Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bovill, William

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BOVILL, Sir WILLIAM (1814–1873), judge, was a younger son of Mr. Benjamin Bovill of Durnford Lodge, Wimbledon, and was born at Allhallows, Barking, on 26 May 1814. He was not a member of any university, but began his legal career by accepting articles with a firm of solicitors in the city of London. 'At an early age,' says a fellow-pupil, he was remarkable for the zeal with which he pursued his legal studies.' For a short time he practised as a special pleader below the bar. He became a member of the Middle Temple, and was called to the bar in 1841. He joined the home circuit, and at a peculiarly favourable time. Platt had already gone, and Serjeants Shee and Channell, and Bramwell and Lush, the then leaders, were all raised to the bench within a few years. Bovill owed something to his early connection with solicitors. He was also connected with a firm of manufacturers in the east end of London, and so became familiar with the details of engineering. Hence he in time acquired a considerable, though far from an exclusive, patent practice, and was largely engaged in commercial cases. Still it was somewhat remarkable that, almost alone among large city firms, Messrs. Hoilams, one of the largest, never were clients of his. He became a Q.C. in 1855, and, being very popular in his circuit towns, was elected M.P. for Guildford in 1857. In politics he was a conservative, but did not take any leading part in the House of Commons for some years. He was, however, zealous in legal reforms, and two useful acts, the Petition of Right Act, 23 & 24 Vict., and the Partnership Law Amendment Act, 28 & 29 Vict., bear his name. In 1865, too, he urged the concentration of all the law courts into one building, and in 1866 pressed for more convenient and suitable provision for the library of the Patent Office. On 6 July 1866, when Sir Fitzroy Kelly was made lord chief baron, Bovill was appointed solicitor-general in Lord Derby's last administration ; but he held office only for five months, and in November of the same year succeeded Sir William Erle as chief justice of the common pleas. A few months previously he had been elected treasurer of the Middle Temple, but on being raised to the bench he resigned that office. In 1870 he was made honorary D.C.L. of Oxford, and he was also F.R.S. He became most familiar to the public during the first Tichborne trial, which took place before him. At its conclusion he ordered the plaintiff to be indicted for perjury, admitting him to bail in 5,000l for himself and two sureties of 2,500l each. In January 1873 he was appointed a member of the judicature commission; but going the midland circuit in March he did not long act upon it. For some weeks before his death he was in ill-health, but was thought to be recovering when, on 1 Nov., he died at noon at his residence, Coombe House, Kingston, Surrey, for which county he was many years a magistrate. He was of the best type of the non-university judge; very few were more learned, though some might be more eloquent; but in advocacy no one at the common law bar surpassed him. At nisi prius he displayed great force and energy, a great grasp of facts, and a very acute perception of the true point of a case. In argument before a court in banc he was logical, skilful, and authoritative. His memory and industry were alike great, and he was scrupulous in attending to all cases that be undertook, often returning briefs in preference to neglecting them. If not one of the great judges whose tradition is handed down for generations, he was unsurpassed in his practical mastery of commercial law. His successor, the attorney-general, Sir John Coleridge, said of him: 'Not a single day passes that I do not long for some portion of his great and vigorous capacity, and for his remarkable command of the whole field of our great profession.' His defect as a judge was a too great confidence that he had apprehended the point and the merits of a case at nisi prius before hearing the evidence out, but with time he got rid of it. Always patient, courteous and genial, and very kind to junior counsel, he was much lamented by the profession. He married in 1844 Maria, eldest daughter of Mr. John Henry Boulton, of Lee Park, Blackheath, by whom he had a large family. One of his sons he appointed in 1868 clerk of assize of the western circuit.

[Times. 1 Nov. 1873 ; Law Journal. viii. 657, ix. 365; Law Magazine. 2nd ser. xiii. 362. 3rd ser. ii. 79,368, ii. 28; Annual Register, 1873; Hansard, 10 Feb. 1865, 9 April 1866; Quarterly Review, v. 139, 404, 409.]

J. A. H.


Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.33
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
38 ii 27 Bovill, Sir William: omit Platt had already gone and
28 omit and Lush
6-5 f.e. omit when Sir Fitzroy . . . baron