Wilde, James Plaisted (DNB01)

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WILDE, JAMES PLAISTED, Lord Penzance (1816–1899), judge, second son of Edward Archer Wilde, solicitor, of London, by Marianne, daughter of William Norris, M.D., was born on 12 July 1816 [cf. Wilde, Thomas, Lord Truro]. was educated at Winchester School and the university of Cambridge, where he graduated (from Trinity College) B.A. in 1638, and proceeded M.A. in 1842. On 15 April 1836 he was admitted student at the Inner Temple, and was there called to the bar on 22 Nov. 1839, and elected bencher on 15 Jan. 1856. A pupil of Barnes (afterwards Sir Barnes Peacock), and 'devil' to his uncle Sir Thomas Wilde, he was rapidly launched into practice. In 1840 he was made counsel to the commissioners of customs, and thereafter both on the northern circuit and Westminster his career was one of rapid and sustained success. He took silk on 6 July 1855, was made counsel to the Duchy of Lancaster in 1859, and in 1860 baron of the exchequer, being at the same time invested with the coif and knighted (13, 24 April). Thence, on the death of Sir Cresswell Cresswell in 1863, he was transferred to the court of probate and divorce (28 Aug.), and on 26 April 1864 was sworn of the privy council. In his new office he at once gave proof of the highest judicial qualities, and by a series of luminous decisions did much to shape both the substantive law and the procedure of the court. He took part with Lord-chief-justice Cockburn and Chief-baron Pollock in the proceedings under the Legitimacy Declaration Act (21 & 22 Vict., c. 93), which disposed of the preposterous pretensions of the soi-disant Princess Olive [see Serres, Mrs. Olivia.]. He was raised to the peerage on 6 April 1869 by the title of Baron Penzance of Penzance, Cornwall, and on 23 April took his seat in the House of Lords. The new peer counted as a distinct gain to the government. In a weighty and eloquent maiden speech he justified (15 June 1869) the disestablishment of the Irish church on the broad ground of equity. He carried the measure of the same session enabling the evidence of the parties to be taken in actions for breach of promise of marriage and proceedings consequent upon adultery. In the following session he supported the measures in amendment of the laws relating to absconding debtors, married women's property, and the naturalisation of aliens, and moved on 27 March 1871 the second reading of the bill for the legalisation of marriage with a deceased wife's sister. He also took an active part in the discussions on the judicature bills of 1872 and 1874. In November 1872 he retired from judicial office in consequence of ill health, and at considerable pecuniary sacrifice—his pension was fixed at 3,500l.—but in 1874 he was sufficiently recovered to undertake the not very onerous duties of judge under the Public Worship Regulation Act (37 & 38 Vict., c. 85). The frankly Erastian character of the act placed Penzance from the first under a grievous disadvantage. He was invested with the statutory jurisdiction by sign manual on 14 Nov. 1874, without other preliminary than a formal nomination by the archbishops of Canterbury and York. By virtue of the statute he succeeded to the offices of dean of the arches court of Canterbury, master of the faculties, and official principal of the chancery court of York on the retirement in the following year (October) of Sir Robert Phillimore and Granville Harcourt Vernon, a mere declaration of churchmanship being substituted for the oath and subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles required by the 127th canon of 1603-4. His jurisdiction thus lacked moral authority, his monitions were disregarded, and his inhibitions treated with contempt. His position in the judicial hierarchy was also by no means well defined. The statute did not expressly constitute his court a superior court of law, or invest him with power to commit for contempt, and the court of queen's bench asserted the right to review his decisions and restrain their enforcement by prohibition [cf. Cockburn, Sir Alexander]. These questions were determined in Penzance's favour by the House of Lords in 1881 and 1882 {Law Reports, Appeal Cases, vi. 424, 657, vii. 240), but by that time his occupation was virtually gone. The bishops discouraged recourse to his court, while among the laity not a few of those least disposed to sympathise with lawlessness deplored the scandal and doubted the policy of converting ritualists into martyrs. For these reasons Penzance's court came eventually to be all but deserted for that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Penzance retired from the bench in March 1899, and died at his seat, Bashing Park, Godalming, Surrey, on 9 Dec. following. His remains were interred on 15 Dec. at Shackleford, near Godalming. By his wife, Lady Mary Pleydell Bouverie, youngest daughter of William, third earl of Radnor, whom he married on 20 Feb. 1860, he left no issue: she died on 24 Oct. 1900. Penzance served on the Royal Commissions on the Marriage Laws, 1865; the Courts of Law, 1867 and 1869; claims to compensation consequent on the abolition of purchase in the army, 1873; the retirement and promotion of military officers, 1874; the customs of the Stock Exchange, 1877; and the condition of Wellington College, 1878. He took only very occasional part in the judicial deliberations of the House of Lords. His favourite pastime was floriculture, and his favourite flower the rose, which he hybridised with remarkable success.

An 'Address on Jurisprudence and Amendment of the Law,' delivered by Penzance in 1864 at the York meeting of the National Association for the Promotion of Social Science, is printed in the 'Transactions' of the association.

[Foss's Lives of the Judges; Foster's Men at the Bar and Peerage; Burke's Peerage, 1900; G. E. C[okayne]'s Complete Peerage; Grad. Cant.; Hubbard's Ecclesiastical Courts; Phillimore's Ecclesiastical Law, ii 1026; Parl. Deb. 3rd ser. vols. cxcvi-ccxii., ccviii-ccxxvi., cexxxv-cclxiv.; Parl. Pap. (H. C.), 1865 c. 4059, 1868–9 c. 4130, 1872 c. 631, 1874 c. 957, 984, 1018, 1090, 1876 c. 1569, 1878 c. 2157, 1880 c. 2650; Lords' Journ. ci. 185; Vanity Fair, 18 Dec. 1869; Ballantine's Experiences, 1883, p. 172; Selborne's Memorials, Personal and Political; Liddon's Life of Pusey, iv. 282–8; Dean Hole's Memories, p. 228; Times, 12 and 16 Dec. 1899; Ann. Reg. 1866 ii. 222, 1899 ii. 13, 180; Law Journ. 16 Dec. 1899; Law Mag. and Rev. 5th ser. xxv. 212–27; Law Times, 10 April 1869, 18 Feb. 1871, 2 Nov. 1872, 8 Aug. 1874, 27 Nov. 1875, 8 April 1876, 16 Dec. 1899; Guardian, 13 Dec. 1899; Coombe v. Edwards Judgment, 1878; the Argument delivered in the Folkestone Ritual case, &c., 1878; Law Reports, Appeal Cases, xii. ‘Judges and Law Officers.’]

J. M. R.