Clerk, John (1757-1832) (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

CLERK, JOHN, Lord Eldin (1757–1832), Scotch judge, was the eldest son of John Clerk of Eldin [q. v.], the author of an 'Essay on Naval Tactics,' and his wife, Susannah Adam, the sister of the celebrated architects of that name. He was born in April 1757. Though originally intended for the Indian civil service, he was apprenticed to a writer of the signet. After serving his articles he practised for a year or two as an accountant, and eventually was admitted a member of the Faculty of Advocates on 3 Dec. 1785. He soon made his mark at the bar, where he acquired so extensive a practice that, it is said, at one period of his career he had nearly one-half of the business of the court in his hands. On 11 March 1806 he was appointed solicitor-general to Scotland in the Grenville administration, an office which he held during the twelve months that that ministry lasted. His practice at the bar had been for some time falling off, and his health had already begun to fail, when, on 10 Nov. 1823, he was appointed an ordinary lord of session in the place of Lord Bannatyne. Assuming the title of Lord Eldin, he took his seat on the bench 22 Nov. As a judge he was not a success; his temperament was not a judicial one, and his infirmities rendered him unfit for the office. After five years of judicial work he resigned in 1828, and was succeeded by Lord Fullerton. As a pleader he was remarkable, both for his acuteness and his marvellous powers of reasoning, as well as for his fertility of resource. Possessed of a rough, sarcastic humour, he delighted in ridiculing the bench, and was in the habit of saying whatever he liked to the judges without reproof, though on one celebrated occasion, after a prolonged wrangle, he was compelled by the court to make an apology to Lord Glenlee for a fiery retort which he had made in reply to a remark of that judge (Journal of Henry Cockburn, 1874, ii. 207-10). In politics he was a keen whig. He had a considerable taste for fine arts, and occasionally amused himself in drawing and modelling. In appearance he was remarkably plain; he was also very lame, and paid no attention to his dress. It is related that when walking down High Street one day from the court of session he overheard a young lady saying to her companion rather loudly, 'There goes Johnnie Clerk, the lame lawyer.' Upon which he turned round and said, 'No, madam, I may be a lame man, but not a lame lawyer.' A felicitous sketch of this brilliant but eccentric advocate will be found in Cockburn's 'Life of Lord Jeffrey' (1852), i. 199-205. Clerk died unmarried at his house in Picardy Place, Edinburgh, on 30 May 1832, in the seventy-sixth year of his age. A vignette portrait of him will be found in the second volume of Kay, No. 320. His collection of pictures and prints was sold by auction at his house in March 1833, when a serious accident occurred by reason of the floor giving way.

[Kay's Original Portraits (1877), ii. 438-42; Brunton and Haig's Senators of the College of Justice (1832), 551, 552; Edinburgh Evening Courant, 2 June 1832; Scots Mag. 1823, new ser., xiii. 760; Cockburn's Memorials of his Time (1856), 272-3, 407-8; Anderson's History of Edinburgh (1856), 428-9.]

G. F. R. B.