Wood, William Page (DNB00)

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WOOD, WILLIAM PAGE, Baron Hatherley (1801–1881), lord chancellor, the second son and fourth child of Sir Matthew Wood [q. v.], was born at his father's house in Falcon Square, London, on 29 Nov. 1801. Most of his early years were spent at the house of his grandmother (Mrs. Page) at Woodbridge in Suffolk, where for a time he attended the free school. From 1809 to 1812 he was at Dr. Lindsay's school at Bow in Essex, and in September 1812 he entered at Winchester. He was not on the foundation. He remained there till May 1818, when, in consequence of his joining in a ‘barring out,’ which the school authorities dignified by summoning the military to their assistance, he was compelled to leave in company with the other senior prefects. He then spent two years at Geneva, where he was placed in charge of Duvillard, professor of belles-lettres, and attended the university lectures. Through his father he was acquainted with numbers of men of eminence of the whig and radical parties, and in 1817 had seen in Paris many of the chief liberal politicians. He had already read much, and at Geneva he acquired a good conversational knowledge of French and Italian and went into university society. In 1820 he returned to England in the train of Queen Caroline, whose cause was vigorously championed by his father at the time, and afterwards spent the summer months in Italy with Chevalier Vasselli, collecting evidence for the queen's case. When he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in October, he was accordingly much more cultivated and much better informed than most undergraduates of his years, but his college career was hampered by ill-health. In 1821 he won the second college declamation prize with an essay in favour of the Revolution of 1688, and in 1822 was elected to a scholarship; but he came out only twenty-fourth wrangler in January 1824, and had to retire from the final classical examination altogether. In October of that year he was elected to a fellowship, though his election was nearly vetoed by dissentients who supposed him to hold his father's radical opinions, and remembered his prize essay of 1821.

From the time when, as sheriff of London, his father had taken him to the Old Bailey sessions, his ambition had turned towards a legal career. In Trinity term 1824 he entered Lincoln's Inn, proposed and seconded by Brougham and Denman, and he read law in the chamber of Roupell. The winter of 1825 he spent with pupils in the south of Europe, and, after studying conveyancing under John Tyrrell in 1826, he was called to the bar on 27 Nov. 1827, and started practice at 3 Old Square, Lincoln's Inn. He soon obtained business, and his first speech in court was delivered before the House of Lords in Westmeath v. Westmeath. He was much employed in railway work before parliamentary committees from 1828 to 1841, as well as in the chancery courts, and it was out of one of his cases that the clause since known as the ‘Wharncliffe clause’ originated. In 1841 he gave up parliamentary work, and was rewarded by a very large and immediate increase in his chancery practice. He became a queen's counsel in February 1845.

By this time his pecuniary position and prospects were excellent. His father had inherited a large fortune, and his own savings from professional earnings were enough to make him independent of practice. As early as 1829 he was earning 1,000l. a year, and had become engaged to Charlotte, daughter of Major Edward Moor [q. v.]; they were married on 5 Jan. 1830, and lived in Dean's Yard, Westminster, till 1844. As a queen's counsel prospects opened to Wood, which made him adhere to his profession, and he attached himself to the court of Vice-chancellor Sir James Wigram [q. v.] He was a strong high-churchman and an advanced liberal, and, entering parliament for Oxford in 1847, spoke principally on ecclesiastical topics, such as church rates, the ecclesiastical commission, the deceased wife's sister bill, and the admission of Jews to parliament. In 1850 he obtained a committee on the oaths question, of which he was chairman; and it was he who moved that Baron Rothschild be permitted to take his seat in July 1850 [see Rothschild, Lionel Nathan de]. He also spoke and voted in favour of the ballot and household suffrage and against the game laws. In May 1849 he accepted from Lord Campbell, chancellor of the duchy, the vice-chancellorship of the county palatine of Lancaster, then a sinecure worth 600l. a year, but only on condition that his court should be reformed and be made an actual working tribunal. An act was accordingly passed for this purpose, and he held the office for two years. In 1851 he was a member of the commission on the court of chancery, and prepared several bills for the purpose of improving chancery procedure, which ultimately were passed. In the same year he was appointed solicitor-general in Lord John Russell's administration and was knighted. A vice-chancellorship was offered to him shortly afterwards, which he was inclined to accept, as the strain of office, particularly during the passing of the ecclesiastical titles bill, which he heartily supported, told heavily upon his health; but at Lord John Russell's request he refused the offer and held on. The ministry went out in February 1852, but in December, when forming his administration, Lord Aberdeen offered Wood the solicitor-generalship again, or the vice-chancellorship vacated by Sir George James Turner [q. v.], who was made lord justice in succession to the newly appointed lord chancellor Robert Monsey Rolfe, first baron Cranworth [q. v.] The latter was accepted, and Wood was sworn in before the commencement of Hilary term 1853. For the next fifteen years he was an active chancery judge. His practice, only once departed from, was to deliver oral judgments only, and, thus delivered, they were occasionally ill-arranged and fragmentary. On this habit Lord Campbell, when lord chancellor, chose to animadvert severely in December 1860 in his judgment in Burch v. Bright on appeal from Wood; but on 22 Dec. the other vice-chancellors and the master of the rolls united in a letter to Lord Campbell protesting against this mode of indirectly lecturing a judge of the court of chancery, which obtained him amends from the chancellor. In addition to his judicial work Wood was constantly engaged in commissions on various legal and ecclesiastical topics, on cathedrals, divorce, legal education, consolidation of statute law, and on the university of Cambridge commission. He was also one of the arbitrators in the dispute between the queen and the king of Hanover with regard to the Hanover crown jewels. He became a lord justice of appeal in February 1868, and in the following December was appointed lord chancellor in the first Gladstone administration. His selection was somewhat unexpected, but in fact, at a juncture when the disestablishment of the Irish church was in preparation, Wood's two great characteristics, sound legal learning and earnest churchmanship, fitted him eminently for a place which Roundell Palmer felt that he could not accept owing to his disapproval of the measure. He was then created Baron Hatherley of Hatherley in the county of Gloucester. During his tenure of this office he took an effective part in the Irish church debates, though he was not a finished or attractive speaker. He passed the Bankruptcy Act of 1869—a measure chiefly defective by reason of the encouragement it gave to expense in bankruptcy proceedings and the insufficiency of its safeguards against the dissipation of assets—and the Judicial Committee Act of 1871. He did not pass his judicature bill. The failure of his eyesight led to his resignation in 1872, and he died at 31 George Street, Westminster, on 10 July 1881, and was buried in the churchyard of Great Bealings, Suffolk, five days later. His wife died on 19 Nov. 1898. They had no children, and the peerage became extinct on Hatherley's death.

As a lawyer Hatherley was learned, sound, and industrious; he was a good and efficient judge, and distinguished above most of his colleagues. His decisions were rarely appealed from, and reversed more rarely still. Outside the law he had many activities and interests. When a young man he translated the ‘Novum Organum’ for Basil Montagu's edition of ‘Bacon,’ and through Montagu became intimate with Coleridge, Carlyle, and Irving; with his school-friend Dean Hook he was intimate all his life. He was deeply pious and active in good works. From 1834 onwards he was a member of the committee of the National Society, and from 1836 to 1877 he was a constant Sunday-school teacher in the parish of St. Margaret's, Westminster, in which he lived. His portrait, by George Richmond, is in the National Portrait Gallery, and another is in Fishmongers' Hall. He published several religious and ecclesiastical works, a lecture called ‘Truth and its Counterfeits,’ 1857, a controversial treatise on ‘Marriage with a Deceased Wife's Sister,’ 1862, and a series of excerpts from the Bible called ‘The Continuity of Scripture,’ 1867, which ran through several editions.

[Stephen's Memoir of Lord Hatherley, 1882; Times, 12 July 1881; St. James's Magazine, new ser. iv. 763.]

J. A. H.