Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Buller, Francis

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BULLER, Sir FRANCIS (1746–1800), judge, was the third son of James Buller of Morval, Cornwall, and of Downes near Crediton, by his second wife, Lady Jane Bathurst, second daughter of Allen, first earl Bathurst, and was born at Downes on 17 March 1746. He was educated at Ottery St. Mary grammar school. While there he lived in the house of S. T. Coleridge's father, and through Buller's influence in later years a presentation to the Bluecoat School, London, was obtained for Coleridge himself. In 1763, at the age of seventeen, Buller married Susanna, daughter and heiress of Francis Yarde of Churston Court, Devonshire, and in February of that year he was entered at the Inner Temple as a pupil of the celebrated special pleader William Henry Ashurst [q.v.], afterwards a judge in the court of king's bench. He took out his certificate as special pleader in 1765, and was at once established in a good business. The 'pupilising system,' according to Lord Campbell, was introduced by Buller, and if this be an exaggeration, it is certain that it was largely extended by him, and that Erskine was among his children in the law. In Easter term 1772 he was called to the bar, and in the same year was published the first English edition of his 'Introduction to the Law relative to Trials at Nisi Prius,' a compilation from a collection of cases of Justice (afterwards Earl) Bathurst, which passed through many editions. His rise at the bar was rapid. Among the causes célèbres in which he was engaged were the trial of the Duchess of Kingston, the action for libel against the Rev. John Horne, better known as Horne Tooke, and the trial of John the Painter [see Aitken, James]. On 24 Nov. 1777 he was created a king's counsel, and three days later was appointed the second judge of the county palatine of Chester. Next year (6 May 1778), when only thirty-two years old—he is said to have been the youngest man ever created an English judge—he was made a puisne judge of the king's bench, on the recommendation of Lord Mansfield. Though his clearness of statement and his quickness in seizing the points of the contending counsel were universally recognised, his conduct on the judicial branch has often formed the subject of severe criticism. He was considered hasty and prejudiced, and his unfortunate assertion that a husband could thrash his wife with impunity provided that the stick was no bigger than his thumb, tempted Gillray into planting the belief more deeply in popular opinion by a caricature of Buller as Judge Thumb, which he published on 27 Nov. 1782. At the trial of the Very Rev. William Davies Shipley, dean of St. Asaph, for libel on 6 Aug. 1784, for the offence of 'publishing a very harmless dialogue written by Sir William Jones,' Buller told the jury that they were not entitled to form any opinion upon the character of the paper charged as libellous; and when the verdict 'guilty of publishing only' was given by the jury, and the judge endeavoured to ignore the qualifying word 'only,' the resolute attitude of Erskine, the dean's advocate, gained a victory over Buller's tenacity. Erskine subsequently moved for a new trial on the ground of misdirection, but failed in his object, though his claims have since been acknowledged by a 'declaratory act of parliament.' Buller also incurred, but seemingly without justice, considerable odium for his conduct while presiding over the trial of Captain John Donellan for poisoning his brother-in-law, Sir Theodosius Boughton. He was always the second judge in his court, and when Lord Mansfield was absent through illness Buller took the lead; indeed for the last two years of his chief's life he was really the chief justice, and Lord Mansfield, besides pressing Buller's claims to promotion on the ministry, left him 2,000l. in acknowledgment of his assistance. The heads of the government long wavered in their decision. Pitt is said to have remembered a trial at Bodmin, affecting the political rights in one of the pocket boroughs of the Buller family, in which Buller presided and showed undue partiality for his connections. Thurlow exclaimed that he had 'hesitated long between the corruption of Buller and the intemperance of Kenyon.' The latter, a vastly inferior lawyer, was at last selected, and the defeated junior, as some solace for his disappointment, was made a baronet on 13 Jan. 1790. In spite of his disappointment he remained in his old court for some years, but on 19 June 1794 he look his place in the common pleas, his letter to Kenyon announcing his resignation of his post in the king's bench being printed in Kenyon's 'Life.' Buller often presided for Lord Thurlow in the court of chancery, and his last great act as a judge was that of presiding at the trial of the state prisoners, Arthur O'Connor and others, at Maidstone in 1798. He was short in stature, but of handsome features, with a piercing eye and a commanding forehead. His health was at last undermined by frequent attacks of gout and by a slight stroke of paralysis. He had arranged to resign in a few days, when, during a game of picquet at his house in Bedford Square, he was seized with his fatal illness. He died late on the night of the 4th, or early on the 5th, of June 1800, and was buried without pomp, near the remains of his firstborn son Edward, in the burial-ground of St. Andrew's, Holborn, on 11 June. His love of card-playing was notorious, and he once exclaimed that 'his idea of heaven was to sit at nisi prius all day and play at whist all night.' Abbott, afterwards Lord Tenterden, was private tutor to Buller's only surviving son, and on his advice Abbott adopted a legal, instead of the clerical, profession. This son afterwards took the surname of Yarde, subsequently adding to it his own patronymic of Buller, and the judge's grandson was made Baron Churston. The judge purchased large estates in his native county of Devon, and supplied Arthur Young with some notes on the system of cultivation adopted on his property near Princetown in Dartmoor (Annals of Agriculture, xxix. 569–78, xxx. 297–8).

[Gilbert's Cornwall, ii. 41; Courtney and Boase's Bibliotheca Cornubiensis. i. and iii.; Campbell's Chief Justices, ii. 328, 397, 540–3, 550, iii. 36, 266–9; Townsend's Twelve Judges, i. 1–32: Foss, viii. 251–5; Strictures on Eminent Lawyers (1790), pp. 103–11; Polwhele's Biog. Sketches, i. 56–60; Crabb Robinson's Diary, i. 394. ii. 160; Romilly's Memoirs, i. 82–3; Sir N. Wraxall's Posthumous Memoirs, i. 86; Lord Abinger's Life, pp. 45, 49. 62; Kenyon's Life, pp. 52, 164–6, 174, 284–5; Gent. Mag. (June 1800), pp. 594–5: Sir E. Brydge's Autobiography. i. 403; Gillray's Works, pp. 43–4; Cradock's Memoirs, i. 85, iv. 150–2.]

W. P. C.