Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Best, William Draper

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BEST, WILLIAM DRAPER, first Baron Wynford (1767–1845), judge, the third son of Thomas Best, by a daughter of Sir William Draper, K.B. (by his first wife), was born at Haselbury-Plucknett, Somerset, on 13 Dec. 1767. After receiving his education at the grammar school at Crewkerne, he was admitted to Wadham College, Oxford, at the age of fifteen, but left the university in his seventeenth year without taking his degree. He had been intended at first for the church, but, having come into a considerable fortune from a cousin during his residence at Oxford, he entered the Middle Temple on 9 Oct. 1784. He was called to the bar on 6 Nov. 1789, and joined the home circuit. The first cause in which he attracted notice was that of Shakespear v. Peppin (6 T. R. 741) in June 1796, when Lord Kenyon, C. J., paid many compliments to 'his talents and industry.' It is said that the brief in this case fell into his hands by the happy accident of the absence of the counsel who was engaged in the cause. He soon afterwards secured an extensive practice, both on the home circuit and at Westminster Hall. Though at Westminster he chiefly practised in the common pleas, he was engaged in many cases of importance in the king's bench and exchequer, and also in some of the principal criminal trials of the day. In 1799 he became a serjeant-at-law, and in July 1802 was elected member for Petersfield. He was now attached to the whig party, and was one of the acting managers on the impeachment of Lord Melville. He continued to sit for Petersfield until the dissolution of parliament. In March 1809 he was elected recorder of Guildford in the place of Lord Grantley. In October 1812 he was returned as a member for Bridport, and, having changed his politics, was appointed, 7 Dec. 1813, solicitor-general to the Prince of Wales. On 14 Feb. 1816 he became the prince's attorney-general, and two years afterwards chief justice of Chester. Upon the elevation of Abbott to the chief-justiceship, Best succeeded to the vacancy in the king's bench on 30 Nov. 1818, but did not receive the honour of knighthood until 3 June 1819. After sitting as a puisne judge for rather more than five years, he was made chief justice of the common pleas on 15 April 1824, and admitted to the privy council on 25 May in the same year. His health throughout his career was a source of great suffering, and he was constantly incapacitated by severe attacks of gout. In June 1829 he gave up his post on the bench, and, a pension having been granted to him, was called to the House of Lords by the title of Baron Wynford of Wynford Eagle in the county of Dorset, on 5 June 1829. He was appointed one of the deputy speakers of the house, where he was a vehement supporter of the tory party, and strenuously opposed the Reform Bill at every stage.

As a lawyer he had no great reputation, but as an advocate his qualities were both varied and extensive. His style of speaking was forcible and pointed, but not always fluent, though his arguments were at all times remarkable for their clearness. His quickness and unwearying activity made him a most watchful adversary, though as a leader he was not always safe. As a parliamentary speaker he was much less successful than as an advocate, and as a judge he was unfortunately far from being free of bias of temper, and sometimes even of political prejudice. The opinion which he was supposed to have uttered on the subject of the game laws in the case of Ilott v. Wilkes (3 B. & A. 304) called forth a bitter article by Sydney Smith in the 'Edinburgh Review' (vol. xxxv.), entitled 'Spring Guns and Man Traps'. Best's judgment, however, seems to have been grossly misreported in the account of the case to which Sydney Smith referred. A number of his judgements will be found in vols. ii. to v. of 'Bingham's Reports.' On 11 June 1834 the degree of D.C.L. was conferred upon him by the university of Oxford. When attending the House of Lords he used to be carried there in an arm-chair, in which he was permitted to sit when addressing the house. In his later years his increasing infirmities compelled him gradually to withdraw from public life. He died at his country seat of Leasons in Kent, on 3 March 1845, aged 78. Early in life, on 6 May 1794, he married Mary Anne, second daughter of Jerome Knapp, clerk to the Haberdashers' Company, by whom he had ten children. The title is now borne by his grandson, William Draper Mortimer Best, who succeeded his father, the second baron, on 28 Feb. 1869.

[Foss's Judges (1864), ix. 9-12; Law Magazine, xxxiii. 308-17; Law Review, ii. 168-75; Law Times, iv. 447; Annual Register, 1845, appendix p. 255; Gent. Mag. 1845, xxiii. N.S. 431-2; Campbell's Lord Chancellors, vol. viii. passim; Campbell's Chief Justices, vol. iii. passim; Edinburgh Review, xxxv. 123-84, 410-21.]

G. F. R. B.