely piloted it through the House of Lords (ib. clxxxvii. 933–4). In the session of 1868 he took charge of two other bills which had been sent up from the House of Commons, viz. the Religious Sites Bill and a Bankruptcy Amendment Bill, both of which passed into law (ib. cxcii. 233–4, cxciii. 866). Cranworth spoke for the last time in the House of Lords on 20 July 1868 (ib. cxciii. 1474). He died after a short illness at No. 40 Upper Brook Street, London, on 26 July 1868, aged 77, and was buried in the churchyard of Keston, the parish where his seat, ‘Holwood Park,’ was situate, and where there is a monument to his memory. He married, on 9 Oct. 1845, Laura, daughter of Thomas Carr of Frognal, Hampstead, Middlesex, and of Esholt Heugh, Northumberland, who died in Upper Brook Street on 15 Feb. 1868, in her eighty-first year, and was buried at Keston. There were no children of the marriage, and the peerage became extinct upon Cranworth's death.
Cranworth was a man of high personal character and strong common-sense. He was a sound lawyer, and an acute and patient judge. He was not a successful speaker in parliament; but, though destitute of eloquence and wit, his speeches were always listened to with respect. Owing to his extreme caution and timidity, Cranworth failed as a law reformer. He had ‘an unhappy knack, though always with the best intentions, of making exactly such proposals for their amendment as would entirely defeat the operation of some of Lord Westbury's most masterly measures’ (Law Magazine and Review, 1873, p. 724). Few men enjoyed greater personal popularity. Lord Campbell declares ‘there never lived a better man than Rolfe’ (Life of John, Lord Campbell, ii. 125); while Greville says: ‘Nobody is so agreeable as Rolfe—a clear head, vivacity, information, an extraordinary pleasantness of manner without being soft or affected, extreme good humour, cheerfulness, and tact make his society on the whole as attractive as that of anybody I ever met’ (Memoirs, 2nd part, 1885, ii. 265).
There is an oil portrait of Cranworth by George Richmond, R.A., in the National Portrait Gallery. A crayon drawing of Cranworth by the same artist has been engraved by Francis Holl.
Cranworth's judgments are reported in Meeson and Welsby (v.–xvi.), Welsby, Hurlstone, and Gordon (i.–v.), Hall and Twells (ii.), Macnaghten and Gordon (ii.), De Gex, Macnaghten, and Gordon (i.–viii.), De Gex and Jones (i. and ii.), De Gex, Jones, and Smith (ii.–iv.), Clark's ‘House of Lords Cases’ (iv.–xi.), Moore's ‘Privy Council Cases,’ and the ‘Law Reports,’ English and Irish Appeal Cases (i.–iii.), Chancery Appeal Cases (i.).[Foss's Judges of England, 1864, ix. 251–3; Nash's Life of Richard, Lord Westbury, 1888, i. 133–4, 138, 150–1, 159, 168–70, ii. 10, 77, 144, 149, 152, 153, 176; W. O'Connor Morris's Memoirs and Thoughts of a Life, 1895, pp. 129–30; Random Recollections of the House of Commons, 1836, pp. 222–3; Times, 27–30 July 1868; Law Times, xlv. 260–1, xcvi. 415–16; Law Magazine and Review, xxvi. 278–84; Illustrated London News, 1 and 15 Aug. 1868; Gent. Mag. 1868, new ser. i. 563–4; Annual Register, 1868, ii. 167–8; G. E. C.'s Complete Peerage, ii. 403; Whishaw's Synopsis of the Bar, 1835, p. 120; Cambridge University Calendar, 1894–5, pp. 152, 508; Holgate's Winchester Commoners, 1800–35, pp. 27, 40; W. Haig Browne's Charterhouse Past and Present, 1879, p. 204; Lincoln's Inn Registers; Official Return of Lists of Members of Parliament, ii. 340, 352, 365; Haydn's Book of Dignities, 1890; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. i. 495, ii. 56, 94, 8th ser. viii. 168.]