1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Cairns, Hugh McCalmont Cairns, 1st Earl

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1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 4
Cairns, Hugh McCalmont Cairns, 1st Earl
758421911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 4 — Cairns, Hugh McCalmont Cairns, 1st Earl

CAIRNS, HUGH MC CALMONT CAIRNS, 1st Earl (1819–1885), Irish statesman, and lord chancellor of England, was born at Cultra, Co. Down, Ireland, on the 27th of December 1819. His father, William Cairns, formerly a captain in the 47th regiment, came of a family[1] of Scottish origin, which migrated to Ireland in the time of James I. Hugh Cairns was his second son, and was educated at Belfast academy and at Trinity College, Dublin, graduating with a senior moderatorship in classics in 1838. In 1844 he was called to the bar at the Middle Temple, to which he had migrated from Lincoln’s Inn. During his first years at the chancery bar, Cairns showed little promise of the eloquence which afterwards distinguished him. Never a rapid speaker, he was then so slow and diffident, that he feared that this defect might interfere with his legal career. Fortunately he was soon able to rid himself of the idea that he was only fit for practice as a conveyancer. In 1852 he entered parliament as member for Belfast, and his Inn, on his becoming a Q.C. in 1856, made him a bencher.

In 1858 Cairns was appointed solicitor-general, and was knighted, and in May of that year made two of his most brilliant and best-remembered speeches in the House of Commons. In the first, he defended the action of Lord Ellenborough, who, as president of the board of control, had not only censured Lord Canning for a proclamation issued by him as governor-general of India but had made public the despatch in which the censure was conveyed. On the other occasion referred to, Sir Hugh Cairns spoke in opposition to Lord John Russell’s amendment to the motion for the second reading of the government Reform Bill, winning the most cordial commendation of Disraeli. Disraeli’s appreciation found an opportunity for displaying itself some years later, when in 1868 he invited him to be lord chancellor in the brief Conservative administration which followed Lord Derby’s resignation of the leadership of his party. Meanwhile, Cairns had maintained his reputation in many other debates, both when his party was in power and when it was in opposition. In 1866 Lord Derby, returning to office, had made him attorney-general, and in the same year he had availed himself of a vacancy to seek the comparative rest of the court of appeal. While a lord justice he had been offered a peerage, and though at first unable to accept it, he had finally done so on a relative, a member of the wealthy family of McCalmont, providing the means necessary for the endowment of a title.

The appointment of Baron Cairns of Garmoyle as lord chancellor in 1868 involved the superseding of Lord Chelmsford, an act which apparently was carried out by Disraeli with less tact than might have been expected of him. Lord Chelmsford bitterly declared that he had been sent away with less courtesy than if he had been a butler, but the testimony of Lord Malmesbury is strong that the affair was the result of an understanding arrived at when Lord Chelmsford took office. Disraeli held office on this occasion for a few months only, and when Lord Derby died in 1869, Lord Cairns became the leader of the Conservative opposition in the House of Lords. He had distinguished himself in the Commons by his resistance to the Roman Catholics’ Oath Bill brought in in 1865; in the Lords, his efforts on behalf of the Irish Church were equally strenuous. His speech on Gladstone’s Suspensory Bill was afterwards published as a pamphlet, but the attitude which he and the peers who followed him had taken up, in insisting on their amendments to the preamble of the bill, was one difficult to maintain, and Lord Cairns made terms with Lord Granville in circumstances which precluded his consulting his party first. He issued a circular to explain his action in taking a course for which many blamed him. Viewed dispassionately, the incident appears to have exhibited his statesmanlike qualities in a marked degree, for he secured concessions which would have been irretrievably lost by continued opposition. Not long after this, Lord Cairns resigned the leadership of his party in the upper house, but he had to resume it in 1870 and took a strong part in opposing the Irish Land Bill in that year. On the Conservatives coming into power in 1874, he again became lord chancellor; in 1878 he was made Viscount Garmoyle and Earl Cairns; and in 1880 his party went out of office. In opposition he did not take as prominent a part as previously, but when Lord Beaconsfield died in 1881, there were some Conservatives who considered that his title to lead the party was better than that of Lord Salisbury. His health, however, never robust, had for many years shown intermittent signs of failing. He had periodically made enforced retirements to the Riviera, and for many years had had a house at Bournemouth, and it was here that he died on the 2nd of April 1885.

Cairns was a great lawyer, with an immense grasp of first principles and the power to express them; his judgments taking the form of luminous expositions or treatises upon the law governing the case before him, rather than of controversial discussions of the arguments adduced by counsel or of analysis of his own reasons. Lucidity and logic were the leading characteristics of his speeches in his professional capacity and in the political arena. In an eloquent tribute to his memory in the House of Lords, Lord Chief Justice Coleridge expressed the high opinion of the legal profession upon his merits and upon the severe integrity and single-minded desire to do his duty, which animated him in his selections for the bench. His piety was reflected by that of his great opponent, rival and friend, Lord Selborne. Like Lord Selborne and Lord Hatherley, Cairns found leisure at his busiest for teaching in the Sunday-school, but it is not recorded of them (as of him) that they refused to undertake work at the bar on Saturdays, in order to devote that day to hunting. He used to say that his great incentive to hard work at his profession in early days was his desire to keep hunters, and he retained his keenness as a sportsman as long as he was able to indulge it. Of his personal characteristics, it may be said that he was a spare man, with a Scottish, not an Irish, cast of countenance. He was scrupulously neat in his personal appearance, faultless in bands and necktie, and fond of wearing a flower in his button-hole. His chilly manner, coupled with his somewhat austere religious principles, had no doubt much to do with the fact that he was never a popular man. His friends claimed for him a keen sense of humour, but it was not to be detected by those whose knowledge of him was professional rather than personal. Probably he thought the exhibition of humour incompatible with the dignity of high judicial position. Of his legal attainments there can be no doubt. His influence upon the legislation of the day was largely felt where questions affecting religion and the Church were involved and in matters peculiarly affecting his own profession. His power was felt, as has been said, both when he was in office and when his party was in opposition. He had been chairman of the committee on judicature reform, and although he was not in office when the Judicature Act was passed, all the reforms in the legal procedure of his day owed much to him. He took part, when out of office, in the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act, and was directly responsible for the Conveyancing Acts of 1881–1882, and for the Settled Land Act. Many other statutes in which he was largely concerned might be quoted. His judgments are to be found in the Law Reports and those who wish to consider his oratory should read the speeches above referred to, or that delivered in the House of Lords on the Compensation for Disturbance Bill in 1880, and his memorable criticism of Mr Gladstone’s policy in the Transvaal, after Majuba Hill. (See Hansard and The Times, 1st of April 1881.) His style of delivery was, as a rule, cold to a marked degree. The term “frozen oratory” has been applied to his speeches, and it has been said of them that they flowed “like water from a glacier. . . . The several stages of his speech are like steps cut out in ice, as sharply defined, as smooth and as cold.” Lord Caims married in 1856 Mary Harriet, eldest daughter of John McNeill, of Parkmount, Co. Antrim, by whom he had issue five sons and two daughters. He was succeeded in the earldom by his second but eldest surviving son, Arthur William (1861–1890), who left one daughter, and from whom the title passed to his two next younger brothers in succession, Herbert John, third earl (1863–1905), and Wilfrid Dallas, fourth earl (b. 1865).

Authorities.—See The Times, 3rd and 14th of April 1885; Law Journal, Law Times, Solicitors' Journal, 11th of April 1885; the Law Magazine, vol. xi. p. 133; the Law Quarterly, vol. i. p. 365; Earl Russell’s Recollections; Memoirs of Lord Malmesbury; Sir Theodore Martin, The Life of the Prince Consort; E. Manson, Builders of our Law; J. B. Atlay, Victorian Chancellors, vol. ii.


  1. See History of the family of Cairnes or Cairns, by H. C. Lawlor (1907).