1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Coleridge, John Duke Coleridge, 1st Baron
COLERIDGE, JOHN DUKE COLERIDGE, 1st Baron (1820–1894), lord chief justice of England, was the eldest son of Sir John Taylor Coleridge. He was born at Heath’s Court, Ottery St Mary, on the 3rd of December 1820. He was educated at Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, of which he was a scholar. He was called to the bar in 1846, and went the western circuit, rising steadily, through more than twenty years of hard work, till in 1865 he was returned as member for Exeter in the Liberal interest. The impression which he made on the heads of his party was so favourable that they determined, early in the session of 1867, to put him forward as the protagonist of their attack on the Conservative government. But that move seemed to many of their staunchest adherents unwise, and it was frustrated by the active opposition of a section, including Hastings Russell (later ninth duke of Bedford), his brother Arthur, member for Tavistock, Alexander Mitchell of Stow, A. W. Kinglake and Henry Seymour. They met to deliberate in the tea-room of the House, and were afterwards sometimes confounded with the tea-room party which was of subsequent formation and under the guidance of a different group. The protest was sufficient to prevent the contemplated attack being made, but the Liberals returned to power in good time with a large majority behind them in 1868. Coleridge was made, first solicitor-, and then attorney-general.
As early as 1863 a small body of Oxford men in parliament had opened fire against the legislation which kept their university bound by ecclesiastical swaddling clothes. They had made a good deal of progress in converting the House of Commons to their views before the general election of 1865. That election having brought Coleridge into parliament, he was hailed as a most valuable ally, whose great university distinction, brilliant success as an orator at the bar, and hereditary connexion with the High Church party, entitled him to take the lead in a movement which, although gathering strength, was yet very far from having achieved complete success. The clerically-minded section of the Conservative party could not but listen to the son of Sir John Coleridge, the godson of Keble, and the grand-nephew of the man who had been an indirect cause of the Anglican revival of 1833,—for John Stuart Mill was right when he said that the poet Coleridge and the philosopher Bentham were, so far as England was concerned, the leaders of the two chief movements of their times: “it was they who taught the teachers, and who were the two great seminal minds.”
Walking up one evening from the House of Commons to dine at the Athenaeum with Henry Bruce (afterwards Lord Aberdare) and another friend, Coleridge said: “There is a trial coming on which will be one of the most remarkable causes célèbres that has ever been heard of.” This was the Tichborne case, which led to proceedings in the criminal courts rising almost to the dignity of a political event. The Tichborne trial was the most conspicuous feature of Coleridge’s later years at the bar, and tasked his powers as an advocate to the uttermost, though he was assisted by the splendid abilities and industry of Charles (afterwards Lord) Bowen. In November 1873 Coleridge succeeded Sir W. Bovill as chief justice of the common pleas, and was immediately afterwards raised to the peerage as Baron Coleridge of Ottery St Mary. In 1880 he was made lord chief justice of England on the death of Sir Alexander Cockburn.
In jury cases his quickness in apprehending facts and his lucidity in arranging them were very remarkable indeed. He was not one of the most learned of lawyers, but he was a great deal more learned than many people believed him to be, and as an ecclesiastical lawyer had perhaps few or no superiors. His fault—a natural fault in one who had been so successful as an advocate—was that of being too apt to take one side. He allowed, also, certain political or personal prepossessions to colour the tone of his remarks from the bench. A game-preserving landlord had not to thank the gods when his case, however buttressed by generally accepted claims, came before Coleridge. Towards the end of his life his health failed, and he became somewhat indolent. On the whole, he was not so strong a man in his judicial capacity as Campbell or Cockburn; but it must be admitted that his scholarship, his refinement, his power of oratory, and his character raised the tone of the bench while he sat upon it, and that if it has been adorned by greater judicial abilities, it has hardly ever known a greater combination of varied merits. It is curious to observe that of all judges the man whom he put highest was one very unlike himself, the great master of the rolls, Sir William Grant. Coleridge died in harness on the 14th of June 1894.
Coleridge’s work, first as a barrister, and then as a judge, prevented his publishing as much as he otherwise would have done, but his addresses and papers would, if collected, fill a substantial volume and do much honour to his memory. One of the best, and one most eminently characteristic of the man, was his inaugural address to the Philosophical Institution at Edinburgh in 1870; another was a paper on Wordsworth (1873). He was an exceptionally good letter-writer. Of travel he had very little experience. He had hardly been to Paris; once, quite near the end of his career, he spent a few days in Holland, and came back a willing slave to the genius of Rembrandt; but his longest absence from England was a visit, which had something of a representative legal character, to the United States. It is strange that a man so steeped in Greek and Roman poetry, so deeply interested in the past, present and future of Christianity, never saw Rome, or Athens, or the Holy Land. A subsidiary cause, no doubt, was the fatal custom of neglecting modern languages at English schools. He felt himself at a disadvantage when he passed beyond English-speaking lands, and cordially disliked the situation. No notice of Coleridge should omit to make mention of his extraordinary store of anecdotes, which were nearly always connected with Eton, Oxford, the bar or the bench. His exquisite voice, considerable power of mimicry, and perfect method of narration added greatly to the charm. He once told, at the table of Dr Jowett, master of Balliol, anecdotes through the whole of dinner on Saturday evening, through the whole of breakfast, lunch and dinner the next day, through the whole journey on Monday morning from Oxford to Paddington, without ever once repeating himself. He was frequently to be seen at the Athenaeum, was a member both of Grillion’s and The Club, as well as of the Literary Society, of which he was president, and whose meetings he very rarely missed. Bishop Copleston is said to have divided the human race into three classes,—men, women and Coleridges. If he did so, he meant, no doubt, to imply that the family of whom the poet of Christabel was the chief example regarded themselves as a class to themselves, the objects of a special dispensation. John Duke Coleridge was sarcastic and critical, and at times over-sensitive. But his strongest characteristics were love of liberty and justice. By birth and connexions a Conservative, he was a Liberal by conviction, and loyal to his party and its great leader, Mr Gladstone.
Coleridge had three sons and a daughter by his first wife, Jane Fortescue, daughter of the Rev. George Seymour of Freshwater. She was an artist of real genius, and her portrait of Cardinal Newman was considered much better than the one by Millais. She died in February 1878; a short notice of her by Dean Church of St Paul’s was published in the Guardian, and was reprinted in her husband’s privately printed collection of poems. Coleridge remained for some years a widower, but married in 1885 Amy Augusta Jackson Lawford, who survived him. He was succeeded in the peerage by his eldest son, Bernard John Seymour (b. 1851), who went to the bar and became a K.C. in 1892. In 1907 he was appointed a judge of the Supreme Court. The two other sons were Stephen (b. 1854), a barrister, secretary to the Anti-Vivisection Society, and Gilbert James Duke (b. 1859).
His Life and Correspondence, edited by E. H. Coleridge, was published in 1904; see further E. Manson, Builders of our Law (1904); and for the history of the Coleridge family see Lord Coleridge, The Story of a Devonshire House (1907). (M. G. D.)